Matisse’s St Dominic at Vence

August 1st 2020

St Dominic, Rosary Chapel, Vence, Matisse 1947-51

It fell to Fr Fergus to clothe me in the Dominican habit. It was 5th October 1992.  There were two of us.  I remember that he preached a very fine homily. He said what we were called to do was make the Order’s mission happen, but we would do it as the the individual’s that we were.  We had come early to “mind” Fr Bede and Fr Fergus, while the others were away at a chapter down south. Indeed, I do remember him saying that we had already made a good start; what with putting out milk bottles and the like!  There was a reference in his homily to this drawing of St Dominic by Matisse which is on the wall of the Rosary Chapel of the Dominican nuns at Vence. It is just a bit north of Nice.  Fr Edward Schillebeeckx has a published homily which begins with mention of this portrait of St Dominic. I think Fr Fergus must have quoted him.

Schillebeeckx noted that  “Dominic was depicted in just a few strokes,  but you could not say that the portrait was ‘abstract.’”  He goes on to explain why.   “You are impelled to fill in this sketch of Dominic yourself, and yet you feel that your own interpretation is under the spell and norm of this drawing.”  You must fill it in from your own experience, from who you are, and from who you become, clothed in the Dominican habit as a son or a daughter of St Dominic.   

Plan of the Rosary Chapel at Vence

It is important to be aware of the positioning and the scale of this portrait.  It is on the lateral wall to the right of the altar.  The Rosary Chapel at Vence is quite small. (see the plan) The nave is only about 20 feet wide.  Our chapel here is Edinburgh is about 28 feet wide. The Rosary Chapel in Vence is about 10 feet longer than ours but it is much higher.   The portrait of St Dominic is over 15 feet high.  To give you an idea of how large it appears in situ, you might note that our lateral wall next the garden is only about half that at  8 1/2 feet high.  The ratio of Dominic’s height to the chapel width is about 15:20.   The chapel was designed as a space where some twenty Dominican nuns would chant the office, pray privately and attend Mass.  Others were admitted into the nave,  but only for Mass, so this chapel was the nuns’ private space for most of the day.  It has the typical “L” shape so common in the chapels of contemplative women.  The Dominican nuns could sit in their “wing” on the left,  facing the altar but with a degree of privacy and seclusion.  At Mass other worshippers could also sit facing the altar, but from the main body in the nave.  Only the nuns looked directly at St Dominic.   These nuns contemplated an image of St Dominic which was monumental in both style and scale and yet so simple. It is known that Matisse spent a long time honing down this image to the bare essentials.  To understand the power of Matisse’s St Dominic you need to be able to see it as these nuns saw it.  There are other figures drawn on the walls.  All of their faces are blank.  In the case of St Dominic, perhaps the oval face was left blank so that a Dominican nun might see her own face in it or that of another Dominican.  This restraint in definition gives the viewer a freedom to interpret and contemplate.  It could become face and figure of anyone who sought to live out a Dominican vocation.   With this in mind, I think that  the key to grasping the power of  this simple line drawing – it is just black strokes on white ceramic tiles – is that it is made first and foremost made for Dominicans. 

Matisse spent 4 years designing this Chapel.  He was old and frail.  But these years between between 1947 and 1951 were a time of intense dedication to this project.  The link with these Dominican nuns came when his former nurse, studio assistant and model, entered a Dominican Convent.  In fact,  she had delayed entering the Convent so that she could nurse him after surgery in 1941.  Her name in religious life was Sr Jacques Marie.  The community at Vence ran a convalescent home for girls with consumption.  Again when you enter the space it is important to remember that these women cared for sick people.  Their vocation was to heal and bring comfort. This was how they followed in the footsteps of St Dominic.  It is also important to note that the Rosary Chapel was designed to be used almost exclusively by women; the nuns and the girls whom they nursed.   Throughout the design process Matisse was in close contact and dialogue not just with Sr Jacques Marie but also with two friars.  One of these was Marie-Allain Couturier OP, who was an artist and writer.   He had been brought in as the Dominican Order’s expert consultant.  His collaboration was evidently fairly hands on as it is known that he modelled for the St Dominic portrait.  There is evidence that quite a bond of friendship developed between Matisse and these three Dominicans.  Through these three Dominican contacts, Matisse, although an unbeliever himself,  was able to absorb Dominican traditions, liturgy and iconography. Matisse always insisted that for him this chapel was a religious space.  And indeed it is. More significantly, it is a Dominican space.   With its beauty and simplicity one senses his sympathy with the Order and especially with the habit.  it has been suggested that for Matisse, the nuns’ search for spiritual perfection was akin to his own pursuit of artistic perfection.  This beautiful, but simple, light-filled space certainly does approach perfection. So in this Dominican chapel, Matisse’s search for artistic perfection comes to fruition with a very definite Dominican shape.  In fact, not just the Saint Dominic, but every element of the chapel is steeped in the traditions and liturgies of the Order. 

Sanctuary of the Rosary Chapel at Vence

You need to understand Matisse’s figure of St Dominic as part of this light-filled space, in which the white walls, floor and ceiling reflect the bright light of the Midi filtered through brightly coloured stained glass.  The effect is expansive and beautiful.   But it first and foremost is a space which the Dominican nuns who prayed and worshipped there could make their own.   Even the white tiles on the floor have simple black lozenge at the corners where they meet.  The murals in black line on white of St Dominic, Our Lady of the Rosary and the Way of the Cross are in sympathy, not just with the rest of the space, but with the material and spiritual culture of these Dominican women.   The black on white simplicity suggests the Dominican habit.  Matisse himself said that the black and white habits of the Dominican nuns were implicit in the composition of the chapel and the presence of a nun or nuns completed his design.  Our Holy Father St Dominic pray for us! 

Matisse’s St Dominic at Vence

Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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