When we arrived in Vence the Matisse chapel was closed. ‘No problem,’ I told my wife, ‘It’s open tomorrow morning.’ Except it wasn’t – I had misread the guidebook. Waiting until it reopened after lunch would mean cutting it fine to catch the train to Avignon. We decided to risk it. Ever since reading about the Chapel of the Rosary in Hilary Spurling’s Matisse biography, I had been keen to see the place in person. The summer’s exhibition at Tate Modern had sharpened my appetite, and I had persuaded my wife it was worth starting our French holiday in Vence.
I’m a Muslim but I’m also spiritually greedy: if a place touches the transcendent I want to experience it. But since I grew up worshipping in light-filled carpeted mosques, churches always felt alien to me. At my school carol service I shuffled along the cold benches and shivered in the gloom. In Rome’s churches I’ve been spellbound by Bernini and Caravaggio; but I appreciated these works of art much as I would have in a gallery. My two visits to the Sistine Chapel have left me dissatisfied. When I took my wife there on our honeymoon the place was packed with bored tourists and tetchy guards. Michelangelo’s ceiling paintings have a muscular power that make you stare up in awe. Personally I find this type of Catholicism – like the hierarchies in my own religion – a pain in the neck.
Growing up in Bohain-en-Vermandois, northern France, Matisse hated the dingy churches and their inflated religiosity. In 1947, the year he began work on the Vence chapel, he wrote to a friend: ‘Sometimes when we are faced with certain Renaissance works, with their over-rich materials, sumptuous and provocative fabrics, we find ourselves ejecting the idea that such sentiment could have any part in Christianity.’ His chapel would be different. Though he was in his late 70s, Matisse was indefatigable in perfecting each detail. It was to be a place of gaiety and light, comfort and peace.
When we returned to the chapel, four or five other tourists were queuing patiently to enter. We hugged the wall to escape the afternoon sun. At 2.30pm the door was unlocked and we stepped through the doorway and under St Dominic and the Virgin, painted in swift, simple lines. At the bottom of some steps we left our heavy suitcases and walked inside. Once inside we found the famous light was not blinding: the yellow, blue and green stained-glass windows created a cool radiance. The chapel was smaller than I had expected; I counted 100 seats for the congregation. Its human scale was more appealing than the Sistine.
Our guide told us a little about the chapel’s history. In 1942 Matisse was recovering from stomach cancer in Nice. One of his nurses was a 20-year-old student called Monique Bourgeois whom he asked to model for him. If this had been Picasso the story would have ended only one way. But this was Matisse, and instead of becoming his sexual muse, Monique became his spiritual one. In 1944 she took her vows to become Sister Jacques-Marie. ‘Although she is a Dominican nun, she is still a marvellous person,’ wrote Matisse with a hint of surprise. After the war they were both living in Vence. Matisse wanted to show his gratitude to her and for his own survival. Inspired by her early sketches, he told Monique he would build the nuns a chapel, and that it would be his masterpiece.
‘He began with the profane and ended with the divine,’ our guide said; but it’s far from clear that Matisse renounced his atheism. ‘I did not need to be converted to design the chapel in Vence,’ he said. Unlike Picasso, whose temperament was by instinct iconoclastic, Matisse always strived to see truth and beauty in the people and objects he painted – whether in the ecstatic rhythms of the figures in Dance or the luminous fruit of Harmony in Red. Though he might not have subscribed to Catholic dogma, he knew what it meant to submit gratefully to a higher power. ‘Do I believe in God?’ he once asked himself. ‘Yes, when I’m working.’
Our guide invited us to turn round. The back wall is the only part of the chapel you could describe as ugly: a wilfully messy Stations of the Cross. Unlike Eric Gill’s solidly austere Stations in Westminster Cathedral, for example, Matisse’s vision of Christ’s last hours was painted in a few chaotic strokes. His charcoal sketches, on display next door to the chapel, are more conventionally pleasing. The sketch for Station Eight shows five holy women on the Way of the Cross dressed in exquisitely shaded cloth. The chapel version is barely recognisable: three vertical lines with perhaps the shape of a drooping head, sharply cut into by Christ’s cross from Station Two. It’s almost as though Matisse could not bear to depict the women who bore witness to such suffering.
I was reminded of Matisse’s wartime experiences. His daughter Marguerite fought with the Resistance and was captured by the Nazis. In 1945 she visited her father in Vence and described to him the torture she had endured. For two weeks he listened to the ‘atrocious scenes she described and acted out for me’. In Station Thirteen, Christ’s crumpled body is being lowered from the cross into his mother’s arms. Into that moment of agonising tenderness between child and parent, Matisse poured his own pain.
From the back wall the eye is directed leftwards to the boldly brushed Virgin Mary and rising Christ Child. Separating suffering from hope, as it were, was the confessional in the corner. The door seemed Moorish in style. Matisse visited Tangier in 1912–13 and some of his later paintings incorporate Islamic motifs: the latticework echoes the pattern on the woman’s robe in Zorah on the Terrace. Peeking through the ceramic panels I was struck by an extraordinary effect of the light. Though the walls are plain white a warm mauve suffuses the spaces for both confessor and priest. The mauve was unmistakably present but its source was mysterious. My wife asked our guide where it came from. She showed us the stained-glass window opposite and pointed out the yellow and blue panels that created a lilac haze on the white floor. It seemed unlikely but there it was – glowing on my shoes.
I stepped back to look at the whole window. It represented palm trees – the earliest Christian symbol of the cross – with blue and yellow leaves and a green background. The yellow leaves were so thickly daubed you could not see through them – representing, we were told, the opaque light of God – but through the other panels the garden outside was visible. There I saw a real palm tree behind its figurative doubles, with flapping leaves bringing an illusion of lively movement to the static glass. Matisse reproduced this technique in the iconic Tree of Life window at the front of the chapel. On the outside it is fringed with greenery that flickers into view behind the coloured glass. We walked round the altar and saw the stunning reflection the Tree of Life casts on the floor. So bright were the hues they seemed almost painted on. The black and white figure of St Dominic – the founder of Sister Jacques-Marie’s order – was flecked with blue and yellow light. At points it looked as though he was wearing one of the technicolour chasubles Matisse designed and which the priests still wear today.
Most of our group had left by now. For a moment the place fell silent and we lost ourselves in its serene beauty. My wife whispered that it felt more like a mosque than a church. I do wonder how much my response to the chapel was shaped by Matisse’s use of Islamic aesthetics. The flower and plant imagery recalled to me the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, which when I lived there served as a refuge from the Old City. (As yet untouched by war it remains a haven for Syrians.) Its small-scale elegance was reminiscent of the Alhambra, which Matisse knew and admired. The artist blanked out the faces of the human figures, as is the tradition in Islam, to allow for uncluttered meditation. Of course Matisse was no more a Muslim than he was a Catholic: but he mingles the aesthetics so skilfully he transcends both faiths. As he said, the chapel should be a place for anyone to find peace, ‘as Muslims leave the dust of the streets on the soles of the sandals lined up at the door of a mosque’.
We were so pressed for time that we inevitably missed some lovely smaller touches, which I have since noticed in a large-format book by the curator of the Matisse Museum in Nice, Marie-Thérèse Pulvenis de Séligny. The oil lamp over the altar is a curlicued masterpiece. The candleholders resemble rose stems topped with burning flowers. Jesus’s outstretched arms as displayed in the confessional and the sacristy entrance look like petals opening towards the sun. The three-pronged railings in the garden – not open to visitors – enact a mini-Calvary with two bent prongs flanking a central straight one. There is much more I’m sure didn’t catch our eye. We only had an hour: it was getting late and our plans could not be changed. We grabbed our bags and rushed down to catch the bus. Secretly I hoped we’d miss it.