Matisse and the Mass: Continuity and Change
One of the most unusual depictions of the Stations of the Cross is in the Chapel of the Rosary at the Dominican Convent in Vence, France. The chapel, designed by Henri Matisse, features a back wall on which the Stations are one large mural. At first, one has the impression that it is unfinished: it resembles black and white chalk drawings one might find in an artist’s sketchbook. After spending time with the artwork, though, one begins to appreciate its inherent logic. The lack of realism is, ironically, more painful for the viewer than a realistic creation would be. It is chaotic. It disturbs us. It is too simple. It makes no sense. We begin to understand how disturbingly ordinary the crucifixion itself was, how simple, how senseless by any human calculation. “The drawing is rough, very rough,” Matisse confirmed in [a letter], “God held my hand.”
“L’exactitude n’est pas la vérité,” explained Matisse about his approach to art: “Exactitude (or precision/accuracy) is not the truth.” Precisely because we are forced to think about the meaning of the representation, we enter more deeply into meditation on the passion and death of Christ. Two ingredients are blended here. First, the representation is completely familiar. We quickly identify the story. We recognize its movements. We know it by heart. This makes the second action possible. By rejecting some pieces of the tradition (e.g. separate “stations” requiring a pilgrimage through the church, and artistic realism), Matisse moves us from recognition to contemplation. In doing so, he prevents the tradition from becoming stale (Are we not desensitized by the too-familiar? Don’t we walk by Stations on a regular basis with barely a notice?) and allows it to surprise us with its ever-fresh revelations and requirements.
This, it seems to me, is a basic liturgical rule. We must balance continuity—that which never changes, which is familiar and known by heart—with that which provokes us anew to “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium #14). The Psalmist invites us: “Come, let us sing joyfully to the LORD… Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving… Come, let us bow down in worship; let us kneel before the LORD who made us.” If we are to accept the Psalmist’s invitation, we must be careful about continuity and change.
For example, scholars have given us multiple translations of the Bible, and the bishops wisely mandate a specific one for the sacraments. However, because the lectionary changes to accommodate scholarly developments, Bible passages we memorized as children may already be unfamiliar to us as adults. For instance, the Magnificat read from the pulpit nowadays is not the same wording many of us memorized as children. The same may be said for the 23rd Psalm and others. Have you experienced this? We must ask, is the alteration worth it? Does it, like Matisse’s Stations of the Cross, provoke deeper contemplation and “full, conscious, and active participation,” or does it needlessly disrupt the tradition? Perhaps a familiar, albeit lesser quality, translation would serve the Church better. Is it not still The Word of God? Do we imagine that God’s living Word depends (apart from egregious distortion) on the accuracy of the translation? (Was God not speaking prior to the most recent translations?) L’exactitude n’est pas la vérité.
Likewise, Pope Francis has suggested that the English version of the Lord’s Prayer should be changed to be more theologically accurate. Instead of praying “lead us not into temptation”—which sounds as if God is the one doing the tempting—the pope suggests praying “do not let us fall into temptation.” If the pope and bishops make the change, I will certainly follow their lead, but as long as it remains an open question, I turn again to Matisse. Will changing the words lead to deeper contemplation and “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgy, or will it distract us? Will it enhance the tradition or disrupt it? Whether in our prayers, our Scriptures, our Missal, our music, or our liturgical art and architecture, we must carefully balance the need for familiarity and continuity with legitimate change. Although a development may be technically correct, it may not be spiritually beneficial. L’exactitude n’est pas la vérité.
For the faithful Catholic, changes in wording that has been familiar and beloved may feel like a loss or even a theft. Church leaders should make such changes very cautiously. Not every disruption has the effect of Matisse’s Stations of the Cross, leading us into deeper engagement in prayer. Sometimes, changes draw attention to themselves and not to Christ. When changes are made, however, I suggest we take Matisse as a model and allow the disruption to lead us into deeper contemplation. By balancing—with faithful creativity—the demands of continuity and change, Matisse effected a modern spiritual masterpiece. He may very well be the liturgical mentor the Church needs most right now.
Photo of the Chapel of the Rosary from https://www.architectural-review.com/Pictures/web/o/d/l/_380.jpg
Photo of Matisse by Alvin Langdon Coburn – http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?483434, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40351169