Spiritual space in twentieth-century chapel designs

Interior of The Rosary Chapel, Vence

Space, artist and a spiritual experience verging on the sublime: a relationship that has been well analysed throughout history. For many, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel celling has provided a backdrop for elevating the religious experience provided by the Vatican. Five centuries later, artists continue to strive for the evocation of transcendental experience through their art. Henri Matisse and Mark Rothko are two such artists: both working in the 20th century, their work for chapels has arguably gone beyond the realm of providing a backdrop to a religious ritual.

Commissioned by Dominican nuns, Matisse’s designs for The Rosary Chapel in Vence, France, take the form of stained glass windows and wall murals. Three sets of stained glass adorn the sides of the chapel, each restricted to a colour palette of yellow, green and blue. Light streams through the windows overwhelming this space, entrapping the visitor in a multi-coloured haze. The prevalence of the triad as a subtle reference to the Holy Trinity is present in the simple, line draw murals also. St. Dominic, the Virgin and Child, and the Stations of the Cross fill the remaining space, reminding the visitor of the Rosary Chapel’s status as a religious building.

Over twenty years later, the American abstract artist Mark Rothko received a similar commission. Providing Rothko with free rein, the Houston philanthropists Dominique and John de Menil enabled the artist to go far beyond creating artwork as a backdrop to the religious interior as Rothko’s set of fourteen brooding panels in their octagonal environment have become a major work of modern art. The de Menil’s had visited Matisse’s chapel in the summer of 1952 when the Rosary Chapel had just been consecrated. Writing of her experience Mrs de Menil stated: “… We saw what a master could do for a religious building when he is given a free hand. He can exalt and uplift as no one else.”

Interior of the Rothko Chapel, Houston

Rothko as a choice to ‘exult and uplift’ may seem surprising, given the fact that, from the late 1960s, he slipped into depression following a diagnosis of a mild aortic aneurysm in ‘68, and a year later separation from his wife. Likewise, it is tragic that Rothko committee suicide prior to the full installation of his masterpiece. Consequently, the chapel has a lasting legacy of his presence as an artist, and his personal struggle with the complexities of the human condition. The panels themselves — purple rectangular shapes suspended in fields of another shade of purple — initially appear as simplistic compositions, avoiding challenging the viewer with the issue of content. Yet as one looks deeper into the purple abstract forms, one loses oneself in a moment of meditation in search of something that lies beyond the initial façade.

By surrounding the visitor to the Rothko chapel with this evocation, one comes to meditate on the meaning of life, and challenging our own assumptions of life after death. The chapel itself, initially intended to be a space for Catholic worship, actually became non-denominational, and religious books varying from the Qur’an to the Christian Bible can be found accessible to visitors, suggesting a desire for cross-religious unity in challenging such philosophical questions.

By contrast, Matisse’s chapel remains entrenched in the Catholic tradition, its aura one of contentment and joy rather than troubling gloom. Matisse’s work was also produced towards the end of his life; but whilst Rothko expressed his melancholy at the prospect of the end through his art, Matisse does not, despite having endured life-threatening surgery in 1941. Matisse embraced life, altered his art accordingly to suit his newly disabled state, and progressed joyfully, producing some of his most optimistic works of art — the Rosary Chapel’s stained glass windows and their transformative effect upon the chapel space undoubtedly among these.

In both cases, the art has always been at one with its spiritual space for which it was designed. The visitor is simultaneously the viewer: they view the work of art through the lens of spirituality, and conversely their spiritual activity and experience is tainted in differing ways according to the form of the artworks surrounding them. The chapel as a space for these experiences and feelings ultimately challenges our personal notion of the spiritual and the way in which art can dictate spiritual experience.

(Published in the Oxford University, Edgar Wind Society for Art History Journal, Trinity Term 2014)

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