Sunday 18 April 2010

A veiled presence

While in Houston I took the opportunity to visit the Rothko Chapel right across the road from the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum, near the University of St Thomas and the Menil Gallery. Both chapels use modern materials to create an appropriate space to serve the art within. The Byzantine frescoes from the Church of Cyprus show Christ Pantokrator and the Blessed Virgin, with angels.They are displayed in a glass chapel at the heart of the structure and evoke a sense of the sacred in the traditional manner of sacred art. The Rothko Chapel is equally effective in a very
different style. An octagonal room with light entering from above, the walls are occupied by eight huge sets of panels of grey-blue and brown and dark purple. If the ceiling had been low and flat, instead of raised and full of light, holding the octagonal structure together, the impression might have been oppressive. Rothko ended his life in suicide, and some have seen his obsession with darkness as a psychological and spiritual dead end. Yet strangely I did not find the effect to be one of sadness or spiritual despair. These panels set in a space of great integrity invited me into an interior space and dialogue that seemed both uplifting and refreshing. Like mirrors yet without the distraction of images seen in glass, the panels reflect one's interior landscape and allow one to hear the voices inside one's own head. The surfaces are not plain but full of texture and subtle variation; the forms are not mass-produced but each unique, and marked with the traces of human labour; the geometry is harmonious both with the building and its play of light, and between the panels, three of which (on three of the main walls facing the Four Directions) are triptychs and the fourth possibly a Golden Rectangle.

I felt a bit like an early hominid or spaceman from Kubrick's 2001 confronting the black monolith. Yet these were far from black, and seemed full of quiet life like shadowed water, or dark oceanic horizons, or the shrouded mountainsides of a Japanese landscape. The texture of brushstrokes suggested in one the northern lights, in another a vast cave of stalactites. You bring yourself into that room, and the paintings in that space help one to become entirely present. If prayer is attention (Simone Weil) then the Rothko Chapel can be a place of real prayer. Yet the shape of the space is crucial. The paintings have an intensity and a presence of their own, but it is the geometry of the structure in which they are set that completes the effect. And although the Chapel is a place of worship, meditation and prayer for persons of all faiths, the room feels to Christians a bit like a baptistry. Sacred geometry speaks a language of its own, giving the spiritual traditions some kind of common ground. And if the visitor does not find his way across the gardens to the Byzantine frescoes where the Presence is less veiled, he at least is brought to the threshold of a revelation, the open Book of Nature that is the cosmos itself, and the Self that awaits in quiet expectation.

The illustration is gratefully borrowed from a fellow blogger at  

[Since I wrote this post, the journal Communio has published a wonderful article on art by Rodolfo Balzarotti which contains a detailed analysis of the Rothko Chapel in section 3. Please read the article, which is mainly about William Congdon.]

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