Fr Kevin Hegarty
In Liz Nugent’s new novel, ‘Skin Deep’, the main character, Cordelia, visits a little Dominican chapel at Vence in the south of France, created by artist Henri Matisse. The chapel impresses her. In Ireland, ‘churches had been cold, austere places furnished in dark wood and suffering, but in the afternoon sunlight, this was a blaze of warmth’.
Matisse, one of the most significant artists of the 20th century, considered the chapel his masterpiece. Nicholas Scrota, former director of the Tate gallery, asserted: “Anyone walking into that space who doesn’t feel great emotion is incapable of feeling. This has to be one of the great works made anywhere at any time. Sistine ceiling or Vence Chapel? I wouldn’t want to choose between the two.”
How did Matisse, who had abandoned his childhood Catholicism, come to create this work of art? It was a chance encounter that led to Vence. In 1942, he was recovering from a major operation. When his regular nurse was away, an agency sent him 21-year-old old Monique Bourgeois as a temporary replacement. She was from a strict Catholic family who has been made homeless during the Second World War, which was then raging.
They got on well. He enjoyed her conversations and girlish sense of humour. She found caring for him a a healing experience after the trauma she had suffered. She wrote later, “I was comfortable with him. I could breathe. I could relax, it was a haven of peace. Life had maltreated me so badly in the last few years.”
She renewed his interest in painting, which due to his illness, had been declining. Schooled by her repressive Catholic upbringing, she had come to believe that she was not attractive. Matisse thought otherwise and painted four portraits of her. According to his biographer, Hilary Spurling, “As a painter he loved the splendid mass of her dark hair and the way her neck rose from her shoulders like a white tower.”
One year later, Monique entered a Dominican convent and was given the religious name of Sister Jacques-Marie. They met again in 1946. Matisse had rented accommodation in Vence, where she was in the convent. He was disappointed that she had taken the veil but soon realised that her life of austerity and dedication matched his own.
When she told him that the nuns wanted to beautify the dilapidated garage they used as a chapel, his interest was stirred.
He decided to take control of the project of providing the nuns with a new chapel. For four years, though his health continued to decline, he made it his main work.
The building is L-shaped, with the altar set on an angle. Matisse created the stained-glass windows, the three ceramic murals of the chapel’s interior, the campanile, the blue-and-white pattern on the roof, the gilded bronze crucifix and candlesticks on the altar, the confessional door, the holy-water stoups and the vibrant designs on the priests’ vestments.
A row of slender floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows runs along the southern wall of the nave. Using the columns of green, ultra marine, blue and yellow, they contain a pattern of elongated leaf-like shapes arranged so that they seem to grow out of the intervening sections of the wall. Opposite, there is a mural painted on the white ceramic tiles of the faceless outline of the Virgin and Child. Along the east-west axis of the church is the marvelous Tree of Life window, behind the altar, facing the dramatic graffiti-like Stations of the Cross.
In 1908, Matisse said he wanted to create ‘an art of balance, of painting and serenity’. Forty years later, he achieved it in the chapel at Vence.