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Art and the Church -> Materials for Use in Churches

Christmas - Christmas Eve by Matisse

Christmas Eve by Henri Matisse



Winter Festivity

by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker
In the final years of his life Matisse (1869-1954) had to work in seated position following major surgery. These are the years of gouache cut-outs. Out of sheets of painted paper he cut forms which he then glued on white paper in balanced yet dynamic compositions. Nuit de Noel (Christmas Eve) is such a cut-out work, from which subsequently lithographs were made. This lithograph demonstrates well what Matisse’s work is all about: colour, light, decorative patterns and harmonious compositions. The symmetry is striking: at the top right and left there are two stars, underneath these to the right and to the left two black stars and two white shapes with a larger black star in the middle, above and underneath these again two white stars, while all of these together form the décor for that one big yellow star that bursts forward. You can also start looking at the bottom of the work. Then the blue as it were forms a pedestal which climbs upwards via the leaf and the stars to the yellow star on top, from which dancing stars erupt like a fountain, converting into giant snowflakes and still further down into confetti-like strings. A true winter festival of colour, snow and light.
Matisse was an artist who from a humanistic viewpoint wanted to show the value of human beings and the beauty of life. He said: ‘I strive for an art of balance and purity. An art that causes no unrest or confusion. I would like to accomplish that people who are tired, strained, broken may find rest and peace in my paintings.’ He wanted his work to be ‘a comforting influence, a mental ointment – something like a good armchair’. To achieve this the works to the end of his life became more and more abstract, although his shapes always kept something recognizable and in this way remained engaged with visual reality. 
Christmas Eve was a design for a stained-glass window, that is why it has the shape of a window and black horizontal lines. As far as I know the window was never made. Perhaps you are familiar with that other beautiful Matisse window of the Tree of Life in the Rosary Chapel in Vence near Nice, a chapel that was entirely designed by Matisse and is now considered one of his most important works. That he as a non-Christian was assigned this task was fully in line with the ideas of the l’art sacré movement, which came to the fore in the middle of the last century. It was an attempt to get better visual art into the church by involving the best, often non-believing, artists. With some wonderful results, yet in some cases also less successful.
The window form endows Matisse’s work with a sacred quality. That’s why it can point for us to something bigger than winter festivity and merriment. The star can show us the way to the only real light that can break open our darkness and winter and bathe them in a transcendent glow. The star can show us the way to the Christ child. Every dark day anew.
Matisse: Nuit de Noel, 1952, litho. 
ArtWay Visual Meditation Christmas, 2008