From a Master of Color, the Light of Faith

August 20, 2012

Chapelle du Rosaire des Dominicaines de Vence
Recently, the Wall Street Journal published an article on one of the most famous modern Dominican chapels in Europe, the Chapel of the Rosary of the Dominican Sisters of Vence in France.  What makes the chapel famous is not its ornate beauty, like that other great French Church, the Cathedral in Chartres.  Rather, the chapel is famous because its designer was one of France’s most famous modern artists, Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse.  Although decidedly modern, the chapel has been described as “arguably the greatest religious art and architecture project of the 20th century.” The article tells first the circumstances that led to the building of the chapel:

While recovering his health in 1943, Matisse had hired a young nurse who four years later became a novitiate in the Dominican Sisters of Monteil. Once, Sister Jacque-Marie mentioned to Matisse her order’s dream of a new chapel. Four years later, the Chapelle du Rosaire des Dominicaines de Vence, perched above the French Mediterranean coast, was consecrated by the local bishop. In a statement read at the occasion, Matisse wrote, “I consider it my masterpiece.”

Although the interior is rather plain in comparison to previous Catholic architectural styles, it is the windows of the chapel that draw the greatest attention.  The article describes their beauty and Matisse’s inspiration for them:

Matisse’s stained-glass windows are the center and glory of the chapel. There are two tall windows behind the altar, and another set of 15 windows divided into two groupings—six along the nave; nine placed behind the sisters’ stalls in an area adjacent to the sanctuary. For all of them, Matisse drew from the text of Revelation 21-22 and its description of the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem. His two sanctuary windows present the Tree of Life, with plantlike forms and geometric shapes. The other windows, with upward reaching leaves, continue this imagery—with the nave and stall windows creating what Matisse called “a garden behind a colonnade.” At the same time, these 15 extended forms recall the lancet windows of medieval churches, albeit with rounded tips.

As a product of a Catholic culture, even though influenced by modernity in art, Matisse was attentive to the details of Catholic iconography and spiritual practice.  As a chapel for the use of the Dominican sisters, Matisse appreciated the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the life of the Order, as well as the place of the Rosary.

Across the nave from the tall windows is an image of the Virgin presenting the Christ Child to the world—the infant standing on her lap with his arms extended, both to embrace the faithful and to foreshadow the Crucifixion. The word “AVE,” or the “Hail Mary” of the Rosary prayers, is at the upper left, a connection underscored by the 11 flowers (the number of the post-Resurrection disciples) that surround the figures: Legend says that Mary’s flower garland was the first rosary strand. Medieval images often represent Mary and the Christ Child in a hortus conclusus, or enclosed garden, like the setting suggested here and one most appropriate for the sisters’ gatherings for their liturgical Hours.

To see the entire article, visit the webpage of the Wall Street Journal Online.

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