The Union Church of Pocantico Hills
It’s uncertain whether solace and redemption await you at the Union Church of Pocantico Hills. If, however, stained glass is what ye seek, ye shall find it. This little church, on a little hill, in a little town on a winding, down-home road is home to nine stained glass windows by March Chagall and one by Henri Matisse.
You won’t see any neon arrows, road signs or plaques announcing the treasure chest of stained glass inside. Most days, only a lawnmower and the obligatory dog barking stir the outside air.
The church is only 25 miles (40 km) north of Manhattan, but light years from the art galleries, museums, public spaces and private collections that usually host Matisse and Chagall’s artwork. Seeing their work in such a small setting is rare.
In the 1920s, the Rockefeller family donated money and land from their nearby country estate to build the Union Church.
Inside, unadorned white walls and tidy rows of straight-back wooden pews face a spare altar. Rockefeller-style religion was business-like: sit straight, listen, pray, sing, leave, collect spiritual dividend checks in the hereafter.
Matisse: King Chroma
In his early Paris years, Matisse was vilified as leader of Les Fauves (the wild beasts), a group of painters whose jaunty colors and rude brushstrokes upset Paris’s elegant ladies and their stiff-collared companions. They launched the art world equivalent of a pitchfork attack against Matisse and his chromatic cronies.
Years later, the art world got hip and declared Matisse the King of Color. The same starched-collar crowd now kissed Matisse on both cheeks, their smiles wider than the Champs Elysées: “Why, sure, Henri and I go way back! Bien sûr, baby.”
Things were very different by the 1950s. Matisse was in his 80s, frail and sick. Sitting in his wheelchair he would cut shapes from colored paper instead of painting. Thus, Matisse, the polite, bespectacled, studious law clerk-turned-seminal-painter was done working. Or so he thought.
The Rockefellers persisted. They had seen Chappelle du Saint-Marie du Vence, the chapel designed by Matisse in southern France. At the time, Matisse lived a baguette’s throw away from Vence, a medieval hillside town. An order of nuns there had convinced him to design their new chapel. And, boy, did he design.
The nuns aroused Matisse’s still firm creative muscle, prompting a four-year creative eruption by Mount Matisse. From 1947 to 1951, he designed the chapel’s architecture, altar, cult objects, pews, ceramics, holy water basins, priests’ garments, chalice covering, painted two stained glass windows and three murals and chose the interior stone.
Phew! Had his trusty scissors been nearby, he probably would have sculpted the priests’ hairstyles. Too ill to attend the chapel’s opening in Vence, a priest read a message that Matisse had written.
It said, in part:
“…this work required me 4 years of an exclusive and entiring effort and it is the fruit of my whole working life. In spite of all its imperfections I consider it my masterpiece.”
Matisse Goes Up The River
But work is work, right? He accepted the Rockefeller commission and created the Rose window in memory of his friend, Abby Rockefeller. He must have thought, “Ehhhh! One stained glass window, what can it hoyt (hurt)? One last Matisse-erpiece for the road.”
At the back of the Union Church, the Rose window’s vibrant yellow, green and blue tones greet visitors as if declaring, Welcome and thank you for coming! Is it an abstract? A flower? Does the blue mean sky? Does green symbolize nature and yellow God?
Who knows? We do know the window’s maquette (scale model) was hanging on Matisse’s wall when he passed away in 1954. Did he stare at it as the other side whispered its icy invitation? Were silent and ancient questions posed to the unknown: Does beauty need meaning? Or reasons to exist? Perhaps he departed smiling, lungs empty but soul filled with wisdom revealed at the last instant: less is more.
You’re listening to Stained Glass Radio, with your host, Marc Chagall
“I am out to induce a psychic shock into my painting, one that is always motivated by pictorial reasoning: this is to say, a fourth dimension.” Marc Chagall
Most people consider Marc Chagall a painter. He was, in fact, a human transistor. His brush on the canvas completed a circuit that began in his soul, traveled through a mysterious, cobalt otherworld, zigged across his mind and zagged into our reality plane.
The unusual frequency Chagall tuned-in is timeless. His floating farmers, loving brides, flying fish, fiddle-playing goats and vignettes of shtetl life long ago cover the mind like a nighttime January snowfall– quietly…steadily…gently.
If Matisse’s window is the guest of honor at the Union Church, Chagall’s nine windows are the headline performers. Eight smaller windows, four on each side, stand under the behemoth Good Samaritan window. It stands opposite, physically and aesthetically, to Matisse’s Rose window. If the Rose window is a visual haiku, the Good Samaritan is literature.
The Good Samaritan is the Generalissimo of the church’s windows. Visitors’ necks snap reflexively upwards toward it. Saturated reds, yellows and greens are balanced by the dense, dream-state blue Chagall loved. The Good Samaritan window illustrates the biblical story of a man who helped another when others would not.
Chagall’s first visited New York in 1941. He and his wife, Bella, had bolted from Nazi-infested Paris. Arriving in Vichy Marseilles, they were out of the fire, but still in the frying pan. With the help of the Emergency Rescue Committee, a Rockefeller-funded organization, the Chagalls were whisked through Spain and onto Portugal, where they booked passage to Gotham.
Poor Chagall’s hand and back were probably sore from the handshakes and back slaps that followed the Good Samaritan’s installation in 1964. Perhaps, in between the many bubbly-fueled compliments, he hinted that he was not opposed to painting more stained glass windows for the church.
Over the next several years, Chagall created eight more stained glass windows. After his second window, The Crucifixion, he interpreted the stories of six Old Testament all-star prophets: Joel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah and Elijah. His Cherubim window completed this stained glass Praetorian Guard. Some congregation members grumbled that their church was transfiguring into a museum. In a way it did.
- Address: 555 Bedford Ave. (Route 448), Pocantico Hills, NY 10591
- Phone Number: (914) 332-6659
- Pocantico Hills is part of Tarrytown, NY (same zip code).
- *It is not open year-round (closed during winter months).
- Special events sometimes close the church to visitors (call before visiting).
- See the Union Church’s schedule here.
Getting to the Union Church from Grand Central
- Take a Metro-North “Hudson Line” train to the Tarrytown station.
- Hudson Line trains appear in green on Grand Central’s information screens.
- Taking an express train in recommended. There is at least one express per hour.
- Visit Metro-North’s site for schedule and fare information or use their Coo-Coo text system.
- Taxis usually wait at the Tarrytown train station. If none are there, call (914) 631-TAXI (8294). It takes about 10 minutes from the train station.
Are there tours?
Yes and no. The “tours” consist of a 15 minute talk by a guide. They are informative, but you will not go far. The church is very small. There is no schedule for the talks. They begin as people float in, unless a group has organized a visit.
Half Day or Full Day?
If you plan to only visit the church, this is a half-day trip. You can visit the church, have lunch in Tarrytown and be back in New York City by late afternoon. It is, however, a long trip to make just for the church. If you are an art student or a Matisee/Chagall fan, go for it! If you are neither, combine your visit with another Hudson Valley attraction.
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