Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Art Sacré in France: Matisse, Chagall, Cocteau

Art Sacré in the South of France: Matisse, Chagall and Cocteau

by Jonathan Evens

Southern France has had a magnetic attraction for modern artists who, it is said, follow money and the sun. The French Riviera, as playground for the rich and famous, has plenty of the former and artists from Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh onwards have praised the special quality of the light and hues found in the white heat of Le Midi. The future of the new art lies in the South, wrote Van Gogh, with the painter of the future being a colourist such as never before existed. Presumably this was because, as Cezanne wrote, sunlight cannot be reproduced but must be represented by colour.

Many of the greatest modern artists - including great colourists such as Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall - sought to secure their reputations with work, commissions and museums on the Cote D’Azur. But for some the influence of the region was not solely in terms of colour, money, legacy or sun but also of spirituality. Chagall, Matisse and Jean Cocteau all created work which drew on the Bible for inspiration for religious contexts in the region.


Matisse wrote that his design and decoration of the Chapelle du Rosaire for the Dominican Nuns of Vence was not a work that he chose, but rather a work for which he was chosen by fate. The story of how this work came about is surely an example of the mysterious ways in which God sometimes moves. As a student nurse Monique Bourgeois cared for Matisse in his recovery from intestinal cancer and modelled for four paintings. Later, after Monique had become a Dominican nun (Sister Jacques-Marie), they met again in Vence and renewed their friendship, which led in turn to Matisse’s offer to design and decorate a chapel for the nuns there.

For Matisse the chapel was his masterpiece and the culmination of his life’s work, because it afforded him the possibility of realising his researches - his separate study of each element of construction (drawing, colour, value, composition) - by uniting them. ‘Simple colours,’ he wrote, ‘can affect the innermost feelings, their impact being all the more forceful through their simplicity.’ The spiritual expression of the blues, greens and yellows he used in the stained glass of the chapel struck him as unquestionable. His goal ‘was to find a balance between a light surface and colour with a solid wall of black-on-white line drawing.’ The line drawings on ceramic tiles of both St Dominic and the Virgin and Child he thought to have a ‘tranquil reverent nature all their own,’ while the great drama of Christ in the Stations of the Cross had made ‘his impassioned spirit overflow within the Chapel.’

While Matisse approached the design of the Chapel primarily as an artistic composition, it is clear he thought that by doing so the chapel was an expression of spirituality. As he had said in a letter to Sister Jacques-Marie, he had travelled over his lifetime to admire the beauty of the light God created so he might share it with others through his work.

Vence is a hill town 20 miles from Nice and the Chapelle du Rosaire is near the St-Jeannet road climbing out of the town towards the fine views of the Col de Vence. Set into the hillside looking back towards the town, the chapel itself affords attractive views of Vence and its surroundings. Basically, a simple white rectangle, the chapel externally offers little hint of the beauty contained within although two small line drawings on ceramic tiles decorate the entrance and sanctuary wall, while the blue and white tiled roof is surmounted by a tall metal cross, incorporating a bell, which Matisse designed to stand out against the sky rising high in prayer in a spiral-like smoke.

As tourists we descend steep stairs to the cash desk by the chapel’s entrance. The window at the head of the stairs depicting a fish, net, and blue star is easily missed when doing so. A feisty guide then seats us in the main body of the chapel and commences telling the story of its design while indicating the main elements of Matisse’s work. Those sitting at the back are remorselessly shuffled forwards in order to see the Stations of the Cross on the rear wall and the children present are asked to report back on what can be seen through the confessional door (which recalls the Oriental hangings featured in many of Matisse’s paintings).

The talk over, most depart to view the charcoals given by Matisse to the chapel showing various stages in his design work and the vestments which he also designed. Unusually for a church, the format of the visit and talk does not seem to encourage lingering contemplation. For those who do loiter longer, the play of coloured light on the clean, white spaces of the chapel can be enjoyed as can the balance and clarity of its design. In its natural state, this is a place of light and peace negated somewhat by its place on the tourist trail. The chapel is kept as a place of worship for its own committed community.


Chagall’s Message Biblique paintings were originally intended for a Calvary Chapel at Vence and were painted between 1958 and 1966. Although the Chapel project eventually fell through, Chagall did create a mosaic of Moses in the Bullrushes for the baptistery of Vence Cathedral. Matisse and Chagall were among leading artists in France involved in the renewal of religious art led by the Dominican Friars, Père Couturier and Père Regamy. Both had contributed work, at Couturier’s request, to the church of Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce at Plateau d’Assy while Chagall had also been commissioned to create stained glass for several of France’s great cathedrals as part of their restoration following war damage.

Meditations on religious art had been part of Chagall’s oeuvre from the off due to the place of religion in his Hasidic upbringing in Vitebsk. His commissions for churches, no doubt, also built on discussions about the relations between Judaism and Christianity held when he regularly attended, during his early period in Paris, the Thomistic study circle organised by Roman Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain at his home in Meudon.

Chagall conceived the idea for the cycle of paintings which became the Message Biblique while working on the Plateau d’Assy commission, although many of the images he used were based on gouaches he had originally created as maquettes for a series of Bible etchings commissioned by the publisher Ambroise Vollard. He described the Bible as a great, universal book and so eventually decided not to hang the paintings in a building associated with one religion, such as the chapel at Vence, and instead gifted them to the French state to found the Musée National Marc Chagall in Nice. Similarly, when undertaking his first church commission at Plateau d’Assy, he wrote on the ceramic Le Passage de la Mer Rouge, ‘In the name of the freedom of every religion.’

Climbing streets and steps to the ancient hill of Cimiez takes one to the hidden yet popular gem that is the Musée Chagall. A low-slung modernist building by André Hermant set amidst a garden planted with Mediterranean trees, the Museum sits below the fences and hedges of its boundaries and whispers rather than shouts its existence. Cool colours predominate, which allowed the artist to observe that ‘the colour here is on the inside.’ Hermant’s conception for the space was that of a ‘house’ in which the balance of forms, natural light, simplicity and serenity of form would provide a congenial setting for the collection of 17 large format paintings inspired by the Bible which form Chagall’s Message Biblique.

The combination of Hermant’s house-like conception for the architecture combined with the biblical content of Chagall’s paintings make this a rather more tangible realisation of a Church-House than the entirely unrealised version which preoccupied Stanley Spencer for many years. Chagall spoke of the museum as a house in his 1973 inauguration speech saying, ‘I wanted to leave [the paintings] in this House so that men can try to find some peace, a certain spirituality, a religiosity, a meaning in life.’

On entering the rooms of the Message Biblique - first the room of Genesis and Exodus, then the Song of Songs - one is struck by the colours of the works before their content. For each of the Genesis and Exodus paintings Chagall chose a bold, saturated colour suited to his subject: a luminous green for Paradise, deep red for Abraham and the Three Angels, bright yellow for Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law. He worked in pinks and reds for each of the Songs of Songs paintings. Chagall viewed painting as the reflection of his inner self and therefore colour contained his character and message. In his museum inauguration speech he said, ‘If all life moves inevitably towards its end, then we must, during our own, colour it with our colours of love and hope.’ These are paintings which seek to dream by their colours and lines an ideal of fraternity and love.

Chagall also wrote of ‘seeing life’s happenings as well as works of art through the wisdom of the Bible’ and of trying to express this sense in works ‘shot through with its spirit and harmony.’ So, while the biblical scene illustrated dominates each of these huge canvases, in the margins, and completing the overall composition, are images of other biblical scenes and characters, including often the crucified Christ, together with images suggesting the later suffering of the Jewish people. Chagall’s art is one that connects and reconciles disparate images of Bible, experience, history, memory and myth on the canvas through colour and composition.

This sense of Chagall drawing disparate images and styles together and reconciling them on his canvases was a key part of my initial interest in his work. To be surrounded by these massive statements demonstrating - through content and construction - the potential of religion for reconciliation, was a wonderful and moving experience. That said, the Musée Chagall is primarily a gallery space, and a popular one at that, meaning that time and space for the contemplation which best suits these paintings is at a premium among the crowds and cameras that accompany its position as one of the museums with the highest visitor numbers in the region.

Jean Cocteau

Considerably more time and space can be found at Notre Dame de Jerusalem, the chapel decorated by Jean Cocteau. The contemplative experience which this chapel provides is of an all-surrounding multi-media immersion in the mysterious world of Cocteau.

On my visit the afternoon sun beats down on the grave-grey gravel of the slow incline climbing the forested hills outside of Fréjus leading to the chapel. The track winds up the hillside opening on views of the steeper slopes further on, before revealing the small shelf of plateau-ed land on which octagonal footprint of Notre Dame de Jerusalem sits.

The area in which the chapel was built was bought in the early sixties by Jean Martinon, a banker from Nice. The project is unfinished in the sense that Cocteau died in 1963 before its completion and the chapel is isolated without artists colony it was originally intended to serve. Cocteau drew up the plans and designs for a Chapel assisted by architect Jean Triquenot and the project was finished by his close friend, the muralist Edouard Dermit and ceramicist Roger Pelissier.

The octagonal floorplan of the chapel is laid out in two concentric rings creating an octagonal ambulatory outside and an similarly shaped inner chamber. Mosaics of the Exile, the rebuilding of the Temple and the Annunciation ring the ambulatory while three heavy iron stained glass double doors provide the entrance to the inner octagon. The Cross of Jerusalem may have been the basis for the octagonal floor-plan and this emblem of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (a Roman-Catholic order of knighthood under the protection of the pope) appears elsewhere within the overall design. The floor tiles, which include the Cross of Jerusalem, are glazed tiles shaped in elongated hexagons radiating from a central point and shining like the ocean in different tones of blue. Knights of the Holy Sepulchre also feature in the stained glass and frescoes. 'Dieu le Veult,' a motto of the First Crusade, can be found in the floor mosaic and also on the altar.

The frescoes portray Christ's Passion (The Last Supper, Crucifixion and Resurrection) in crayon on concrete. The style (as which all Cocteau’s murals) is line drawing with muted colour. Cocteau, although untrained as an artist, had an intuitive affinity for line and a talent for suggesting mass through line alone. ‘Line is life and the soul’s style,’ he wrote, arguing that the artist’s presence makes itself felt when a line lives at each point along its course.

Cocteau - prefiguring artists like Andy Warhol and Tracey Emin for whom life and art are co-mingled - seeks to immerse us in Cocteau-world. His church murals at Villefranche-Sur-Mer, Milly-la-Foret, Leicester Square and here aim to do so by surrounding us with his personal combination of traditional and esoteric religious imagery filling every inch of the chapel’s walls and ceiling. The artist and his friends also regularly appear. Here, for example, we have a Last Supper featuring Cocteau, Coco Chanel, Max Jacob, Raymond Radiguet, Francine and Carole Weisweiller. As with Warhol and Emin, Cocteau’s use of his life, faith and image is inclusive and distancing, sincere and ironic, arrogant and humble. It is a means of immersing us in the paradoxes and mystery of life.

Art is artifice; a lie, as Picasso stated, that makes us realise truth. Cocteau personalised this perception in an epigram saying, ‘I am a lie that always speaks the truth.’ For that reason he preferred mythology to history: ‘History is made of truths that are, with time, turned to lies; while mythology is made of lies that with time, turn to truth.’ The Catholicism of his youth and his public return to the faith under the influence of Maritain are part of the mythology of Cocteau’s life and feature prominently in the church murals which he undertook in his later years. They are among the most idiosyncratic contributions to the renewal of religious art in twentieth century France.

That renewal was built on the foundation of Maritain’s insistence in Art and Scholasticism that ‘there is no style reserved to religious art, there is no religious technique’ and the insistence of Couturier and Regamy that, in order to renew religious art in an essentially non-religious age, the Roman-Catholic Church should call upon the great architects and artists of the day to design and decorate its buildings. Couturier summarised this position as, ‘Better a genius without faith than a believer without talent,’ the reverse of the misconstrued idea that medieval cathedrals were built by anonymous craftsmen.

The Chapelle du Rosaire, Musée National Marc Chagall and Notre Dame de Jerusalem are among the fruit of that renewal and illustrate the pros and cons of the approach. What appears contemporary, fashionable or avant-garde in one era may seem passé or firmly of its time in another. The personal nature of the artist’s vision and imagery can open up new perspectives on faith, but may also prove impenetrable, as personal perspectives do not always open up to communal experience. The strength of the artist’s work and reputation may draw significant numbers of visitors and generate sustainable revenue streams, but can also skew contexts intended for contemplation or worship towards the educative, entertainment and commercial aspects of being tourist locations.

While significant issues are raised by these works and their contexts and while the particular circumstances of these commissions and bequests do not suggest generic good practices for commissioning, they are nevertheless wonderful examples of the surprising and rich work which can result when a real and sustained engagement between the Arts and the Church is initiated, as was the case with Maritain, Couturier and Regamy.


Jonathan Evens paints in a symbolic expressionist style and is a creative writer (meditations, poetry, short stories, and a blog). He has facilitated the involvement of churches in a range of public art projects. His arts journalism has featured in a range of publications. He is the Vicar of St John the Evangelist Seven Kings and Secretary of commission4mission.