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Marc Chagall’s Peace Window for the United Nations in New York

In 1964, Marc Chagall presented the magnificent stained-glass memorial called the “Peace Window” to the United Nations in New York.

At the unveiling ceremony, Chagall urged the audience

“not to see the window but to feel it. I should like people to be as moved as I was when I was engaged in this work which was done for people of all countries, in the name of peace and love”. Marc Chagall Quotes

Wreath-laying Ceremony on the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers  in front of the Peace Window
Wreath-laying Ceremony on the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers in front of the Peace Window – UN Photo/Teddy Chen

What is the Peace Window?

In September 17, 1961, Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld (then the second Secretary-General of the UN) and 15 others died in a plane crash en route to a peace mission. After this tragic crash, the UN staff set up a committee and a foundation for the purpose of creating a memorial.

The foundation chose Marc Chagall, already famous for his stained-glass masterpieces, to create this memorial. They requested that Chagall create a free-standing piece of stained-glass in memory of Dag Hammarskjöld and the others who lost their lives in the cause of peace.

Chagall worked on the sketches for this project from his studio in Saint Paul de Vence.

Marc Chagall sketches out the initial design of the window with members of the UN Memorial Committee. UN Photo
Marc Chagall sketches out the initial design of the window with members of the UN Memorial Committee. UN Photo

The window’s full name is “The Window of Peace and Human Happiness”. It is one of Chagall’s most ambitious and largest stained-glass projects. It stands at 12 feet (3.7 m) and 15 feet (4.6 m) wide. The window is an artistic tribute to the principles upon which the United Nations are based on.

close up detail of the Chagall's Peace Window at the United Nations
Detail of Chagall Peace Window, United Nations Headquarters
Photo by mhawkins (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Biblical Passage that Inspired Chagall for this Window

Like so many of Chagall’s later artworks, the Peace Window was inspired by a passage in the Bible. The main passage that inspired this project was Isaiah 9, 1–7 :

The people that walked in darkness
Have seen a great light;
On those who live in a land of deep shadow
A light has shone.
You have made their gladness greater
You have made their joy increase.
They rejoice in your presence
As men rejoice at harvest time…

For every footgear of battle
Every cloak rolled in blood
Is burnt
And consumed by fire.

For there is a child born for us,
A son given to us
And dominion is on his shoulders
And this is the name they give him:
Wonder-counsellor, Mighty-God,
Eternal-Father, Prince of Peace.
Wide is his dominion
in a peace that has no end.

The Symbolic Elements in the Peace Window

The Tree of Knowledge

The window contains many elements from the Old and the New Testaments.

Rising up from the ground is the tree of knowledge which divides the window into two halves. We know that it is the tree of knowledge as we see the snake which seduced Adam and Eve into eating the apple. On the left of the tree is paradise, full of light, where animals, angels and human beings live together in happiness and peace.

Portion of the Peace Window
Portion of the Peace Window, UN Photo/Lois Conner

Love and Harmony

In the upper middle section of the panel is an angel kissing a girl among a colorful bouquet of purple and red flowers. For Marc Chagall, these colors represent love. This is the main focus of the window which immediately catches the viewer’s attention. It reminds us of the ‘kiss of peace’ in the New Testament, which symbolizes love and harmony between heaven and earth.

The Hostile World and Wars

On the right of the window is a darker side. It represents the hostile world, where people struggle for peace. At the top edge, there is a descending angel who brings the Ten Commandments to a walled city.

On the far right is the crucifixion, with a crowd of people moving towards it. In the lower centre, a couple lovingly hold their new-born child. There is also a woman, the largest figure in the whole picture who kneels over in grief. She represents all mothers, grieving for their children sacrificed in war.

Portion of the Peace Window
Portion of the Peace Window / UN Photo/Lois Conner

The entire Peace Window is in different shades of the blue, so typical of Chagall’s style.

Chagall’s Personal “Thank You” to the United States

Interestingly Chagall considered this window not just a memorial to Dag Hammarskjöld and his peace team. For Chagall this window was also a personal thank you to the United States for granting him asylum during WW2 when he was forced to flee Nazi Europe.

Art historians Ingo Walther and Rainer Metzger summarize Chagall and his artistic achievement as follows:

“His life and art together added up to this image of a lonesome visionary, a citizen of the world with much of the child still in him, a stranger lost in wonder — an image which the artist did everything to cultivate. Profoundly religious and with a deep love of the homeland, his work is arguably the most urgent appeal for tolerance and respect of all that is different that modern times could make.”

If you would like to visit the United Nations and see the stunning Marc Chagall “Peace Window” and other displayed artworks, press here for more details.

Tip: When visiting the U.N. you should come at least an hour before your tour. The security check for entering the building takes ages. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!!

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