Matisse & Chagall At 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 Marc 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 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). Parisian society, you see, equated these painters with animals for their use of wild colors and rude brushstrokes. How dare they besmirch the classical painting style’s venerable traditions.
Feeling faint, Paris’s elegant ladies fanned themselves while their stiff-collared companions mumbled and grumbled through bushy beards about the good old days of solid forms and reliable angles. The art world equivalent of a pitchfork attack was launched on Matisse and his chromatic cronies.
Years later, of course, they got hip and declared Matisse the King of Color. The same starched-collar crowd now kissed Matisse on both cheeks, French style, their smiles wider than the Champs Élysées. Long drags on even longer cigarettes were followed by proud proclamations: Why, sure, Henri and I go way back! Bien sûr, baby.
Things were different by the 1950s. Matisse was in his 80s, frail, and sick. Sitting in his wheelchair, he cut shapes from colored paper with scissors instead of painting. The polite, bespectacled, studious law clerk-turned-seminal-painter was done working. Or so he thought.
The Rockefellers Approach Matisse
In the 1950s, David and Peggy Rockefeller visited La Chappelle du Saint-Marie du Vence and liked what they saw. This little chapel, on a little hill, in a little town, on a winding, French Riviera road was a baguette’s throw away from Matisse’s home. An order of nuns in Vence had convinced Matisse to design their chapel. And, boy, did he design.
The nuns aroused his 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 coverings, painted two stained glass windows and three murals, as well as chose the interior stone.
Phew! Had his trusty scissors been nearby, he well may have sculpted the priests’ hairstyles. Too ill to attend the chapel’s opening, a priest read a message 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.”
The Rockefellers wanted Matisse to design a stained glass window for their own chapel. He turned them down. They persisted.
Matisse Goes Up The River
But work is work, right? Matisse accepted the Rockefeller commission. Thus bloomed Matisse’s Rose window. A window he dedicated, in part, to the memory of his friend, Abby Rockefeller. He must have thought, “Eh! One more stained glass window, what can it 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 the sun?
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 other-world, zigged across his mind, and zagged into our earthly reality.
The unusual frequencies Chagall tuned-in are 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.
Poetry, Novels, and Generals: Stained Glass Art at the Union Church
Chagall’s nine windows are the Union Church’s headline performers, each a chapter in a stained glass novel. Matisse’s Rose window is the guest of honor. Understated and elegant, it is a visual haiku.
The Generalissimo among them is Chagall’s Good Samaritan. Reaching, at points, dimensions of 9ft x 12ft (2.74m x 3.65m), it commands attention and respect. Its saturated reds, yellows, and greens tamed by Chagall’s beloved dense, dream-state, cobalt blue. It recounts the biblical story of a man who helped another when others would not.
Interestingly, Chagall was also a resident of Vence, the sunny, hilltop village overlooking Nice where Matisse had designed the chapel and the Rose window. It’s also where Chagall finished polishing his designs for his Crucifixion window. ¹
One Chagall Stained Glass Window Led to Two, Led to Nine
Chagall first visited New York in 1941. He and his wife Bella had bolted from Nazi-infested Paris. They arrived in Vichy Marseilles, where they were out of the fire, but still in the frying pan.
The Emergency Rescue Committee, a Rockefeller-funded organization, helped whisk the Chagalls through Spain and onto Portugal. From there booking passage to Gotham.
Poor Chagall’s hand and back were probably sore, no doubt, from all the handshakes and back slaps that followed the Good Samaritan’s 1964 installation. In between the many bubbly-fueled compliments, he may have hinted that he was not opposed to painting more stained glass windows for the church.
Thus, over the next several years, Chagall created eight more stained glass windows for the Union Church. Six of them interpret the stories of Old Testament all-stars: Joel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah, and Elijah.
Later, with his Cherubim window, Chagall completed the stained glass Praetorian Guard now quartered in the church. Some congregation members complained their church was transfiguring into a museum. In a way, it did.
Videos Related to the Union Church of Pocantico Hills
A short video of the road (Route 448) on which the Union church sits.
In the video below, composer George Gachechiladze pairs his ethereal and mysterious music with Chagall’s ethereal, mysterious stained glass artwork.
Union Church of Pocantico Hills Info
- 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.
How to Get to the Union Church of Pocantico Hills
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Taking the train
- 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.
- 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 of the Union Church of Pocantico Hills?
Yes and no. The “tours” consist of a 15-minute talk by a guide. They’tr informative, but you will not go far. The church is very small. Talks begin informally as people float in, unless a group has organized a visit.
Should I spend a half day or full day at the Union Church of Pocantico Hills?
Plan for a half-day trip if the Union Church is your only stop. You can visit the church, have lunch in Tarrytown, and head back to your starting point by mid-afternoon. It’s a bit of a hike from NYC if you only want to see the church. That fine for art students and art lovers.
1: Klein, Easy. “Chagall and Matisse in One Church.” New York Times, July 24, 1977.