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Religion in Modern Art
Even though spiritual themes have permeated art now for hundreds of years, we seldom think of artists as being particularly religious. During the Renaissance, perhaps, we imagine artists such as Fra Angelico, or Raphael, or Michelangelo painting from the depths of their soul some glorious Biblical scene or revelation but since the church became a relatively minor sponsor of world class art, secular subjects have pretty much dominated most artists' output. There are individual exceptions, of course, and artists have, from to time, employed spiritual elements in some of their work, but such instances have usually been fairly rare. Yet one internationally known, modern-day artist has devoted a surprising amount of his work to religious images. In fact, in 1973, the French government opened an entire museum devoted to his Biblical message paintings.

The Marc Chagall National Museum of Biblical Message, near Nice, France, is more than just an art gallery. The museum is on a hill amid pine, olive, and cypress trees and features works Chagall created illustrating the Bible and the Song of Songs. His mosaics overlook a pool outside while stained glass windows by Chagall illuminate the non-denominational chapel/concert hall adjoining the gallery complex. Housed within its walls are 17 large paintings mostly illustrating Genesis and Exodus. They are awash with wondrous colour, bursting with winged angels, and other heavenly manifestations such that the most powerful spiritual presence is often felt not in the chapel but in the gallery.

The museum is unique, even though other artists at the time, notably Picasso, Matisse, and Cocteau were decorating similar chapels in and around Venice, Italy, in an effort to integrate art and architecture in a manner not seen since the Baroque era. However, about the closest rival Chagall's museum/chapel has is a similar complex built outside Houston, Texas, where another Russian-born artist, Mark Rothko, has embellished a chapel with his own style of monochromatic abstractions also inviting silent meditation and contemplation but on a highly personal level, divorced from Biblical influences. During the final years of his life, Chagall devoted his time almost exclusively to stained glass window designs and installations. His work in glass can be seen in the Reims Cathedral, the Art Institute in Chicago, and the Chichester Cathedral in England. He was working on yet another stained glass design when he died of a sudden heart attack at his home near Venice in 1985. He was 97.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
13 December 1998

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