Matisse and the Mass: Continuity and Change

Matisse and the Mass: Continuity and Change


Here is a link to this weekend’s readings.

Matisse Stations of the CrossOne 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

Photo of Matisse by Alvin Langdon Coburn –, Public Domain,

  • Marion Collins
    Posted at 00:04h, 04 February

    Kevin, I enjoyed your blog-at first the mural by Henri Matisse seemed confusing but as I concentrated on it, the whole thing came to life and complementvie meditation, The Way of the Cross at the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary suddenly had much more personal effect on me! Having gone to a Dominican College I can relate to the Dominican style of contemplative prayer and meditation. I am glad the Matisse is in that setting. One has to look very closely and with deep concentration to truly involve ourselves into the Crucifixion.
    As to your treatment of continuity and change, I easily accept most of the changes in Scripture interpretation that scholars and theologians have adapted after study of the history and culture of the times. I do however, have some discomfort with change in Prayers. The Church I have been attending while on Vacation prays the Magnificat after Mass and I totally stumbled through it the first time so I did find it distracting. And try to teach “Consubstantial” to seven year old children who are preparing for First Communion! I do, however, agree with Pope Francis’ suggested rewording of one part of the Our Father- it makes sense! We must be careful balancing continuity and change, between technically correct and personal spirituality.

    Thanks, Kevin, I agree that following Matisse’ interpretation of the Stations is indeed Faithful Creativity and a Wake-up Call for us! I will evaluate the changes more carefully in an attempt to accept them as the work of the Lord. As you quoted Matisse when he said “ his drawings were rough -God held my hand”. Isn’t that true of all things–God holds our hands!

    Bayard, thank you for Kevin Dowd’s blog. He always gets us thinking. A coincidence I am happy to share is amazing, this same week as Kevin’s blog and the Matisse Mural, a friend was on Pilgrimage in The Holy Land and sent me a picture of the Stations of the Cross at a Church in Calvary. They are not a mural but look as though the individual pieces were based on the Matisse masterpiece and everyone was in awe of them and profoundly affected! Not coincidence but The Work of our Lord!