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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 City.

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 Hills.
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 country home.

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 modern art!

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 Windows."

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 church's ambiance.

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.

Visiting the Union Church of Pocantico Hills

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.

Specifics on visiting the Union Church of Pocantico were correct at time of publication. We would suggest that you confirm dates and times prior to your visit.
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