Near the end of his life, the famed artist – ostensibly an atheist – designed a chapel in Vence, in the south of France. Morgan Meis muses about the project that Matisse called his “masterpiece”:
In the chapel, Matisse took some of the amusing plant squiggle designs from his cut-outs and used them for a stained glass called The Tree of Life. The squiggles are yellow against a deep blue background. The result is tense and calming at the same time, not unlike the tension of the crucifixion, in which a scene of a horrible death affirms, somehow, the eternality of life.
The priestly vestments—bright orange chasubles with streaks of yellow punctuated by the darkest black crosses—are made of paper. They are cut-outs to be worn during the act of worship. What does one worship in the chapel of cut-outs? Life, of course, which is to say God. Here, art has come back into its own. It isn’t didactic. It isn’t art that has a specific religious bone to pick. Instead, it is art that is religious in its very bones. You stop worrying about art’s purpose when you stand before Matisse’s Tree of Life. You stop worrying and you start, without so much as consciously deciding, to bend your knees.