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Vence Chapel:  A Masterpiece from Matisse - Alter & Stained Glass

Professor Arnie Greenberg


Going to the south of France? Here’s something worth seeing… Matisse’s chapel in Vence and the Meight gallery in St. Paul, nearby.

Matisse spent a lifetime creating colorful (Fauvist) works but an almost simple work will be with us for a long time, even in its simplicity.

During Henri Matisse’s last years he worked on the redesign of a small  Dominican Chapel, high above the Mediterranean at the town of Vence north of Cannes.. From the chapel, one can look out over the sloping valley for miles. It sits, white and blue in the southern sun, but the miracle  of its beauty lies within under the 42 foot high cross, adorned with gold crescent moons.

 A visitor expects something special, or he wouldn’t be there. Rising after a long drive up the mountain with the twist and turn so much a part of the beautiful rocky ridge landscape is the Chapel of the Rosary.

In Matisse’s words, he “wanted those entering the chapel to feel themselves purified and lightened of their burdens.”

His dream became a reality. This sacred building is the culmination of achievement during an active life. It follows an artist’s active life of sincere emotions and beautiful, colorful (Fauvist) creations.  Knowing he was near the end of his life, he poured onto the job with, love, dedication and thanks.

The woman who took care of him and showed interest in his work, became a Dominican nun. It was his way of giving thanks to Monique Bourgeois for her special devotion to him when he had been ill. He immersed himself in this selfless task..

During recovery from a cancer operation, Matisse worked from a wheelchair.

The small Dominican chapel became his project as early as 1947. The cornerstone was laid in 1949 and the chapel was finally consecrated almost four years later. It is modern but rather modest in design. There is stained glass of blue, yellow and green. See above) It represents the tree of life. On the wall behind the alter there is a Franciscan priest, probably St Francis himself. 

From the road you first spot the white and blue tiles with the 42 foot high cross adorned with crescents and golden flames radiating over the world. On the door is a ceramic that portrays Mary, Jesus and Saint Dominic.

In the sanctuary there are only simple lines. They are vigorous yet supple, showing power and peace or calm.

In the nave, one comes upon Mary rising among nature’s flowers. She offers the Christ-child with his arms open in the attitude of the cross.

From the mountainside

Against one wall simple black drawings of the Stations of the Cross offer a passionate concept even without color. It fills the chapel with the artist’s passionate spirit.

I was lucky enough to have the nun in residence to explain each artistic work. She spoke lovingly about the man and his dream.

Matisse was seventy-seven when he started the work. The time was filled with hundreds of preparatory drawings, endless restarts and nights filled with anguish.

Over the years, the master painter executed his ideas with the aid of colored pieces of paper, set on the walls at the end of a long stick as he sat in his wheel chair. He watched closely as the implementation took form. The foundation stone was laid on December 12, 1949 and blessed by the Bishop of Nice on June 15, 1951. The four years were considered the ‘fruit of his whole working life”. “It isn’t perfect”, he said, “but it is my masterpiece.”

Matisse died is 1954. Sister Marie-Bourgeois died in 2004.

I remember well our first contact with the Franciscan sister who told us that the chapel was closed that day, but when she saw that we were a whole busload of interested people, she opened the doors and went through a detailed explanation for which we left a well deserved donation.

I walked out onto the slope, looking down to the sea. The view was superb. But as I turned back and saw the light on the white chapel that was so perfectly set, I knew it was something I would never forget. The fact that the artist had designed every detail from the furnishings to the architecture, I knew I was looking at the work of a genius.

Vence lies on a hillside above the city of Nice, nine Km from the sea. Beyond is St Paul de Vence where Chagall lived and worked. There too you can visit the modern Maeght Gallery (pronounced MEGG) with its geniuses like Miro, Brancusi, Calder, Braque, Bonnard, Chagall and graceful Giacometti. They are all memorable and worth a short climb to this sacred part of the Riviera. They receive over 200,000 visitors a year. \for information call 04 93 32 01 63 or see

There is another decorated chapel worth seeing on the harbor front of Villefranche. This was done by Jean Cocteau. It is beautiful but not in the same sense as Matisse’s calming masterpiece.

Check the opening and closing times before you go. It would be a pity to travel up the mountain and not be able to tour this remarkable work of art on Ave, Henri Matisse. Make sure you have proper directions. You might otherwise miss it.

Its more crowded in summer but there are short waiting times and for art lovers the wait is worth it.

Open: Tuesday-Thursday AM only and Monday-Thursday and Saturday afternoons.

Phone: 04 93 58 03 21

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You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at


Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to: or contact him directly at

(More about the writer.)


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Last Revised: Friday, May 15, 2015 06:38:58 AM
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