Surprise in the Vatican Museums; Church of the Eucharist

Matisse Collection Pays Tribute to Truth

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ROME, JUNE 23, 2011 ( When one thinks of the Vatican Museums, Renaissance masterpieces come readily to mind. More startling to most visitors would be the discovery that this same museum, which houses the art of Raphael and Michelangelo, also has important modern stars in its firmament.

Wednesday, June 22, the Vatican brought to international attention its collection of 20th century art by unveiling another surprising treasure, the art of Henri Matisse.

The gallery of modern religious art, located in the depths of the Vatican Museums in the apartments of Pope Alexander VI Borgia and the basement of the Sistine Chapel, contains many lesser-known jewels. A tiny but moving Pietà by Vincent van Gogh, painted shortly before his death in 1890, a smattering of Chagall’s religious paintings and now, at the heart of the collection, the preparatory drawings for Matisse’s celebrated Rosary chapel in Vence, France.

Matisse was not the most Christian of artists. A self-described agnostic, Matisse nonetheless pronounced himself open to the source of beauty. Thus Providence brought him, at the end of his life, to work for the Church.

Born in 1869, Matisse had already started a career in law when he decided to turn his hand to painting. Matisse became a student of Gustave Moreau and soon after in 1905, became one of the co-founders of Fauvisme. Reflecting the spirit of the age, Fauvisme was a paganizing movement, glorifying intense sensation through art. After World War I, Matisse rejected any form of suffering in his work and achieved great success with his cheerful colors and bold patterns, producing sculptures, paintings and even theatrical costumes. He eventually moved to the south of France, drawn by the bright hues of the Mediterranean.

In 1941, after a difficult and painful operation for cancer, Matisse was left bedridden and in constant pain. His bright world collided with the hard reality of suffering. In this difficult time, Monique Bourgouis nursed him, and her charity and kindness deeply impressed the afflicted artist. In 1946, Monique decided to become a religious sister and joined the Dominican convent of Vence, taking the name of Sister Jacques Marie.

Thus began the idea of building a new chapel for the convent of Vence, dedicated to the rosary. Matisse, Sister Jacques Marie, Sister Agnes de Jesus, the superior of the convent, a Dominican brother Rayssiguier and Dominican Father Marie-Alain Couturier, then labored to transform the dream into reality. Completely committed to the project, Matisse sold his own lithographs to raise money for the chapel. His old friend Picasso was horrified. «A church!» he cried. «Why not a market? Then you could at least paint fruits and vegetables.»

Matisse prepared hundreds of drawings for the work, painting the walls from his wheelchair with a brush on an extendable wand. He designed every aspect of the chapel; the stained glass windows, the vestments and even the bronze crucifix for the altar. The artist always planned to donate the preparatory sketches to a museum saying «it would be folly for the cartoons and the windows to remain in the same place.»

The drawings for the stained glass were finally donated to the Vatican 30 years ago by the artist’s son Pierre in agreement with his siblings Marguerite and Jean, and in 1980 came to the Vatican collection.

This gift followed the 1979 donation of the epistolary correspondence between Matisse and Sister Agnes of Jesus tracing the development of the chapel. These letters provide remarkable insight on the growth of Matisse’s first religious project.

The large drawing of the Madonna and Child prepared for the ceramic tile decoration was on display in the Gallery of Modern Religious Art but the exposition never did justice to the work nor represented the importance of the donation. The letters remained unpublished.

Matisse unveiled the chapel in June of 1951 and exactly 70 years later, the Vatican Museums opened their new Matisse room. The funding and idea for the project came from the Patrons of the Vatican Museums, specifically from the Montecarlo chapter, a few short miles from Vence. Mrs. Liana Marabini, president of the Montecarlo chapter, personally provided the gift to prepare the exhibition space with special conservation equipment for paper and textiles, allowing the Vatican Museums to illustrate the artistic conversion of this stellar artist.

The drawings for the windows are brilliantly displayed, but the room is dominated by the giant Madonna and child drawing. Father Marie-Alain Couturier, Matisse’s theological adviser, interpreted the harsh black lines as «letters written in haste, under the shock of some very great emotion.» There is also a copy of the bronze crucifix from the chapel. A short video recounts the events that brought about the convergence of Matisse and religious art, and the letters will be on rotation in the same space to be joined later by some of the chasubles designed by the artist.

Michol Forti, the curator of the modern religious art department of the Vatican Museums, will publish the Vatican collection of Matisse letters in December in a volume titled «Like a Flower: Matisse and the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence.»

Matisse considered the chapel to be his «masterpiece,» despite its imperfections — an illuminating reflection from a man whose 50-year career had been dedicated entirely to the secular. The Vatican Matisse Room is a perfect expression of the Museums’ mission: to preserve and honor great examples of man’s creative genius, but also to proclaim how Truth inspires both beauty and goodness.

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Poetry, painting and procession

Today Rome celebrates the feast of Corpus Christi with Eucharistic processions crisscrossing the city, the most important of course being the papal procession from St. John Lateran to St. Mary Major in the evening. On this glorious day, singing fills the air and bright banners waft through the streets, but these ephemeral visions soon fade away. In the Vatican Museums however, the recently restored «Mass at Bolsena» by Raphael Sanzio has immortalized this miracle in colored stone.

The Miracle of Bolsena, often considered to be the catalyst for the feast of Corpus Christi, recalls an event in the Umbrian region of Italy in 1263. A priest named Peter from the city of Prague nurtured doubts regarding the transubstantiation of the Host during Mass, and during his pilgrimage toward Rome prayed to be relieved of his questions. While saying the words of consecration in the church of St. Christina in Bolsena, the Host dripped blood on his hands and on the cloth below.

One year later, Pope Urban IV instituted the feast of Corpus Domini with the bull «Transiturus de hoc mundo» and commissioned Thomas Aquinas to write the liturgy for the feast. The Angelic Doctor thus wrote two of his finest hymns, Pange Lingua and Tantum Ergo.

The corporal from Bolsena is still preserved in the Cathedral of Orvieto constructed expressly to house the precious relic.

Raphael made his own contribution toward immortalizing this miracle when in 1512 he painted The Miracle at Bolsena in the apartments of Pope Julius II. The painting, restored this spring, brings the miracle to life in vivid color.

The priest kneels before the altar, staring at the Eucharist, which displays a cross of blood both on the Host and the corporal. His lips are parted in surprise but the figure always retains the dignity expected of the celebrant. The dramatic reactions are reserved for the crowd gathered below who crane their heads to see the miracle, or twist and turn as they recount the event to others.

The altar is framed with the monumental architecture absorbed by Raphael through his relative, papal architect Donato Bramante. Sturdy Doric columns reach heavenward and the top of the painting is open to a sky pierced with light. Acro
ss from Peter of Prague there is an anachronistic touch. Pope Julius II kneels bareheaded with four of his cardinals and a small contingent of his Swiss Guards.

Two elements stand out in the work. The first is the still solemnity of the clergy in adoration. Compared with the other works in the room — Peter’s dramatic escape from Herod’s prison, the chase and capture of Heliodorus and the Expulsion of Attila the Hun — the eye finds restfulness and focus when contemplating the miracle.

The other, revealed in the restoration, is the color. Raphael had been in contact with Venetian painters in the period and his new use of color stands out amid the dramatic chiaroscuro of the Liberation of St. Peter and the bright metallic hues of the Expulsion of Heliodorus. Raphael’s colors seem to be tangible — heavy, rich crimsons seem to undulate through the lunette. The blood red is laced with bright crisp whites of linen or silk.

The sensual surface qualities of the work underscore the reality of the scene: The blood that dripped onto the priest’s hands, the cloth soaked with the blood of Christ, drive home the reality of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, one of the principal themes of the 13th and 14th centuries.

St. Thomas in poetry, Rome in procession, and Raphael in images all remind us of the same theme that Blessed John Paul II underscored in 2004: The Catholic Church is the Church of the Eucharist.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at

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