Union Church of Pocantico
Who would guess that this
unassuming country church contains a stained glass window
by Henri Matisse and nine windows by Marc Chagall?
Visitors marvel at the colorful rose
window created for the church by Henri Matisse. The
design for the window was his last work of art before
his death in 1954. The commission, spearheaded by Nelson
A. Rockefeller, honors the memory of his mother, Abby
Aldrich Rockefeller. Mrs. Rockefeller, one of the founders
of the Museum of Modern Art , admired Matisse, collected
his work, and entertained him in her home in New York
The glorious Good Samaritan window
by Marc Chagall is a memorial to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller's
husband, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Their son David Rockefeller
masterminded the commission in 1963, which later expanded
to include all eight windows in the nave of the church.
They memorialize, among others, Michael Clark Rockefeller,
Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, Peggy Rockefeller (Mrs.
David Rockefeller), and Mary Rockefeller (Mrs. Laurance
Rockefeller). Chagall and members of the Rockefeller
family carefully selected the subject matter for the
windows from Biblical texts.
The enthralling story of the windows,
and how they came to be here, is the story of relationships
among distinguished patrons and collectors of modern
art, two great 20th-century artists, and the leading
connoisseurs and tastemakers of the day.
For Kykuit visitors, a tour of the
church enhances their knowledge of the Rockefeller legacy;
all who visit the Union Church enjoy a unique and surprising
aesthetic and spiritual experience.
It is a
pleasure to welcome you to the Union Church of Pocantico
by David Rockefeller
Members of my family have attended
worship services here ever since my grandfather, John
D. Rockefeller, moved to this village in the early 1890s,
more than a century ago. His only son and my father,
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was a strong supporter of
the ecumenical movement among American Protestant denominations
and believed that vibrant churches were essential to
the health and continuing vitality of local communities.
As a result, he happily encouraged the work of Union
Church, and our whole family enjoyed attending Sunday
services here during the weekends we spent in our nearby
In the early 1920s, when the Union
Church congregation decided to erect the present church
building, Father helped with the cost of the project
and provided the tower and its superb carillon in memory
of his mother, Laura Spelman Rockefeller.
There are many wonderful aspects of
the Union Church, but I would like to draw your attention
to the beautiful stained-glass windows - ten of them
in all - that grace the sanctuary. Two of the 20th century's
greatest artists, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall, created
these unique works of art, and I would like to recount
how they came to be here.
Henri Matisse, the great French modernist
painter, created the beautiful rose window over the
chancel as a memorial to my mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.
Mother had met Matisse on a number of occasions in Paris
during the 1920s, greatly admired his talent and courage
as an artist, and collected his work. Mother considered
him to be one of the greatest of contemporary painters
and had convinced the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), of
which she was a founder, to devote its first one-man
exhibition to a grand retrospective of his art and the
profound influence he had had on the aesthetic sensibilities
and movements of his time. She even persuaded Matisse
to come to New York in late 1931 for the opening. Mother
enjoyed a more private success at this time - she induced
my father, who disliked modern art and was quite suspicious
of "modern artists, " to host a dinner in
honor of Matisse. While Father graciously complied with
Mother's request and is reported to have enjoyed conversing
in French with Matisse, he never changed his mind about
After Mother's death in 1948, my siblings
and I decided to establish a memorial for her in Pocantico
Hills that would reflect her profound humanity and love
of beauty. When my brother Nelson suggested that we
ask Matisse to design a stained-glass window that would
be installed in Union Church, we all agreed that this
would be the most appropriate way to remember her.
Matisse was the perfect choice. Not
only had he known Mother, but his style was well-suited
to the demanding medium of stained-glass. Matisse had
always valued color for its own sake far more than most
artists, but during his last years he had become almost
completely absorbed by it. During the years after World
War II, a late burst of artistic creativity centered
around the creation of intricate compositions of cutouts
from brightly colored papers. One of his last and possibly
greatest accomplishments was the Dominican Chapel of
the Rosary in Vence, France, that included a wonderful
set of stained-glass windows.
Nelson had also known Matisse and
owned a number of his important works, but he enlisted
Alfred Barr, the chief curator at MoMA, in the effort
to convince him to accept our commission. Initially,
Matisse was quite reluctant; he was in his eighties
and in poor health. But, Nelson persisted and finally
Matisse agreed. Struggling against ill health and permanently
confined to his bedroom, Matisse designed the pure and
quite beautiful window that you see before you. It was
his final artistic creation; the maquette was on the
wall of his bedroom when he died in November of 1954.
We dedicated the window on Mother's Day, May 13, 1956.
After Father's death in 1960, many
of the institutions with which he had been associated
during his long and distinguished career marked his
passing with imposing ceremonies. My brothers and sister
and I appreciated these heartfelt gestures, but we also
wanted a more personal memorial to him and decided that
the Union Church would be the most appropriate place
for it. Father had deeply loved this part of the Hudson
Valley and always thought of Pocantico as his home.
The six of us thought a stained-glass window would symbolize
the central importance of Christianity in his own life,
and that one placed opposite Mother's would unite them
again as they had been throughout their long and happy
life together. In October of 1960, the Union Church
congregation accepted our proposal to place a stained-
glass window in his memory in the narthex of the church.
The principal problem we faced was
finding an artist capable of carrying out the commission.
Eventually, we found one, but it took a bit of luck
and good timing.
In July of 1961, my wife, Peggy, accompanied
me on a business trip to Paris . I had just become president
of the Chase Manhattan Bank and faced a full schedule
of meetings and calls on bank customers. The day before
we left Paris, Peggy visited the Louvre, and, by chance,
saw a special exhibition of twelve stained-glass windows,
each one representing one of the twelve tribes of Israel,
that was destined for the synagogue at the Hadassah-Hebrew
University Medical Center in Jerusalem . The artist
was an expatriate White Russian Jew named Marc Chagall.
Peggy was entranced by Chagall's powerful use of color
and the strong spiritual quality that suffused the "Jerusalem
At dinner that same evening, Peggy
told me that she had found the artist to do Father's
window. "You must see them before we leave Paris
, " she insisted. I went with her to the Louvre
the next morning and came away impressed and convinced
that Chagall was the right choice.
Upon our return to New York, Peggy
and I spoke to my siblings about our Paris discovery.
My brothers and sister expressed interest, but I could
tell that they needed a bit more convincing. A few of
them felt that Chagall's strongly modernist and highly
mystical style might be inappropriate for Father's memorial
window. Fortunately, the "Jerusalem Windows"
were to be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in
late 1961 and early 1962, prior to their installation
in Jerusalem, and this afforded the members of my family,
as well as members of the Union Church, the opportunity
to study the windows. By the end of 1963 everyone had
agreed that we should ask Chagall if he would consider
taking on the project.
I then discussed the matter with René
d'Harnoncourt, the Director of the Museum of Modern
Art, who wrote to Chagall on our behalf. Chagall responded
immediately and enthusiastically to René's letter.
At that point, Chagall and I began to correspond and
we decided to meet personally later that year to discuss
the project in greater detail.
At Chagall's request my family and
members of the Union Church discussed a theme for the
window. It took some time to reach agreement on this
critical matter, and eventually we submitted a list
of ten subjects to Dr. Robert McCracken, the senior
minister at the Riverside Church in New York - a church
with which Father had a particularly strong connection
- for a final decision. Dr. McCracken selected from
the list the Parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke's
Gospel as the most appropriate Biblical expression of
Father's life. It took many years for me to realize
that this was a subject that had powerful symbolic and
personal associations for Marc Chagall as well.
In late March of 1963, I attended
a Bilderberg Meeting in Cannes on the French Riviera.
At its conclusion, Jack Heinz and I drove through Provence,
one of the most beautiful regions of the world- made
even more glorious that day by the pale green foliage
of early Spring - to Chagall's home in Vence (ironically,
the same town where Matisse had worked on the maquette
for Mother's window). We met with Chagall and his wife,
who was also his very astute business manager, toured
his studio, and had a memorable dinner together as well.
To my great pleasure, Chagall agreed to accept the commission
and embraced the "Good Samaritan" theme.
I had another request to make of Chagall.
My nephew, Michael Rockefeller, had been lost at sea
in November of 1961, while on an anthropological expedition
to New Guinea . Nelson, Michael's father, asked if I
would raise the possibility with Chagall of his designing
one of the smaller aisle windows as a memorial to Michael.
Chagall agreed to take on this commission as well.
Chagall visited Union Church in May
of the same year and we approved his final design a
few months later. The artist worked closely with Charles
Marq at the atelier Jacques Simon in Reims to produce
the window that you see before you - a powerful adaptation
of Chagall's painterly style and vision to the traditional
genre of stained glass. The window was installed in
September of 1964 and dedicated on October 10, 1965.
At the time of the installation, Chagall
and I had a discussion that led eventually, after a
long period of debate within my family and with the
Union Church congregation, to the commissioning of the
eight smaller windows that flank the nave, one of which,
The Crucifixion (Seek and Ye Shall Find), is dedicated
to the memory of Michael Rockefeller. All of these windows
add to the beauty, complexity and mystery of this small
In the late 1980s, after Chagall's
death, I learned of his personal connection to the Parable
of the Good Samaritan and, through it, to my family.
In the early 1940s, Chagall had fled Nazi-occupied Paris
for Vichy France and was living near Marseilles in increasingly
desperate circumstances. The Emergency Rescue Committee,
an American refugee organization established in the
early 1930s, sent Varian Fry to assist artists and intellectuals
facing repression and death from Europe's totalitarian
regimes. The Rockefeller Foundation, headed by my Father
at that time, had been the principal funder of the Emergency
Rescue Committee's work, and many individuals associated
with the Museum of Modern Art, including my mother,
had become involved in the organization's activities.
Chagall was one of the last artists to be rescued by
the Committee, spirited across the Spanish border and
eventually arriving safely in New York, where he spent
the war years.
It is for this reason, I believe,
that Chagall became so deeply involved in his work for
the Union Church. I am convinced that he viewed the
windows as more than just another commission: he was
creating works of deep spiritual meaning, not just for
my family, but for himself as well.
These ten magnificent windows have
graced this simple country church for more than forty
years now. As art, they stand by themselves as powerful
expressions of the human spirit. In viewing them, I
hope you will also understand their very special significance
to me and to the members of the Rockefeller Family.
April to December - Weekdays (closed Tuesday): 11am
- 5pm, Saturday: 10am - 5pm; Sunday: 2pm - 5pm. Self-guided
or Guided Tour Available approximately 30 min
Adults/Children: $5, Historic Hudson Valley members
FREE, Free admission for weekday Kykuit visitors.