14 FEB 2019: It is one of my favourite places on Earth. (Well, I guess it has to be on Earth since I have not engaged in space travel.) It is a church, although I profess to no religion. Blink and you might miss it! Even if you do find yourself on the rutted laneway that leads to All Saints Church, Tudeley, in England’s beautiful county of Kent, it is unlikely you will be overly impressed with the unremarkable church that comes into view. Yet this little church is unique and beloved by many, including me.  

Enter the porch (there are no crowds, there is no admission charge), lift the latch, push the heavy oak door and pass through the dark entrance into a realm of magic. Pools of light - predominantly blue and gold, flecked with crimson and green - shimmer on the ancient flagstones. Look up, and then around, and around some more. It is the stained glass windows on three sides that make this church so unique and they are quite literally breathtaking. For All Saints Church, Tudeley, is the only church in the world where the windows - twelve in total - were created by artist Marc Chagall.

Why? do I hear you ask. The answer is an inspiring story of love, tragedy and art. But to explain the presence of the windows it is necessary to look briefly at Tudeley’s history. Until 1849 there had been no large landowner resident close to this tiny village. But in that year, Somerhill, a Jacobean mansion and the most important house in the neighbourhood, was purchased by Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid. The years passed and the wealthy Goldsmid family expanded their estate and started to take a philanthropic interest in the affairs of Tudeley. This interest, however, did not include the little Anglican church since the Goldsmid family was Jewish. But all that was to change in the 20th century when the then incumbent squire of Somerhill - Sir Henry Goldsmid - married an Anglican. Sir Henry kept his faith, but Lady Rosemary d’Avigdor-Goldsmid and their two daughters - Sarah and Chloe - worshipped at the village church.

Theirs was a privileged, art-filled life. In 1961, Sarah and her mother visited an exhibition at the Louvre in Paris where glass windows designed by Chagall for the synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem were on display. Both women were enraptured.

But tragedy was waiting in the wings. Two years later, at the age of 21, Sarah and two friends drowned in a sailing accident off the south coast of England. Grief stricken, but with a lasting memorial to their daughter on their minds, the Goldsmids remembered Sarah’s admiration of Chagall. They approached the artist with a request. Would he accept a commission to design a memorial window for All Saints Church? Chagall hesitated. In spite of the fact that he was in his eighties, he was a busy man; he had never worked in England and - as a Jew himself - he had no experience of what might be expected and acceptable in an Anglican church. Nonetheless, Chagall had always been interested in Christian motifs and stories and eventually he agreed to the commission. Tiny Tudeley was set on the road to artistic fame.

Lady d’Avigdor-Goldsmid met Chagall in Paris to discuss the commission. His design was approved and Charles Marq of Atelier Jacques Simon in Reims translated the piece into glass, as he had done with the Hadassah synagogue windows. Eventually two workmen were sent to England to install the glass in a newly-designed space above the altar. The window was unveiled in a dedication ceremony in the winter of 1967, but that unveiling was only the beginning.

Chagall had noticed that the church possessed eleven more windows, seven of plain glass, four of coloured glass. If suitable arrangements could be made for the removal and re-installation elsewhere of the existing coloured glass (descendants of their creator still lived in the parish!), then Chagall was prepared to create designs for all the windows. So, after much local debate and controversy and many delays, All Saints Church Tudeley became the home of twelve exquisite stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall, the only church in the world to be so honoured.

Yes, they are indeed all beautiful windows, but it is the memorial window above the altar that is the most compelling. Predominantly blue, a colour representing love that Chagall loved to use, it depicts the tragedy that inspired it. In the lower section Sarah appears rocked in the dark indigo waves, while a figure representing all who knew her mourns. Her mother is there too, beside a ghostlike Sarah and her surviving sister. Observers’ eyes are then drawn upwards as the blue of the sea lightens to become the sky. Here Sarah can be seen again, on a horse - a symbol of happiness for Chagall - being carried towards a ladder. Sarah ascends the ladder as the blue is broken by the glories of gold while angels and a crucified yet triumphant Christ await her at the window’s apex. Thus the suffering, grief and fragility of life shown in the lower panels become the absolutes of love and resurrection in the upper sections. If you visit on a sunny day, as well as enjoying the glory of the window, you will notice the light pouring through the glass casts swirls of dreamlike colour onto the marbled ceiling.

Of course, each of the other eleven, smaller windows is a work of art in its own right. They tell the Biblical stories of creation and re-creation and reveal the artist’s delight in the natural world and all living creatures. Here are Adam and Eve, the moon and sun, branches and leaves, doves and ducks, fish and butterflies, an ass (Chagall’s favourite animal) and even, as Chagall does so often in his works, a small image of himself.

A painter all his life, Chagall did not embrace the medium of glass until he was in his seventies. It is thought he was fascinated by the idea, but the knowledge that he could not create glass works alone held him back. Perhaps, as a lover of colour and only too well aware of what his palette could create, he was wary that his chosen hues would have to be selected from a rack of glass. But Chagall had found a skilled craftsman in Charles Marq and it was Marq who interpreted all Chagall’s final designs into glass.

Back in the mists of history, Tudeley was once declared to be “not worth a visit”. No more! It is reported that, upon seeing his first Tudeley window in the dedication ceremony, Chagall declared “C’est magnifique.” No doubt every visitor to All Saints Church Tudeley since that day has agreed.

If you would like to go:

The church is open to visitors Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m to 6 p.m. in summer and 9 a.m. to dusk in winter. On Sundays visitors are welcome to join the church service. If you are not driving, nearby Tonbridge can be reached by train from London’s Charing Cross Station. Trains run about every 20 minutes and the journey takes 45 minutes. There are usually taxis waiting at Tonbridge station for the two mile drive to Tudeley.

But why not consider basing yourself in this beautiful region of England for a longer stay?

Known as the Heart of Kent, the region offers literally hundreds of hotels, inns, B&Bs and self-catering properties, many in country houses, converted barns or even traditional Kentish oast houses. Visitors can choose to stay in the countryside with its picturesque villages, castles, stately homes and famous gardens or in one of the region’s major, historic towns. Kent is a beautiful county, with so many delights, although some, like All Saints Church, are well hidden.

 

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Ann Wallace

Ann Wallace is living a writer's dream currently writing of her adventures as she and her husband sail their boat around Europe.

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