A Modern Masterpiece at the Union Church of Pocantico Hills

A Modern Masterpiece at the Union Church of Pocantico Hills

Who turns down a free Matisse stained glass window?  The church goers at Pocantico Hills did. They thought the art was just too ‘modern’.  The Chagall was a gift to the Union Church in Pocantico Hills in New York from the Rockefeller family who lived nearby in their Kykuit estate.   Not use to hearing no, the Rockefellers persevered and eventually got to install their artwork. Eventually all the other windows at the Union Church in Pocantico Hills became stained glass works from Chagall and Matisse as well.

Union Church of Pocantico Hills in New York has all of its stained glass done by modern masters, Matisse and Chagall

The Union Church in Pocantico Hills

The Union Church in Pocantico Hills is today a modern art masterpiece. You know you live in a swish area when the stained glass windows of your local church were made by Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall.

The Union Church of Pocantico Hills, a non-denominational Protestant church, is a small stone structure built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1921.  The interior is a pared down Neo-gothic style.  It was the local church of the Rockefellers who had their country estate, Kykuit, nearby.

Union Church

Union Church
Photo: Richard Chen

The Rockefeller Family & Philanthropy

Unless you are American, you may not know that the Rockefellers are a very rich and powerful American family who built their fortunes in the oil business in the late 19th century.  The family patriarch John D. Rockefeller Sr was the first American to become a billionaire.  If you account for inflation, he is considered the richest man in history!!

John D. Rockefeller Jr. (usually known as Junior to distinguish from his father) was careful with his father’s legacy.  You probably recognise the family name from the New York City landmark Junior built, Rockefeller Center.  He bought the land along the East River in New York that he later donated to become the United Nations Headquarters.  His generosity helped fund the creation of Yellowstone National Park.  In addition, he bought the land that was the Teton National Park and donated it to the government. In all, Junior Rockefeller donated approximately $535 million dollars to charity during his life.

Junior’s wife, Abby, was one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1929.  Abby was a force to be reckoned with as well.  Junior hated modern art and Abby promoted her love of modern art through networking with powerful individuals and corporations.

Today, several members of the Rockefeller family still live around Pocantico Hills.

The Chagall and Matisse Stained Glass

The only adornment in the tiny church are the stained glass windows which are simply stunning.  The light filtering through the windows even on a cloudy day like the day I went was spectacular.  It reminded me of Saint Chapelle in Paris in that respect – a small jewel box of colour.

union chapel

Union Church Interior
photo: Jaime Martorano

The Matisse Window

The Matisse is behind the altar in the Union Church.  It was commissioned as a memorial to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller who was a big fan of the artist.  She collected his work and entertained him in her home in New York city.

The Matisse window is the last work of the artist.  Poor Matisse was wheelchair bound and very ill and tried to refuse the commission.  No one says no to a Rockefeller though.  Get the general drift here??

Matisse Window

Matisse Window
Photo: geoffreyzheng

The Chagall Windows

The first Chagall window was in honour of Junior whose children installed a large stained glass window depicting the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan in his memory.  I guess they didn’t care that dear old dad hated modern art!


The Good Samaritan Window
photo: Jassy-50

The other 8 Chagall windows are memorials to other members of the Rockefeller family, including Nelson Rockefeller who had a political career as New York Governor (1959-1973) and as Vice President under President Ford.  In case you think the Rockefeller family were all squeaky clean do-gooders, Nelson died in 1979 while ‘entertaining’ a 25 year old girlfriend.

Chagall and his wife had fled the Nazis to arrive in New York due to a Rockefeller-funded program which rescued over 2000 prominent artists whose lives were at risk.  The other Chagall stained glass windows depict scenes from the Old Testament, such as prophets and the angels guarding the Garden of Eden, in deference to his Jewish faith.

Prophet Joel

The Prophet Joel
Photo: geoffreyzheng

In the 1950’s Picasso was quoted as saying:

When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.

This church shows off these two masters’ understanding of colour to great effect.  The stained glass windows are an inspiring harmony of colours.  I personally find it is easier to believe in the divine when you are surrounded by such beauty.

Visiting the Union Church

The Union Church of Pocantico Hills is one of the many treasures along the Hudson Valley which is an area in New York state just north of New York City bordering alone the Hudson River.  In the summer, you could also visit Kykuit Estate itself.

The Union Church is still a working church for the town with regular Sunday services.  We drove to the Church which is located at 555 Bedford Road in Pocantico Hills.  I don’t think it’s very easy to get to by public transport.  It is very near the other Rockefeller bequest which we visited, Stone Barns, which is a renowned farm-to-table foodie destination.

Union Church doesn’t allow photographs inside the chapel itself.  My children received a small kid-friendly pamphlet of activities which kept them amused for the limited time we spent at the chapel.


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A Vienna Choir Boys Performance at the Imperial Chapel

A Vienna Choir Boys Performance at the Imperial Chapel

I grew up listening to the Vienna Choir Boys Christmas album.  Yes, album, not cassette, tape or CD.  Although vinyl albums have been surging in popularity lately, this memory makes me feel really old.  But what’s Christmas with a little nostalgia, right?  Along the same lines of thought, when we were in Vienna for Christmas, I insisted we go see a Vienna Choir Boys performance.

The Vienna Choir Boys performing at the imperial chapel in Vienna

History of the Vienna Choir Boys

One of the most famous choirs in the world, the Vienna Choir Boys can trace their origins back to the choirs of the Viennese Imperial court.  When the Austro-Hungarian empire fell, the court choir was disbanded.  The Vienna Choir Boys were started as a professional choir in order to continue the tradition.  Their uniform was changed to the well-known navy sailor suit instead of a military cadet uniform.

Vienna Choir Boys Performance

The choir is made up of about 100 boys from the ages of 10-14 who are mostly of Austrian origin.  They are divided into 4 touring troupes which among them perform about 300 concerts per year.

The boys receive both academic and musical instruction from the Choir.  It must be an intense eduction because they are also on tour about 11 weeks of the school year.  Sadly, as with many institutions involving pre-pubescent children, there have been allegations of sexual abuse by some of the boys in recent years.

A Vienna Choir Boys Performance

Every Sunday from September to June the Vienna Choir Boys sing at Mass at the Imperial Court Chapel in the Hofburg Palace. This tradition has been ongoing since 1498.

Vienna Choir Boys Performance

Similar to our experience of visiting the Holy Vial of Blood in Bruges, we chose to attend Mass and listen to the Choir Boys.  Nothing like multitasking on holiday when you are short on time.

During the Mass, the choir boys sing from their balcony on the organ loft located above the congregation.  At the end of the Mass, they come downstairs and perform a couple of songs in front of the Altar.

Vienna Choir Boys Performance

Hearing the boys singing in this chapel was a sublime experience.  The Chapel is very small because it was intended to be a court chapel of the Imperial family.  It reminded me of a theatre because most of the seats are in boxes.  Both the nobles and the Imperial family sat in one of the boxes to attend Mass.

We were only able to get two sets of tickets with two seats together so my husband and I took a child each.  My husband and son were in one of the boxes and my daughter and I were on the ground floor.

Vienna Choir Boys Performance

Both the acoustics and the visual display are amazing as would befit a Habsburg.  The Hofburg Chapel has a lot less stained glass than Sainte Chapelle, the other royal private chapel we visited in Paris.  We were all enchanted by this jewel box of a chapel especially with the clear sweet voices of the Choir singing.

Attending a Vienna Choir Boys Performance

The Vienna Choir Boys have a dedicated website that you can book tickets to attend either a concert at the Music and Theatre Hall (MuTh) or a Mass at the Imperial Chapel.  The website also has information on the choir’s international touring dates.

This post is linked up with City Tripping.

Multi-tasking Tourists at Senso-ji in Tokyo

Multi-tasking Tourists at Senso-ji in Tokyo

I should not have been surprised by the crowds at Senso-ji in Tokyo.  A popular tourist attraction for many reasons, we were swept along with the crowd when we visited.  With both a Buddhist temple and a Japanese pagoda, Senso-ji is culturally significant. It’s also got a huge shopping area in front the religious buildings located between the outer gate and the inner gate.  You may find Senso-Ji overwhelming like we did but the Melon Pan at the Asakusa Agetsudo store makes the whole experience worthwhile.

Senso-Ji in Tokyo is a Buddhist Temple, a Shinto Shrine and a shopping complex

Religion at Senso-Ji in Tokyo

Here are five fun facts about the religious side of Senso-ji.

  • Built in 645, Senso-ji is Tokyo’s oldest temple.  The main hall is devoted to Kannon (the goddess of Mercy).
  • The temple was built when a couple of fisherman found a statue of Kannon.  Recognising the importance of the statue, a temple was built to enshrine the statue.
  • The temple was burned down during World War II.  The reconstruction of the temple was funded by public donations.
  • Thanks to its history, Senso-Ji is a symbol of regeneration and peace for the Japanese.
  • Next door to the Buddhist Sensoji Temple is the five-story Shinto Sensoji Pagoda.  It’s pretty common in Japan to have Buddhist temples and Shinto pagodas near each other.

Fun Facts about Sensoji Temple

Fun Facts about Sensoji Temple

Sensoji is popular with both Japanese and international visitors.  When we went on a random weekday, the place was heaving with people. The visit to Senso-ji was the polar opposite of the quiet, tranquil experience we enjoyed at the Meiji Shrine. Be prepared for crowds — apparently it is always crowded.

Fun Facts about Sensoji Temple

Shopping at Senso-Ji

The long shopping boulevard from the outer temple gate all the way to the second gate has been around for several hundred years too. The shopping boulevard is full of tourist souvenirs and snack foods.


It’s all a bit chaotic and difficult to negotiate with kids.  There were many things that caught our eye but we decided we couldn’t cope with the crowds.  If you are limited for time in Tokyo, this shopping area would be a great place to pick up souvenirs of your trip.

Fun Facts about Sensoji Temple

location of Melon Pan

Melon Pan at Senso-Ji

What’s the best thing about shopping at Senso-ji?

Without a doubt, the Jumbo Melon Pan (bread) sold at Asakusa Kagetsudo.   It was beyond delicious!! The outside is crusty and the inside is soft and fragrant.  There is a layer of cookie dough sprinkled with sugar covering the bread dough on the inside.

Fun Facts about Sensoji Temple

Melon Pan Sign

You get the super sized Melon Pan by baking the dough for a long time (about 3 hours) at extremely low temperatures.  The bread is about the size of an adult male hand so it is quite filling.

As you know, the kids and I have a sweet tooth.  We consider it our travel obligation to try different sweets in different countries such as the pastries in Vienna, the eclairs in Paris and danishes in California.  We all agreed the Melon Pan was pretty amazing.

Melon Bread is a Japanese specialty which became popular in the last couple of decades.  The name refers to the shape and the pattern on the top of the bread. Although you can get Melon Pan at supermarkets and convenience stores, you should definitely try the version at Kagetsudo for a transcendental experience.

Fun Facts about Sensoji Temple

Melon Bread

Every day Kagetsudo makes a couple of thousand melon pan and when the bread is done, the store closes.  And, they get sold out, trust me.  The prices are reasonable with a bulk discount if you buy three (500 yen (£2.75) for three).  Of course, the only thing to do was to buy three! We like our sweets and our carbs in bulk.

You can eat inside the store or you can sit somewhere nearby and eat.  It is considered rude to eat and to walk in Japan.  We took our Melon Pan on a night cruise of Tokyo and ate our bread as a dessert on the boat.

Feel like trying out Melon Pan on your own?  Check out this video for guidance.

Visiting Senso-ji and Kagetsudo

Sensojii Temple is a couple of blocks away from Asakusa station.  The main hall is open daily during the day.  The temple grounds are always open.

When you leave the main hall of Asakusa, go down the left side of the shopping alley. Kagetsudo is on the corner and usually has a line of people in front of it.


Despite the crowds, I would still say that you should still visit Senso-ji in Tokyo – a one stop destination for culture, shopping and foodies.

This post is linked up with Weekend Wanderlust and The Weekly Postcard.

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Travel Notes & Beyond
Finding Tranquility in Tokyo at The Meiji Shrine

Finding Tranquility in Tokyo at The Meiji Shrine

Turning the corner onto a lane bordered by trees, we escaped the noise and heat of urban Tokyo into a tranquil oasis of green.  The shade provide by the tall trees was also welcome relief from an unexpectedly warm day.  It was hard to believe that the wide lane and the ginormous trees in Yoyogi park were only minutes away from some very posh and trendy neighbourhoods in Tokyo.

The Meiji Shrine in Tokyo is for the deified souls of Emperor Meiji and his consort

We were in Yoyogi park to visit the Meiji Shrine, one of the must-visit destinations in the city.  Although very popular with both Japanese and international tourists, we did not feel overwhelmed by crowds at the Meiji Shrine.  Perhaps both the tree-lined paths and the 40 foot high tori gates made from 1500 year old cedar tree trunks emphasise how very insignificant people really are.

The Meiji Shrine

The 40 feet tall cedar Tori gates

The Meiji Shrine

The Meiji Shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken.  Reigning from 1852-1912, Emperor Meiji took Japan out of the feudal ages and put it firmly on the international map as a world power.  To this day, Japan’s emperors are the oldest continuous hereditary monarchs in the world.  When Emperor Meiji took the throne, he was the 122nd Emperor of Japan.

Meiji means ‘enlightened rule’ which is how Emperor Meiji saw his period in history.  Although it’s not entirely clear if Emperor Meiji did anything other than preside over the changes, he did allow an oligarchy to form which transitioned Japan into an industrial powerhouse and a modern power.  Tokyo became the new capital under his rule and power shifted away from Kyoto.

Emperor Meiji lead the way in showing the Japanese how Japanese culture could work with Western imports.  For example, he was a big fan of French wine but also wrote a lot of traditional Japanese poetry.

The Meiji Shrine

Sake from all around Japan

The Meiji Shrine

Casks of wine from all over France

After Emperor Meiji’s death in 1912, the Japanese government decided to build a Shinto shrine to the deified souls of the Emperor and Empress.  The Emperor’s body is buried in Kyoto though.  The forest is made up of approximately 100,000 trees donated from all over Japan and planted by volunteers when the Shrine was built.

After World War II, in 1946 the Americans forced Emperor Meiji’s grandson, Emperor Hirohito, to proclaim that he was not a god as traditional Japanese belief had always held. Thanks, however, to the use of archaic language used, its not exactly clear what sort of divinity Hirohito was renouncing.  The Japanese Imperial family have always held that they are descendants of the sun goddess (and top god), Ameterasu.  The shrine to the deified souls of Emperor Meiji and his Empress, therefore, isn’t inconsistent with post-War history.

A Photo Gallery of the Meiji Shrine

The Meiji Shrine

traditional prayers hung at the shrine

The Meiji Shrine

A giant traditional drum

The Meiji Shrine

More prayers

The Meiji Shrine

Detail of a lock on a shrine door

lantern with the chrysanthemum motif (the Japanese throne is known as the Chrysanthemum Throne)

lantern with the chrysanthemum motif (the Japanese throne is known as the Chrysanthemum Throne)

The Imperial Gardens

Near the Shrine, the Imperial Gardens are a tranquil spot celebrating nature.  My children enjoyed running along the small paths and watching very big koi swimming around a pond filled with lily pads.  We found a Japanese woman who had managed to get the birds to eat peanuts from her hand.  She tried to teach my kids to stand still so they could do the same but standing still and waiting for birds proved too hard for them.

The Meiji Shrine

The Imperial Gardens were in place before the Meiji Shrine was built. In fact, Emperor Meiji had the gardens built for the pleasure of his Empress. The Empress had a beautiful tea house on the grounds but it closed to the public.  The Gardens are very famous for their iris displays in June with about 150 different varieties of irises blooming.

The Meiji Shrine and Gardens

The Imperial Gardens has lots of little paths and places to sit and enjoy the gardens.  We found it a nice area for some ‘downtime’ from the hustle and bustle that is the rest of Tokyo.

Visiting the Meiji Shrine

The Meiji Shrine is located conveniently next to the Harajuku JR station.  There are no fees to enter. The shrine is open from sunrise to sunset every day of the year.

The Meiji Garden is likewise open daily.  There is a small entrance fee and set hours.


This post is linked up with Pierced Wonderings and Weekend Wanderlust.

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History and Beauty at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin

History and Beauty at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin

When someone says St. Patricks’s Cathedral to me, the New Yorker in me automatically thinks of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.  On our visit to Ireland last year, we discovered the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, an unabashedly Gothic Revival building, which is the National Cathedral of Ireland.

The History of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin

Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, was said to have baptised the local Celts in a well that stood in the park next to the Cathedral. Thanks to its association with St. Patrick, a church has stood on this location since the 5th century.  The church got upgraded to Cathedral status in 1191.  The Cathedral has been rebuilt and extended many times over the years.

St. Patricks' Cathedral in Dublin

A lone minister heads out after services.

The Archbishop of Dublin has his seat at the other Church of Ireland cathedral in Dublin, Christ Church.  Since 1870, St. Patrick’s Cathedral has been designated the National Cathedral because, after all, how many Anglican cathedrals does one predominantly Catholic city need.

St. Patricks' Cathedral in Dublin

A fairly simple altar, you know the Catholic version would have been much more ornate.

The cathedral is the largest church in Ireland.  The spire, an addition from the 18th century, soars 140 feet into the sky and is a local landmark.

I absolutely loved the stained glass and the mosaic floors. There are a lot of Anglo-British paraphernalia around which attests to the time that Ireland was controlled by the British.

St. Patricks' Cathedral in Dublin

Beautiful tile work

St. Patricks' Cathedral in Dublin

The stained glass is mostly Victorian.

Famous People Associated with St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Jonathan Swift, who became famous for writing Gulliver’s Travels, was a Dean of the cathedral from 1713-45.  Along with over 500 other people, Jonathan Swift and his ‘special friend’ Stella are buried in the Cathedral.

The famous oratorio by Handel, Messiah, was first sung at St. Patrick’s Cathedral by its famous choir.  It took about a year for Messiah to have its London debut.

St. Patricks' Cathedral in Dublin

The beautiful nave

Oliver Cromwell on a visit to check out the Irish part of his protectorate in 1649 stabled his army’s horses in the Cathedral. He had no patience for the Church of Ireland which he would have thought was as bad as the Church of England (and a mere papal breadth away from the horror that was Catholicism the horror that was Catholicism).

St. Patricks' Cathedral in Dublin

A bell commemorating the arrival of the French Huguenots.

The Cathedral has a lot of burial plaques which are cool to read and to examine.  Lots of these families went to town decorating their tombs because it was considered quite prestigious to be buried in the Cathedral.

St. Patricks' Cathedral in Dublin

Even the statues are dressed to the nines.

St. Patricks' Cathedral in Dublin

This is a detail of a plaque to the Boyle family the rest of which extends to nearly the ceiling. Ostentatious moi?

Visiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral

St. Patrick’s Cathedral is open 7 days a week and there’s a small admission fee for tourists.  You can just attend a service and skip the fee.  There are no photos allowed, though, during services or when the choir is singing.

There’s a gift shop right by the entrance with all the religious paraphernalia that you may ever wish to buy.  The Cathedral is set in a grassy parkland and there is a small children’s play area as well.  It’s one of the top visitor attractions in Dublin and definitely worth  a short stroll around to understand the turbulent history of this capital city.



St. Patricks Cathedral in Dublin is full of history and beauty

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