Faith Special Section

Artistry, universality are the gifts of Rothko Chapel


The Rothko Chapel offers an unrivaled experience on several levels that can appeal to even those who don’t consider themselves religious. | Nguyen Le/The Cougar

The longer I gazed at the towering portraits, the deeper my mind slipped into thoughts of eternity.

The more I lingered, sitting in front of the paintings in solitude, the more quickly the moments flew by, like shooting stars in the galaxy of my mind.

Sounds like an excerpt from a sci-fi novel, right? Good guess, but these were just my thoughts after first setting foot in the meditative space of the Rothko Chapel, located in Montrose and directly next to the Menil Collection.

John and Dominique de Menil, who also founded the Menil Collection, commissioned the interfaith chapel. Its doors were opened in February 1971.

Its interior is dedicated to the work of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko through 14 colossal portraits.

But the chapel is devoted to something more than artwork, although the paintings surely play a definitive role in its purpose. An article from NPR revealed that the de Menils envisioned creating the chapel as a place for people to unite through their common humanity.

“(It is) a gathering place of people who are not just going to debate and discuss theological problems, but who are going to meet because they want to find contact with other people,” Dominique de Menil said.

Before the octagonal brick chapel was completed, Rothko had finished the art that is now on the walls. The artist never got to see the final project: He committed suicide in 1970, which was a year before the establishment’s opening.

His art speaks for itself, however. Each painting is dark in both mood and color, an attribute uncharacteristic for Rothko’s other, lighter work.

The paintings, the largest of which stands 15 feet by 11 feet, appear monochromatic at first glance. A closer look will unveil an overlay of pigment and alternating hues. They give off an almost tangible depth that adds to the sensation, and even a sense of obligation, to go deeper into thought, prayer or worship.

The chapel’s inclusive notion is visible throughout. Before coming in to the foyer, holy books like the Bible, the Quran, the Kordeh Avesta (Zoroastrianism) and the Bhagavad-Gita (Hinduism) are neatly displayed and arranged. Each year, over 90,000 people seek peace and worship in the Rothko Chapel, according to their website.

Many people have been impacted spiritually and mentally by the atmosphere and art of the chapel. Visitors are encouraged to record their unique experience in an extensive comments book upon exiting.

The de Menils’ vision for a space of open congregation for those all faiths, or those without it, is beautifully realized and commemorated in this piece of living Houston history.

So take an hour – or two, or three – and get lost discovering the beauty and depth of the Rothko Chapel.

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