Vence, Chapelle du Rosaire

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Dominican convent oratory located outside Vence, about 25 miles from Nice in southern France; designed with all its appointments by the painter, Henri matisse. The cornerstone was laid Dec. 12, 1949 and the chapel consecrated June 25, 1951. Serving the nuns who conduct a convalescent home for girls, it stands almost opposite the villa where Matisse lived (194349).

Matisse considered this chapel a representative result of his "entire active life" and humbly presented it, considering it, "in spite of its imperfections," to be his "masterpiece" (message to Bp. Rémond on the day of dedication). His aims were clearly those of an artist; it was for him "the ultimate goal of a whole life of work" whose principal aim "was to balance a surface of light and color against a solid white wall covered with black drawings" (statement in Chapelle du Rosaire , 1951, as quoted in Barr, 288).

Sister Jacques, novice at Vence, who prior to religious life was nurse to Matisse at Nice, interested him in the project when she brought window designs for him to see; from his interest in the windows grew the idea that he design the chapel. Brother L. B. Rayssiguier, Dominican novice and architect who had come to Vence for his health, joined Matisse in his interest and supplied liturgical and architectural knowledge to the project; A. perret, the architect, became a consultant. Working for four years (194751) on models, drawings, and careful articulation of details, even the vestments, Matisse achieved a unique chapel, a kind of painter's architecture.

A nuns' choir, separate from the nave for the laity, required an L-shaped plan, with the altar at the intersection of the arms of the L, so that the celebrant might face diagonally toward both congregations. The chapel is small; nearly 17 feet high, and 50 feet long, and about 35 feet at its greatest width.

The decoration of the chapel is concentrated in the stained glass of the groups of full-length windows in the sanctuary and in the south wall of choir and nave, and in the large black-and-white glazed tile pictures on the walls opposite the windows. For the stained glass, Matisse was inspired by Revelation (21.19, 21): "And the foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every precious stone and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass." His designs are based on a tree-of-life pattern, made up of brilliant yellow and blue leaves on a green ground rising at the top to a golden segment representing the sun. The tile pictures are drawn with the greatest economy of line: a huge St. Dominic towers above the altar, a Virgin and Child is set slightly off-center amid a decoration of flowerlike clouds, and on the end wall of the nave the Stations of the Cross are arranged in a narrative sequence, starting at the bottom and reading upward, recalling the medieval form of continuous representation, and rendered in a tense, nervous shorthand of jagged strokes. All the faces are left blank, so that the spectator is free to see the face of God, the Virgin, St. Dominic, Victim, mourners, and executioners, in his own imagination. Matisse also designed the elongated and simplified altar crucifix, several brilliantly colorful chasubles, and altar linen embroidered with fishes. The outside of the chapel is plain white, with blue tile decoration on the roof, which is crowned with a thin spirelike cross with a bell below it. In its simplicity, in the light and color glowing like jewels on the white of the walls and marble floor, in its insistence on meaning and content rather than on surface decoration, Vence joins ronchamp, assy, and coventry as one of the few works of moving religious art created in this century.

Bibliography: a. h. barr, Matisse: His Art and His Public (New York 1951) 279288, 514527. Les Chapelles du Rosaire à Vence par Matisse et de Notre-Dame-du-Haut à Ronchamp par Le Corbusier, ed. m. a. couturier et al. (Paris 1955).

[l. murray]