From the outside it really doesn’t look like much. A small, unimposing white building with a blue and white tiled roof. The buildings on either side of the chapel are larger and more impressive. There’s a huge iron cross on the roof at one end of the building (adorned with flames and crescent moons) which does draw your attention to the structure, otherwise I think most people might be likely miss it. It’s known as le Chapelle du Rosaire or the Matisse Chapel and it plays an important part in the cultural and artistic history of Vence. If you pass by it on the street there’s very little indication that this modest piece of architecture has anything to do with the famous artist Henri Matisse. There’s a very small, very simple black and white line drawing above one of the doors that seems to indicate a connection with “art” in some way but it wouldn’t be that unusual to see something similar on almost any building. But, as they say, looks can be deceiving. This unassuming little chapel was considered by Matisse to be his “masterpiece.” He spent several of the last years of his life designing it and it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in this part of the Côte d’Azur. A lot has been written about this chapel and a simple Google search will turn up more articles and postings than anyone can read in a day. There are dozens of books dedicated to the chapel. My goal here is not to try to describe every aspect of this little chapel in great detail but to give you an overall sense of its history, design and influence. I’ve seen it described as “a visually stunning homage to the inner light of divinity and all that is artistically sacred.” Wow. That’s quite a statement. I’ve visited the chapel on several occasions and spent considerable time absorbing its charm. My take is a little bit different.
[more info after the photo gallery]
Please note that it is strictly forbidden to take photos inside of the chapel itself, so, unfortunately, you won’t find any here. Many photos are available online that will give you a sense of what the chapel interior looks like.
Let’s start at the beginning with the artist, Henri Matisse. There can be no doubt that Matisse is widely considered to be one of the most important visual artists of the 20th century. Born in 1869, he is credited as a leading figure in what is often referred to as “modern art.” Though he was known primarily as a painter, Matisse was also a sculptor, printmaker and draughtsman. The intense color of his early work brought him recognition as one of the “Fauves” (wild beasts) and his later work was praised as upholding the classical tradition of French painting.
If you study Matisse’s work you will find a large variety of styles and methods, one of the many things that has endeared to him to so many art lovers. He was willing to explore, to adapt, to change his approach to art. He once said, “An artist must never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of a style, prisoner of a reputation, prisoner of success.” In his later years he turned to a simpler, bolder approach that at times can seem quite plain. The kind of work that some people will look at and say, “Hell, I could do that.” (Spoiler: they can’t.) When ill health prevented him from painting he turned to cut paper collages, many of which are considered some of the finest examples of this medium. He also took to “wall drawing,” creating large, two-dimensional designs on the surfaces of walls.
Matisse moved to Vence in 1943 where he began creating and producing his “cut-out” work in earnest. A book entitled Jazz was produced in 1946 and it was soon followed by two mural-size works, “Oceania the Sky” and “Oceania the Sea.” In 1952 a museum was established in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, The Matisse Museum. His last work was a stained glass window installed at the Union Church of Pocantico Hills near the Rockefeller estate north of New York City. He died in 1954 and is buried in Nice. Another museum, The Matisse Museum in Nice opened in 1963.
The Story of the Chapel
Matisse was diagnosed with cancer in 1941 while living in Nice. The subsequent surgery was successful but complications kept him confined to bed for over three months. After this traumatic ordeal he felt as if he had been given a second lease on life. He placed an ad in a local newspaper for a caretaker/nurse. When a nursing student named Monique Bourgeois responded to the ad Matisse and Bourgeois began a long, important (and platonic) relationship that eventually led to the creation of the chapel. Bourgeois was herself an amateur artist and Matisse delighted in teaching and mentoring her. She modeled for him and Matisse made several drawings and four paintings of the young woman.
As World War II intensified Matisse decided to rent a villa in Vence, far enough away from Nice to avoid any bombing that many feared might be coming. Bourgeois herself fell into ill health and was cared for by Dominican nuns at a convent in Vence, just across the street from where Matisse was living. Once she was better she began to take care of Matisse day and night and again posed for several portraits. In 1944 Bourgeois decided to join the Dominican Sisters of Monteils in Aveyron, more than 500 kilometers from Vence, taking the name Sister Jacques-Marie. Initially Matisse was distraught but he gradually came to terms with her decision and sent her a long letter wishing her well. Sister Jacques-Marie returned to Vence in 1946 to continue her activities as a nurse and she and Matisse rekindled their friendship.
In 1947 the Dominican Sisters were using an old garage as their place of worship. They began plans to construct a new chapel. When a young Dominican friar with an interest in architecture visited he went to see Matisse and the two of them came up with a plan and design for a chapel. The very next day Matisse exclaimed to Sister Jacques-Marie that he was, “going to build your chapel and take charge of the the stained glass windows!”
For the next four years Matisse threw all his time, energy and creativity into the chapel. He worked closely with the architect Louis Milon de Peillon and began to create drafts of the proposed stained glass windows using gouache cut-outs. On December 12, 1949 the first stone was laid for the chapel in a ceremony presided over by Monsignor Rémond, the Bishop of Nice. Matisse painted three murals for the chapel on ceramic tiles and all the work was finished in 1951. The chapel was consecrated on June 25th, 1951. Matisse was unable to attend the ceremony but a message from him was read aloud where he declares the chapel to be his “masterpiece.”
Inside the Chapel
It is only once you are inside of the chapel itself that you begin to understand the special place it holds in the hearts of so many people. Unlike so many other famous religious buildings it is very small. It is, after all, a chapel not a cathedral. Entrance is from the east side and as you walk into the room you are struck with the simplicity and directness of the design. The walls and ceiling are bright white. The floor is composed of large gleaming white marble tiles. Huge stained glass windows fill most of the south and west walls. The colors are simple: blue, green and yellow. Three large wall drawings cover the north and east walls: one of Saint Dominic, one of the Virgin and Child and one that portrays the Way of the Cross. Folding wooden chairs are usually set up in the center of the room, while some permanent wooden pews are situated along part of the south wall. Near the front an altar stands on a large semi-circular, two leveled stone base.
For me the most striking aspect of the chapel are the stained glass windows. They stretch from ceiling to floor. On the west wall there are two tall windows with semi-circular caps. They are fairly wide and consist of the famous Matisse “leaf” cut-outs most people are familiar with. Blue is the dominant color with green and yellow adding accents. Along the south wall, behind the permanent pews, is a series of nine windows. Again they stretch the entire height of the wall, but these are much more narrow. Arranged very close to each other the main elliptical shapes of blue, white and yellow form branches (or leaves) on the stalks created by the wall space between the windows. Another set of six similar windows is placed along the back portion of the south wall, these each being a bit wider. At almost anytime of the day you will find light streaming through these windows and being reflected on the white marble floor. In some ways the colored light dancing off the floor tiles is even more mesmerizing than the windows themselves. There’s no doubt that these beautiful windows give the room a sense of peace and serenity as the glow of the light fills the white room with intense colors and hues.
For me the large wall drawings are less impressive. They are simple and direct, you could even call them crude or primitive. They bear the unmistakable style found in much of Matisse’s later work. The size and coarseness of the drawings gives them a certain sense of energy and intensity but to me they don’t quite live up to their reputation. I know that there are many who will disagree with me, but I feel that if these drawings were made by anyone else they would considered commonplace. The only reason they are of any real importance is because Matisse created them. To be honest, I find the same thing with many other artists. Simply scribblings created near the end of their lives by artists such as Dali or Picasso are valuable only because of the artist. They bear little resemblance to the great works of art all these artists created.
All in all the chapel is really quite beautiful and in many ways, quite unique. It is certainly worth a visit if you are anywhere near Vence, especially if you are familiar with the work of Matisse. Different people are going to have different reactions to the chapel, that’s only natural. It’s stature as not only a work of art, but also as a religious and spiritual center, makes it very special to many visitors. I have not had quite the “transcendent/mystical” experience that some report (at least not yet), but I do find it to be an exceptional place to spend some time.
More to See
In addition to the chapel itself you will find several more areas of interest in the building next door which acts as something of a museum. Situated next to the chapel it is a large building where you buy your tickets and enter the complex. If you go up one floor you’ll find a very nice exhibit of clothing and accessories that Matisse designed for the priests who work in the chapel. Known as “chasubles” and “liturgical garments,” these items provide a fascinating glimpse into a unique use of Matisse’s artwork. On the lower floor of the building is a large space devoted to sculptures, drawings, engravings and paintings by Matisse along with an assortment of other photos and memorabilia. I was quite fascinated with many of the objects on display here, especially old books, exhibition posters and drawings. A charming little terrace is accessible in back of the museum which will give you a nice view of Vence. A small bookstore carries a wide range of books, maps, postcards and posters.
The Matisse Chapel is located close to the center of Vence, across the Lubiane River on the north side of the city. Take the M2210, also known as Avenue Victor Tuby and then Avenue Henri Matisse, north from the big roundabout. From March 1st to October 31st it is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 10:00AM to 12:00PM and 2:00PM to 6:00PM. On Wednesdays and Saturdays it is open only in the afternoon from 2:00PM to 6:00PM. From November 1st to February 28th the hours are the same but the chapel closes at 5:00PM each day. It is closed on Sundays, Mondays and holidays. The price for adults is 7€ and there are reduced prices for groups, students and schools. Children under 12 are free.
The Dominican Sisters of Vence still oversee religious services at the chapel (Laudes, Masses and Vespers) and it is possible to attend these celebrations. You can find a schedule of events on the chapel’s website.