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Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Artful Traveler: Matisse's Inspired Chapel

Though produced by a very old man who was mortally ill,
they seem to come from the springtime of the world.

        – John Russell, on Matisse's paper cut outs 

In 1947, around the time he published Jazz, his famous book of paper cutouts,  Henri Matisse began work on what was to become his other great late-in-life masterpiece, the Chapelle du Sainte Marie du Rosaire in Vence, in the south of France.

Matisse lived in Vence from 1943-1949 and designed the chapel, along with all of its decor, liturgical objects, and priestly vestments, at the request of Sister Jacques-Marie, who had been his nurse when he was ill in 1943 and later became a Dominican nun.

The chapel opened in 1951 to not uniformly approving reviews.

Matisse laid out the space as a simple rectangle. Though he was a master colorist, the artist specified white walls for both the exterior and interior.

Inside, the only color comes from the chapel's signature feature, a series of 15 arched floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows in hues of blue, yellow, and green. They line two walls and fill the simple, sacred space with glorious yet soothing light.

The effect creates a sense of serenity, clarity, and peace of mind. If this doesn't calm you down instantly, then nothing will.

Matisse said that he chose yellow a as symbol of the sun and heavenly light; green of plant life and the earth; and blue of the sky, the sea and the Madonna – perhaps the very same expression of springtime as the one Russell observed.

A vivid blue tile roof provides the sole splash of color outside. Look for it if you are driving to the chapel.

Try to time your visit for late afternoon, when the tourist coaches have departed and the chapel is blissfully devoid of the hordes of gawkers that can turn even the most sacred site into a sideshow of shorts, sandals and snotty striplings.

If you have ever been to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, you will know what The Luxurist means.

But I digress.

Vence's historic center

The Rosaire Chapel is perched on a hillside a few minutes from the center of Vence, a small, unremarkable village inland from the sea and situated about midway between Cannes and Nice.

There's not much else to do in Vence.  If you have the time, you can spend a pleasant hour strolling through the town's medieval center. The main reason to visit is to see the Rosaire Chapel.

If you go, The Luxurist advises you, beloved Artful Traveler, not to confuse Vence with the more famous, nearby St. Paul de Vence, a charming medieval hilltop fortress village with a great deal more to recommend it.

And that is the topic of a forthcoming article.

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