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Matisse, Henri - VM - Sandra Bowden

Henri Matisse: Mother and Child

A Heart-Shaped Embrace

by Sandra Bowden

Tucked on the side of a hill in Vence, France is a chapel that can be easily missed if one is not intent on finding this spectacular gem. Chappelle du Rosaire de Vence is often referred to simply as the Matisse Chappelle. In 1949 Matisse started this project as the age of 77, taking four years to complete. It is the only contemporary chapel of its kind in which all the details were the vision of one artist. With a number of original Matisse drawings and stained-glass windows, he saw this as his ‘masterpiece.’ He designed the windows, wall drawings, altar, ceramics and vestments.

My first of many experiences over the last 34 years in this chapel was in 1986 when my daughter and I attended an evening worship service. As we entered, we were flooded with the light cast from the stained-glass windows and awe struck as we noticed the black and white simple drawings on the walls surrounding us. The choir section was filled with sisters and the priest wore Matisse’s green chasuble as he stood behind the stone altar with Matisse’s elegant tall brass cross and candle holders.

On the wall opposite where we were sitting was the strikingly simple drawing of the Madonna and Child. Matisse chose to show Mary offering her son to the world rather than clasping the child against her breast, as she is so often depicted. The Christ child stands on Mary’s lap with his arms stretched out, a pose that recalls the crucifixion or even the resurrected Christ. To create this Madonna and Child Matisse sketched literally dozens of drawings to finally get to the one he felt most appropriate for the chapel.

One of the many renderings is the 1950 lithograph above, Mere et l’enfant. In this rendition Mary is clearly the mother as she holds the infant close to her body. Matisse sketched Mary using bright blue lines, the traditional color of Mary’s garments. Her gentle face looks out at us in peace and tranquility, while her arms form a heart shape that cradles the Christ Child resting comfortably in the mother’s embrace as she contemplates the momentous event. Saint Luke tells us that she understood the significance of the night and that she “pondered all these things in her heart.” Childlike stars are spread across the background transporting us heavenward as we celebrate the coming of the Christ Child into our world.


Henri Matisse: Mere et l'enfant No: X12/Mother & Child No 12, 1950-51, color lithograph signed in graphite crayon/pencil, 29 x 11 cm.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was a French artist, known for both his use of colour and his fluid and original draughtsmanship. He was a draughtsman, printmaker, and sculptor, but is known primarily as a painter. Matisse is commonly regarded, along with Pablo Picasso, as one of the artists who best helped to define the revolutionary developments in the visual arts throughout the opening decades of the twentieth century, responsible for significant developments in painting and sculpture. The intense colorism of the works he painted between 1900 and 1905 brought him notoriety as one of the Fauves (wild beasts). Many of his finest works were created in the decade or so after 1906, when he developed a rigorous style that emphasized flattened forms and decorative pattern. In 1917 he relocated to a suburb of Nice on the French Riviera, and the more relaxed style of his work during the 1920s gained him critical acclaim as an upholder of the classical tradition in French painting. After 1930 he adopted a bolder simplification of form. When ill health in his final years prevented him from painting, he created an important body of work in the medium of cut paper collage. His mastery of the expressive language of colour and drawing, displayed in a body of work spanning over a half-century, won him recognition as a leading figure in modern art.

Sandra Bowden is a painter and printmaker living in Chatham, MA, USA. In 2005 Square Halo published The Art of Sandra Bowden. With over 100 one person shows, her work is in many collections including the Vatican Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, the Museum of Biblical Art, and the Haifa Museum. She is also a passionate collector of religious art dating from the early 15th century to the present. Sandra was president of Christians in the Visual Arts from 1993-2007 and has curated many exhibitions and coordinated the CIVA exhibitions program since its inception. She studied at Massachusetts College of Art and received her BA from the State University of New York. For more information, go to

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