The Art of Reflection Within the Rothko Chapel

This chapel elevates Rothko's canvas as deity.

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Dec 20 2015, 9:10pm

Photos by Hickey-Robertson courtesy The Rothko Chapel

Fourteen deep purple and velvety black Mark Rothko paintings hang within an octagonal-shaped chapel. The large-scale Rothkos were made especially for an interfaith sanctuary dedicated to spiritualty and human rights in Houston, Texas.  

The Rothko Chapel was founded and conceived by Dominque and John de Menil who envisioned a special space that integrated art, architecture, and the divine. Inspired by Le Corbusier’s chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, the de Menils commissioned Rothko to make paintings for a spiritual center built by architect Phillip Johnson. The chapel opened to the public in 1971. 

In her vision of the chapel, Dominique de Menil said, “The Rothko Chapel is oriented toward the sacred yet it imposes no traditional environment. It offers a place where common orientation could be found—an orientation towards God, named or unnamed, an orientation towards the highest aspirations of Man and the most intimate calls of the conscience.”

The space itself feels like a museum-church but allows for unlimited seated contemplation. The paintings call for quiet reflection as viewers sit on benches or prayer pillows. The very act of sitting in solitude with the Rothkos becomes a guided meditation. The art takes on profound presence. It is elevated in a venerated light to be both abundant in meaning and devoid of it.

The canvases begin to throb with energy as the mark of the artist—the brushstrokes—become more pronounced through active viewing. In a small amount of time, one’s whole body is aware that the space is sacred and that the work of the artist is profound. 

The strength of the chapel is that it is open every day of the year with active programing around spiritual celebrations, from Buddhist meditations to choir concerts, as well as human rights discussions with the Rapport Center at the University of Texas School of Law.

In a time when our global consciousness is preoccupied with the complexities of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Paris terrorist attacks, and mass shootings, safe places for interfaith contemplation become more important. The Rothko Chapel is an important space for interpersonal reflection as well as collective healing.

The black canvases remind us of our universal quest, that the terms of the art and the artist is a journey, that even through obscurity there is tremendous power.  

To learn more about The Rothko Chapel click here.  

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