The church of All Saints1 in the small village of Tudeley, not far from the historical medieval town of Tonbridge, can be rightfully considered another well-hidden Wonder of the World. Now, as churches began to reopen across the UK, the All Saints church welcomes worshippers and visitors again. It has a long history, harking back to the 7th century A.D and pre-dating the Domesday Book (in which it is, logically, also mentioned). During the Middle Ages the church belonged to Tonbridge Priory and was rebuilt between 12-14 centuries). After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1526 it was passed to Christ Church, Oxford, and then became the property of the Crown. Nowadays it belongs to the Diocese of Rochester.

Apart from its venerable age, the church is also world-famous, as it boasts twelve stained-glass windows by the French artist Mark Chagall (the project took him more than fifteen years to complete). It is not the only religious building with Chagall's stained-glass windows in the UK – in 1978 a window based on Psalm 150 was installed at the Chichester Cathedral – but it is the only church in the world whose stained glass was completely done by Chagall. It is a place of remarkable artistic experiment, where medieval architecture harmoniously coexists with modernist stained glass. All windows were installed between 1967 and 1985: first, the Memorial Window in the altar wall, then five north windows and two south windows, dedicated in 1974. The four chancel windows were the subject of some controversy, as installing them meant removing the Victorian memorial glass. However, in 1985 all doubts and disputes were resolved: the last Chagall windows were dedicated and installed, while their predecessors – moved to the vestry at the back of the church.

Unfortunately, the creation of these masterpieces was preceded by a tragic story that can also be referred to as the story of love.

In 1963, local landowners Sir Henry and Lady Rosemary d'Avigdor-Goldsmid invited Marc Chagall to install a stained-glass window in the altar of the All Saints’ church in memory of their daughter Sarah, who tragically died in a sailing accident at the age of 21. Initially, Chagall was not keen on the commission, excusing himself by being involved with other projects (he was painting the ceiling at the Grand Opera in Paris), by referring to his age (he was 76 years old) and the remoteness of the little hamlet in Kent. And yet, he had always been interested in Christian motifs and biblical narrative, so he eventually agreed. Lady d’Avigdor-Goldsmid travelled to meet Chagall in Paris to discuss the project. The design was approved and Chagall’s assistant Charles Marq of Atelier Jacques Simon in Reims translated the piece into glass, as he had previously done with the Hadassah synagogue windows, so much admired by Sarah d’Avigdor and her mother two years before in Paris. Eventually, two workmen were sent to the UK to install the completed stained glass. The dedication ceremony took place in the winter of 1967, and it was the sole occasion when Marc Chagall visited Tudeley in person.

Looking around the simple, unadorned church with plain windows and inspired by its unique natural lighting, which allowed the stained glass to change its hues depending on the time of the day, the artist exclaimed in French: “C’est magnifique! Je les ferai tous! (“This is great! I will do them all”). Needless to say, the owners were delighted but somewhat apprehensive. According to the local lore, the first response of Sir Henry d’Avigdor-Goldsmid was cautious: “We are not Rockefellers”. And Chagall replied: “We will talk about that later”.

After the first commission completed in 1967, the church holds no record for other eleven windows – the artist generously offered them as a gift to the grief-stricken family and the local community. These stained-glass windows in Tudeley became Chagall’s testament: the last of them was installed in 1985, shortly before his own death. The artist believed that "the dignity of the artist lies manifested in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world". This sense of wonder at the beauty and mystery of the universe lives on in the magnificent luminous stained-glass windows. As one enters the church, the pools of blue, purple, and gold light flood the space. The effect is breath-taking. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard is known to have said: “Chagall reads the Bible and suddenly the passages become light”. One could not find more appropriate words for the revelation experienced in Tudeley.

The whole Chagall’s artistic programme for the church was inspired by the lines of Psalm 8:3-4:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

So, the north stained-glass windows speak of the Mystery of Creation. Like the biblical text in Hebrew, they should also be read from right to left. The blue and purple – the important colours symbolising contemplation and mystery in Chagall’s artistic idiom – prevail in the composition. Gradually, the outlines of a dove, a lamb, a donkey or an angel begin to appear from and then disappear into the ocean of colour. Adam and Eve, standing in front of the Tree of Life, receive a "winged warning" from a friendly angel. Another angel features the name of "Vava" (Valentina Brodskaya, the last wife of Chagall) on his wing. In this manner, the artist’s life and love also weave themselves into the fabric of creation.

Remarkably, the d’Avigdor-Goldsmid family, who had invited the artist, was Anglo-Jewish, which meant that Sir Henry kept his Jewish faith, while his wife, Lady Rosemary, was Anglican. She and their two daughters – Sarah and Chloe – worshipped at the Tudeley church. Neither was Chagall a Christian: throughout his life he observed Judaism. He felt tormented by the fact that his Jewish faith forbade human representations. In an attempt to resolve his internal conflict, he sought advice from the chief rabbi of Israel, asking if he should continue being an artist. Yet, the rabbi, not wishing to deprive the world of a rare talent, replied to Chagall in Yiddish: "I leave it to your own good taste." Finding no definite answer, Chagall turned to his innermost beliefs: “I am a mystic. I don't go to church or synagogue. For me, creativity is prayer.” This statement might account for why the stained-glass windows in Tudeley are deeply Christian in spirit. “This generous, loving, humorous, joyful Jew gave so much of his work to Christians”, commented a member of the Tudeley parish. Therefore, the latter may be viewed as a unique interfaith phenomenon, a meeting point between Christianity and Judaism.

The second aspect of Chagall’s artistic programme was the mystery of life and death, the tragedy of the young life lost. Sarah d’Avigdor-Goldsmid undoubtedly had many gifts and a keen eye for artistic talent: she was among the first to recognise the ability of a young and yet obscure artist David Hockney and to acquire his painting at his graduation show. She was also an ardent admirer of Marc Chagall: in 1961 she travelled to Paris with her mother to see the “jewels of translucent fire” – the new stained-glass windows for the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem exhibited in the Louvre.

The family led a privileged, art-filled life. The Jacobean Somerhill House (now a school), the seat of the d’Avigdor-Goldsmid clan, was the second largest house in Kent after Knole House, and became the scene for many parties hosted by Lady Rosemary. Among her visitors were poet John Betjeman, architect Hugh Casson, actor and novelist David Niven, the Shadow Secretary of State for Defence Enoch Powell and many other writers, politicians, actors and artists. So, Sarah grew up surrounded by remarkable people.

And then, suddenly, tragically, she was drowned in a sailing accident off Rye. On that fateful autumn day, she set off with her boyfriend David Winn and their friend Paddy Pakenham, Lord Longford’s son. There was very little wind, and just before the sunset, when they were about to turn home, an unexpected storm broke out tipping the young people into water and turning the boat over. Unable to attract attention from passing boats, they tried to paddle towards the shore. As the night fell and it grew colder, first David and then Sarah slipped into unconsciousness and died. By the time Paddy managed to reach the shore early in the morning, it was too late.

Sarah’s parents were shocked by the death of their daughter. Eventually, they decided to create a permanent memorial to Sarah, something that would remind of her personality and their faiths – something that Sarah herself would have enjoyed. It was at that point that the family decided to invite Marc Chagall to create a window in the memory of their beloved daughter. Lady Rosemary, a keen art collector, used all her connections, in order to contact and then persuade the reluctant artist to take up the commission. The outcome of these negotiations was the Memorial Window in the altar. Its composition re-enacted the events of Sarah’s death: the girl carried away by the sea current; then drowned in the dark sea waters, her despairing lonely mother weeping ashore; at the same time, Sarah's soul rushes up the ladder towards the crucified Christ, who seems to be stretching out his arms as if in the gesture of embrace. This is the symbol of the girl’s resurrection and life conquering death. Here, in Chagall’s expressive, powerful manner, the grief is melted into joy, and desperate longing – into a grateful, loving memory and a hope for a new meeting. This way, the window seems to open up into the fourth dimension that Chagall had sought to bring into his work.

Finally, the third major aspect of Chagall’s artistic programme is the secret of joy and life, as epitomised by the south stained-glass windows. They seem to be the very image of sunshine, happiness, light and joy.

Chagall consistently followed the lines of the biblical psalm, while simultaneously celebrating Sarah’s life. Meanwhile, his work was not devoid of playfulness and humour: the stained-glass windows also conceal two of his self-portraits. Why two? The answer is that the first portrait was criticized by Chagall’s friends for his nose being too small. Therefore, the artist added another image of himself but with a bigger nose.

I spent several hours sitting in the church, observing how the colours in the windows change from subtle to deep dark hues, depending on the intensity of the falling light. The windows, indeed, looked like some magical gems.

The secret of their radiance lies in a special technique of applying pigment directly to the glass. Chagall and his assistant made it possible to apply several colours on the same glass panel. It is remarkable how the artist managed to excel in the media he took up when he was well over 70 (the artist made his first stained-glass window in 1962). He also managed to succeed because of Charles Marq, a stained-glass master from the French city of Reims (you will also notice that some dedicated windows feature the date and the place of their completion) who assisted him. All Tudeley stained-glass windows came from Marq’s studio. Chagall would normally begin their work by saying: "Charles, let's make a masterpiece." And the church in Tudeley became one.

Apart from the stained-glass windows, the church is also known for its medieval prayer labyrinth in the garden. In the Middle Ages, such labyrinths served as substitutes for the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Those who could not afford to set off on a real pilgrimage, had to make do with its symbolic replacement. Unexpectedly, the very plan of the Tudeley labyrinth was based on a drawing of a fountain in Damascus. However, when I last saw it, the grooves of the maze were somewhat overgrown with grass and were not so easy to identify. Walking around the maze, one may not only admire the old church, but also the nearby oast-houses with conical roofs. Hops vintages used to be traditionally dried there – after all, Kent has always been famous for its ales. And the country landscape around Tudeley has changed little since the late 19th century.

If you have the whole day available, then take a walk around the area. There are well-trodden paths leading in all directions from the church. And if you feel too overwhelmed by so much beautiful art, you can take some rest and order a couple of pints at the nearby pub, The Poacher and Partridge. It will offer you an excellent menu and the list of nearby attractions, including possible walking routes.

1 The church used to be normally opened every day from 9 a.m. until dusk but due to the recent anti-Covid measures, the schedule was changed. Sunday visit is probably the safest bet, but make sure that you check the opening times on Capel United Church first.