In Houston, art lovers regularly visit the Menil Collection in the Museum District. One of the most interesting buildings to visit on the Menil campus aside from the main museum is the Rothko Chapel. Is it no ordinary place of worship, rather it is an interfaith sanctuary from the world outside where art integrates with architecture to create a place of meditation and tranquility.
Dominique and John de Menil who were great art collectors and champions of human rights conceived of the idea of the Chapel. They believed in creating a space that was both religious and sacred to welcome communities that worship God as well as activists and art lovers. The Menils wanted visitors to be inspired with a spirit of respect and love when they visited the space. In 1964 the Menils commissioned artist Mark Rothko to create the chapel.
Mark Rothko is known for creating abstract expressionist paintings although he did not like labels when it came to his artwork. His most famous works are paintings are of large blocks of rich colors in different sizes spaced horizontally on the canvas. These blocks may seem a solid color from a distance but when viewed up close show many colors layered on top of each other to create a unique color with far more depth and energy.
For the chapel Mark Rothko worked with architects Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, and Eugene Aubry to create an octagonal space to house 14 monumental canvases. He envisioned his paintings integrating seamlessly into the structure to create a total art space. Each canvas consists of subtle shades of blacks and purples over the entire span of the canvas. The effect is very powerful and the dark restrained colors make the paintings feel alive and full of texture and depth. Inside the space, a skylight fills the space with natural light. The only other objects besides the paintings are benches and cushions where visitors can relax and meditate.
On my visit, I was first transfixed by the large sculpture directly outside the Rothko Chapel’s doors, Broken Obelisk, which rises from a rectangular reflecting pool and was a gift to the Menil’s in honor of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from the artist Barnett Newman. Upon entering the chapel, my first sensation was how wonderfully cool the air felt. Compared to the sweltering Houston heat outside, it was a welcome retreat. Then, as I entered the inner chamber, the absolute silence of the space was so absolute. Once you visit, it’s easy to see why this space has inspired artists, writers, and musicians.
Over the years, the chapel has become recognized as one of the greatest works of religious art and was a featured entry in National Geographic’s Sacred Places of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Most Peaceful and Powerful Destinations. The US National Register of Historic Places included the Rothko Chapel in 2000. It is open every day of the year, so if you are traveling through Houston, it’s a destination worth experiencing.