In Houston, Texas, the first ecumenical centre of the world, a sacred place open to all religions, but which belongs to no one, inspired by the work of the great American abstract expressionist artist, Mark Rothko.
The building rises up in a rather shy, anonymous manner in Montrose, a suburb of Houston. You can notice it perhaps more for a small sculpture in the park in front of it – a small pyramid on whose tip a sort of prism stands in balance, almost by magic.
The true miracle awaits the visitor once you step through the door: that absolute silence that only in some mountains, in some deserts, can one experience. The light seems to enter everywhere, yet it is tenuous, suffused. That same light reverberates on the large coloured panels that an untrained eye might think, at first glance, to be monochrome. Then, depending on the path of the sun, the wall brings out different, unthinkable grains and shades. Rothko Chapel is a place like few others in the world: it has a rather curious companion in the Brandenburg Gate, symbol of the divided Berlin, in whose northern gatehouse, after the reunification, the “Chamber of Silence”, defined as a sacred place of all religions and none.
In the Rothko Chapel you will find the Bible and the Buddhist books of the Pali canon, as well as the Koran and the Bhagavadg? (Bhagavad Gita). Simply put, this is an ecumenical chapel that celebrates art. Its creator, Mark Rothko, enthusiastically met the request of the builders, John and Dominique de Menil. The artist saw art as something extremely personal and for which every initiative had to come about as a result of an inspiration.
In this case, it took the form of an octagon inscribed in a Greek cross, according to a play on numbers and geometries linked to sacred beliefs in different traditions and cultures. The paintings that dot the interior were made there, and are inextricably linked to the chapel, quite literally. In 1999, in order to restore these works, the building had to be closed – some were too large to be removed.
Before painting, Rothko had made a trip to Italy, where he was struck by the frescoes of Fra Angelico at the convent of San Marco in Florence. He became obsessed and tried in every way to take them as a model for brightness. He put in a great effort, although the artist did not have time to see the chapel complete. He committed suicide a few months before the inauguration, which was held in 1971. Since then, the Rothko Chapel has been one of the most visited buildings in Texas, where international conferences are held. However, it is also a safe space for those looking for a bit of tranquillity. Every year more than 55 thousand people pass through its doors.
A work of architectural and pictorial art – which has called others upon to it: the chapel is also a musical space and offers excellent acoustics. Morton Feldman, one of the gurus of contemporary classical music, dedicated an eponymous composition, a long, unique vocal movement (with double chorus and female voices), accompanied by celesta and viola, which seems to reflect with notes, that monochrome interrupted by cracks, which was typical of Rothko’s art and view of aesthetics.
This is an artistic journey, that of the Latvian who found his home in the United States, and a one-of-a-kind experience. His name is tightly linked to the concept of contemporary art. Rightfully, appreciation for his work, especially in the last decade, has constantly grown. One of his paintings, “Orange, Red, Yellow“, was auctioned for a record of nearly 87 million dollars (86.882.500, to be precise) making it the most valuable work of art produced after World War II.