The Golden City on a Hill


I only met Marc Chagall once. It was on Oct 9th, 1978 having just emerged from the inner rooms of the Chagall National Museum ( Cimiez, Nice) in somewhat of a daze from the mesmerizing combinations of his colors, dreamlike compositions and floating figures that inhabit his characteristic pieces.

I saw a short man, with fine wispy hair, a long raincoat and a quizzical smile. The face was familiar to me from photographs, and he was exchanging a few words with the attendants by the entrance. I guessed immediately it was Monsieur Chagall.

A French president described Chagall as the painter of Joy in Life –  those large canvases on the museum walls, inevitably leading to the smaller rooms with the brilliantly colored themes from the Song of Solomon or the Song of Songs, was in itself a joyful journey into the deep Mediterranean sauce of our European culture. Although Chagall himself had cautioned that his painting was not really European, but rather partly oriental.

I was particularly fascinated with the scenes of paradise in the earlier pictures, but it was the lovers floating or flying over Jerusalem that caught my attention as the image of the “shining city on a hill” was that of St Paul de Vence.

I introduced myself to Monsieur Chagall, said “Bonjour”,  “Merci pour votre vision!”, then  asked him about the portrayal of St Paul de Vence. He replied kindly, explaining that, although he had a studio for some years in nearby Vence, it was St Paul that was really special. It was there, in his home known as “La Colline”, that he felt most “en place”.

“We all carry a vision of Jerusalem in our hearts”, he added, “remember Psalm 137” (which contains the famous verse “if I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning”). He took a small illustrated book from the kiosk, signed it, gave it to me with a smile and was gone.

When wandering through the crowded streets of St Paul, you eventually emerge at the far end of the Rue Grande, where you can find a narrow gateway leading to the old village cemetery There on the right is a simple stone slab over the remains of the spiritual dreamer and sublime colourist, where I like to pause and place a pebble.

ImagePS : Currently an exhibit entitled “Chagall between War and Peace” is showing at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, until July 21

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