Rothko Chapel by Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko

Interior view of the Rothko Chapel: Northwest, North triptych, and Northeast paintings, 1965–66, Oil on canvas, Houston, Texas, © Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Rothko Chapel, Houston, TX. Photo by Hickey-Robertson

Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image

Letter and Contemplation

Commentary by

‘Letter’ of any kind is transcended in the Rothko Chapel. Conceived by founders Dominique and John de Menil as a non-denominational sacred space, the chapel was devised by architects Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, and Eugene Aubrey to accommodate fourteen abstract paintings by Mark Rothko.

The Rothko Chapel may be understood as embracing a new mode of expression that emerged out of religious and artistic shifts in the twentieth century. Its octagonal plan (reminiscent of Christian baptisteries), and the triptych form of three groupings of paintings (evoking Christian altarpieces), situate the chapel in an older tradition of Christian architecture and art, and help to engender a sense of the sacred. But the almost monochromatic, abstract aesthetic of the whole resists association with any particular tradition, and thus fosters the universal religious experience that the de Menils envisioned. By eschewing figurative representation, the chapel creates a space that, as Dominique de Menil described it, ‘is oriented towards the sacred, and yet … imposes no traditional environment’ (Rothko Chapel, section 3). It is a space for people of all religious traditions (and none). It does not represent the ‘letter’ of any religion but instead invites visitors to engage in a common pursuit of contemplation and stillness.

At the same time, the chapel maintains a collection of religious texts that pilgrims or visitors can read in the space. The experience of reading a text that might be familiar in this place can provoke fresh perspectives on that text; art and architecture create a space in which the pilgrim can experience an aesthetic encounter with sacred scriptures of various traditions.

This experience can be seen as analogous to the ‘spirit’ giving life to the ‘letter’ in Paul’s terms (2 Corinthians 3:1–11). The spirit, which is literally unrepresentable, pushes beyond the literal meaning of the words on the page. Rothko’s paintings, by going beyond representation, may work in this spirit. Entering the chapel (a technology-free zone) disrupts the everyday experience that is saturated with information and images; in so doing, pilgrims might ‘give [renewed] life’ to their seeing and reading.



Rothko Chapel, ‘About’. Available from [accessed 24 August 2018]

Read next commentary