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From Matisse to Rothko: Artist-Designed Chapels. A Religious Experience

artist-designed chapels
Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin

By Tori Campbell

“I think it is better to pray in beauty”

Henri Matisse

Artist-Designed Chapels

Good architecture has the capacity to elevate experiences through the harmonious balance of form, light, and space. Artist-designed chapels take this power to the extreme, providing spaces that are drenched with natural sunlight, or completely devoid of natural light at all, in order to leverage a mindful immersion within the spiritual building. Explore with us some of the most stunning and unusual artist-designed chapels.

Louis Tiffany’s Willard Memorial Chapel

artist-designed chapels
Tiffany’s Willard Memorial Chapel

Built in the 1890s, the Willard Memorial Chapel in Auburn, upstate New York, holds a unique treasure. The chapel, a designated National Historic Landmark, is home to one of the only complete and unaltered religious interiors designed by the iconic Art Nouveau glass designer Louis Tiffany. The Romanesque Revival building hosts a plethora of artist-designed artefacts including nine Moorish-inspired glass chandeliers, mosaic furniture, a gold-leaf ceiling, a rose window, and 14 stunning opalescent windows.

Henri Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire

artist-designed chapels
Henri Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire

Sister Jacques-Marie, a Dominican nun, called on friend and former employer Henri Matisse when in the process of designing a chapel for her sisterhood in the hills of Vence, France. After helping him recover from intestinal cancer, the nursing student went on to become a Dominican nun, where she commissioned the artist to design nearly every nook and cranny of the chapel. From the building itself to the mosaics, candlesticks, stained glass windows, and even the robes of the priests, Matisse brought his sense of colour and movement to the unique structure.

Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame du Haut

artist-designed chapels
Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame du Haut

Artist, architect, urban planner, and designer Le Corbusier was contacted by the Association de l’Œuvre Notre Dame du Haut to design a chapel after the original was destroyed in the devastation of World War II. In 1954, his efforts were unveiled. Made of stone and concrete, the chapel features a stark white exterior with an unusual grey curving roof. Sparsely ornamented with small stained-glass windows that allow in light at various shades and degrees, the tranquil space alludes to the past and future with the incorporation of rubble from the original chapel filling the south wall.

Mark Rothko’s Rothko Chapel

artist-designed chapels
Mark Rothko’s Rothko Chapel

The Rothko Chapel, founded in Houston, Texas, by Dominque and John de Menil in 1971, is a stunning example of an artist-designed chapel. Aptly named, the chapel was designed by artist Mark Rothko and aimed to act as a community interfaith sanctuary that integrated spirituality, art, and architecture under one roof. The founders commissioned architect Philip Johnson to design the structure, and artist Mark Rothko to adorn the space. The latter created 14 huge monochromatic canvases for the octagonal space, in deep purples and blacks, aiming to provide a meditative atmosphere for inward reflection.

Louise Nevelson’s St. Peter’s Lutheran Church

artist-designed chapels
Louise Nevelson’s St. Peter’s Lutheran Church

St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, nestled in New York City’s bustling midtown Manhattan, holds the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, the only permanent installation by artist Louise Nevelson. Informed by the late sculptor’s personal Jewish faith, the consecrated artist-designed chapel realised in 1977 is a sculptural wood, white paint, and gold leaf work intended to be abstract enough to allow practitioners of all faiths and spiritualities to be able to worship. The small room is intimate and awash with light, the pale ash wood pews and gilded altar bringing a sense of peace to all who encounter it.

Ilise Greenstein’s The Sister Chapel

artist-designed chapels
Ilise Greenstein’s The Sister Chapel

While admiring Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the 1970s, artist Ilise Greenstein began to question women’s relationship to God: “Where was woman in man’s relationship to God? God and Adam touching hands—almost. Where was Eve? I decided that I would challenge the Michelangelo concept; I would retell the myth of creation,” she stated. Inspired to create an alternative to traditionally patriarchal buildings, in 1978, after years of collaboration with a wide range of female artists, she opened The Sister Chapel at PS1 in Queens. The chapel features 11 massive portraits of heroic women, chosen by each of the contributing artists: June Blum painted Betty Friedan, Alice Neel painted Bella Abzug, and Elsa Goldsmith painted Joan of Arc, creating a space that has become an ode to the power of women. Though lost to history for many years, in 2016 Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, reinstalled the installation where it can still be found today.

Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin

artist-designed chapels
Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin

The 2,715 square foot stone building, built on the grounds of Austin, Texas’ Blanton Museum of Art was never strictly intended to be a religious space. Designed by artist Elsworth Kelly, the installation (known as Kelly’s Austin), was first conceived in 1986 for a private collector. Inspired by the Romanesque and Byzantine architecture the artist saw in Paris while studying, the structure is Kelly’s only free-standing structure. Like the Rothko Chapel, it is intended to be a place for quiet contemplation; and the colour and use of light of this artist-designed chapel provides the visitor with a spiritual experience.

Theaster Gates’ Sanctum

Theaster Gates' Sanctum
Theaster Gates’ Sanctum

The medieval Temple Church in Bristol, first designed by the Knights Templar but destroyed during World War II leaving all but a shell of the foundation, became an ideal backdrop for one of the most striking artist-designed chapels. Artist Theaster Gates’ first United Kingdom-based installation, Sanctum, took advantage of this historied and spiritual place, utilising material salvaged from nearby ruins to create a breathtaking 522 hour-long program of non-stop performances from musicians, poets, and artists. As he explained, “this project was attempting to make space inside of a sacred space that people might connect with another. Sanctum is primarily a platform on which the people of Bristol have an opportunity to hear each other.”

James Turrell’s Dorotheenstädtischer Cemetery Chapel

James Turrell's Dorotheenstädtischer Cemetery Chapel
James Turrell’s Dorotheenstädtischer Cemetery Chapel

Since late 2016, visitors to the Dorotheenstädtischer Cemetery Chapel in Berlin can find the permanent exhibition of light installation artist James Turrell. The immersive experience is timed with the daily sunset, in which hidden LED lights change colour every two minutes to plunge the space into a deep connection to the spiritual world. Visible from both and in and outside the chapel, Turrell’s work is a nod to his interest in space and light, and draws visitors from the world over every year.

Relevant sources to learn more

Check out Architectural Digest’s images of artist-designed chapels
Want to know more about architecture? Learn about artists who doubled as architects

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