The Rothko 'Chapel' In Texas - It's Not Christian, But Most Christian Churches Are No Better

And I Mean Most Traditional Churches Too! 

It is often claimed that the work of the abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko can induce religious experiences in those who see them. Rothko said that this was what he was aiming for, and so many people have claimed to have had religious experiences as a result of contemplating his paintings, that some of those who love his art have designed a special gallery - the Rothko Chapel, in Houston, Texas - designed especially to enhance the experience of encountering these large-scale canvasses of floating clouds of color.

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Is it possible that these paintings really do cultivate the virtue of religion? I am about to fulfill one of my teaching roles, as Visiting Fellow at Thomas More College in New Hampshire, by teaching an intensive week of the course, The Way of Beauty, and as part of this we consider just this point, along with the validity of the styles of modern art as the basis of Christian art. 

So we consider, for example, the work of Matisse - who was commissioned by Dominicans in France to do some paintings for a Catholic chapel; and the work of the Abstract Expressionist artist Mark Rothko. 

Rothko particularly provokes interest. In the class, we look at the comments of the artists, of people who admire his work, of the critics and of those who attend the chapel (taken from the chapel website). The conclusion that we usually draw is that these works might have a psychological impact through color and shape - in much the same way that interior decoration in influence mood, but that influencing emotion is not the same as a religious experience or even spirituality, as a Christian understands it. Therefore, we conclude, it is not a holy icon and cannot replace the images of our Lord, the Saints and so on necessary for worship. But, on the other hand, some say, we might consider painting the walls of parts of the church in some of the colors he uses if we thought it beneficial. 

Here are some more pictures of Rothko's work and of the Rothko Chapel so you can see what we are talking about.

 The chapel exterior in Huston...looking eerily like a modern church building!

The chapel exterior in Huston...looking eerily like a modern church building!

Rothko and modern art aficionados might be offended by our classifying him as a glorified painter and decorator, but it is not altogether negative! The use of color and decoration to influence mood in a particular way is important. I can't believe, for example, that in the English College in Rome, such considerations did not influence the choice of fine works of marble, tiles and painted plaster in gold, Indian red, cobalt blue, and lime green.

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But important as it is, the role of color and decoration is supplemental to that of the holy images placed into that setting. 

Or it ought to be. 

If we do not engage with those artistic images in the way intended then they become just another part of the mood inducing decoration. This is, I fear, what happens in practice. 

Very rarely, and this is as true in my observation as much of congregations at the traditional Mass as it is of those at the Novus Ordo, the art contributes no more to the liturgical engagement than the tiled floor or paintwork on the walls. Whether it is beautiful art which is ignored, while worshippers bury their noses in Missals; or ugly art that worshippers to their best to disengage from by keeping their eyes shut in prayer or directing their gaze downwards, the effect is the same. It contributes solely to the general impression of color and tone via peripheral vision, for good or ill.  

No wonder the modern era of iconoclasm flourished! Why bother to have art in the church if it isn't really part of what is going on. And how can we know what art is the best to choose if the people making the choice do not know how to engage with even the best art during the course of worship? To the degree that this describes the situation, we might as well be sitting in the Rothko Chapel after all. His canvasses might well contribute to mood as much as the tiled floor of the English Chapel in Rome, or the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

This has ramifications on our faith and on the culture. It is through the visual, tangible, audible and the odorous artifacts that our faith is made concrete. And the forms that encounter and engage with directly constitute the most powerful influence on Christian culture, sacred and profane. When our connection with the material in our worship is lost, on the other hand, we lose our sense of what a Christian culture is, and secular influences are sucked into the vacuum. 

My argument for the importance of re-establishing the practice of worshipping with visual imagery was made in more depth in an earlier article, here