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Matisse, Cocteau made canvases of two chapels

By B.J. Roche
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2011

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VENCE, France - Regardless of our religious inclinations, when we travel, we wander through grand cathedrals and mosques, sometimes as though they were museums, awestruck by the light, the smell of incense, or the sounds of an ancient organ.

But sometimes it’s the simpler sacred spaces that draw us, intimate places built not over hundreds of years, but maybe a decade, that reflect the dedication - or downright obsession - of their creators. The traveler can find two such tiny chapels not far from the center of Nice in the south of France. Henri Matisse’s Chapelle du Sainte Marie du Rosaire is set on a hillside in this pretty 15th-century hilltown, while Jean Cocteau’s Chapelle Saint-Pierre sits near the waterfront of Villefranche-sur-Mer.

Both are masterworks created by artists late in their careers: Cocteau began work on his chapel when he was 68 and Matisse started in his 70s. And both reflect a singular vision of their creators: Matisse’s clean line and color and Cocteau’s fantasmagorical merging of myth and catechism.

You can get an introduction to the Matisse chapel at the Matisse Museum, set in a candy-colored 17th-century Italian villa in the Cimiez section of Nice, just up the hill from the Hotel Regina, where the artist lived and worked until his death in 1954. Here, in addition to a fine collection of his paintings and sculptures, you see models and drawings Matisse developed for the chapel.

Matisse (1869-1954) lived in Vence from 1943-49 and designed his chapel to honor Monique Bourgeois, who served as a model, and who later became a Dominican nun. (Today nuns provide the tours, in French.) The chapel, which sits on the outskirts of town, opened in 1951, and Matisse oversaw its every aspect, from the boldly-colored stained glass windows to the vestments worn by the priests who celebrate Mass at its plain stone altar. It was the first time an artist had done so.

Matisse wrote: “I want those entering my chapel to feel themselves purified and lightened of their burdens. . . . I regard it, despite all its imperfections, as my masterpiece . . . as an effort which is the culmination of a whole life dedicated to the search for truth.’’

This chapel is stark in its simplicity; visitors are sometimes underwhelmed by its modernity. Its exterior is plain, white-washed stucco with a blue ceramic tile roof, decorated with a thin, wrought iron cross, adorned only with gold crescent moons.

Inside, white ceramic tile walls reflect the colored light as it streams through three sets of stained glass windows designed in Matisse’s abstract shapes and three colors: yellow, green, and blue. On the walls are three plain, black line images: the 15-foot-tall St. Dominic, the Virgin Mary and Child, and the Stations of the Cross. The Madonna is a modern one (she is naked), and Jesus’ arms are spread in the shape of a cross.

As you sit on the plain, wooden chairs and watch the light change through the windows, you get a sense of what Matisse was trying to accomplish: a feeling of peace and inner quiet. Instead of being overwhelmed by grandeur, you are prompted to move deeper inside yourself.

Not far away, in the seaside village of Villefranche-sur-Mer, avant-garde poet, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) took a totally different approach, imprinting his own wild vision on an ancient church that had been used to store fishing equipment.

“Cocteau turns muralist for fisherman’s chapel’’ was the headline in July 1957, when Life magazine covered the opening of the Chapelle Saint-Pierre. The photos show the tiny, candlelit chapel filled with visitors who had come to see what the artist had created. “Cocteau himself considers the chapel the ‘crown’ of his work,’’ noted the article’s author, who went on to quote Cocteau: “In doing it I did not use my mind but my heart.’’

We inadvertently got a sense of what its creation must have been like when we visited one late afternoon last spring. The place was closed for renovations, but when I noticed the heavy wooden door was slightly ajar, I pushed on it anyway.

Inside, two young women clad in paint-spattered shirts chatted quietly as they dabbed at the frescoes, oblivious to our presence. Jazz played on a boombox. We had traveled so far, we begged them in bad French. Could we look? Yes, if you are careful, they replied. It turned out to be one of those travel moments you never forget.

Scaffolding filled the 14th-century chapel’s interior, but even in the dusky light, we could see the sweeping images in odd juxtapositions that cross time and genre, some religious, some civil.

Cocteau painted scenes from the life of St. Peter: his walk on water, and his arrest by Roman soldiers. There’s an homage to the women of Villefranche, who carry their basket of fish and sea urchins under the watchful eyes of the angels. The Virgin Mary is serenaded by a 1950s-clad jazz guitarist. The rooster crows. Above it all, angels swoop in a cascade of movement.

Cocteau became enchanted with the rundown chapel while staying at the nearby Hotel Welcome in the 1920s. Back then, he would hardly have been called a religious man. In her book, “Artists and Their Museums on the Riviera,’’ author Barbara Freed points out that the hotel was the scene of, as Cocteau’s friend Ned Rorem put it, “outrageous public behavior.’’ And that’s probably putting it mildly.

When Cocteau returned to Villefranche in 1950, he was an older, established writer, and he began his excursions into painting murals and sketches - he called them “tattoos.’’ As with his film and writings, he drew heavily on Greek mythology, and he made the chapel his canvas.

It took the artist more than seven years to cut through French red tape to renovate the chapel. Once he had the keys, some fishermen stole his ladders to prevent the project from happening - they wanted to keep it for storing nets. Cocteau compromised by donating the entrance fees to a local fishermen’s fund.

Happily, he persisted, and today the church is used a few times each year. Mostly, though, it’s open for the traveler, a chapel-canvas that serves as a reminder that, when it comes to art and religion, good things sometimes come in small packages.

B.J. Roche can be reached at roche.bj@gmail.com.

If You Go

Frequent buses travel between Nice and Vence (one hour) and Villefranche (half-hour).
www.lignedazur.com
Chapelle du SainteMarie du Rosaire
Vence
Generally open Mon-Thu 2-5:30 p.m. and Tue, Thu 10-11:30 a.m.
Vence’s old center is also worth a visit (www.vence.fr). People combine a visit to the chapel with a trip to the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, with its outstanding collection of 20th-century art.
Chapelle Saint-Pierre Quai Courbet
Villefranche-sur-Mer
Daily, except Mon, 10 a.m.-noon in autumn, winter; 10-noon and 3-7 p.m. in spring, summer. Closed mid-November to mid-December and on Christmas. Admission 50 cents.
“Artists and Their Museums on the Riviera,’’ by Barbara F. Freed (Harry N. Abrams, 1998), is an invaluable guide for the interested traveler.