It was the Dalai Lama who said, “Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.” Like many things in life, through tragedy comes a great creative spirit. Put these together: The great modern artist Marc Chagall, a Kent village church and a collection of stunning stained glass.

In September 1963 Sarah Venetia d’Avigdor-Goldsmid was sailing with a companion near Rye in East Sussex. She got into difficulties and tragically drowned along with her friend. She was only 21-years-old. Her father was of Jewish descent but the family were Anglican and worshipped at All Saints’ Church in the village of Tudeley, just south of Tonbridge. Without being flippant, most families who like to leave a lasting and tangible commemoration of a loved one would opt for a bench, maybe a brass plaque.

No, Sarah’s father wanted to restore the local church and as his daughter had been an avid admirer of Chagall, he commissioned the illustrious and flamboyant Franco-Russian artist to design and provide a new east window, having seen with his daughter, his glass in the Louvre more than five years earlier. That would have been amazing, arguably the most famous artist of his time, a modernist creating for a traditional English village church, but what happened was to be even more incredible.

At the dedication in 1967, Chagall, seeing his work in the correct setting for the first time, cried out passionately, “C’est magnifique, ferai les tous!” (It is magnificent, I shall do them all!). He was emotionally overwhelmed. Furthermore, he later quipped about the next stage, maybe as a reference to himself being a modernist, “It is a curious thing, but dead builders are the only ones I can work with!”

On a personal note, I only went to Tudeley church in February 2019. My partner suggested it as she had heard that Chagall had produced some stained glass for a rather quaint church. I am an art enthusiast, but not particularly in the direction of Chagall, whose style ‘just ain’t my kinda thing’. With this rather indifferent approach in mind I walked through the porch into a lonely, empty church in the middle of a Kent orchard on a bright, crisp winter’s day. My steamy breath inhaled sharply. A true impact on the senses overtook.

It was a late morning so the sunlight came through the east window at an angle and burst through all the south facing windows with a blue radiance. I am not religious, but there was a true wonderment standing in an empty nave bathed in this light. The space lifted the spirit, the experience was emotive, a soul occupying an area which possessed a gluey tenacity. The windows seemed to merge into the air within the walls. I had to return. I did in May. I want to go again on an early summer morning. This is an incredible artistic gem in the most modest of churches, in the Kent countryside!

The main east window depicts the drowning. Showing the young lady in the dark blue waters, but drifting up past her grieving mother, borne further upward towards calmer waters and again further to a ladder that takes her and her companion towards Christ it is truly ethereal and mystic. The whole church is bathed in this intense, stunning blue.

It was Sarah’s father, Sir Henry who continued the commission for all the windows, fourteen in all, quite a feat. The majority of the windows were completed in 1967 and 1969. However, there were obvious problems i.e. The old Victorian glass. These were eventually removed and placed with light boxes behind, so not lost. Meanwhile, the other windows were installed in 1974, but Chagall’s health (he was now 84) was declining, so the remaining four windows in the Chancel were commissioned in order to complete the original plan set out in 1967. The remaining windows were shipped to England but remained packed up for nine years!

Why? Well, the locals got hot and bothered about the non-worshippers treating the place like a gallery. Lack of respect etc etc. Well, to those zealots, I say balls! And with a capital ball! I love churches, but I am an atheist. Churches are architecturally designed to create a spirituality; a sense of awe for all to absorb. Churches are the centre of a community. Through the centuries, they have been used as markets, debating and community centres, archery practice, legislative buildings, concerts. To me they create a sense of history and wonderment. To have this beautiful place makes me feel religious with a small ‘r’. It is greater than a gallery, as it is living art. Religious icons are in the National Gallery. Why can’t amazing art be in a church? On my second trip, a bus load of Belgians filled the church coffers to the brim, many were religious, maybe a few became religious.

Chagall died in 1985 aged 98. The last windows had been on display at the Royal Academy, and were then sent to the Philadelphia Museum of art. It was only when the remaining Victorian windows were preserved with light boxes that the last windows were installed. The year of the great man’s death.

What makes the glass stand out is the artist’s sense of the abstract. Central to the East window, sitting majestically amid the swirling blues and distressed water is a red horse. Asked what the symbolism meant, Chagall replied, “It is for happiness… Everyone must choose the symbolism for themselves. Judge me for my form and colour.”

What makes the experience so incredible is that the windows are low, head height and therefore seem to pull the viewer in rather than push away with the arrogance of loftiness.. You can touch Chagall’s own glass, view the original marks, his very clear signature. Go and sense it. Leave a donation. Magnifique!

Reflecting on the Present

Beverley Bunn, kiln-formed glass artist, artist in residence at Grierson Galleries

As a kiln-formed glass artist, for me glass has a unique quality as an artistic medium – both physical and spiritual. For as long as man has been able to colour glass, he has used it to create art in places of worship. My first experience of that wave of wonderment described here was in the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Being bathed in a coloured blanket of light that engulfs your senses and creates a physical and emotional reaction is a tangible and powerful thing indeed. I often wonder at the ability of glass to evoke such feelings. I feel that as well as the obvious merits in the design, form and colour of Chagall’s and indeed Gaudi’s windows, there is an energetic element in the medium of glass, that is not present in other art-forms… transmitted light waves!

If these windows were paintings hung on walls, or tapestries, or solid sculptures, would they create the feelings of being enveloped in a kind of spiritual or emotional tidal wave? I don’t think so, and here’s why – light transmitted through the artwork has a vibration that literally bombards the beholder with a level of energetic waves that resonate with the energy in our bodies. For me, this is what creates the sense of a tangible, perhaps ‘spiritual’ feeling in the presence of these windows. They are not just nice to look at – they do stuff to you!

Modern glass art is ever evolving, and with advances in science and engineering, the promise of translating glass art into therapeutic light sources with even greater colour intensity and artistic detail, presents an exciting prospect. And as for the church being a gallery – haven’t the stained glass windows in every church in the country, always been a gallery? Wherever stained glass is found; church, chapel, mosque or synagogue, old or new, traditional or abstract, the artistic and spiritual value is there. Our tastes may have changed over the years, but the effect of being bathed in coloured light remains magical and real.