In the mid-1940s, Matisse was approached to help with the design of the chapel by Sister Jacques-Marie, a nun at the Dominican convent in Vence. Before becoming a nun, she had been the artist’s part-time nurse from 1941, aiding him in his recovery from cancer. During this time, they formed a close friendship and even though Matisse had never carried out work of this kind before, he was keen to help. In one way it can be seen as a story of friendship and collaboration between Matisse and Sister Jacques-Marie.
The construction begun in 1947, when the artist was 77 years old, and he spent more than four years working on the project. The chapel is dedicated to the Dominican Order and is still in use today by nuns who are responsible for its upkeep. The structure is renowned for its simple and modern stained-glass windows, which flood the white interior with myriad vibrant colours. The three sets of stained-glass windows are made up of just three colours, drawing on the beautiful environment of the French Riviera: yellow for the sun, an intense green for vegetation, and blue for the Mediterranean Sea and the Madonna. The two windows beside the altar are named the Tree of Life; abstract in form, they are very different from traditional representations of the Tree of Life, making them a unique spectacle to behold.
Before entering the chapel, attached to it you will come across an excellent small museum, which contains hundreds of preparatory drawings by Matisse, alongside vestments for service in the six ecclesiastical colours used throughout year. The museum sensitively communicates the history and design of the chapel to visitors who may know little about it prior to their visit. It’s also a chance to see one of Matisse’s works that is like none of his others and considered to be one of the greatest religious sanctities of the 20th century.
If you are in holiday in Nice, visiting Vence and the Rosary Chapel makes for a perfect day trip. You can easily get there by taxi in 30 minutes or under an hour and a half on the bus. It’s open every day from 10am-12pm and from 4.30pm-6pm. You have to pay a small fee of €7 to enter the museum and chapel, but it is definitely worth it.
The Rosary Chapel, 466 avenue Henri Matisse, 06140 Vence; chapellematisse.fr/
By Scarlet Bailey Tait. Scarlet is based in London and specialises in writing about art.