The master’s masterpiece

It was great following Van Gogh and Cezanne, but I kept thinking about ‘the one that got away’… Matisse’s chapel at Vence. So early one morning we set off, retracing our tracks back towards Nice. This time we took the motorway to save time, and had new adventures negotiating the automatic tollbooths without the right money, where they didn’t accept the first credit card, then trying to buy petrol at an automatic station where there were no staff! Thankfully yet another VKP (very kind person) – a lady this time, offered to use her credit card for our cash to our great relief as our gazole was very low and we had a way to go!

Once off the motorway we felt like old hands finding our way this time. (We’d done so many loop-the-loops around Vence and St Paul-de-Vence previously it was a relief to know we’d learned something!) So we arrived in plenty of time, but then had to wait ’til after lunch to go into the chapel. (Another on-the-footpath-beside-the-car lunch!!)

The convent and chapel is right in the middle of suburbia – (I’d thought it would be on some quiet hillside.) And it was smaller than we expected. If Tina had realised how small, I’m sure she wouldn’t have been as keen to go back all that way!

What I have done in the chapel is to create a religious space… To take an enclosed space of very reduced proportions and give it, solely by the play of colours and lines, the dimensions of infinity.
- Henri Matisse

From the road the chapel looks just like a simple, low, oblong building with a flatish tiled roof. Though it has a simple 42ft tall black wrought iron cross rising up from the roof. It is decorated with gold crescents on the stem of the cross and gold flames from the ends of the points and symbolises Mary radiating the light and warmth of love to the world. (The moon as a symbol is associated with Mary, and as it is a Dominican convent, this understatement is very much in keeping with thDominican values.

When you come into the chapel it is actually L-shaped – the nave for the worshippers and the ‘choir’ for the nuns both facing the angle in the centre of the L. Here is where the alter is located so everyone has a full view of the altar and the priest a full view of all the parishioners. The altar is carved from a type of marble that looks like the brown bread of the communion service, and the candles and cross of the altar were also designed by Matisse – referring to the lily motif also associated with Mary.

The colour is all in the stained glass. There are only three colours – a bright lemon yellow representing the light of God and the sun, the fresh live green of plants, growth and regeneration, and pure ultramarine blue of the Mediterranean, Mary and the colour of infinity and the sublime referred to so often by artists.

Simple colours can act on the inner feelings all the more powerfully as they are simple.
- Henri Matisse

The colours reflect and play across the white surfaces of the walls, ceiling and floor and the worshippers, and over the simple black line drawings on white tiles of St Dominic, the holy family, and the stations of the cross. The changing light throughout the days and seasons of the year also reflects life and its constant change in mood and nuance. Even the confessional has the feeling and light and joy, as Matisse wanted those who used it to feel upon leaving their burdens there. To really appreciate this work you must also appreciate its religious resonance.

When Matisse designed the chapel, he was in his late 70s and basically did so from his bed wheelchair. The drawings he did with charcoal on a long stick onto fastened to the wall beside his bed. The colours and shapes he cut out from sheets of prepainted paper with scissors because he could no longer paint. He planned, and endlessly worked and reworked designs and colour schemes and every detail. It is indeed a masterpiece, and will remain a special place for me.

I want those entering my chapel to feel themselves purified and lightened of their burdens. …This chapel is for me the conclusive achievement of a whole life of labour and the flowering of a huge, sincere, and difficult striving. It is not a labour I chose but rather one for which I was chosen by destiny as I near my journey’s end. … I regard it, despite all its imperfections, as my masterpiece…as an effort which is the culmination of a whole life dedicated to the search for truth.
- Henri Matisse

Unfortunately we couldn’t take picutres inside the chapel. The one I have included of the altar and windows is taken from a postcard… but I doubt they can convey the sense of calm, light and joy the space conveys. Perhaps one day one of us will be able to attend a service rather than just peeking into the chapel as an observer.


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