An atheist and a modern artist walks into a convent.
(Note: many photos have been removed from this post because copyright law is arcane and incomprehensible.)
Did you know that Henri Matisse designed a church once? It’s true! Near the end of his life, Henri Matisse helped a group of Dominican sisters build a chapel in the town of Vence, in southeastern France.
Matisse was diagnosed with cancer in 1941. Around this time, due to his illness, he stopped painting and began composing works of cutout paper. (They are more interesting than they sound.)
His nurse became a close friend, and later entered the Dominican convent at Vence. She asked if he would help with the design for a new chapel at the convent, and so it was that the most famous artist of the era, an atheist, collaborated on la Chapelle du Rosaire.
In order to make sense of what we are about to see, it might help to look at a selection of Matisse’s works through his career.
I know that we are entering “My two year-old could do that!” territory, but there are a few things we can notice here. The first is that Matisse was always pushing the envelope artistically. Over the course of his life, we see his work get more and more sparse. We don’t have to pretend that it is the most incredible, breathtaking, moving art in world history, but we can see that he was doing some pretty interesting experiments with form and contours and drawing as little detail as possible.
Now do this fun little exercise. Stop here for a second, close your eyes, and try to envision what this chapel is going to look like. Go ahead, give it a try.
Okay, ready? Here it is.
Well, what do you think?
I suspect it would be easy to just go “BLAH, I DON’T LIKE IT” but let’s suppress that urge for a moment. Matisse designed nearly everything inside the church, down to the brass candlesticks. The figure depicted behind the altar is St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican order. The drawings are on a glazed tile that reflects the light that comes through the stained glass windows.
On the rear wall of the chapel, all fourteen Stations of the Cross are combined in one single composition. Although it seems disjointed and jumbled at first, note that the path of the stations forms a continuous line, almost like the path up to Calvary.
On another wall, there is a mural of the Virgin Mother offering her Son to the world.
The stained glass windows were designed by Matisse, too. You can clearly see how these would have been designed first with paper cutouts. I found this in a Wall Street Journal article:
For an artist long held as a master of color, the windows’ palette of only three hues—yellow, green and blue—may seem restrictive; but Matisse planned on the complementaries of red, orange and purple being cast by the filtered light’s shadows, even testing this effect in his studio. Matisse’s colors provide a corresponding Christian iconography, with yellow a symbol of the sun and heavenly light; green of plant life and the earth; and blue of the sky, the sea and the Madonna.
That’s pretty cool.
Check out the distinctive L-shaped plan of the chapel. The smaller section in the background was reserved for the nuns in the convent; the larger part in the foreground was open to the public.
Matisse also designed custom vestments for this chapel, which we will examine in another post. At the end of his life, he regarded his work for the Dominican sisters as the best work of his life. What do you think of the Vence Chapel? Whether or not we think the results are beautiful, or even appropriate, it is fascinating to see how a successful secular artist — and a professed atheist, although I’m not so sure — approached liturgical art.
Header image by Flickr user avilasal, used under CC 2.0 license.