Art of the Day

30 Mar

matisse chapelmatisse chapel 2

Vence. Chapel of the Rosary. Interior view, Altar &  Tree of Life. by Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Stained glass, 1950-51. In Vence, France.

Notes from

The Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence (Chapel of the Rosary), often referred to as the Matisse Chapel or the Vence Chapel, is a small chapel built for Dominican nuns in the town of Vence on the French Riviera. It was built and decorated between 1949 and 1951 under a plan devised by Henri Matisse.It houses a number of Matisse originals and was regarded by Matisse himself as his “masterpiece.” While the simple white exterior has drawn mixed reviews from casual observers, many regard it as one of the great religious structures of the 20th century.


In 1941, Matisse, who lived most of the year in Nice in the south of France, developed cancer and underwent surgery. During the long recovery he was particularly helped by a young part-time nurse, Monique Bourgeois, who had answered his ad seeking “a young and pretty nurse”[3] and who took care of Matisse with great tenderness. Matisse asked her to pose for him, which she did, and several drawings and paintings exist. In 1943 Monique decided to enter the Dominican convent in Vence, a nearby hill town to Nice, and she became Sister Jacques-Marie. Matisse eventually bought a home at Vence, not far from the convent where the young nun was stationed. She visited him and told him of the plans the Dominicans had to build a chapel beside the girls’ high school which they operated in Vence. She asked Matisse if he would help with the design of the chapel. He had never done anything like it, but Matisse agreed to help, beginning in 1947. Father Marie-Alain Couturier, who collaborated on several artistic Catholic churches after World War II, was also involved in the project.

At the age of 77, Matisse began the greatest project of his life and spent more than 4 years working on the chapel, its architecture, its stained glass windows, its interior furnishings, its murals, and the vestments of the priests. It is perhaps the greatest ensemble artwork of the 20th century, and certainly the greatest religious commission. While Matisse had been baptized a Catholic, he had not practiced the religion for many years. He designed the chapel as an artistic challenge.

The story of the friendship and collaboration of Matisse and Sister Jacques Marie is related in her 1992 book Henri Matisse: La Chapelle de Vence and in the 2003 documentary Model for Matisse.Sister Jacques Marie died in 2004, aged 84.


The chapel is built on a hillside and one enters by descending a flight of stairs, and then turning to the right. The chapel is in an L shape, with the longer portion directly inside the door. The altar is placed at an angle where the two legs of the L join. The chapel is 15 meters long by 6 meters wide. The longer/larger segment is for the students or townspeople; the shorter section was for the nuns who lived and taught at the school. Both sides face the altar.


The altar is made of warm brown stone, chosen for its resemblance to the color of bread and the Eucharist. Matisse also designed the bronze crucifix on the altar, the candle holders in bronze, and the small tabernacle. The wrought iron candle holder with a flame always burning and hanging from the ceiling was made by local craftsmen who have a special tradition of making wrought iron.

Stained glass windows

There are three sets of stained glass windows, upon which Matisse spent a great deal of time. All three sets make use of just three colors: an intense yellow for the sun, an intense green for vegetation and cactus forms, and a vivid blue for the Mediterranean Sea, the Riviera sky and the Madonna. The two windows beside the altar are named the “Tree of Life,” but the forms are abstract. The color from the windows floods the interior of the chapel, which is otherwise all white.

My comments:

We talked about these stained glass pieces in my Modern Art class last week, and I had never seen them before and was never aware that Matisse had made them. I knew that towards the end of his life he started to make collages of very simple shapes that were reminiscent of the arabesque line he used to paint women and still lifes earlier in his career, but I did not know that he made stained glass. I do, however, really like these artworks by Matisse; I like them much more than a lot of the paintings he made at the height of his career. While the design of these stained glass pieces is very simple, and seems easy enough  to execute that an amateur who knew how to make stained glass could make them, I think that they are deceptively simple. I wouldn’t have thought this a few months ago, before I had started my Foundation Drawing class, but after actually being in practice with drawing, I realize that even the figures and objects that seem the easiest to draw can actually be incredibly difficult. Even when you don’t have to worry about shading and trying to create the illusion of three-dimensionality, drawing only lines by themselves in purely two-dimensional planes is a very difficult endeavor. So I appreciate very much what Matisse accomplished in terms of its formal difficulty. But besides that, I think the design as an intellectual creation is also wonderful. It is quite different from the kind of art we’re used to seeing in Christian sacred spaces, but I like it a lot because it is so refreshing and unusual. It is also very relaxing and simple enough to free the mind to meditate and move into a state of contemplative worship, and so  I really appreciate the practical utility of the artwork as well.


One Response to “Art of the Day”

  1. tara March 30, 2013 at 12:59 pm #


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