Chapelle du Rosaire

It was a journey down memory lane, because forty years ago, in 1972, we stopped our combi outside what is more often called the Matisse Chapel and persuaded a nun to let us see the place, (“We’ve come six thousand miles”) even though she had closed for the day.  This time it was different – three bus rides and a stroll through Vence, here where the novelist D..H. Lawrence died in 1930.  Soon, I was there, together with two busloads of tourists.

The Chapel is as we left it – marvellous.  Somehow it feels smaller than the photographs I have seen on the internet, probably because they fill the space with chairs.  It is, after all, a chapel for the Dominican nuns.  And it is the light – Matisse’s la lumiere – that sets this place, as a sacred site, apart from  others.  The windows are celebrations of blue, of green, of yellow, their designs distant from traditional Christian iconography.  Above the simple solid altar is the first thing you see as you enter – The Tree of Life – a twin stained glass window with the blue background looking like a drape carrying the happy abundance of oak leaf motifs in yellow.  To your left are floor-to-ceiling windows with plain leaf motifs.  These motifs give a vitality and make spirituality multi-coloured.  The place glows.  That was his intention.

Matisse designed this place, with the help of architects, and gave it its character from the mid-1940s to 1951, when it was consecrated.  What intrigues me now, apart from this “most uncluttered space”, as one commentator put it, is the circumstances in which it happened.  Matisse had been well-known for a number of decades.
Matisse and the nun

In 1942, as war raged in Europe, he was operated on in Lyons and settled in St-Paul-De-Vence to recover.  At the time he advertised for a nurse, the requirement being that she be “young and pretty”.  The woman who responded has entered the annals of fame because she, as an amateur artist, was instrumental in the concept of the Chapel.  At that time too, she became a nun, having been a model for Matisse.  As time went by the media made much of the relationship and the truth has disappeared in the haze above St-Paul-De-Vence… He died in 1954 and she died in 2005 with many people wondering what else the Chapel, a small magnificence, stands for.

It is interesting too, that his friend, Pablo Picasso, living in Les Remparts, Antibes, at the time, was critical of the idea of the Chapel.  “Do you believe this stuff?” was Picasso’s challenge.  Matisse must have made some reply to this, but his own feeling is summed up in the words “For all its imperfections, this Chapel is for me the achievement of a life’s work”.

He was a dying man and, confined to a wheelchair, did some of the images on the tiled walls with a paintbrush fixed to the end of a long stick.  The illustrations that make up the fourteen Stations of the Cross are broken, revised, rough.  His intention for the Chapel was for himself as much as for anyone standing there in that fresh radiance:

I want those who enter my chapel 

to feel purified and relieved of their burdens.

Will van der Walt ©

Mardi  26 Juin 2012

Images Sources:,,


Comment Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: