Matisse’s second life

  • Themes: Art

Following a miraculous recovery in health, the ageing French painter Henri Matisse spent his last few months reflecting on sacred themes, and produced some of his most original work.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) looking at stained glass at the Chapel of the Rosary, Vence.
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) looking at stained glass at the Chapel of the Rosary, Vence. Credit: Glasshouse Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The Spiritual Adventure of Henri Matisse, Charles Miller, Unicorn Publishing Group, £30

It was spring 1941, and at Lyon’s Clinique du parc the Dominican nurses had a nickname for their new patient. They called him ‘le ressuscité’ – the man raised from the dead. He was 71 years old and had endured two emergency operations on his intestines, followed by two blood clots – one in his heart and another on his lungs, both of which nearly killed him. Then his wounds became infected. He was finished, his doctors told one another.

They were wrong: Henri Matisse was not yet done. By the autumn he was painting again. ‘It’s like being given a second life,’ he wrote.

Between those perilous months and his death in 1954, Matisse would produce some of his most original work. For his book Jazz he developed a découpage technique that opposed pages of fluid biomorphic shapes in voluptuous colour with monochrome handwritten texts. Among the latter was a quote from the Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, a late-medieval meditation on the Christian life, which Matisse had by his bedside through the 1940s. Matisse’s chosen text came from the chapter on divine love; if nothing else, it indicated his direction of travel.

Matisse had been raised a Catholic but left the church behind in adult life; his work is strikingly free from overtly Christian themes. Even while recuperating in Lyon his thoughts had turned to designing a Dominican chapel as an act of thanksgiving, and in the autumn of 1947 an opportunity came his way. It was, he said, ‘a labour for which I was chosen… at the end of my journey’. This labour – the creation of the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, south-east France – is the subject of Charles Miller’s The Spiritual Adventure of Henri Matisse, an exploration of how the project was shaped by Matisse’s profound engagement with developments in 20th-century Catholic thought. It is, in Miller’s phrase, a study of ‘the synergy between theology and aesthetics’.

Matisse described the chapel as ‘the fruit of my whole working life’, but on this reading it was his most collaborative work. Central to the book are the dialogues, both epistolary and in person, between Matisse and two Dominican friars, Marie-Alain Couturier and Louis-Bertrand Rayssiguier, and Monique Bourgeois, who both nursed and modelled for Matisse in 1941-2 before herself joining the Dominican Order. Couturier, in particular, came to the project both as an artist himself and as the sometime editor of the journal L’Art Sacré. Founded in 1935, L’Art Sacré was a revolt against what Miller calls the ‘sumptuous but saccharine’ naturalism of the prevalent aesthetic in religious art. The journal advocated a ressourcement, a spiritual and artistic renewal through a return to the ancient sources of Christian art. It also sought to reconnect modernity to the sacred through re-engagement with the thought of Thomas Aquinas, not least with regard to concepts such as ‘wholeness’ and ‘integrity’, ‘harmony’ and ‘radiance’ in art.

The chapel echoes the structure of Jazz: luminous biomorphic colour in the tall, elegant almost- claustral stained-glass windows opposing white-tiled walls carrying monochrome images of the Madonna and Child, of Saint Dominic and of the Passion. The latter are unlike anything else in Matisse’s work: intensely simple, rawly hieratic, brutally direct. The effect, Miller writes, is of ‘presences more than depictions’, a phrase that echoes Wassily Kandinsky’s distinction between images that are merely representational and those that make a spiritual reality present.

In the early stages of the project, Matisse had written that he aimed ‘to lead colour through the paths of the Spirit’, and to be in the chapel, Miller writes, is to be ‘set within the architecture of the book, or rather the two books of nature and grace’ – that is, creation and scripture – represented by colour on the one hand and line on the other. To move through the chapel, then, is to move through the articulation of an argument, a spatial arrangement of ideas about grace and suffering, creation and redemption that are resolved by sacrifice and the gift of light, which is to say, love.

The exegetical possibilities of stained glass are also at the heart of Virginia Chieffo Raguin’s new book The Illuminated Window: Stories Across Time, which examines developments in the art from the 12th century to today. Although Raguin does explore how modern abstract installations, such as those of Gerhard Richter at Cologne Cathedral, can ‘invest space with a timeless and immaterial present’, the book’s primary focus is on explicitly religious uses of the art form in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Canterbury Cathedral’s cycle of 12 typological windows pairs events from the Old Testament with events from the New, showing how the former prefigure the latter. The prophet Balaam points to a star in a scene from the Book of Numbers; the scriptural text, in Latin, reads ‘A Star shall come out of Jacob; a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel’. In the next frame, the same star leads the three kings to the infant Christ. At St Mary’s, in the Cotswold town of Fairford, a sequence of early 16th-century windows illustrate the life of Christ. As Raquin notes, the choice and treatment of theme parallel the immensely popular meditative writings of Nicholas Love, The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. The window that depicts Christ’s Transfiguration, for example, emphasises consolation and includes the resurrected Christ returning to comfort his grieving mother.

One might say that exegesis of God’s work is the conventional language of stained glass, but the nature of the material – and the way it mediates light, the creation of which is God’s very first command in Genesis – means that it also serves to realise the sacred, to make God’s first breath visible, in a fixed moment of infinitely shifting possibilities: the light moves and changes the way both art and light are received, modulating, elaborating and restating its music. Spiritual reality is always present because the image can never simply be representational: it is necessarily always alive in light.

What then happens to the medium when it moves out of sacred spaces into secular or domestic domains? In these new settings, Raquin shows the glass articulating a different kind of story. In Renaissance Switzerland, ‘small panels [were given] as testimonials of solidarity and friendship’, or as tokens of intense civic pride, between individuals, trade guilds, towns and cantons. Meanwhile, the development of painted glass roundels in Northern Europe enabled artists to bring the nuances of print and engraving design to their work.

While some of these new forms of work celebrated secular identities, many still drew on scripture, affirming intimate affinities between biblical narratives and daily life. The village of Lotzwil near Burgdorf, for example, has a panel representing the Judgement of Solomon to a goldsmith who performed judicial functions for the municipal council. These windows sat somewhere at the intersection of private and public, interior and exterior worlds – but they remind us how much the sacred was part of the grammar of both.

These two books explore in different ways the exegetical capacity of stained glass and architecture. Metaphors of illumination come all-too-readily to hand in responding to them. If light itself co-exists as both a metaphor for the sacred and the primal expression of it, then stained glass is similarly porous in the stories it tells – a thin and gorgeous veil between the figurative and the real, the material and the divine. To move through the space in front of its finest articulations is to move beyond the human and to be in light. A spiritual resuscitation, howsoever needful, howsoever brief.


Mathew Lyons