Matisse’s Chapel – 31 March 2011

 Thursday, 31st March, 2011
We spend the morning doing bits and bobs after a gorgeous breakfast of barley porridge with honey and cream.  My roots have been exposed for too long and yesterday I purchased what I hoped would be the French equivalent of the color I’ve been using for the last 15 years. It takes 15 minutes to turn my hair lavender-grey.  All I need is a matching poodle and I’m all set.
We’re off to Vence to see Matisse’s Chapel, which as it turns out won’t open until mid-afternoon.  We buy parsnips, carrots, chard and apples from the woman whose stall we visited 2 weeks ago – the manly hippie – whose name, we learn today, is Annabelle. We start talking. She’s one of those people who could be speaking any language and you’d understand her. She says today is the anniversary of her son’s death. She asks if we have children and we talk of our 3. Suddenly I find myself telling her about Amy, my daughter who was stillborn 40 years ago this July.
We leave Annabelle and stop at our Chocolatier for 4 chocolat caramel fleur de sel, and stand on the sunny street to enjoy them. We walk on a few yards and turn into the old quarter of Vence. What joy. Sure there are a couple of touristy cafes and pseudo art galleries, but mainly it feels timeless. It hasn’t been gussied up, but is obviously tended. We find a restaurant which is the only place of commerce on the spacious square where sits the Cathedral where next week we will attend a concert. The square is filled with sunlight and new leaves. No traffic. No Music. How very fine and rare to sit in such a space as this whose only entertainment is the clatter of lunchtime dishes from neighboring houses, the occasional bark from a sleepy dog, the energetic chatter of a few school children coming home for lunch.

 Our lunch is simple and delicious:  Omelets Nicoise and Salade Vert.
 This is the view from our table:
Joel loved the old typography
This is the house I decide to buy:
Well, one can dream. It’s one of the great rewards of travel, this finding of “home.” That feeling of, oh, okay, here, this is it. Family and friends are welcome to visit. Within minutes I’ve designated and designed each floor: ground – kitchen dining. 2nd – living room – 3rd bedroom and bathroom. 4th studio/guestroom. Time to move on!

 We make the trek up to Matisse’s Chapel and even if you’re not religious, which we are not, it’s a spiritual experience. When we first enter the chapel it’s filled with about 30 French women of a certain age. It crosses my mind they might be widows. It’s too much for us, so we go into the gallery and soak up Matisse’s drawing and vestments. For those of you who don’t know – and I didn’t – Matisse was 77 when he designed this chapel and had just survived cancer surgery. He designed everything here: windows, altar, murals, pews.
 The guided tour leaves and we return to the chapel and sit in quiet contemplation. The only other person in here is a Sister from the Dominican convent next door. Joel makes a photograph and she turns to him and gently tells him photographs are not allowed, which of course we already know. Joel demurs. I sit silently weeping. To my right is one of Matisse’s murals, about as spare and simple as art can be: white tiles and those wonderful black marks that Matisse made with a brush attached to an 8-foot long stick.  The marks are arranged in the shape of gentle clouds in the midst of which are Mother and Child. For a ridiculous moment, looking at these two, I believe I will meet Amy in the afterlife. The feeling is so visceral I nearly fall to my knees.
Who can say what the power of religion is? Who can deny the extraordinary vision of this Chapel? How different is this place from Cezanne’s studio, which was all about him, and this Chapel by Matisse which, while he is present in every detail, is so much bigger than him. What a parting gift he gave us.
The Sister seems to sense me and comes to sit with us. She talks gently of Matisse and points to the floor by the altar which is lit blue and green from the light streaming through the windows. There are 3 huge windows here, each with a different design but all made of blue, green and yellow panes.  Sister points to the floor again. “You see there is only blue a green reflected there?” she says, “It is because only the blue and green glass is transparent. The yellow is opaque.” She verifies what we had assumed, that the green represents the foliage of the land, the blue is the sky and sea and the yellow is the sun. But what we don’t know until she tells us is that the yellow glass is opaque because the sun is the image of God and God cannot be seen.
I think of Annabelle. I think of Amy. And I am comforted by my belief: that I don’t have to wait for the afterlife. The departed often visit us, as Amy does, once in a while.

We have had our fill for this day and look forward to a quiet evening by the fire and a simple dinner made from Annabelle’s produce.
Mashed Parsnips and Carrots

Steamed Chard

An Apple

And some of Maggie’s photographs from the day

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