The Matisse Chapel.
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 proposed by Henri
. 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
Matisse, who lived most of the year in Nice in the south
of France, developed
cancer and underwent surgery.
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" 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
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
, he had not practiced the religion
for many years. He designed the chapel as an artistic
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
(ISBN 2909767000) and in the 2003
documentary Model for Matisse
. Sister Jacques Marie died
in 2004, aged 84.
The Architecture of the Chapel
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
Furnishings of the Chapel
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.
Three Great Murals
For the walls, Matisse designed three great murals to be made by
painting on white tiles with black paint and then firing the large
sections of tile. Each tile measures 12 in.2
was so crippled with ailments by this time that he could only work
from a wheelchair, and he had a long stick with a brush strapped to
his arm and pieces of construction paper placed on the wall. He
then drew the images, which were transferred to tiles by skilled
Behind the altar is a large image of St.
, founder of the Order of
and by tradition founder of the practice of the
rosary for Catholics. He was a 13th century wandering preacher from
His followers wear a white garment, or
habit, with a panel hanging straight down the front. The simplest
but most powerful of lines was created by Matisse to depict the
Virgin and Child
On the side wall there are abstract images of flowers and an image
of the Madonna and Child, all created in black outlines on the
white tiles. Rather than clasping the child to herself, as she is
usually depicted, Matisse chose to show Mary offering her son to
the whole world.
Stations of the Cross
On the back wall of the chapel are the traditional 14 stations of
the cross. Although the 14 stations are usually depicted
individually, Matisse incorporated all of them on one wall in one
cohesive composition. The series begins at the bottom left as
is brought before Pilate
and condemned. The stations follow Jesus'
progress carrying the cross. At the top in the center are the three
most powerful images - The Raising of the Cross with Jesus' body
nailed to it, the actual Crucifixion
and then Taking the Body of Jesus Down. The center panel has a
straight vertical and horizontal composition, while the two
surrounding stations have strong diagonal lines leading to the head
of Jesus on the cross.
Sets of Vestments
Matisse also designed the priests' vestments for the chapel, using
the traditional ecclesiastical colors of the religious seasons:
purple, black, pink/rose, green, and red. The Pope requested that the nuns send the vestments to
Rome to be put in the Vatican's new museum
of modern religious art.
The nuns made copies of five of the
sets of vestments, including chasuble, maniple, stole, and covering
of the chalice, and sent them to Rome.
Remainder of Chapel Area
The outside of the chapel is white. The top of the roof is
decorated with a blue-and-white zigzag pattern and carries an
elaborate metal cross with a bell.
There is a small gift shop associated with the chapel where
visitors may purchase postcards and other mementos of the chapel;
income goes to support the nuns and the chapel. There are also two
doors in carved wood, designed by Matisse, for the confessionals.
Along the hallway to the gift shop are photos of Matisse designing
the chapel. There are also some of Matisse's original sketches for
the Stations and vestments.
Maquettes for all the vestments made, as well as for a number never
actualized, were made by Matisse on brown wrapping paper and black
construction paper. They can be seen in the Pompidou Center in Paris.
The high school has been closed for a number of years, and only a
few elderly nuns still live there.
- http://www.bartleby.com/65/ma/Matisse.html , website, accessed
July 30, 2006
website, accessed July 30, 2006
- French Professor Directs "Model for Matisse",
Carnegie Mellon Today, 30 June 2003
- Billot, Marcel, ed.; "Henri Matisse: The Vence Chapel, The
Archive of a Creation," (Skira:1999)