Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed, with its imagery of a seed growing into a plant big enough for birds to perch in, is often seen as foretelling the growth of Christianity. Arguably the greatest religious art and architecture project of the 20th century, Henri Matisse’s Chapel of the Rosary, provides another reading.
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.”
Planned principally for the sisters’ daily prayers, the chapel is modest. Yet it is replete with Matisse’s glorious creations, from the images on walls and the vestments worn by the clergy, to the altar and its liturgical objects.
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.
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.
When the chapel’s “official” architect—hired for practical purposes, while Matisse and two clerics, Father Marie-Alain Couturier and Brother Louis-Bertrand Rayssiguier, created the actual design—suggested supplementing the stained-glass with neon lighting, Matisse rejected this idea, saying this would cause the church to resemble “store windows.” In Christian architecture since the Romanesque era, natural light and candlelight have been seen as the symbolic presence of the Divine.
To receive this symbolic light, the artist designed interior spaces limited to white tiles featuring spare, linear images. These pieces were fired with a glaze that reflects and enhances the natural, color-filled illumination.
The sanctuary is commanded by a towering figure of St. Dominic, the patron saint of the sisters’ order, who was said to have been given a rosary by the Madonna, thus making those prayers the center of Dominican practices. Matisse’s model was Father Couturier wearing his cowl.
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. Matisse, who admired medieval art, had earlier lived in Paris only a few blocks from the Cluny Museum, with its fabled Unicorn Tapestries. Their rich woven fields of plants and flowers spread out around a center image are echoed in Vence, especially when the multicolored dappled light falls on Matisse’s AVE picture.
The walls’ somber notes are provided by the Stations of the Cross, which Matisse placed directly opposite the altar’s Tree of Life window, perhaps acknowledging medieval texts that held that the wood of Christ’s Cross had come from the Tree of Life in Paradise. For this Passion series, Matisse turned to Old Master paintings; for example, the Station I image of Christ before Pilate borrows from a work by the Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna.
Matisse participated in virtually every detail of the project, creating the interconnection of elements sometimes called a church’s Holy Fabric. His work included both the altar’s simple shapes made of a brownish, porous stone—to suggest the bread of the Eucharist—and the liturgical objects upon it: a crucifix and six candlesticks, and the tabernacle and the ciborium used to hold communion bread. Matisse also designed the vestments, planning each of the half-dozen different chasubles in one of the six church-appointed ecclesiastical colors for Seasons and Holy Days.
Before and after its June 25, 1951, consecration, Matisse’s chapel was sometimes disparaged. But praise won out. Pope Pius XII requested a set of the chasubles for the Vatican, and soon so many visitors began coming as to require restricted open hours to preserve the chapel’s—and Matisse’s—intended purpose of serving the sisters. Amusing—and telling—was the story of an English tourist asking directions to “the chapel of St. Matisse.”
As for the artist, Matisse said that “I wanted to create a spiritual space.”
—Mr. Carmean is an art historian and a canon in the Episcopal Church.