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Chagall and Lipchitz go to Church

June 3, 2010 – 8:33 pmNo Comment
Church windows in St Stephan, a catholic church in Mainz

Church windowsby Marc Chagall in St Stephan. Image Source: travelphoto.net

By Aaron Rosen

When Father Marie-Alain Couturier invited Jacques Lipchitz to contribute a baptismal font for a new Church in Assy, France in 1946, the artist was puzzled.  Perhaps, the sculptor delicately responded, the priest was unaware that he, Lipchitz, was a Jew.

Far from a misunderstanding, however, Lipchitz’s Jewish identity was central to Couturier’s aesthetic and theological wager that the best modern art, regardless of the artist’s religious persuasion, could successfully function in a Christian sacred space.  If the great artist was an inherently “great spiritual being,” and the Roman Catholic Church drew from the same spiritual wellspring, so Couturier’s syllogism went, then the artist could not help expressing realities consonant with Christian truths.

While emphasizing the “sacramental” character of the creative act has enabled churches to draw upon a wider pool of artistic talent, commissioning works from non-Christians may still raise potential problems for church, worshipper, and artist alike.  Even for artists who accept a broadly “spiritual” reading of their work, an ecclesial setting situates their creations within an unavoidably specific religious context. What does it mean, then, for a Jewish artist not only to accept a commission for a church, but to have his or her work immersed in the hum of Christian ritual?  What happens when the particularity of an artist’s religious and cultural identity brushes up against the particularities of the Church?

Lipchitz’s response to Couturier exposes precisely this tension.  Rather than ignoring or eliding this friction, however, Lipchitz utilizes it as inspiration.  On the base of his monumental Notre Dame de Liesse (1949-55), the artist carefully stipulates:  “Jacques Lipchitz, Jew, faithful to the religion of his ancestors, has made this Virgin to foster understanding between men on earth that the life of the spirit may prevail.”  On the one hand, there is a palpable strain in Lipchitz’s language, an anxiety about betraying his heritage made even more acute for the Lithuanian-born sculptor in the aftermath of the Shoah.  On the other hand, Lipchitz’s words reveal an equally sharp sense of obligation to nourish the tenuous “life of the spirit.”  For an artist “faithful to the religion of his ancestors,” the act of sculpting the Virgin Mary testifies powerfully to the ability, and importance, of speaking a common language, however inflected by difference.  While Lipchitz casts Madonna in her traditional role as divine intercessor, his inscription encourages the viewer to perceive in Mary not only an intermediary between the individual and God, but between “men on earth.”  The Virgin’s open arms are a welcome to the believer, but also an incitement to welcome, to open oneself to the Other.

Couturier also approached Marc Chagall, whose stained-glass windows for Assy, completed in 1957, marked his first completed pieces in the medium.  While Chagall went on to complete a host of other works in stained glass, an under-appreciated masterpiece is his work for All Saints’ Church in Tudeley, Kent, the only church to possess a complete set of stained-glass windows by the artist.  The windows were commissioned from Chagall by Lady d’Avigdor Goldsmid and her husband Sir Henry in 1967, in memory of their daughter Sarah who had died four years earlier in a boating accident.  On the east window of the church, Chagall depicts Sarah caught in the churning waters of the ocean, her splayed arms linking her to Christ, who serenely surveys the scene from the cross.  The two halves of the window, the tumult below and the crucifixion above are connected by a ladder, on which a risen Sarah ascends towards Christ.  In Chagall’s richly intertextual imagination, the ladder—an almost constant presence in his crucifixion images—is never simply the implement of the deposition, it is also Jacob’s ladder.  Reversing the familiar flow of Christian typology, in Chagall’s hands the New Testament can predict and anticipate the Old.  Like the angels in Jacob’s dream, Chagall’s ladder can be travelled in either direction.  Neither the promise signalled by the Crucifixion, nor the promise made to Jacob—“I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (Gen. 28.15)—need eclipse the other.

Beyond these works, we might also look to Jacob Epstein, Mark Rothko, and Louise Nevelson for other prominent modern Jewish artists who created works for Christian spaces.  While these artists negotiate their Jewish identities differently, against distinctive Christian backdrops, the tensions that emerge from such engagements have tended to yield fecund results, both artistically and theologically.  For Christian viewers, such inter-religious commissions can provide an opportunity to see some of their traditions unexpectedly resurrected, re-envisioned by artists free to see them from new angles.  Meanwhile, for Jewish artists, and for Jewish viewers, perhaps it is useful to be reminded that sometimes Jewishness can be found in unlikely places—even in church.

Dr. Aaron Rosen is Albert and Rachel Lehmann Junior Research Fellow in Jewish History and Culture at the University of Oxford.  He is the author of Imagining Jewish Art:  Encounters with the Masters in Chagall, Guston, and Kitaj (Legenda, 2009).  He is currently at work on a second book entitled, The Hospitality of Images:  Modern Art and Interfaith Dialogue.  He will be giving four lectures for Limmud Oz, beginning with “Art in the Grey Zone: Imaging Auschwitz” on Saturday, 12 June at 20:45, and ending with “Jews in Abstraction: Mark Rothko & the Abstract Expressionists” on Monday, June 14 at 15:45.
This is an abbreviated version of an original that first appeared in Common Ground, June 2010; the journal of the Council of Christians and Jews in the UK. www.ccj.org.uk

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