House of Light by Michael Ford

Sixty years ago, in the commune of Vence between Nice and Antibes on the southern coast of France, a luminous masterpiece by Henri Matisse was beginning to take shape. The artist had just turned 80 and was not in good health. Even though the project faced derisory opposition from many quarters, he was determined to complete it before he died.

These days, from the winding road on the outskirts of the city, all that can be seen of the Chapel of the Rosary (Chapelle du Rosaire) is its roof of white and blue tiles, along with the 42-foot-high wrought iron cross adorned with small crescents and arms which culminate in golden flames. “I want this cross to stand out against the sky to rise high in prayer in a spiral-like smoke,” Matisse said.

I first came here 20 years ago and have never forgotten the impression the chapel made on me then. Now I have come back—and not for a single visit. In fact, I have just been to Mass celebrated at Matisse’s altar with measured solemnity by the 93-year-old Father Simon Trotabas; it was one of the most profound experiences of my entire life. “I hope that everyone who enters my chapel will feel purified and that their burdens will be eased,” the artist declared.

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On the public door when I arrived, I noticed a ceramic portraying Mary, Jesus, and Saint Dominic. Then I moved inside. Walking again into this holy space after so many years lifted my spirits. Its luminosity and spaciousness came back into view. It is, in fact, only 50 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 16 feet high. To decorate it, Matisse used the two central elements of his art: color (in the stained-glass windows) and line (on the drawings of the ceramic murals).

As I turn my head to the right, I see the confessional. Inside this place of penitence, a ceramic panel represents the crucifixion in black on a white background (in the sacristy, its counterpart is drawn in white against a black background). The door to the confessional, which I cannot stop admiring, brings to mind the Oriental hangings in Matisse’s paintings. The rough fretwork is designed to be joyous and light-hearted, “like those who emerge from it, purified.”

In front of me, I’m greeted again by the nave of the worshippers and, further down on the left-hand side, the nave of the nuns, each converging towards the altar which stands at an angle conveying space and volume. It is made of three blocks of stone: a base with two steps, a support and a slab, all oriented towards the East so the priest can officiate while facing both the congregation and the nuns. He wears chasubles and matching stoles also designed by Matisse.

The altar stone is pierre de Rogne, specially chosen for its brown color and appearance to resemble bread, food for the soul and the body. An unusual feature is that the tabernacle, with the door engraved by the artist, is set in the center of the stone slab. The crucifix, shaped by Matisse, presides over the altar, while the ciborium is decorated with an original aquatint. The candlesticks and the Pascal candle holder suggest the stylized corolla of anemones.

“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 colors and lines, the dimensions of infinity,” Matisse explained. The artist, who has been described as “a magician of color,” used only three hues—ultramarine blue, bottle green, and lemon yellow—for the exquisite windows.

“Simple colors can act on the inner feelings all the more powerfully as they are simple,” said Matisse, who pointed out that the lack of transparency of the frosted yellow glass draws the viewer’s spirit, which remains inside the chapel and reaches out beyond the blue and green into the surrounding gardens. Thus, for a person inside looking out through the stained glass at someone moving only a few feet away, the outside seems to belong to a totally different world from that of the chapel.

The main stained-glass window at the rear behind the altar is named “The Tree of Life.” Matisse illustrated this with a cactus bearing paddle-like stems in bloom, a symbol of endurance and the will to live in view of the fact that the plant manages to bear flowers and fruit even in the most arid deserts. A yellow curtain, draped along the sides, crowns the double window. For 15 other windows, resembling organ pipes, the artist chose a plain motif in the form of palm fronds.

The chapel’s two long sides, with their different decorations, support each other in their opposition. The panels comprise large white enamelled terracotta tiles decorated with line drawings, leaving them light and bright. The result is a black-on-white effect in which white is dominant, like a Dominican habit.

For Matisse, the ceramics were “the spiritual essential” and explained the structure’s significance. The lines on the ceramics to the right of the sanctuary bring Saint Dominic to life, endowing him with a stature that is powerful yet calm. To the side of the nave is a serene Nativity scene. Mary is the “flower of the stem of Jesse.” From her rises up the Christ Child whom she offers to the world, while Jesus offers himself, his arms already open to form the shape of the cross.

For the back of the chapel, using the same black lines on white tiles, Matisse produced his own stormy mural of the Stations of the Cross with features described as “tormented, irregular and passionate.” He arranged the 14 scenes in a consistent balance, while preserving their individuality. They form an ascending path, all structured around the central motif of Christ on the cross. Here is the encounter of the artist with the great drama of Christ, radiating the artist’s impassioned spirit and inviting our reverence. As Matisse told the Very Reverend General Mother Agnes of Jesus: “The Stations of the Cross are not a procession. This work is the deepest drama of mankind. Faced with this drama, the artist cannot remain a spectator. He is obliged to take part in it.”

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The chapel might never have seen the light of day had it not been for a young woman named Monique Bourgeois who, in 1942, landed herself a job in Nice as night nurse to Matisse, then recovering from major surgery and suffering from insomnia. Bourgeois herself had not been well, and her nursing studies had been interrupted because of a damaged lung. Despite Matisse’s temperamental personality, the two struck up a unique friendship. Bourgeois provided the care he required and, through a relationship of affectionate tenderness, they ended up conversing on all kinds of subjects including spirituality and religious matters.

One day Matisse asked the nurse if she would become his model. Bourgeois appeared in four canvases: Monique, The Idol, The Green Dress, and Oranges and Tabac Royal. He also did numerous sketches of her in charcoal or ink. She said she was surprised to be asked to pose because her family had always thought how ugly she was and she’d developed an inferiority complex. Matisse, however, discovered in her the beauty he looked for in his models.

Although she eventually went on to complete her training and earn a state diploma in nursing, Monique felt increasingly compelled to make a commitment to religious life. In September 1944, she took the Dominican habit, receiving the name Sister Jacques-Marie. Two years later, after being admitted for her first vows, she was sent to the healthy air of Vence for a post as a nursing nun, visiting patients in their homes on her bicycle.

Matisse was then living in Vence, and it wasn’t long before the two reconnected. Sister Jacques-Marie, who had originally been worried about telling Matisse that she wanted to become a nun, described his reaction when he first caught a glimpse of her in uniform: “Seeing me in my religious habit moved him deeply. He asked me to turn so he could see me from every angle. He said he could still make out my figure under all the garments but that my headdress really bothered him.”

At the time, her community worshipped in an old garage that was in a state of considerable disrepair. Rain came through the roof and water dripped near the altar. To the left of the nuns’ foyer lay the abandoned remains of the foundations of a chapel. They wanted to build on them but didn’t have sufficient funds. Sister Jacques-Marie talked to Matisse, even sketching a stained-glass window of the Assumption. This stimulated the artist’s interest, and one day he said, “I’m going to build your chapel and I’ll be responsible for the windows.”

When she learned of his vision, the community’s superior, Mother Agnes, became hostile to the project, and there wasn’t much likelihood of convincing her. Plans were eventually drawn up and fundraising discussed, then complications set in. Matisse even asked Sister Jacques-Marie to become his assistant, but Mother Agnes flatly refused permission. In the end, Matisse devoted four uninterrupted years to the project, during which time Sister Jacques-Marie effectively became the go-between, liaising between the artist and the sisters who didn’t know him and negotiating with Mother Agnes, who was suspicious of modern art and probably her young nun as well. No wonder Sister Jacques-Marie later said it was a chapel built on tears. Despite his ill health and advancing years, Matisse refused to give up: “We’ll have a chapel where everyone can find hope,” he insisted.

Nonetheless, as he continued developing his revolutionary designs, Matisse found himself having to cope with violent dizzy spells and stomach cramps, all the while doggedly resolved to see the project through. Later, when he was beset with heart problems and asthma and forced to work from a wheelchair, his determination to finish became his passion. “The chapel will be the crowning achievement of my life’s work,” he would tell people, although Pablo Picasso once mocked the design by saying that, after Matisse’s death, it would be turned into a vegetable market. But barbs of this nature did not detract him.

Some people found Matisse’s religious views rather ambiguous, but on one occasion he asked himself the question: “Do I believe in God?” His answers reveal a depth of spiritual understanding:

Yes, when I am working, when I am submissive and modest, I feel myself to be greatly helped by someone who causes me to do things that exceed my capabilities. However, I cannot acknowledge him because it is as if I were to find myself before a conjurer whose sleight of hand eludes me. Therefore I feel robbed of the benefits of the experience that should have been the reward for my efforts. I am ungrateful and without remorse.

It is necessary to present oneself with the greatest humility: white, pure and candid with a mind as if empty, in a spiritual state analogous to that of a communicant approaching the Lord’s table.

In art, truth and morality, a musician once said, begin when one no longer understands what one is doing or what one knows, and when there remains an energy that is all the stronger for being constrained, controlled and compressed.

Matisse finally saw the fruits of his labor when the chapel was consecrated in June 1951. “For me, this chapel is the achievement of an entire life’s work, the outcome of tremendous, difficult, sincere effort,” he wrote. “I finally woke up to know myself, and I understood that all the hard labor throughout my life was for humanity, and that through me a fresh beauty of the world must be a little better revealed.

“It is not a labor I chose but 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.”

Although the chapel was to become internationally acclaimed in the decades which followed, after its opening Matisse and Sister Jacques-Marie were subjected to a distasteful backlash. In the more cautious world of the 1950s, the building’s modern style was hard for many to swallow. Visitors didn’t hesitate to write insults in the guestbook and there were even some small protests inside the building. Persistently opposed by her own congregation, who had difficulty accepting the chapel and all that went with it, Sister Jacques-Marie asked to leave Vence, a request granted but met with further criticism. When Matisse died in 1954, she was refused permission to attend his funeral, a decision which hurt her deeply.

In a book about the project, published some years before her own death in 2005, Sister Jacques-Marie said she believed that a chapel couldn’t be built without pain and admitted she had suffered in the process. There had been so many obstacles, tensions, sensitivities, and pressures, along with the totally uncompromising attitude of the Mother Superior. Questions continued to be raised about Matisse’s true feelings towards Christianity. “I can only say this is between him and the Lord,” Sister Jacques-Marie wrote. “I think Matisse was very direct and never concealed or disguised his thoughts. I am confident and pray for him.

“The dazzling white chapel remains there, sitting on the hill,” she continued on a note of uplift. “It awaits all those who wish to commune in its light.” ♦

Michael Ford may be contacted at

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