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Matisse and the ChapeL of the Rosary

by Father John O'Brien, OFM

Henri Matisse (1869 -1954) was a French artist, known for his use of colour and original draughtsmanship. He was also a draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor. He is regarded, along with Picasso, as one of the artists who defined developments in the visual arts throughout the opening decades of the twentieth century. Towards the end of his life, he suffered from cancer. He experienced kindness from a nurse, Monique Bourgeois. He was forever grateful for her kindness. Monique suffered from tuberculosis and after her recovery she became a nun, becoming Sister Jacques Marie. She lived in a convent in Vence, in the south of France, where Matisse lived.

She asked Matisse to help with the building and decoration of the convent chapel. He agreed out of gratitude for the kindness he received from Monique. Her superior did not agree initially. She considered Matisse an atheist, but Monique and Matisse won out.

Matisse threw himself into the work, designing every detail: stained glass windows, flooring, wall decorations, lighting, and even the priests' robes. He was aged seventy-seven at this stage. The"Chapelle de la Rosarie" (Chapel of the Rosary) opened in 1951. Matisse regarded it as his best work.

On the back wall of the Chapel are the traditional fourteen Stations of the Cross. Matisse placed all of the statues into one cohesive composition. The series begins at the bottom where we see Jesus condemned. The stations follow Jesus' progress carrying the cross. At the top in the centre are the three most powerful images - the raising of the Cross, the Crucifixion, and then the taking down of the body and laying it in the tomb.

As one leaves the statues and faces the altar one enters the light. Matisse designed the stained glass windows and the colours in them. They catch the light and bathe the church in light. This symbolizes the tree of life and the new life of the resurrection. Matisse used an intense yellow for the sun, an intense green for vegetation, and a vivid blue for the Mediterranean sea, the Riviera sky and the Madonna. Matisse regarded the Rosary Chapel as his best work. These colours flood the whole chapel with light. The chapel is, otherwise, all white.

Matisse regarded the chapel as the crowning achievement of his whole career. There is a sense of stillness, life, and serenity in the space Matisse created. In placing the 'Tree of Life' stained glass window opposite the scenes of the stations, Matisse affirms that new life can come from suffering. The sunlight comes through and glows. His material here is light. All his life Matisse had tried to create a calmness and serenity in his art and here he achieved it. He himself was in need of peace and here he found it. He shares this peace with others who come into the chapel.

Alistair Sooke made a series of documentaries for the BBC called "Masters of the Modern Era': In his program on Matisse, he goes to the Rosary Chapel at Vence. This was his first time seeing it. He related to Matisse's quest for peace. Everybody has times of anguish and doubt. He found himself kneeling in front of the altar and the stained glass window behind him. He felt a feeling of peace and was quite moved by the experience. He felt overcome by the beauty. Matisse was asked, "Did he believe in God?" His answer was "Yes when I paint." With the Chapelle du Rosaire (the Chapel of the Rosary) his work was done.

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