A new book captures the little-known chapel designed by French painter Henri Matisse
In 1943, Henri Matisse relocated from Nice to Vence. It changed his life. His final decade, when his work got bigger, bolder, simpler and simultaneously more playful and more archetypal, was characterised by a growing religious sensibility. In 1947, he began to work Chapel of the Rosary in Vence for a local group of 20 Dominican nuns.
Matisse was no architect, though he turned this to his advantage and re-imagined the Vence chapel as a vast three-dimensional painting, where his materials encompassed light, glass, marble, wood and ceramics. Glinting blue roof tiles contrast with the bright white exterior in the southern French sunlight. Within, the nuns’ choir is to the north, facing a large ceramic tile image of St Dominic across the imposing, diagonally placed altar. The congregation occupies the space between the tree of life stained-glass window and the Way of the Cross ceramic mural. Matisse’s interpretation of the 14 stations is abbreviated and tumultuous, with each of the images’ black angular forms jostling against one another.
The new book on the Vence chapel, dedicated to Vence’s Dominican nuns, includes a wealth of sketches and models. This tells us much about Matisse’s process, which moved from economical naturalistic forms towards a far more minimal and fragmented execution. The sense of struggle and precariousness in Matisse’s sketch of the Descent from the Cross, which he based on his study of Peter Paul Rubens’ Descent in Antwerp Cathedral, becomes a tangle of overlapping black lines barely but sufficiently articulating limbs and expressing profound grief.
Matisse’s chapel at Vence is a simple architectural space enlivened by the coloured rays of light cast by his bold stained glass
It’s likely that design for the Vence chapel was inspired by medieval Dominican churches in north-eastern France, which feature high walls deeply pierced by closely grouped narrow lancets. At Vence, the chapel’s rhythmic windows symbolise the prayerful cycles of the rosary. The chapel is not merely dedicated to the rosary, it is an architectural rosary encircling its occupants. Close attention to materials oscillated between luxuriant surfaces and sparse simplicity. Carrara marble floors offer a luminous canvas for what Matisse called ‘the music of the light reflections’ from the stained glass arrayed in bold washes of colour.
Marie-Alain Couturier, the editor of L’Art Sacré who included Matisse in his circle of modern artists and architects sympathetic to enlivening Catholic spaces with innovative design, believed that the best art and architecture was always the ‘fruit of uncontrollable spontaneities’. Vence itself needs to be seen in relation to other modern churches undertaken within the growing liturgical movement propelled by L’Art Sacré, including Corb’s Ronchamp and the interiors decorated by Matisse, Léger and Chagall at Plateau D’Assy.
Another Dominican impacted Matisse still further. Matisse met Monique Bourgeois several years before she became a nun; Bourgeois was his model and nurse, and they developed a close friendship. When she entered convent life as Jacques-Marie in the mid-40s, Matisse continued to write to her despite the ban on communicating with those beyond the convent during her novitiate.
Matisse saw an affinity between her cloistered life and his art work. ‘I live with my forces directed towards that same spiritual horizon,’ he wrote. ‘My effort differs from yours only in appearance.’ The chapel’s interior is dominated by the inky outlines of three figures: the image of St Dominic was modelled on Marie-Alain Couturier, and the Virgin and Child was inspired by Jacques-Marie. Two modern Dominicans, both of whom made such a deep impression upon Matisse’s beliefs and art making, were memorialised and located within a wider Christian narrative. The book’s texts are interspersed with excellent photography. The images sing with colour, showing Matisse’s palette at its boldest.
The rich stained glass is an example of Matisse’s palette at its boldest
The book’s author, Marie-Thérèse Pulvenis de Séligny, has curated the Matisse Museum since 1997, and her understanding of the chapel at Vence is evidently deep and intricate. At times the publication lacks scholarly complexity and it could have been more responsive to current architectural historical research; Pulvenis de Séligny could have gone further into Matisse’s connections with L’Art Sacré and Couturier in particular, about which there is ample evidence but whose story remains to be fully told.
It concludes with a useful chronology of Matisse’s work from 1930 and the images really are spectacular; his collages in bright hues on a large scale dominate the final years, and it’s valuable for Matisse specialists and enthusiasts to situate these familiar works from Jazz to his Barnes Foundation mural La Danse alongside the Vence project. The next time you visit Tate Modern, find Matisse’s Snail. Its suggestive dynamism, and inviting simplicity bear close comparison with Matisse’s sacred art at Vence.