Chagall at Rheims
by Charles MARCQ

Chagall came to Rheims for the first time in 1957, and as he crossed the threshold of the workshop, he brought it new light such as is diffused by all true artists.

Since the, so to speak, Chagall has not ceased to conceive or execute stained glass windows, thus spending part of his time in Rheims. After a long day’s work, in the failing light, Chagall usually goes accross the city, like a personage from his paintings, walking, inhaling another air, also liking this contact with the streets, with life, of which he will dream on glass tomorrow. Sometimes, I accompany him, and this is how for many years, while he was painting the windows of Metz, Jerusalem, New York, Zurich or Nice, oup path has often led us towards the Cathedral, a few steps from the workshop. Chagall bears in his soul all the metamorphoses of this great dream in stone seen and caught sight of in all seasons from summer’s dazzling light to winter’s blue gleams, both day and by night.

It was therefore no surprise to him to be asked by the Building Federation of the Champagne – Ardennes Region and the Friends Society of Rheims Cathedral to carry out stained glass windows for the axial chapel of the Cathedral. For him, it was as a sign to leave his message of poetry and light at the heart of the town where he had worked so much. After Metz where he had undertaken the lateral windows, the attempt to inscribe himself in the axis of the Cathedral renewed hid anxiety but also his passion. We then went up into the hights parts of the building where, from the inner triforium, Chagall wished to imbibe the nature of the stained glass, to sense its inspiration, as though studying its grammar. I made him, for his studie in Saint-Paul, a little panel containing the range of the old colours of the Cathedral which he wanted to have in sight while composing his models.
Chagall admired the pure severity of Rheims which is unique in its unity ; but not without humour he also uded to say how he felt the « official character » and the cold, temporal order of the royal ceremonies.
The centre window evokes the two great figures of the Old and the New Testaments, Abraham and Christ. The chief moments of the life of Abraham are gathered together in the lower part of this window. To the right can be seen the vision of Abraham, Abraham welcoming the three angels, Abraham and Melchisedech : to the left, Jacob’s dream, Abraham blessing Isaac and the sacrifice of Isaac. The upper composition of this window shows Christ on the Cross, the Descent from the Cross and the Resurrection. Lastly, the rose-window depicts the light of the Holy Ghost shining between Christ and the Hand of God the Creator, and crowning the composition.

As the Cathedral of Rheims is dedicated at the Virgin, the left window depicts the Tree of Jesse. From the side of Jesse reclining shoots forth the generative stem of the kings of Judah, the painter retaining the three great figures of Saul, David and Salomon, the painter retaining the three great figures of  Saul, David and Salomon, and which opens out to give birth to the Virgin holding the child surrounded by the people in prayer. 
The rose-window shows the prophets, harbingers of Christ, crowned by the seven-branched candlestick, biblical symbol of the divine spirit.

Corresponding to the descendants of the Kings of Judah, the right-hand window depicts some great moments in the lives of the Kings of France, whose crowning place was Rheims Cathedral : the baptism of Clovis and the coronation of Saint Louis, Saint Louis dispensing justice and the crowning of Charles VII in the presence of Joan of Arc. The upper register of the window evokes the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Kingdom of Heaven, given in example to earthly kings. Finally, the rose-window evokes the apocalyptic figures of the four evangelists topped by the royal crown, the hand of justice and the sword.

Still with the same feeling and with the same regard to remain in keeping with the building’s exceptional unity, Chagall adopted for this group the course of splashing colour on a large blue background, uniting the three windows and modulating one to another from cold blues to warm blues, according to their orientation. Gradually, from the little coloured sketches with geometric patterns of coloured materials or paper cut-outs scattered on varied blues, to the great definitive models in which the composition balances out, the design reveals itself and the colour is heightened, Chagall achives a mystic marriage with the edifice. It is not a case of espousing a form or a language already expressed to perfection by the old glass-makers. Far from all material considerations, Chagall is reliving the impulse of a high period, beyond the limits of time ans space, freely, spiritually.
As I begin the execution of them in the workshop, it is this creative force which appears and bears me, while the lead cuts and the colour emerges. It is this interior life that the painter with magic mysteriously encloses in his work, it is this alone which allows the metamporphosis.

Charles Marq

  • Eloi LECLERC, Chagall vitrail pour la paix, Mame (Un certain regard), 2001, ISBN : 272890944X.

Une découverte d'un artiste qui a su sublimer la lumière, notamment à la cathédrale de Reims.


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