Matisse’s last work was a mandala

April 27, 2014

or, The Road Accidentally Traveled

The weather prediction for today was a gorgeous spring day and so last night I decided to reward myself for all my hard work this week with a hike — there is really nothing I enjoy like being outdoors.  Last night I looked up hikes on the Appalachian Mountain Club calendar and chose one that seemed appropriate for my getting-the-kinks-out physique.  It would ramble through the Rockefeller Preserve and end with lunch at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.

I got up early and took the MetroNorth train to Tarrytown where I joined up with the other Appalachian Mountain Club hikers.  We piled into a cab, drove to the Preserve, and started our hike.  But after not too long, for reasons I won’t go into, it became clear to me that if I was going to enjoy a quiet walk to take in nature, I needed to be on my own.  And so, I excused myself from the group and set out on my own.

I took my time walking, and even took a long break to sit on a centuries-old drystone wall to watch clouds float over an open pasture while I ate my lunch.  It was quiet and contemplative and lovely.  Eventually I did get to Stone Barns, and explored the farm for a couple of hours.  And in the gift shop I was very excited to find a wonderful book about making artisan bread — Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast.  (Can’t wait to get out the sourdough starter again!)

As I wandered the farm, I realized I had a bit of a problem: I needed to get back to Tarrytown to catch the train home.  I could call a taxi, but I had too little cash with me.  I could try to catch a ride from someone leaving the farm.  Or, I could walk — a distance of about 3-1/2 miles.  The hike had been quite a bit shorter than I had hoped, and since one of my objectives in hiking more this summer is to get in shape for a trek to Macchu Picchu this fall, I decided to walk.  I checked the GPS on my phone for a route, jotted down the directions on a piece of paper (just in case, since I noticed that the battery was running low), and set out.

I walked along a country road for some time until I came to a small community of old, well-proportioned and well-cared-for homes — old money, the kind that doesn’t need to show it off.  In the middle of this hamlet was a lovely little stone church, also old and well-cared-for.  Simple in design, but there was something more about it that made it seem just a little more special, though I can’t quite put my finger on what it was.

It being Sunday and now after 3:00, I thought I might stop in for a few moments of private worship, since I had missed Sunday morning services in favor of going on this hike.  A man was just coming out of the church and he said I should definitely go inside, that it was lovely, but that I would have to pay an entrance fee.  That seemed a bit odd to me, but okay, I’ve visited many churches where it is customary to pass the plate. I had $8 in my wallet.  A small plaque by the door said the entrance fee was $7.  I went inside.

The rose window by Henri Matisse in Union Church of Pocantico Hills, New York

The rose window by Henri Matisse in Union Church of Pocantico Hills, New York

What happened next was worth walking 3-1/2 miles: I walked through the doors and found, in this little tiny country church, Matisse’s last masterwork, and nine gorgeous stained-glass windows by Marc Chagall.

What were they doing here?

Union Church of Pocantico Hills was founded and built in the early 20th century by the residents of this hamlet.  There weren’t enough members of any one Protestant sect to build their own church, and so they all got together and built one non-denominational church where they worshipped together.  The Rockefellers were part of the community and over the course of the century contributed significantly to the life — and the budget — of the church.

In 1954 the Rockefellers commissioned the rose window as a memorial for a family member.  Matisse, elderly and confined to a wheelchair, could not come to the church, so the family sent full-size architectural drawings to him in France.  He created the design in paper cut-outs, and two days after finishing it he died.  The rose window hangs over the altar at the front of the church.

In the back wall soars Chagall’s glorious Good Samaritan window, and eight more windows designed by him line the side walls along the pews.  (You can read more about them here.)

I was enthralled.  And, I was reminded again that often the best journeys are the ones that happen after the planned journey falls through.

Which happened one more time before I got to the train . . .

I missed a fork in the road and ended up walking around Tarrytown Lake.  I love being near water, the view was lovely and in the end, when I checked the GPS, the detour didn’t add any distance to the trip.

Serendipity is often like that.

Wishing you wonderful journeys, wherever they take you.

Rockefeller Preserve



2 Responses to “Matisse’s last work was a mandala”

  1. Cheryl Neruda Says:

    This is inspiring, RaNae! Now the challenge bug has struck me. Just how many mandalas can be found where we least expect it?

  2. Carol Says:


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