Sunday 7 August 2016

Matisse's Chapel: La Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence by Adèle Geras

This is the long, long hill leading  from the centre of Vence,  in the South of France up to the Chapelle du Rosaire which Matisse worked on very near the end of his life, between 1949 and 1951. It was built for Dominican nuns and is considered one of the world's great religious buildings.  There are easier ways to reach the Chapel, and indeed on our way back, the walk had almost no slopes at all. But from where we were in the town we could see it, up on the hill opposite which didn't look a long way at all. 

Those who know me know that I am no athlete. I am also not young. Still, I walked up that hill and felt at the end as if I'd achieved something to be proud of. I was then forbidden by my daughter from ever attempting such a climb again....I must have been very red in the face and she must have feared I'd keel right over. But I didn't....I was simply a bit out of breath for a minute or two.

 I did a quiz once where the question was: Matisse or Picasso? I've never had any hesitation in choosing Matisse and if there were only one artist allowed to me, I'd choose him, for many reasons. I love his colours. I love his subjects. I love his versatility. I love the way that when he couldn't do one kind of art, he did another. I love his longevity. Above all, I love the fact that looking at Matisse ALWAYS makes you feel happy.  And towards the end of his life, he made the Chapelle du Rosaire which is an extraordinary place. 

No one is allowed to take photos within the Chapel. I bought postcards which I've photographed to give some idea, but really, they are woefully inadequate. I have no religious faith whatsoever but readers of this blog will know that even though I'm Jewish, I am very fond indeed of cathedrals, chapels and the like. I've often wondered about this, and come to the conclusion that it's because those who do believe made these places for everyone to be calm in; to think in; to express their deepest wishes in; to mourn in; to rejoice in and for that reason they devoted to them the very best that their handiwork could devise.  And buildings on which time and care and talent have been lavished retain the resulting beauty forever. 

The work on the Chapel wasn't easy. From the guidebook I bought, I learned that someone called Father Couturier writes :"the hundreds of preparatory drawings, the endless new restarts, the anguish of sleepless nights."

There is no hint of the sleepless nights, nor of the anguish when you walk into the Chapel. It's the very embodiment of serenity. The enormous blue and yellow stained glass windows spill light on to the white floor.  The guide book says: "Each of the windows is in the form of a curtain drawn across a yellow background. On the two southern windows, the layout of the yellow and blue leaves on a green background gives a surface proportionate to the rays of light." 
Just sitting in the Chapel for a short time is restorative and truly lifts the spirits. The simplicity is striking. Everything is the opposite of ornate. There is nothing dark anywhere to be seen. The silence is healing, until another band of tourists appears and about a dozen people take their places in the pews, but even then, even with the modern phenomenon of more and more people getting to more and more places, peace and harmony  conquer all. The beauty is so present everywhere that it makes no difference whether there are crowds of tourists there or not. Tranquillity like this is undisturbable.

The black and white murals on the walls are painted on tiles measuring a foot across. You can see their vague outlines in the postcard. Matisse was too ill by that time to do the actual painting on the high walls himself, but he had a team of skilled workers who transferred his painted drawings on paper to the tiles on the wall.

The nuns were a little disconcerted at first about the depiction of Our Lady's naked breast, but in the end, they came to love  this mural too.  Those clouds, or flowers around the figures look like the sort of thing a child might easily draw and they give the mural a  quality of innocence and joy that a more detailed (or grown-up) image would never capture. 

I wish I could have photographed the door to the's made of pinkish stone in a kind of fretwork or lace and is supremely beautiful, but there was no postcard in the shop. On the way to the shop, along a small corridor, you pass this basin attached to the wall. Matisse has decorated the wall behind it and it's a lovely thing to behold. There is a card of that, and that's why I've been able to reproduce it here. 

If you are in the area over the summer, or ever, I can only urge you to visit this place. You won't forget it.

When we came out of the Chapel, determined to find a flatter and easier way back into Vence, we turned left and saw immediately next to the Chapel, this building which is where the Dominican nuns live. It struck me what fun they must have had choosing those turquoise pots, and picking the pinkest of geraniums to go with them.  If you spend your life here, you will love and long for colour and here's a perfect way of achieving it. Those pots made me smile.  

We made it back to Vence quite easily and without any puffing and blowing on my part. Here's my favourite photo of the trip: more kinds of tomato than you can shake a stick at. I enjoy thinking of Monsieur Matisse's housekeeper bringing him a salad of some of these while he worked on the Chapelle du Rosaire. Dressed with  Provençal olive oil, a little garlic and the juice of these lemons...


Joan Lennon said...


Sally Prue said...

It makes me want to go even more, now, Adele, thank you. Is that a special usage, or can it be that greengrocers' grammar, like beauty, is universally individual?

Sally Prue said...

Actually, it's because of the implied tomates, isn't it? Never mind!

Penny Dolan said...

Such a beautiful evocation of a place. Thank you, Adele!

Gillian Polack said...

I fell in love with Matisse's versatility when I first saw his ballet costumes. I'm Jewish, too, and totally agree with you about the serenity of religious buildings. It helps remind me, every time, to respect the religions of others, for how can one not respect people who create beauty and peace?