Chapelle du Rosaire - Treasures of Provence

Chapelle du Rosaire

Chapelle du Rosaire front view

Chapelle du Rosaire, also known as the Matisse or Rosary Chapel, is located about a 5-10 minute walk from the centre of Vence and well sign posted. Cross over the bridge that spans the Foux river and then walk along Avenue Henri Matisse. You will see the tall metal cross in the distance.

In summer it is extremely difficult to find parking anywhere near the chapel. Vence has 10 parkings among which 7 are paying ones. The closest parkings to the chapel are Parking Marc Chagall and Parking Marie Antoinette but they still involve some walking.

For me, this chapel is the achievement of an entire life’s work, the outcome of tremendous, difficult, sincere effort.

Chapelle du Rosaire EntranceChapelle du Rosiare
Matisse’s fresh and joyous works for the chapel include three black-and-white murals, three semi-abstract stained glass windows, a stone altar, a bronze cross, carved doors, and an array of colourful vestments. His work on the chapel was completed in 1951, and Matisse declared it his masterpiece.

The chapel is an outstanding piece of work – with an incredible sense of peace, clarity and beauty all around – not just within the chapel but outside in the garden too.

As you approach the chapel, the first thing that catches your eye is the startling blue and white roof profiled against the sky with an enormous and imposing cross fixed solidly on top. Just above the main stained-glass window there is a ceramic tympanum representing the Virgin offering her son to the world, hiding her face behind him to conceal her sadness.

Upon entering Chapelle du Rosaire, you will find a series of narrow, rather steep, marble steps. Once at the bottom, turn around to see the lovely stained-glass window showing a fish caught up in a net with above it a blue star. It is said to represent a fisherman ensnared in the nets of temptation as the Star of Salvation shines above him.

Chapelle du Rosaire stairwayThe bottom of the stairs can get a little crowded as it’s here that you pay your admission into the chapel. They also limit the number of people entering the chapel in one go, preferring instead (mostly during the tourist season) to stagger it by letting about ten people go in at once. Once inside the chapel you will not be alone; a watchful nun makes sure nothing is damaged or touched and voices are kept low.

Although the chapel is only 15 metres long, 6 metres wide and 5 metres high there is nonetheless a feeling space; floor, walls, and ceiling are white and plain and everything is simple and clear-cut; the perfect canvas for Matisse.

Chapelle du Rosaire altarThe altar stands at the centre opposite the two naves and is made of three blocks of stone. The theme of three occurs throughout the Matisse’s design for the chapel – which some believe to be a representation of God, The Son and The Holy Ghost.

The stone comes from the Rognes area in the Bouches-du-Rhône. It is the same stone the Romans used to build the 50-metre high bridge (Pont du Gard) over the Gard River. Matisse selected it for its warm colour and resemblance to brown bread – the symbol of the Bread of the Eucharist. Set in the middle of the stone slab is the tabernacle and engraved by the artist, the crucifix, shaped by Matisse, presides over the altar as a whole. To complete the set of three is the ciborium decorated with an original aqua-tint.

Matisse used the two elements of his art: colour (in the stained-glass windows) and drawings (on the ceramic murals). He also only used three colours – green, yellow and blue – hues he chose as meticulously as he chose the type of glass.

At the back, behind the altar, the main stained-glass window is named “The Tree of Life”. The illustration is a cactus bearing paddle-like stems in bloom; a symbol of endurance since this plant grows and flowers in the most arid of deserts. The double window is crowned by a “yellow curtain”, draped along the sides.

Chapelle du Rosaire stained glass windowsAs you enter the chapel you’ll notice fifteen tall eye-catching stained-glass windows. For them Matisse also chose a plant motif: palm fronds. There are six broad columns on the side of the congregation and nine narrow ones behind the Dominican nuns’ stalls.

The fourteen ways of the Cross mural are arranged in a consistent balance, while preserving their individuality. They form an ascending path, all structured around the central motif: Christ on the Cross.

The confessional’s door is made from a single piece of wood and is beautifully carved at the top. The design lets light filter inside the small private room. Although the walls are painted white, the light shining through the stain glass windows throw a soft pink/bluish light inside the confessional. Inside the confessional, the top part has ceramic panel represents the crucifixion in black on a white background while in the sacristy, its counter part is drawn in white against a black background.

The panels of Saint Dominic and the Virgin and Child are on the same level in terms of their decorative spirit.

A narrow passage way leads you to a series of charcoal drawings and lithography by Matisse as well as a room displaying five bright and colourful Vestments also designed by the artist. They are truly remarkable.

Chapelle du Rosaire wall drawingsA smaller room contains the first model that Matisse made of the chapel and shows his original designs for the stained-glass windows.The colours are there, but the final design was yet to be discovered.

The end of the passage leads you out of the chapel through a series of stairs. A small area has been set aside for postcards, pictures and a selection of books dedicated to Chapelle du Rosaire and the life of Matisse. A model of the existing chapel is located opposite the book counter.

A Bit of History
For a while Matisse lived in Cimiez (Nice) at the Régina, a former hotel turned into an apartment block. The hotel had originally been built as a vacation spot for Queen Victoria, who once occupied the entire west wing.

In January 1941, Matisse underwent abdominal cancer surgery and was operated on by Doctor Santy at the Parc de Lyon Clinic (Lyon), then maintained by the Dominican Nuns of Grammond.

Sister Jacques-Marie
His surgery required him to receive constant care. He was still convalescing a year later when, in September 26, 1942, his regular night nurse took a short holiday. As her replacement, Matisse hired a temporary night nurse; her name was Monique Bourgeois.

Although she stayed only 15 days, both she and Matisse became good friends (she found him to be an intelligent, lovable, yet modest person) and their friendship continued even after the end of Monique Bourgeois’ assignment.

She applied and obtained a nursing scholarship and received a little financial help from Matisse when he asked her to pose for him (he did four canvases and numerous sketches, some of which can be seen in the Matisse chapel’s adjoining room.). And, when one of his nurses either fell ill or took a few days leave, he would ask her to stand in for them.

Having passed her two nursing school exams with high grades, she then enrolled in a school of social work for one year. However, a precipitous series of events interfered and she never began her studies.

Some time later, and it is not made clear why, Matisse asked Monique Bourgeois’s mother if her daughter could come and work for him for two months. By then Matisse was living in a rented villa called “Le Reve”, the only one available for rent in the area. Fearing a wartime evacuation of Nice, Matisse had moved to Vence at the end of June 1943.

Monique not only nursed him at night but sometimes posed for him during the day for a number of ink and charcoal drawings. During this time with Matisse Monique’s religious calling was affirmed and she was somewhat hesitant and unsure how to tell him. While she had wanted to enter the Convent of the Clarisse in Cimiez, her health precluded this possibility. A Dominican priest urged her to consider going to Monteils, which was the parent house of the Dominicans from Vence.

Then came her most difficult task: breaking the news to Matisse that she planned to enter the convent. On September 8, 1944, she took the veil and was given the name of Sister Jacques-Marie.

Chapelle du Rosaire outside viewAfter taking her vows she returned to the convent in Vence in September 1946 and renewed her visits to Matisse. During the course of their discussions, she spoke to him about a small chapel the sisters were thinking of renovating and showed him a drawing she had done. Matisse suggested she draw a stained-glass window and promised to help her with it.

At the end of Autumn 1947, a young Dominican, Brother Rayssiguier, was convalescing near to St Paul de Vence. While there he paid a visit to the convent. Welcomed by the Mother Superior he inquired if there were any notable personalities in the area. She replied that Matisse lived in Vence and suggested that, if he did go to visit him, to present himself as their architect and advisor wishing to discuss their future chapel and perhaps ask for his advice and guidance. And thus began, when Matisse was 77 years old, the greatest and biggest project of his life.

Brother Rayssiguier (later to become Father Rayssiguier) took a considerable part in the working and execution of the architectural plans. The implementation was given to Mr Milon de Peillon, under the direction of Auguste Perret. The stained-glass windows were executed by Paul Bony and the ceramics by Mr Bourillon of Aubagne. The foundation stone was laid in December 12, 1949, and the chapel was blessed by Monsignor Rémond, Bishop of Nice, on 25 June 1951.

Matisse is quite adamant that it is because of, and for, Sister Jacques-Marie only that he became interested in the chapel and agreed to become involved. Sadly, it is a little noticeable (and somewhat unsurprising) that much is made of the intervention of Father Rayssiguier but little is mentioned in official writings about Sister Jacques-Marie’s major contribution.

Chapelle du Rosaire La Maison LacordaLa Maison Lacordaire des Dominicaines du Rosaire
During my visit to the chapel, I also discovered that it is possible to stay at La Maison Lacordaire du Rosaire, located just next door to the Matisse Chapel. You can stay at any time of the year from three days up to ten days either on your own, with your family or as a group.

And although you might think that most people stay there for a spiritual retreat, you are also welcomed to stay for a holiday, or as a short break away from a busy lifestyle.

La Maison Lacordaire du Rosaire is made up of two renovated villas, set in some very charming and extremely peaceful terraced gardens. There are 24 bedrooms made up of either single or double rooms, each with en-suite bathrooms and their rates are extremely kind to your pocket.

During your stay you will also have the pleasure of sitting outside in their beautifully tended gardens with exceptional views across to Vence and surrounding countryside.

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Note from The Editor: I would like to thank both Les Héritiers de Matisse in Paris and the Foyer Lacordaire in Vence, for their kind permission and assistance in letting me take photos of the inside of Chapelle du Rosaire and allowing me to publish them.