Vatican prepares to open room devoted to Matisse

Museum to show large-scale drawings for works in the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, on public display for the first time

Henri Matisse in the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, 1951 (Photo: Life/Dmitri Kessel)

rome. The Vatican Museums in Rome are set to open a room devoted to the works of Matisse later this year. The move is designed to further boost the profile of its modern and contemporary religious art department. Large-scale preparatory sketches by the French artist, relating to items adorning the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence on the Cote d’Azur, will go on public display for the first time. The works were donated to the Vatican by the artist’s son Pierre in 1980.

From 1948 to 1951, Matisse created Stations of the Cross, wall decorations, furniture, stained-glass windows, even the vestments and altarcloths, for the Dominican chapel in Vence. Three large-scale drawings, all more than five metres high and drawn to scale, form the basis for the Tree of Life stained glass behind the altar and the Virgin and Child depiction created on ceramic panels in the chapel’s presbytery. The works are currently in conservation, as glue used to attach backing panels pre-1980 has seeped through to the surface of the drawings.

Five silk chasubles (the outer vestments worn by clergy during Mass) in a variety of colours, and a belltower bronze cross, all made by Matisse, will also go on view at the Vatican in a display costing E350,000. A stone Madonna sculpture by Lucio Fontana (1956), which is too heavy to move, will remain in the same room.

Micol Forti, director of the Vatican Museums’ modern and contemporary art department, says that lighting the Matisse objects has been an issue: “The 16th-century room where the sketches will be on show has no windows. This could not be more different from the Chapel of the Rosary, which is flooded with dazzling sunlight. I eventually opted for lighting that will combine with the style and colour of the works to evoke a solar explosion.”

Forti also revealed the challenges behind showing modern and contemporary art at the Vatican: “I’m trying to show the new ‘face’ of the department that was launched in 1973. The collection has since been enriched with other gifts and acquisitions that make it strong in works of the 1960s. Chagall, Gauguin, Leger, Ernst, Nolde and Bacon are among the artists represented. Unfortunately, we are not always able to acquire art so I decided to make the conservation and development of our artistic heritage a priority.”

She hopes to establish a new research centre that will strengthen the “relationship with contemporary art”. The Vatican is also building an archive of works donated by artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, made up of pieces by Cesare Fracassini and the Futurist artist Bruno Corra.

The Vatican plans to launch a pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011, while its first contemporary art commission under Pope Benedict XVI was awarded to Claudio Parmiggiani in 2007.

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10 Jan 11
14:33 CET


Has anybody visited the Matisse exhibition in the Vatican? I searched for information on the vatican museum website for confirmation of the Matisse Room with no success.

22 Sep 10
17:28 CET


If you want to visit the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel for free on September 27 it'll be free entrance. Franco

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Also by Francesca Romana Morelli