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.
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.
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.
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??
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 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.
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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