Give or take a few years, when I was too young to recall my surroundings in North Texas or when I lived in Austin during college, Houston is all I’ve ever known. I call it home. I’ve grown accustomed to frenetic city life which seems to buzz 24-7, the concrete arteries of interstate, all too often clogged with cars wasting precious, overpriced gasoline, and the heat, dear God, the heat. The humidity is not for the faint of heart, because you will drip with sweat (or as a Southern lady might prefer, “glisten”). Something inside me bonds with the fast pace and bountiful resources at my fingertips, though in a quest for sanity, I seek out havens of quiet. One such place is the Menil campus, tucked into a neighborhood of bungalows and shady oak trees.
My regular pilgrimage is devoted to the main hub, The Menil Collection, and two satellite structures – the Rothko Chapel and the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum. I’m drawn there not just to escape the chaos of urban life, but also the racket of my soul. Stepping foot into any of the three buildings hushes my spirit and cleanses my psyche. As a Christian, I am drawn to the two chapels within walking distance of each other, as well as the Byzantine icons housed in the elegant Menil Collection: religious art particularly dear to Dominique de Menil.
John and Dominique de Menil and their five children have been compared to the Medicis of Italy. One could say that what the Medicis did for the Renaissance, the de Menils did for modernism in Texas, though if you could travel through time and share this comparison with the couple at their wedding in 1931, they might have scoffed at the grandiose idea. John worked in a Paris bank with a normal income, and seven years later he joined Dominique’s family oil well-logging business, Schlumberger, Ltd.. John and Dominique fled France as the Nazis invaded, and they landed in Houston, TX. The city was never to be the same. They built a modernist, flat-roofed house amidst white columned-mansions in River Oaks, championed civil rights in a city still imprisoned by segregation, and of course, collected modern art considered to be peculiar, to say the least.
The de Menils were Catholic, yet ecumenical, and they found a mentor in Father Marie-Alain Couturier, a French Dominican priest who was an artist himself. He was instrumental in uniting the work of Matisse, Rouault, and Leger with churches in France. Father Couturier took the couple around to numerous art galleries in New York, teaching them his love for modern art. He not only infected them with his passion, but also opened their eyes to the beauty of Cubism, to the work of Mondrian, and other types of art that previously seemed foreign to their eyes. And as John de Menil said in a lecture at the University of St. Thomas in 1964, “We were very fortunate because those times were extraordinary times for collecting. First the great masters, the Cubists, Picasso, Braque, Gris, were still available at reasonable prices. The Surrealists cost practically nothing. And on top of that African art was coming on the market.”
All of this good fortune resulted in one of the most impressive private collections in existence. John and Dominique always planned to share their finds in a museum, and after John’s death, his wife birthed their dream by christening the Menil in 1987. Though John might have preferred great architecture, Dominique aimed for a functional space, one that appears larger and more luminous than its unassuming, simplistic exterior. I must say, her idea works. Whenever I walk towards the austere building, I’m struck anew by the genius of its placement in a cozy neighborhood where people live, the true life of a city. The idea of sanctuary comes alive between the quiet streets. I’m soothed under the shade of old, twisting oak trees. I take refuge from the sweltering Texas sun by snagging a bench under the high, undulating awnings outside, or by opening a tall glass door to the Menil itself, flowing with cool air and natural light filtered by means of louvers, skylights, and massive windows.
Inside, the de Menils’ eclectic collection hangs at eye level, spaced at comfortable distances on wide white walls. Very little text is near each piece, allowing the art to speak. As modernists, John and Dominique believed in a spiritual connection between art of all cultures and times, and they believed in erasing those borders. As I walk from room to room, I see this very clearly in the diversity: Greek and Roman cultures, medieval and Byzantine work, indigenous art of Africa and Oceania, modern and contemporary art (including Ernst, Magritte, Leger, Matisse, Picasso, Jasper Johns, and Warhol), and current rotating exhibits. To my eye at least, I begin to see a common thread in the eclecticism – both the creators’ and collectors’ search to see beyond what we can see, past ourselves, into the beautiful, in order to discover what is truthful, what is good, what is everlasting; when before our eyes, what is tangible seemingly crumbles.
The Menil Collection was not the first project to bear the de Menils’ influence. Inspired by the fusing of modern art and spirituality in Mattise’s Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, they commissioned a chapel adorned with somber paintings by Mark Rothko and architecture by Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry. The Rothko Chapel opened to the public in 1971 when John was still alive, literally “open to all” in its nondenominationality, honoring the de Menils’ egalitarian beliefs and their desire to provide a sacred space for the city of Houston.
I’ve walked the sidewalk from the Menil to the Rothko Chapel many a time, always feeling like I’m taking a trek into mystery. I arrive at a modest brick building facing a pool of water in which Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk sculpture presides. The steel structure was placed there in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to symbolize the de Menils’ passion for civil rights; the love of God and neighbor cannot be separated from justice. The obelisk’s stare prepares me for the stillness inside the Rothko Chapel. Fourteen large canvases, including three triptychs, loom around the octagonal room. The paintings emanate hues of black, brown, deep maroon, and plum, framed only by the gray walls and lit only by a single aperture of natural light above. Crude benches face each other in the framework of a square. Though I feel the rhythm of the geometrical beauty, my impression is also one of emptiness; a space waiting to be filled. This void serves its ecumenical purpose, allowing each person to bring in what he or she may. It isn’t my personal belief of worship, yet I do think the Rothko Chapel is a rightful sanctuary from the cacophony of life. We are saturated with moving pictures, flashing lights, and noisome information on nearly every communication medium we see or hear. That is why a chapel of stillness with meditative modern art beckons me to step inside a place where I can slow down, sit, drink in beauty, and hear my own thoughts. At the opening of the Rothko Chapel, Dominique de Menil made an interesting observation as well, likening the art’s hushed tones to the voice of God as heard by Elijah – not in the heavy wind, not in the fire, but in a small whisper.
The final destination of my pilgrimage to a trinity of sanctuaries is the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum which opened in 1997. Dominique happened upon two 13th-century frescoes stolen from a votive chapel in Cyprus, and cut into 38 pieces. She salvifically rescued the shards, paid for their restoration, and asked her architect-son, Francois de Menil, to design a building “to restore the sacred fragments to their original spiritual function.” He was a novice architect at the time, but he created one of the most dazzling sites I’ve ever seen.
Like the Menil campus in its entirety, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel’s exterior is restrained – simple blocks of concrete. As the door closes behind me, my eyes adjust to the dim light, quite a contrast from bold Texan sunshine. I walk across the narrow vestibule tower, gently illuminated by the light monitor above. Within a few more steps, I see the glass and steel chapel structure housed first under concrete, then a hovering black metal liner, more specifically named an “infinity box” by Dominique. The freestanding chapel appears to be billowing white glass, an abstract re-creation of the original Byzantine chapel in size and scale, only pulled apart – like a paused explosion. This visual effect symbolizes how the frescoes were ripped from their original home. The box within a box structure, and the rescued sacred art evokes a reliquary – profound, since the two frescoes were originally part of an entire living liturgy on the walls and floor of the Cyprus chapel.
Underneath the opaque glass, a large Christ Pantokrator fresco hangs directly above in the dome, and a Virgin and Archangels fresco rests in the apse, exactly where they resided in the Cyprus chapel. These icons are the only source of color in the building, but they provide ample warmth with rich tones of royal blue, mustard, and brick red. A small golden cross sits on the altar. Where the Rothko Chapel seems empty, the Byzantine Chapel is filled with images. Even the benches present a different idea – most face the altar, the others placed near the front on each side, creating a cruciform shape. The last time I visited, I sat on a forward-facing bench and thought I could remain there all day. I realized that the frescoes do for visitors what they did for Byzantine parishioners – teach what is alive in the cosmos beyond mere visibility. An older man walked in, knelt at the altar, and crossed himself: a very moving sight. I imagine Houstonians and world travelers alike are grateful for this welcoming, devotional place.
Friends arrive in Houston and ask me, “What should I do while here?” I’m pretty infamous for directing them to the Menil neighborhood, to these three shelters of art and spirit. Houstonians are proud to claim these renowned buildings, but we are also eager to share. We’re inspired by the generous souls of John and Dominique de Menil and lessons they left behind for anyone who will listen. Even now, they teach us to be enchanted by the sanctity of art, to embrace a variety of work – catholic, if you will – to share with one another, welcome the stranger, beautify our surroundings, behold what is lovely, and seek for the truth. The word “sanctuary” means different things to different folks. To the Greeks, sanctuary was a plot of land deemed a sacred zone. For Christians, sanctuary is the space of a church focused near the altar. Broadly, sanctuary is refuge from the wind-whipping deserts of our lives, shelter from whatever storm may shake us. A place to retreat and give us strength to get back out there. Every city could benefit from two such saints as the de Menils and the sanctuaries that bear their vision.
For further reading, check out Sanctuary: The Spirit In/Of Architecture, edited by Kim Shkapich and Susan de Menil and published by the Byzantine Fresco Foundation.