David Rockefeller

Union Church of Pocantico Hills, the Chagall and Matisse stained glass windows

Along with elusive hopes and dreams, I have a few achievable visions. One of these is to view as many of the stained-glass windows created by Marc Chagall as I can. With that goal in mind, my friend Nick and I rode the train from Manhattan to  Westchester County as part of a trip to New York. Our destination was the Union Church in Pocantico Hills, home of nine windows by Chagall and one by Henri Matisse.

We boarded a northbound train at Grand Central Station, leaving behind Manhattan’s grit and dazzle for the tranquility of the Hudson River Valley. About 30 miles north of the Big Apple, we stepped off the train at the Tarrytown station. A taxi ride in a black sedan took us uphill from the Hudson through the winding, tree-lined streets of Pocantico Hills, a small town with some grand parts.

This hamlet in the town of Mount Pleasant is home to the grand Rockefeller estate, Kykuit, (pronounced kie-cut, like die cut) and an unassuming stone church whose building and stained glass windows were originally funded by the Rockefeller family. Inside Union Church, the largest Chagall window graces the back wall, while each side has four Chagall windows that each portrays a scene from the Bible.

The windows are illuminated versions of Chagall paintings. With the help of skilled artisans, he began the windows in the traditional fashion, setting glass pieces in place. He personally achieved the effect of painting by brushing the glass with an acid wash in a process similar to applying color to canvas.

Nick and I spent time with each image, walking between the pews for close encounters. At the front of the church, we faced the Rose Window, an abstract work by Matisse. Some of its shapes in reminded me of green sea creatures. Union Church’s Rev. Pastor Paul Dehoff noted that the windows and the Rockefeller family’s involvement have played an integral role in the continued prosperity of the church. “But, on the other hand, people are people. We have good music, a charming setting, and the windows.

“Windows, even by Matisse and Chagall, do not a church make. They lift us and help us transport us to other beauty.”

I agree there’s much more to a church than stained-glass windows — but art gets me through the door.

One of Chagall’s nine windows at Union Church is titled “The Crucifixion.” He painted Christ’s image in fluid black lines on a cross amid blue glass that shimmers like water.

Hope is the message I draw from the Easter story, Christ’s death on the cross and the resurrection after three days.

Recently I experienced severe muscle spasms that made me curl up in pain. For a while I forgot about everything else, though I held out hope the misery was temporary. I repeated my mantra that “It’s only three days.” Coincidentally — or not — my back pain ended in three calendar days.

Whenever life gets me down, I am reminded of the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection three days later, a limited period of time. Temporary. No matter how deep the pain, physical or emotional — it too, will pass. Easter morning will come.

That day in Pocantico Hills, I took one last look at the light streaming through stained-glass windows. The dancing light and color filled me with a sense that good things will happen. As we walked out of that rare intimate venue for great art treasures, I squeezed Nick’s hand with satisfaction.

Riding the train back to Manhattan, I felt different. I was changed forever by the seeing the Chagall windows at the Union Church.

The Benicia Herald published this essay in 2014.

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