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Chagall’s Legacy in Israel

March 11, 2021

by: Kathy DeGagne, BFP Staff Writer

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In the beautiful Judean Hills, there is a place of healing called Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem, overlooking the village where John the Baptist was born. Since opening its doors in the early 1960s, Hadassah has been celebrated for its medical advances and patient care. In 2005, the hospital won the coveted Nobel Peace Prize for building bridges for peace, modelling cooperation and coexistence with the Arab medical community during the Intifada (uprising). Today, it is a forerunner in the treatment of patients with COVID-19 and in the clinical trials of an Israeli-made vaccine. It also houses the first pediatric unit in Israel for treating children with the virus.

A Place of Healing

Chai is the Hebrew word for life—the sanctity of life, the preservation of life and the celebration of life—expressions of the core Jewish belief that life is sacred because human beings are made in the image of God. This spiritual dimension of life was perhaps unusual to see in the mid-20th century in the context of a center that deals primarily in scientific and medical interests, but from its very inception, the architects of Hadassah designed into it an essential component of healing—a center of faith called the Abbell Synagogue.

While the synagogue was intended as a quiet place to pray and meditate for the staff and patients at the hospital, the vision for its use was much grander. The president of Hadassah commissioned Marc Chagall, the famed Jewish artist from France, to fill the space with light and color and make the synagogue walls a canvas for twelve vibrant stained-glass windows.

Inspired by the Bible

Chagall created a masterpiece in glass unlike anything found in the grand cathedrals of Europe. He wrote, “For me a glass is a transparent wall located between my heart and the heart of the world.” Each wall of the synagogue displays three windows of stained glass, 11 feet high by 8 feet wide [3.4 m high by 2.4 m wide], each window depicting the symbology of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Chagall saw the Bible as “the greatest source of poetry” and he got his inspiration from within its pages, specifically the blessings of Jacob over his twelve sons (Gen. 49 and Deut. 33).

Chagall used images signifying the banners that Moses designated to each Israelite tribe and which flew over their encampments around the Tabernacle.

The Power of Color

It took Chagall and his assistant two years to complete the windows. While working on the windows in France, he developed a technique that allowed him to colorize a pane of glass with three colors rather than just one.

We know how color affects our moods and sense of well-being, but Chagall did not seem overly pedantic about the psychology of color when he created his windows. As an artist, he seemed to be intuitive, creating lively drawings of animals, birds and other images, wild in their joyfulness, suspended in color and timeless in the centuries separating ancient Israel from the present, saturated with hues of red, yellow, blue, and green—shimmering and jewel-like in their vibrancy.

To Chagall, these windows were his “modest gift to the Jewish people” and his beloved Jerusalem, an expression of “friendship and peace” among all neighboring peoples.

Dependent on COVID restrictions, you can enjoy viewing the windows in person at the Abbell Synagogue, in the central square of the Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem complex. Check for open hours online.

Photo Credit: wikimedia.org

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