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Book review: The Spiritual Adventure of Henri Matisse: Vence’s Chapel of the Rosary by Charles Miller

05 April 2024

Jonathan Evens looks at Matisse and Vence

THE Chapelle du Rosaire, in Vence, was consecrated by Mgr Rémond, Bishop of Nice, on 25 June 1951. Designed and decorated by Henri Matisse, it has been called Matisse’s masterpiece. The artist considered it to be the work that brought together the many strands of his long career.

This book tells the story of that commission, one that derived, as many church commissions do, from personal contacts — in this instance, contacts that began during a life-threatening illness in which Matisse received care from Dominican nuns. The book also, however, seeks (in a limited sense) to set the chapel in the context of the programme to engage the Roman Catholic Church with the great artists of the modern period, and it seeks to explore (more expansively) the spiritual journey that Matisse underwent as a result. The latter focus represents an innovative approach to exploring this fascinating period of church history.

The French Dominicans, at that time, sought a Christianity that was engaged with the secular world. As a result, they argued that priests should not live in “Christian ghettos”, but should join with the citizenry “to establish a new, spiritually inspired system of social justice” — the worker-priest movement — and to revive Christian art by appealing to the great artists of the time, in a way that could bring them to “Christian awareness”.

These initiatives were representative of “a new evangelical spirit” that was concerned with contextualised mission. But this was before Vatican II. In 1952, the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office issued an instruction on sacred art that began a two-year initiative by the Vatican which severely constrained the modernising programme of the French Dominicans and represented a temporary victory for traditionalists.

Charles MillerDetail of a south window light in the chapel at Vence, showing the effects that Matisse created with translucent and transparent glass: from the book

Charles Miller’s book is, in essence, an apologia for the Dominican approach, at least as it relates to Matisse. He is clear that we are not talking about conversion when it comes to Matisse’s spiritual adventure. That is because Matisse, while for much of his life not a practising Roman Catholic, had never left the Church. Instead, the author explores the deep overlap between the attrait (attention) that artists pay to their subject and the attrait in contemplative prayer. For Matisse, such attention involved intuition and intellect, contemplation and communion, light and glory, combined with a monk-like detachment.

As it takes us through the stages and elements of this commission, while paying attention to the harmonious and holy whole of its realisation, this book offers insights into Matisse, sacred art, and contextualised mission.

The Revd Jonathan Evens is Team Rector of Wickford and Runwell in the diocese of Chelmsford.

The Spiritual Adventure of Henri Matisse: Vence’s Chapel of the Rosary
Charles Miller
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