Visual art: The America Windows (1977), Marc Chagall, Art Institute of Chicago

By Grace Calderone

Celebrating religious freedom, opportunity and diversity, Marc Chagall dedicated “The America Windows” to the city of Chicago. Known for creating cathedral windows in countries such as Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, Chagall offered these windows as a personal greeting card to America. Luminous, they paint a romantic picture of the American Dream – the idea that we can achieve anything we want in this country. They capture the artist’s admiration for our vibrant cities by capturing the blues music of Chicago, while embracing the concepts of peace and religious freedom.

Chagall’s “America Windows” are famous in their own right, but are perhaps best known for their brief appearance in the John Hughes’ movie, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” The windows serve as the background for a tender scene between teenage lovers Ferris Bueller and his girlfriend Sloan Peterson. In an interview, Hughes said  the scene at the Art Institute of Chicago is “indulgent” and that he “used it as an opportunity to go back and show all of his favorite pieces.”  Chagall does something very similar with this piece by visiting three concepts of the American Dream.

The first panel dives into Chicago’s rich history as a hub for rhythm & blues. People playing instruments as well as floating guitars and fiddles are depicted in the blue glowing panes of the first window. The radiant history of the city warms the heart, reminding Chicagoans of their rich background of soulful melodies in the homeland of the blues.

Chicago natives take great pride in their history, and it is perfectly captured here through Chagall’s work. The music and soul of artists such as Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters are captured within this panel. The blues is spiritual music. “We’re on a mission from God,” is the mantra for Jake and Elwood Blues to get their band back together to prevent their church from closing. Cathedral-style windows are perfect for encompassing the spirituality of blues music, a smart decision on Chagall’s part.

The second panel illustrates the unity and peace found within the multiple neighborhoods of the city. A giant dove surrounded by olive branches watches over the city day and night. The panel also serves as a prayer for the city. After the passing of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1976, many people in the city were left in a state of mourning. The figure on the left side of the pane lights a candle in remembrance of the late, great Chicago mayor.

Finally, the third panel symbolizes the importance of religious freedom in America. An angel-like figure, menorah and rose window are shown along with immigrants of different backgrounds celebrating as they are literally thrown into “the great American melting pot.” References to Christianity and Judaism are important to note because of Chagall’s Jewish faith and his extensive work in cathedral windows.

Chagall’s windows are significant because they tell the story of us. They unify not only Chicagoans, but also America.  They continue to glow and exude a rich tapestry that helped make our country what it is today. Created by a Jewish immigrant, they are the quintessence of the American Dream. Nearly every American citizen can relate to coming from a family of immigrants trying to build a life for themselves in the land of opportunity.