Today we took the bus up into the hills to the small hilltop town of St Paul de Vence (1€ ticket!) to visit the Maeght Foundation and then on to Vence to see the Chapel du Rosaire, designed by Matisse.
The Chapel of the Rosary is a small chapel built for Dominican nuns in Vence. It was designed and decorated by Matisse between 1949 and 1951 and houses a number of Matisse originals. Matisse himself regarded the Chapel as his masterpiece.
In 1941, Matisse, who lived most of the year in Nice in the south of France, developed cancer and underwent surgery. During the long recovery he was particularly helped by Monique Bourgeois, who had responded to his advertisement 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, and she became Sister Jacques-Marie.
Matisse eventually bought a home at Vence, not far from the convent. She visited him and told him of the plans the Dominicans had to build a chapel in Vence. She asked Matisse if he would help with the design of the chapel. Though he had never done anything like it, but Matisse agreed to help, beginning in 1947.
There are three sets of stained glass windows, making use of just three colours: 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 colour from the windows floods the interior of the chapel, which is otherwise all white.
For the walls, Matisse designed three great murals made by painting on white tiles with black paint and then firing the large sections of tile. Behind the altar is a large image of St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Dominicans.
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. 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.
Matisse also designed the priests’ vestments for the chapel, using the traditional ecclesiastical colors of the religious seasons: purple, black, rose, green, and red.
Postscript: here’s a moving extract from the BBC Modern Masters series in 2010, in which Alastair Sooke visits the Chapelle du Rosaire.