In 1960, the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem decided to add a spiritual, creative component to its worship area.
A series of stained glass windows were the order of the day, and staff set out to determine which skilled artist was up to the task.
Marc Chagall was an easy choice.
Arguably the most famous Jewish artist at the time, he had spent decades depicting Jewish life and customs through his many paintings and glassworks.
When Chagall met with Hadassah heads in Paris to discuss the commission, his wife said the artist had always hoped to be called upon to serve the Jewish community in such a way.
“Now the Jewish people have come to you,” Dr. Miriam Freund, then national president of Hadassah, told Chagall. “This is your opportunity to create something which will live for the ages.”
Chagall agreed to the project, promising to complete the windows free of charge.
What resulted was a series of stained glass windows depicting the 12 tribes of Israel. Each window is 11 feet tall and eight feet wide, and the glass is dotted with floating fish, flowers, and Jewish symbols.
Once unveiled, the windows were immediately heralded as a success. They have been on exhibit at the Louvre and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and are still a major point of attraction in Jerusalem for tourists around the world.
“All the time I was working, I felt my mother and father looking over my shoulder; and behind them were Jews, millions of other vanished Jews — of yesterday and a thousand years ago,” Chagall said upon completing the installation.
At a dedication ceremony, he added: “This is my modest gift to the Jewish people who have always dreamt of biblical love, friendship and of peace among all peoples. This is my gift to that people which lived here thousands of years ago among the other Semitic people.”