‘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 http://www.rothkochapel.org/learn/about/ [accessed 24 August 2018]
3 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? 2 You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; 3 and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, 6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.
7 Now if the dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such splendor that the Israelites could not look at Moses’ face because of its brightness, fading as this was, 8 will not the dispensation of the Spirit be attended with greater splendor? 9 For if there was splendor in the dispensation of condemnation, the dispensation of righteousness must far exceed it in splendor. 10 Indeed, in this case, what once had splendor has come to have no splendor at all, because of the splendor that surpasses it. 11 For if what faded away came with splendor, what is permanent must have much more splendor.