As varied as our backgrounds and beliefs, we likely share the hope of a peaceful future for (wo)mankind. Despite being constantly bombarded with narratives of interpersonal differences and strife, each of us doubtlessly knows individuals who exemplify the good in humanity, or recall instances when someone’s unexpected kindhearted conduct stopped us in our tracks, and made us reflect how we would have reacted in a similar situation. I have often pondered this question ever since the late 1980s, when I first learned about the provenance of the windows at St. Stephen’s Church in Mainz, Germany.
The earliest incarnation of this edifice dates back to the 10th century AD, having since undergone multiple modifications. After vast portions were destroyed by allied bombings in the 1940s, the following decades saw its restoration. I imagine that St. Stephen’s Pastor Klaus Mayer experienced some trepidation when he approached world-renowned artist Marc Chagall in 1973 with the request to fashion stained-glass windows for the church, to replace the temporary clear panels mounted during the postwar years. Russian-born Marc Chagall (1887-1985) had moved to France as a young artist, and after fleeing to the United States in 1941 in the wake of the Nazi invasion of his adopted country, had returned there in 1948. I can’t begin to understand what it took for him to not only 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 the chasm between Germans and Jews, and 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 for St. Stephen’s at the studio of Jacques Simon in Reims. Following Chagall’s passing, his friend and fellow artist, Charles Marq, continued the project, contributing nineteen additional windows. Whereas Marq’s 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 suggest the splendor that awaits behind its heavy bronze doors. A deep blue emanating from the windows suffuses the interior and envelops the visitor in its calming, comforting glow. It draws one’s gaze 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 this structure.
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, age, skin color, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, Peace On Earth would not be relegated to a mere utopian wish, but would become a true possibility.
If this post looks and sounds vaguely familiar, it is because you have read a version of it before. When I thought about sharing my thoughts about the Chagall windows in Mainz after this year’s visit and happened to select nearly identical photos and the same title as I had used for a previous post from December 2018, I decided to simply republish that post, with some slight modifications, changing the former title “Peace on Earth” to the current one.