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Marc Chagall: Noah’s Dove

Marc Chagall: Noah’s Dove


On September, 19, 1963, Sarah, the daughter of Sir Henry and Lady of Avigdor-Goldsmid, owner of Somerhill House, drowned in a ship accident off Rye, East Sussex, England. In her memory, the couple asked French-Russian artist Marc Chagall to design and build a stained glass window for All Saint’s Church, Tudeley. It was installed in 1967. When Chagall arrived for the window dedication in 1967 and saw the church for the first time, he exclaimed, “It’s beautiful! I’ll do them all! ». Over the next ten years, Chagall designed the remaining eleven windows, which were crafted again in collaboration with the glassmaker Charles Marq in his studio in Reims, northern France. The last windows were installed in 1985, just before Chagall’s death.

In Western Christian culture, the dove is the traditional icon of peace. This is the legacy of Noah’s Ark biblical account. At the end of the flood, Noah sends from the ark a dove that returns to his boat with an olive branch, which means that the waters have receded and that a new humanity may arise. The flood is the purifying event that allows the end of one cycle and the beginning of a new humanity.

Only Noah is called “righteous” (Gen 7.1) but, like Adam, he represents all people and saves them along with himself (Gen 7,1. 7.13.). By this free choice, or election, God reserves a small remnant, the survivors who will be the strain of a new people. If the heart of the saved man is still prone to sin, God now declares himself patient: his mercy opposes purely vindictive punishment and paves the way for conversion (Gen 8:15-22). Judgment by the waters thus leads to an alliance that ensures God’s fidelity to the whole of humanity at the same time as to Noah’s family (Gen 9,1-17).

When the earth is finally dry, God tells Noah to take out all the animals and instructs them to multiply again on the surface of the earth. God then has made an alliance with Noah and his sons, gives them any animal or plant for food, condemns a murder, and orders them to be fruitful. He then promises that there will be no more flood and designates the rainbow as a reminder of the flood and as a sign of alliance between him and the earth.

Noah’s first action on earth is to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving that pleases the Lord. The fate of the earth is clearly dissociated from the actions of men, unlike previous accounts where the sin of Adam and Eve, and then the crime of Cain, led to the curse of the earth: “Never again will I curse the earth because of man, because his heart contrives evil from his infancy. Never again will I strike down every living thing as I have done. As long as the earth lasts, sowing and reaping, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall cease no more” (Gen 8, 20-22).

The stained-glass windows of the church are inspired, says Chagall, by the words of Psalm 8, and in particular verses 4-8 : “When I look up at your heavens made by your fingers,  at the moon and stars you set in place – ah, what is man that you should spare a thought for him, the son of man that you should care for him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, you have crowned him with glory and splendour, made him lord over the work of your hands, set all things under his feet, sheep and oxen, all these, yes, wild animals too, birds  in the air, fish in the sea travelling the paths of the ocean. Yahweh, our Lord, how great your name throughout the earth!”