Not many people are familiar with the small rural village of Tudeley on the edge of the High Weald in Kent. I certainly hadn’t before I moved to the Sussex and Kent area, but as I discovered, the local church of this unpretentious village, houses a treasure by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.
So back in January, in happier and more innocent times, I decided to investigate and discover more. As we entered the churchyard of All Saint’s Church, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, just a normal country church no different to hundreds of others scattered throughout the country.
But as we opened the church door, we were confronted by a revelation, a vision in glass. The church was bathed in a glow of blues and yellows emanating from every window, housing some of the most beautiful stained glass windows that I have ever seen. The effect was so surprising and spectacular that for a moment I was stopped in my tracks.
On display, of course, was sublime art from from of the towering giants of 20th century post-impressionism, Marc Chagall. The largest window above the altar is an mainly intense blues, with patches of yellow, red and green. It shows the crucified Jesus at the top with the Virgin Mary in the lower right hand corner and then a number of typical Chagall angels floating around at the edges and, of course, a Chagall donkey.
But how did a small church in a remote corner of Kent end up with twelve priceless windows from the great Russian/French artist. The story begins with a tragedy; in 1963 Sarah d’Avigdor-Goldsmid died aged just 21 in a sailing accident off Rye. Her parents, a Jewish father and an Anglican mother, were a well known and established local family and they wanted to have a permanent memorial for their daughter.
They decided to commission Chagall, whose work had been loved by their daughter and when Chagall arrived in Tudeley 1967 to oversee the commission of the first window, he was apparently so enthralled by the interior of the church that he exclaimed that he would do all of the windows.
Over the next 15 years, Chagall worked on the remaining windows, with the last window being installed in 1985, the year of Chagall’s death at the grand old age of 98. It is now the only Church in the world with a full set of Chagall windows; what a claim to fame.
The eleven further Chagall windows are both figurative and abstract, but all of them beautiful. A selection of some of these windows can be seen below.
On the day we visited there were just a scattering of people in the church, a young Japanese couple and then a couple of other families arrived in the space of an hour. I was struck by how few people there were and how it was obviously a pilgrimage for the few that were there. I was also struck by how accessible the windows are; the only other Chagall window that I have seen is in Chichester Cathedral which is so high up that it is difficult to appreciate. Here the windows are at eye level and you can take in every detail and even see Chagall’s own markings on the glass.
As an aside, on the way out, I noticed a prayer stuck to one of the front pews. It was written by Archbishop Sentanu, then Archbishop of York and was written as the Government was still negotiating the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
It seems to me now that in the middle of the present crisis, in these unprecedented times, these words have even more resonance. Whether the prayer will work, or whether the powers that be are listening, remains to be seen.
The church, of course is currently closed, but when things are back to something like normality, I hope that this church continues to be a spiritual and artistic beacon of light for many years to come.
More details of All Saints Church and the windows can be seen on their web site All Saints Church, Tudeley