As varied as our backgrounds and beliefs, most of us undoubtedly share the hope of a peaceful future for all (wo)mankind. Despite interpersonal differences and strife, we all know individuals who exemplify the good in humanity, or recall instances when someone’s unexpected conduct stopped us in our tracks, and made us reflect how we would have reacted in a similar situation.
I experienced one such instance when I first learned about the provenance of the windows at St. Stephen’s Church in Mainz, Germany, in the late 1980s. The building, whose foundations rest on Roman ruins, dates back in its earliest incarnation to the 10th century AD, having since undergone multiple modifications. After vast portions were destroyed by allied bombings in the 1940s, it was restored in the following decades.
I imagine that, in 1973, St. Stephen’s Pastor Klaus Mayer approached world-renowned artist Marc Chagall with some trepidation, with the request to fashion stained-glass windows for the church building, to replace the clear panels mounted temporarily during the postwar years. Russian-born Marc Chagall (1887-1985) had moved to France as a young artist, and had returned to his adopted country in 1948, after fleeing to the United States in 1941, in the wake of the Nazi invasion. I can’t begin to understand what it took for him not only to forgive the German nation for its genocide of millions of his fellow Jews, but to have the grace and greatheartedness to sublimate his sadness and sorrow into some of the most magnificent stained-glass windows ever created.
To bridge not only the chasm between Germans and Jews, but also between Christianity and Judaism, he chose to depict scenes from both the old and the new testaments. Between 1978, when he was 91, and his death in 1985 at the age of 97, nine windows of his design were produced at the studio of Jacques Simon in Reims, and subsequently installed at St. Stephen’s. Following Chagall’s passing, his friend and fellow artist, Charles Marq, continued the project, contributing nineteen additional windows. Whereas his conceptions over time became less pictorial and more abstract, they nonetheless emulated Chagall’s original color scheme and intent.
The exterior of the stately, yet not sumptuous, church does not prepare for the splendor that awaits behind the heavy bronze doors. A deep blue emanates from the windows, suffuses the interior, envelops the visitor in its calming, comforting glow. It draws the eye into the distance, while highlighting other colors and figures embedded in the glass. Since first falling in love with the serene, soothing atmosphere of this space, I have returned time and again, either to contemplate in silence, attend a guided meditation, or enjoy an organ concert. No trip to Germany would be complete without setting foot in it.
Marc Chagall’s life and legacy inspire. If each of us were to put forth even a modest effort to respect, and reach out to, one another, regardless of our religious or political convictions, skin color, age, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, Peace On Earth would not remain a mere utopian wish, but become a true possibility.
Click here for the German version/bitte hier für die deutsche Version klicken: