In the sun-drenched south of France, as World War II raged through Europe, in 1941 one man was facing the bleakest battle of his lifetime. Henri Matisse, the painter of fleeting fun and sensual pleasures, had been diagnosed with colon cancer. To make matters worse, Amelie, his wife of 39 years, had left him over his infidelities, and his daughter — having flouted his apolitical stance by joining the French Resistance — had been arrested and sent to Ravensbrück Concentration camp. 

After a lifetime of fleeing from suffering, Matisse was trapped in it.

His life, health, and pride shattered, Matisse underwent two complicated operations that left him in a wheelchair and unable to paint and sculpt as before.

In need of assistance, Matisse put an ad in the paper for a “young and pretty” night nurse, and 21-year-old Monique Bourgeois answered. As Matisse’s strength returned, he asked her to model for him, and the story could have taken the same turn as many of his other dalliances, except young Monique was discerning a vocation to become a Dominican sister. 

Matisse tried to dissuade her, given that he had rejected religion many years before, but the young woman persisted. In 1943 the two were reunited in the town of Vence (not Venice), where Matisse had moved, and Monique, now Sister Marie-Jacques, was recovering from tuberculosis.

An intrigued Matisse rekindled their friendship, and upon discovering the community was using a leaky garage as their chapel, he took matters in hand. From this came what the 82-year-old artist would describe as “the result of my entire working life. Despite all its imperfections I consider it to be my masterpiece”: The Chapel of the Rosary in Vence.

This project would prove to be Matisse’s greatest challenge. Objections mounted on both sides to the commission. His old “frenemy” Picasso was aghast. “A church!” he cried. ”Why not a market? Then you could at least paint fruits and vegetables.” Catholics, on the other hand, were up in arms that an agnostic libertine was designing a sacred space from the ground up. Physically, Matisse could not stand and paint energetically as he once did, and spiritually, despite a newfound interest in Catholicism, he was religiously illiterate, his lifetime spent in ignorance of saints, Scripture, and sacraments. Who was this man, weakened in body and deficient in faith, to stand in the footsteps of the great chapel decorators like Giotto, Michelangelo, or even Caravaggio?

Henri Matisse and Sister Jacques-Marie. (Chapelle Matisse)

Matisse did the same as the great masters before him — he played to his strengths. Color spoke to him, hues moved him, his palette had the potential to communicate a universal language. During his convalescence, Matisse had begun experimenting with cutouts from construction paper, making clean, crisp, colored shapes and patterns. Assisted by Dominican artist and theologian Father Marie-Alain Couturier, Matisse launched himself into this project that, like the Sistine Chapel, would occupy four years of the artist’s life.

The chapel celebrates St. Dominic, the founder of the Order of Preachers (commonly known as the Dominicans) and his role in promulgating the Marian prayer of the rosary throughout the Catholic world. 

Perched high above the coast of the French Riviera, the little village of Vence is flooded with bright Mediterranean light, which Matisse harnessed for the little chapel. Some of the walls are covered with reflective white tiles, but the power of the chapel comes from the stained-glass windows designed in his new cutout style and fired by master glazer Paul Bony. Following the tradition of France’s greatest cathedrals, Matisse would tame light and color within a sacred space.

Five petals fill each of the long slender windows, reminiscent of the beads of the rosary. The rhythmic pattern of the shapes evokes the soothing repetition of the prayer. For Matisse, religion served to conquer his passions, so he favored blue, a typically Marian color, alongside yellow and green.

The rosary windows lead to the sanctuary, where the artist drew upon the mosaic decorations that had once entranced him in Italy. Sun-colored glass fills the space behind the altar, like the golden apses of Rome. Blocking the full force of the light, lapis panes form a hanging drape, symbolic of Mary’s protective mantle, decorated with stylized cutouts of acanthus leaves, the ubiquitous decoration of early churches and symbol of eternal life.

Matisse had found “a second life” in this project. “Every day that dawns is a gift to me, and I take it in that way. I accept it gratefully without looking beyond it. … I think only of the joy of seeing the sun rise once more and of being able to work a little bit, even under difficult conditions,” he said. 

The Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France. (Shutterstock)

He saw new beauty, a beauty of hope and renewal. He became so absorbed in the project that he designed every detail, from altar furnishings to liturgical garments.

He painted the walls with a brush attached to a long pole that he could wield from his chair. The shapes seem almost childlike, reflecting his newfound love of simplicity. The image of St. Dominic next to the altar was drawn without facial features, so that each priest whose face was reflected in the shining tiles could be a new incarnation of the founder.

Indeed, there are no faces at all in the chapel, not in the Madonna and Child that stretches along the nave nor in the Stations of the Cross traced in spartan black lines at the back of the church, perhaps an expression of his approach to work, forsaking his name and fame to take on this task “with the greatest humility… like a communicant approaching the Lord’s Table.”

Matisse only sketched one visage in the entire chapel. Amid the tangle of shapes that form his 14 Stations of the Cross, he drew the face of Christ into the Veronica, the cloth that wiped Jesus’ face as he climbed toward his crucifixion, and upon which his image remained impressed. It is a face of suffering, moments from death, but a death offered to give new life to all.

In that tiny chapel Matisse used his skills and talents to transform his personal suffering into new life, offering peace, light, and hope to generations to come.