On the edge of a small park, somewhere in downtown Houston—it's easy to miss if you don't know where to look—there's a chapel. A small pond with statue marks it as a destination, but the stark brick building doesn't tell you much. There's no flashy sign, nor even very remarkable architecture. No indication that great art lives within its walls.
To the left of the big, heavy doors is a sign. Under the chapel's hours, there's a small sentence, just three words: "All are welcome." That's it. The grand entrance to the Rothko Chapel.
Stepping in, I feel the weight of its silence. I immediately recognize this as a sacred space, a shared place of prayer. Surprising, because I was prepared to look at the art in a distanced sort of way, like at a gallery. But an art gallery this isn't. Turning around the room, all I see is black. All fourteen canvases lining the eight walls: black. Everywhere. I had prepared for the humming, vibrant, incandescent Rothko, each painting a world of its own. But these were all the same. Big, black, and boring.
"Okay," I thought, "so I shouldn't pretend like I'm in a museum. Fine. What should I do instead? I guess I'll sit on one of these cushions in the middle of the room, and try to pray. I'm in a chapel, after all."
I start my prayer with a period of silence, trying to slow down my racing mind. But I peek through closed eyelids: "those paintings...they're so...big. And they're just sitting there. Weird. Okay, back to breathing. Inhale, Exhale. Shhhh."
After a few minutes, I start to look at the paintings again. One of the triptychs towers over me; It's Goliath, I'm David. It's speaking, challenging...demanding, almost. But what is it trying to say? Is it asking me to feel sad, or to mourn? You know, because of all the black? Maybe...but I'm not in mourning. In fact, I'm starting to feel a sense of peace. I return to prayer.
Finally, after prayer, I feel like I'm fully there. I've returned to the present, and I'm ready to learn more from these paintings. So I sit, waiting for one to show me something, anything. Watching and praying, the painting slowly begins to change. "Is that violet I see? And crimson? Wait...where did all of these colors come from?!?" Quick as a flash, a torrent of color starts streaming in from the paintings' sides. They come to life. What was once only black becomes dark violet, and then red....and white...and...and...
"Whoa. These aren't just sad, black paintings. There's light in that darkness. Life lurks there."
The colors start springing to life, but the paintings still don't hum. They're tall and strong; moving, yet still. They stand in tension—somewhere between life and death, dark and light, mourning and celebration—giving it all. As I walk carefully through the chapel, trying not to disrupt those in prayer, I'm amazed. The canvases aren't just black void. They're void, and they're life. They're torrential waterfalls, waiting to wash me away. They stand as guardians, protecting the chapel by their sheer presence. I'm suddenly confronted by a mystery and a greatness that's bigger than I, one that's easy to forget until it confronts you.
When I finally leave the chapel (the second time), I start to wonder what it was, exactly, that had just happened. I'm still wondering, trying to make sense of that experience. And the best guess I've got, the closest I've come to putting it into words, is that the Rothko Chapel showed me solemnity.
When I think of solemnity, I usually think of events happening in spaces, like weddings or funerals or other church services. But in that chapel, I saw solemnity. Rothko painted it, and stuck it on eight walls. With those giant paintings, Rothko gave me an experience of solemnity, and reminded me how desperately we need it.
Why do we need it?
That's the question I'm still considering. So far, I think we need solemnity because by its power, we're given an opportunity for divine encounter. Pretty abstract, I know. How else can I put it? Solemnity is powerful, like a guardian or an armed solider standing at attention. It protects our and others' communion with God by requiring us to follow certain rules. Solemnity brings us in, but not without conditions. "All are welcome," but there are rules. You've got to be quiet. You can't distract yourself, or others. You're coming in to a show already in progress, so be respectful. These conditions are meant to protect us, not limit us.
I think those paintings are solemn because they stilled me. Even though I came in ready to pick them apart, they stood tall, refusing to budge until I sat beneath them. And when I did, they kept on being strong. They didn't let up. They provided an opportunity for honest prayer because I couldn't run away from them. Like forces, they stood around the chapel with linked arms. They reminded me to breathe, slow down long enough, and let the colors come.