An item I saw the other day about an anniversary related to one of my favorite artists, the Abstract Expressionist painter  Mark Rothko, is a reminder of how art and spirituality intersect in transcendent ways.

Forty years ago, two visionary art collectors foresaw a sanctuary of contemplation and thought, where several canvases commissioned from Rothko would grace – no better word for it – a very special place of nonsectarian meditation in Houston, Texas. Thus was born the Rothko Chapel.

I remember learning about it in college, and if it intrigued me then, I find the idea even more fascinating now. The search for spiritual growth is par for the course these days, but for this unusual and beautiful concept to have been conceived in such a distant past? (Or in the words of chapel director Emilee Whitehurst, “One of the interesting things about being at the chapel now is that it’s almost as if the rest of the world has caught up to where they were 40 years ago.”)

There’s nothing like it in the U.S. (though the closest thing in Europe is the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, France, often referred to as the Matisse Chapel). Those attuned to Rothko well understand the quasi-religious experience that already accompanies an appreciation of his work: a stillness and sense of infinity that touches the soul in a way that once you “get” you never forget. The chapel’s 14 paintings (three triptychs and five separate panels, most black as night, with slight color hints of plum and burgundy) were described by Rothko as “voices in an opera” (and a dark one at that).

The stark interaction of artwork, architecture and light is construed as a whole, and no single painting is intended to be understood in isolation from the others. The effect, by most accounts, is mesmerizing…and for some, transformative.

Sadly, Rothko did not live to see the unveiling of his eponymous mystical masterpiece, having died by suicide a year before its opening in 1971. But the dream, and that of his art patrons John and Dominique de Menil, lives bigger than ever four decades later in a contemplative oasis that draws over 60,000 visitors a year. Included among the 2011 anniversary events: daily periods of silent reflection.

More than befitting, for as the great artist himself once noted…“Silence is so accurate.”

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