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The Transcendental Experience: A Hierotopic Approach to the Rothko Chapel

Introduction: The Hierotopic Approach

“A loud calm and unending sense of being, and beyond.”

“It brings me to the beginning and end, to the essence of life.”

“A mantle of peace seems to drop on your shoulders”

“Here I feel a citizen of the world.” [1]

The people who left behind these quotes have clearly experienced something profound; it is perhaps not surprising that these are comments left behind in the guest book of a chapel. What may be striking, however, is that these visitors are responding not to an ancient or medieval pilgrimage site, but rather a concrete, visually unassuming postmodern structure completed in 1970 that houses fourteen monochrome paintings by the artist Mark Rothko (figs. 1 and 2).

Figure 1 (above): Installation view of northwest angle panel flanked by the west triptych and north apse triptych, Rothko Chapel, Houston Texas

Figure 2 (below): Exterior View of Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas

The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, is a non-denominational chapel where people like those referenced above encounter the divine. The aim of this paper is to examine the process of meaning-making in the Rothko Chapel, specifically the ways in which spiritual meaning is generated between the observer and the physical paintings situated in the space. The main methodology that will be used to analyze the Rothko Chapel is hierotopy. Originally coined by Alexei Lidov in 2001, the term hierotopy “concerns the creation of sacred spaces as a special form of human creativity and brings together a wide variety of academic disciplines ranging from anthropology and art history to religious studies.”[2] It is particularly appropriate to analyze the Rothko Chapel using hierotopy because the Chapel is an intentionally created sacred space; further, because hierotopy usually focuses on Byzantine sacred spaces, this paper will also show how the Rothko Chapel emulates certain Byzantine concepts and can be understood in such a way, by reading the paintings as animated icons concurrent with Glenn Peers’ theories, and the space itself as initiating sacred movement, a concept of chorography introduced by Nicoletta Isar.

Lidov’s hierotopy will be used as the overarching framework for this paper, with its basic distinction between the creation and reception of sacred space used to incorporate other methodologies to understand these two facets of meaning-making. Important to this analysis of the Chapel paintings using the hierotopic framework is understanding that the process of creation is twofold- first is the physical act of creation by Rothko, and second is the creation of meaning that occurs in the moment a viewer confronts the work. This second moment of creation relies on the viewer’s expectations, physical experience, and personal beliefs. As such, by acknowledging the role of the viewer in the creation of meaning, the aim of this paper is not so much to explain what the Chapel really means, but rather to trace the process of how meaning is created.

To this point, hierotopy has been used almost exclusively as a method to look at Byzantine art and architecture. While the application of this approach to a modern interreligious chapel housing abstract paintings may seem inappropriate, My intention is to prove how a hierotopic approach to the Rothko Chapel reveals a great deal about the way the Chapel is understood by its visitors. Further, while Lidov proposed hierotopy as a conceptual framework to think about religious spaces in a different way, he did not clearly outline a specific methodological way to apply the concept. As such, not only does this paper apply hierotopy to a modern subject, it also creates a framework for applying the theory.

One of the novel aspects of hierotopy is its acknowledgement of the importance of a creator which is particularly important for the Rothko Chapel.[3] Accordingly, the first section of this paper will look at Rothko’s stylistic development and personal spiritual philosophies to help understand how the Chapel is, in semiotic terms, encoded. The second part looks at the reception of the Chapel, or its decoding by viewers. In this second section I introduce some other methodologies to further explain how the Chapel might be received. A phenomenological approach will help break down the process of reception, and newer approaches like spatial studies and animism will be applied to see how Byzantine conceptions of the divine may more fully capture the animated and dynamic relationship Rothko intended his viewers to have with his work.

By looking at Rothko's intentions and the experience of the viewer, I argue that by creating nearly all-black paintings and putting them in an explicitly spiritual context, Rothko created a space for viewers to experience the divine by provoking them to find their own meaning in the paintings. By asking viewers to confront paintings of essentially incomprehensible nothingness, he forces the viewer to interpret the work using their own context, recreating the struggle of faith itself. Ultimately, the wider implication of this paper is to understand the potential of abstract art to communicate spiritual meaning in a modern form for a modern world.

Part I: The Artist as Creator

Mark Rothko was a quiet, thoughtful, and at times deeply troubled man who had a great interest in the philosophy and theory of art, myth, and religion. Born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Latvia to a Russian Jewish family, he migrated to Portland, Oregon in 1913. After a stint at Yale, he settled in New York City where he would live and work for the rest of his life. Early in his career Rothko painted in a semi-abstract style, depicting themes from ancient myths. These paintings, like The Omen of the Eagle from 1943 (fig. 3) show his interest in trying to capture the eternal and timeless. Writing about this painting, he explained that the painting does not illustrate a particular scene, but rather the “Spirit of the Myth,” where all beings merge into a “single tragic idea.”[4] This concept of a single tragic idea was influenced by Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, which Rothko read throughout this period in his life. In 1943, Rothko co-wrote a letter that proclaimed: “The subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.”[5] This emphasis on the tragic and timeless would continue throughout his work, with the tragedy that he painted in symbols later shifting towards creating a tragic experience.

Figure 3: Mark Rothko, The Omen of the Eagle, 1942, Oil and graphite on canvas, 142.558 x 243.84 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Always present in his work is this emphasis on subject matter rather than aesthetic concerns. By 1950 Rothko had moved into his more mature style of rectangular forms floating over fields of color. In this period his titles also moved away from the explicitly symbolic mythological titles of his early work, instead opting for numbered titles that reference the colors. This work, of which Ochre, Red on Red (fig. 4) is an example, had often been described in purely formalist terms, referencing the interaction between the colors as the main purpose of the work. This Rothko heartily rejected:

I’m not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else… I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions--tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on- and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate these basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them, and if you, as you say, are only moved by their color relationships, then you miss the point![6]

Figure 4: Mark Rothko, Ochre and Red on Red , 1954, Oil on canvas, 235.2675 x 161.925 cm, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

This quote, which was taken from an interview Rothko did in 1957, illuminates several key facets of Rothko’s philosophy of art. By rejecting the idea that his work is all about color relationships, Rothko is asserting that their meaning lies outside and above their physical appearance. For Barnett Newman, Rothko’s friend and fellow artist, abstract painting was an inherently metaphysical act: “The European is concerned with the transcendence of objects while the American is concerned with the reality of the transcendental experience.”[7] Here Newman also refers to artwork like Rothko’s as an experience rather than an object, which further prioritizes the viewer of the object itself.

It is important to establish Rothko’s interest in communicating timeless and universal themes because it shows how the artist valued abstraction not for aesthetic reasons, but rather for what abstraction was able to communicate that figuration could not. In Rothko’s own words: “The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer.” In this way, we see how the Chapel paintings at the end of his career were not a departure from his usual style or philosophy, but rather a culmination of what he had been trying to communicate through his work for his entire life.

His insistence on the religious experience is indicative of his desired interaction between the viewer and the work. As Susan Barnes explained, throughout his career Rothko had imagined creating a space exclusively for his artwork where he could control all of the environmental factors of the viewer’s experience.[8] In 1958 Rothko had received a commission to create a series of paintings for the Seagrams building in Manhattan. At this point his style had shifted again to darker, more plum-colored paintings. “I accepted this assignment as a challenge, with strictly malicious intentions. I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room,” a friend recalled him saying. When the time came to install the work, Rothko withdrew the commission at great personal loss due to the mismatch between the work and its environment. While Rothko seemed to have known the commission was doomed to fail from the beginning, it seems that he was still intrigued by the idea of getting to create an entire suite of paintings for one space.

As it happens, Rothko’s rejection of the Seagrams commission would lead to a chance to create the ideal environment to view his works, and a symbol of the artist’s commitment to creating the proper context for his artwork to be viewed in. After seeing the Seagrams murals in Rothko’s studio, art collectors John and Dominique de Menil wanted to purchase them for a Christian Chapel they were building for the University of St. Thomas. Having visited the Matisse Chapel in Vence (fig. 5), they were interested in acquiring modern art to furnish a chapel.[9] The de Menils provided Rothko with the chance to finally create the environment he felt his paintings belonged in. Christopher Rothko remarked, “The Rothko Chapel is a timeless embodiment of the de Menils’ spirit, a gift of their foresight.”[10]

Figure 5: Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence (Matisse Chapel), Henri Matisse, 1947-1951, Vence, France

While an environment for wealthy people enjoying their “power lunches” was abhorrent for Rothko, the intentionally religious space of a Chapel provided the ideal environment for solemn reflection that he believed his paintings belonged in.[11] He agreed immediately, and proposed to create an entirely new suite of paintings, insisting that the paintings should be created for a specific space.[12] This reveals an understanding by Rothko that his paintings were not merely objects composed of paint on canvas, but rather potential experiences for the viewer that were intimately connected with the physical space around them. As Shelden Nodelman shows, by the 1940’s Rothko had grown more particular about the precise hanging and lighting conditions of his paintings. In fact, by the 1950’s he regularly rejected inclusion in group shows, explaining: “Since I have a deep sense of responsibility for the life my pictures will lead out in the world, I will with gratitude accept any form of theory exposition in which their life and meaning can be maintained, and avoid all occasions where I think this cannot be done.”[13]

As planning for the Chapel got underway, Rothko’s particularities regarding space became more clear. Rothko had rented out a separate studio with diffused lighting specifically to work on the paintings, and went back and forth with architect Philip Johnson to ensure that the finished Chapel also had the right lighting.[14] Rothko’s insistence on getting the lighting exactly right even led to the resignation of Johnson over disagreements about the skylight for the Chapel. While it is interesting that Rothko wanted the lighting of the Chapel to mimic his studio, the decisions about the color of the walls and the floors were also made to match the environment of his studio.[15] Modeling the interior of the Chapel on Rothko’s studio shows not just the artist’s preoccupation with environment and space, but also a recognition that the act of viewing is itself an act of creation.

The paintings in the Chapel, in contrast to Rothko’s earlier style of floating blocks of color, had now become almost completely monochrome. While his earlier paintings had provided the viewer with a way in, and had been variously described as horizons, landscapes, or portraits, the Chapel paintings now presented the viewer with an even more challenging route to understanding. I argue that this shift stylistically represents Rothko's ever-present goal towards a more profound expression of the universal and to prompt the same experience from a viewer.

Rothko thought deeply about his art and was often influenced by certain philosophical ideas he encountered in books. During the time of his earlier myth paintings, he was reading The Birth of Tragedy by Nietzsche, which exposed him to ideas about the universal, tragic, and timeless experience of ancient Greek tragic plays. Later in his career, during the time of the Four Seasons murals and the Chapel, he had been reading Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Jennifer Hope Dyer sees Rothko’s work as “painterly manifestations” of Kierkegaard’s metaphysics, particularly the idea of transcendence and coming-into-being.[16]

The main theme in Fear and Trembling centers around Abraham and Isaac. Abraham, who had been blessed with his son Issac, was asked by God to sacrifice his son to prove his faith. In the story Abraham is said to love his son as much as one possibly can, rendering his decision to sacrifice him incomprehensible. Kierkegaard uses this story as an allegory for the nature of faith being inherently un-understandable.[17] Kierkegaard often describes faith as a “leap” that requires the resignation of all earthly concerns, including conventional ethics.[18] Actions of faith like this constitute a liminal zone between the finite and the infinite; the act of faith is transcendental. Rothko was particularly drawn to the figure of Abraham in Kierkeggard’s text. He draws a comparison between the figure of the tragic hero and the faithful Abraham, and between Abraham and the artist. Like Abraham, the artist toils in the realm of the infinite and spiritual, often in ways that are un-understandable.[19]

De Menil once reflected on the Rothko Chapel in Kierkegaardian terms: “Rothko had accepted the frightening void facing him. He had taken the risk of a leap in the dark because he believed he could express art with the plentitude he felt in himself. [...] Like every creator, he passed through death to resurrection.”[20] Thus, by creating the Chapel, he was himself performing an act of faith. This action is replicated at the moment of confrontation between the viewer and the work. By creating paintings that are nearly all black, Rothko constructed a test of faith similar to God’s test for Abraham. Just as it is impossible to understand Abraham’s actions, it is impossible to rationally understand the meaning of an all black painting. The paintings demand that the viewer construct their own meaning when confronted with the intrinsically unknowable, similar to Kierkegaard’s construction of faith as a leap into the unknown.

In his earlier works Rothko evoked feelings of tragedy by referencing specific Greek plays, capturing the spirit of a tragic hero fighting valiantly yet who is ultimately doomed to fail. As he later began to identify with the Kierkegaardian figure of Abraham, he again was focused on the single human figure struggling to understand the universe and to be understood, ultimately finding solace in faith. With the maturation of his work Rothko elaborated on the same themes, yet with the crucial difference of including the viewer as a crucial aspect of the work.

Part II: The Viewer as Creator

Rothko acknowledged the role of the viewer as equally, or even more important, than his role as creator in making meaning: “[The paintings] begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space. It is at the moment of completion that in a flash of recognition, they are seen to have the quantity and function which was intended. Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which they occur.”[21] Rothko discusses his art in explicitly phenomenological terms when he mentions them gaining their intended meaning during the “flash of recognition.”

Arthur C. Danto’s Transfiguration of the Commonplace analyzes how objects acquire meaning and become seen as art. His ontological perspective is helpful for deconstructing the way that meaning is created specifically in the Rothko Chapel because of his emphasis on individual interpretations. According to Danto, the key factor that transforms a regular object into an art object is a viewer’s interpretation. Danto creates a formula, (I)o=W, where I stands for interpretation, o for object, and W for the total work. This formula acknowledges that not only does art invite interpretation, it requires interpretation in order to actually be art.[22] Each new interpretation in turn generates a different “work,” meaning highly abstract paintings like Rothko’s yield more potential for interpretation and hence a multiplicity of “works.” Danto’s formula will be used throughout this second half of the paper to help keep in mind that the way that viewers interact with the work is important to the meaning of the work itself. Rothko articulated the creation of a work through interpretation in terms of life and death: “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world.”[23]

This transfiguration of the object generated by interpretation also relates to the spiritual potential of the paintings. John and Dominique de Menil’s plan for an ecumenical and interreligious chapel required a space that had the capacity to touch anyone regardless of their specific beliefs. “Churches and synagogues are too much like clubs, and as we all know, clubs keep people out,” de Menil remarked once. “When people meet in the Rothko Chapel, they know they meet in a place that was dedicated to God for the express purpose of fostering brotherhood, love, understanding. The mere fact of assembling in a Chapel gives a spiritual orientation to the debates. That means that man’s reality implies transcendence”[24] It is precisely the abstraction of the paintings, their lack of any specific reference, that allows them to be so wide-ranging in potential meaning, something that both Rothko and the de Menils consciously intended.

The power of abstraction can be seen even more clearly when comparing the Chapel to Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello, which Rothko had visited and told de Menil had served as inspiration for his creation of the chapel in Houston. Particularly important for Rothko was the juxtaposition between the entrance mosaic of the Last Judgement (fig. 6) and the apse mosaic of the Virgin and Child (fig. 7) He had translated these forms into the entrance wall painting (fig. 8) and apse triptych (fig. 9) in the Chapel, recreating the vertical axis created between the two pictorial units. The theme of tragedy countered by hope is communicated through the deep black of the entrance panel and the warmer purple tones of the apse triptych. By looking at Santa Maria Assunta compared to the Chapel, it becomes clear how wide-ranging the meaning is in Rothko’s work. Someone not fully educated about Christian stories and motifs may miss critical meaning or feel isolated by the unique sociocultural context of the panels in the Chrisitan basilica. The abstraction of the Rothko Chapel, however, can be felt by anyone regardless of their faith or education. Keeping in mind Danto’s I(o) = W, the abstract paintings generate a greater potential for connection and a greater number of interpretations.

Figure 6 (Above, Right): The Last Judgement, 11th century, Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice

Figure 8 (Above, Left): Mark Rothko, Untitled (south entrance wall panel), 1956, 180x105 inches, Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas

Figure 7: (Below, Left): The Virgin and Child, Apse Mosaic, Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice

Figure 9 (Below, Right): Mark Rothko, Untitled (north apse triptych), 1956, 143x245 ¾ inches, Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas

The multiplicity of interpretations generated by the abstract chapel can be said to more closely resemble the multivalent nature of faith itself. Every person believes and interacts with their own conception of the divine in their own unique way. While the decorative programs of Christian churches authoritatively tell the story of one belief system, Rothko’s paintings are capable of encompassing every belief system.

It has been noted by other scholars how Rothko’s Jewish heritage may have impacted his view that the abstract rather than the representational was a way to communicate the spiritual. Aaron Rosen has convincingly argued for the influence of Rothko’s Jewish background on his conception of the spiritual. While other scholars have pointed to Rothko’s use of abstraction as an extension of the second commandment’s prohibition against the creation of graven images, Rosen concludes that this reading of Rothko’s work is an oversimplification. Instead, after analyzing Rothko’s fraught relationship with his own Judaism, Rosen reads the Chapel, with its explicit Christian associations, as giving him “the freedom to investigate religious dimensions that he felt uncomfortable addressing in a Jewish idiom.”[25]

Historically, Jewish interpreters of the second commandment believed that images were forbidden not only because they risk worshipping something other than God, but also because God himself is invisible and cannot be physically represented.[26] For Christians, the incarnation of the divine through Christ abrogated the second commandment’s prohibition of figuratively representing the divine. This discussion is relevant to Rothko not only because he was a Jew communicating the spiritual through Christian forms, but it shows the longstanding debate over how to represent the divine in physical form. While the debate over iconoclasm led to different relationships with images throughout the world, I want to shift focus to the Byzantine tradition of images, as the notion of participation from the viewer relates to the viewer interactions at the Rothko Chapel. As we have seen with the Torcello Chapel, Byzantine art had a profound impact on Rothko, and I would also argue that he conceived of his work as being created and received in a Byzantine way.

Glenn Peers conducted a study of Byzantine objects using the concept of animism, which insists on the agency of objects as living things that act upon humans just as much as we act upon them. In the Byzantine world, icons and physical matter were alive and animated with divine spirit. “Being in meaningful ways is extensive to the world around us,” Peers writes, connecting human spirit with a shared universal one.[27] For Peers, the icon is a “window, a transparent entity that exists to erase its existence” that relies on the viewer for meaning.[28] I will examine the Rothko Chapel paintings as icons of sorts: objects that work to create a liminal space between the world and the divine realm, activated by a viewer’s interaction. A common objection may be that icons are traditionally representational as they are meant to be true representations or manifestations of whatever they depict. However, Peers describes abstract pieces in the show as icons: “the pieces manifested an essentialized quality, each reduced to a formal and material mutuality and also without representation.”[29] As such, the abstraction of Rothko’s paintings, when seen as manifestations of an essentialized quality, can be read as icons.

Peers was guest curator for an exhibition at the De Menil collection titled Byzantine Things in the World (figs. 3 & 4), which occurred just across the street from the Rothko Chapel. His study of the objects in the show interrogates the way that Byzantine objects interact with each other and the world. Peers calls attention to the fluid, alchemical quality of Byzantine objects in their reflection and absorption of light. The arrangement of objects in Byzantine Things in the World allowed them to interact with each other, illuminating each other and creating meaning in the space between them. Peers write of alchemy as a central quality of Byzantine things. The ability of matter to transform gives the objects their spiritual potential- the appearance of gold to be pure light, for example, echoes the transfiguration of the body into the divine through Christ, or the miracle of water into wine. In other words, the ability of materials to transform into other materials was understood in the Byzantine world to be inextricably linked to the divine. This transfiguration also applies to the Chapel paintings, where paint on canvas is transformed into a portal or a doorway or nothingness, depending on how the viewer reads it.

The relationship between Byzantine objects and light is central to their ability to communicate the spiritual because of how light creates a transcendent materiality. I suggest that the Chapel paintings act in a similar but reverse way, with their total absorption of light also working to suggest a transcendent beyond. As with the Byzantine objects in situ and in the Byzantine Things in the World exhibition, the lighting in the Rothko Chapel was carefully planned in order to reveal but not overwhelm the paintings, and to allow them to be animated in order to transcend their physical characteristics. As de Menil once spoke of the paintings, “O miracle, peace invaded me. I felt held up, embraced, and free. Nothing was stopping my gaze. There was a beyond.”[30]

This concept of the “beyond” opens up more possibilities for thinking of the viewer interacting with the Chapel paintings. Julia Davis, for example, has written extensively about the phenomenological possibilities of the Chapel paintings by understanding them as portals or doorways to the beyond.[31] This evocation of a doorway is not merely due to the physical appearance of the paintings as black rectangular things, but also the feeling of self-transcendence provoked when confronted with a sense of nothingness.[32] It should be noted that this concept of an artwork as a portal to the beyond almost exactly defines the Byzantine icon. Lidov describes the icon as: “was not merely an object and a flat picture on panel or wall, but a spatial vision emanating into the environment and existing between the picture and its beholder,” which quite closely resembles the Chapel paintings.[33]

By giving the paintings a sense of agency by seeing them as animated objects, we are able to see them on equal footing with ourselves, which helps to establish a relationship between viewer and object that is reciprocal. Rothko wrote of his paintings as “organisms with volition and a passion for self-assertion”[34]

The anthropomorphism of Rothko’s Chapel paintings has been discussed by scholars, particularly the south-facing painting on the entrance wall of the chapel (fig. 8). As Sheldon Nodelman interprets it, the south-facing panel is decidedly anthropomorphic in its shape and positioning. Alone on a wall and strongly compact and vertical, Nodelman relates this panel to the single tragic hero described by Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.[35] This is not to say the paintings act like alive objects themselves or are always intentionally anthropomorphic in form, but rather that they simulate a confrontation with one’s own humanity. The larger-than-human scale allows one to feel small and human-sized, similar to the transcendent feeling of confronting the sublime. Rothko intentionally made his paintings very large in order to encourage an intimate connection with them.[36] By taking up one’s entire field of vision, a painting becomes an immersive space where one is entirely alone.

Of course, the single panel should not be studied alone, but rather situated with the rest of the space. Earlier in his career, Rothko touched upon both the animism of his paintings and their relationship to each other:

I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are performers.They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame.[37]

Rothko’s discussion of movement in space brings up yet another way that spirituality is experienced in the chapel, through physical movement. Nicoletta Isar discusses Lidov’s hierotopy, and expands it to accommodate for how in the Byzantine world, notions of the divine were intimately connected with the idea of space and movement.[38] Isar’s chorography, which she derives from the Greek choros meaning space, focuses on the notion of circularity. Circular movement, with implications of the cosmos and creation, not only define but generate sacred space[39] While Isar focuses on the Byzantine, Rothko’s use of the traditional octagonal shape of a Christian baptistery immediately recalls the same associations. The ambulatory movement of the visitor through the Chapel reenacts ideas of creation, resurrection, and eternity. Just as the viewer participates in making meaning through their contemplation of the work, they also physically create movement by performing with their bodies inside the space, just as Rothko referred to his pictures as performers in a drama. To emphasize the role of the creator central to hierotopy again, it must be noted that the octagon form was intentionally created by Rothko in order to simulate such associations. From the beginning of the project, Rothko insisted upon the octagonal shape.

While viewer interaction with the paintings is crucial to their meaning, as formulated by Danto’s I(o) = W, the Byzantine concepts of animism and choros help show that this is not merely a relationship of the viewer interpreting the work, but rather the viewer confronting the work head-on as it pushes back. The paintings provoke the viewer paradoxically with their seeming emptiness. As Christopher Rothko, the artist’s son, once put it:

They yield only what we put in. The paintings only "work", they will only speak to our inner worlds, when we are open to their invitation or suggestion. Ultimately, to understand a Rothko is to understand what the painting helps us to see in ourselves.[40]

Rothko was provoking struggle as much as anything else; he wanted people to feel the paintings rather than to logically understand them. His lifelong study of the tragic and spiritual and his careful attention to the environmental setting of his work shows this well enough. When greeted with an overwhelmingly dark canvas encoded with the Christian associations of a triptych form, the viewer is presented with a challenge to understand it, and the negative space it seems to create prompts the viewer to understand themselves. This struggle to understand something that one knows is supposed to be meaningful strikes at the heart of the nature of faith itself. By making the meaning intentionally unclear, invisible, and open for interpretation Rothko and the de Menils created an environment that is more closely related to the divine.


Mark Rothko committed suicide on February 25, 1970, almost exactly one year before the official opening of the Chapel. The timing of his death paired with the dark black canvases has led some to interpret the Chapel as the depressing creation of a troubled man planning his suicide. Although I do not encourage that reading of the work, it does seem fitting to point out that one of Rothko’s acquaintances mentioned his tragic life as an artist aspiring to paint grand spiritual messages in a secularized world could be a possible contributing cause to his suicide.[41]

Like the tragic hero or Kierkegaard’s Abraham, the task of the artist is to make meaning in a world that is constantly testing one’s faith. By confronting them with dark paintings that can yield an infinite number of interpretations, Rothko asks the viewer of his work to engage in a similar struggle. In the end, faith is really a struggle between the individual and the unknown.

While recent trends in art history have started to leave behind the somewhat antiquated methods of biography and connoisseurship, hierotopy allows room for consideration of the creator of a space, to allow us to trace how the o in Danto’s formula was constructed. Rothko’s career as an artist and lifelong contemplation of how to invoke the spiritual merit discussion as a key part of the Chapel’s meaning. The emphasis on reception, as well, allows for the use of a phenomenological approach to piece together what occurs at the moment of encounter and how this produces meaning.

While the Rothko Chapel has been studied by many scholars, this paper sheds light on the Chapel and its meaning by using an unusual combination of newer methods and methods that have been traditionally applied to Byzantine art. By splitting up the approach into two parts, of creation and reception, I hope to have proposed a viable framework for using hierotopy to analyze modern examples of spiritual art. In a world saturated with images, where physical presence seems to matter less and less, it is important to understand the way that people still seek and find connection to the divine.

Ultimately, by emphasizing the importance of physical presence in the Chapel space, one of the conclusions of this paper is that no true understanding of the Chapel can be gained without personally experiencing it. This importance of physical presence is one of the reasons why the Chapel continues to be a popular pilgrimage site in our postmodern world today. Overwhelmed with technology, constantly straddling a line between being too accessible but never fully present, the Chapel is a place where one can be alone with themselves, something people find increasingly hard to do these days, even in formal places of worship. The dark, overwhelming expanses of the canvases remind us of our humanity- small, fragile, and yes, even tragic. But in our ability to create our own meaning we find this spark of creation that to some, feels like God. As Dominique de Menil said at the Inaugural Address at the Rothko Chapel, “we are cluttered with images, and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine.”[42]

References [1] Dominique de Menil, “Acceptance Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the 1992 Christian Culture Series Gold Medal Award from Assumption University, Windsor, Ontario, Canada” in The Rothko Chapel: Writings on Art and the Threshold of the Divine, ed. Polly Koch et al (Houston: Rothko Chapel, 2010), 97 [2] Alexei Lidov, “Creating the Sacred Space: Hierotopy as a New Field of Cultural History,” Spazi e percorsi sacri. I santuari, le vie, i corpi (2014): pp 61-89: 62. [3] Lidov, “Creating the Sacred Space,” 68. [4] Mark Rothko, “Comments on The Omen of the Eagle, 1943” Writings on Art ed. Miguel Lopez-Remiro, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 41. [5] Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, “Rothko and Gottlieb’s letter to the editor, 1943” in Writings on Art ed. Miguel Lopez-Remiro, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 36. [6] Susan J. Barnes, The Rothko Chapel: An Act of Faith, (Austin: University of Texas Press), 22. [7] Barnett Newman, “Response to Clement Greenberg,” in Barnett Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. John P. O’Neil, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 164. [8] Barnes, The Rothko Chapel, 25-6. [9] Barnes, The Rothko Chapel, 31-3. [10] Christopher Rothko, “Foreword,” in The Rothko Chapel: Writings on Art and the Threshold of the Divine, ed. Polly Koch et al (Houston: Rothko Chapel, 2010), 9. [11] Sheldon Nodelman, The Rothko Chapel Paintings: Origins, Structure, Meaning, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997) 40-1. [12] Nodelman, The Rothko Chapel Paintings, 34. [13] Nodelman, The Rothko Chapel Paintings, 39. [14] Ibid., 70. [15] Ibid., 72-4. [16] Jennifer Hope Dyer, Theory and Painting: The Work of Mark Rothko. Ph.D. diss., The University of Western Ontario (Canada), 1997. [17] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death, trans. Walter Lowrie, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013),78-9. [18] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 94. [19] Rothko, “Address to Pratt Institute, November 1958” in Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, 126. [20] De Menil, “A-cceptance Speech” in The Rothko Chapel: Writings on Art, 96. [21] Rothko, “The Romantics were Prompted” in Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, 58. [22] Arthur C. Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1981),125. [23] Rothko, “The Ides of Art: The Attitudes of Ten Artists on their Art and Contemporaneousness” in in Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, 57. [24] De Menil, “Commentary on the Rothko Chapel from an Interview By Les Levine Published by Arts Magazine,” in The Rothko Chapel: Writings on Art, l32-4. [25] Aaron Rosen, “Finding Rothkowitz: The Jewish Rothko,” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 12, no. 3 (2013) pp. 479-492: 488. [26] Herbert H. Kessler, Spiritual Seeing, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 34. [27] Gleen Peers, Animism, Materiality, and Museums: How Do Byzantine Things Feel? (Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2020), 17. [28] Peers, Animism, Materiality, and Museums, 97. [29] Ibid., 66. [30] Dominique de Menil, “Foreword” in Nodelman, The Rothko Chapel Paintings, 9. [31] Julia Davis, Mark Rothko. The Art of Transcendence, third ed.,(Kent: Crescent Moon Publishing, 2007), 82. Cited in Ruth Christensen Mark Rothko: Art as an Experience. The Significance of Interaction between Painting and Viewer in the Rothko Chapel, RIHA Journal 0183 (December 2017). [32] Ibid. [33] Lidov, “Creating the Sacred Space,” 76. [34] Rothko, “The Romantics were Prompted” in Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, 59. [35] Nodelman, The Rothko Chapel Paintings, 315. [36] Rothko, “How to Combine Architecture, Painting, and Sculpture, 1951” in Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, 74. [37] Rothko, “The Romantics were Prompted” in Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, 58. [38] Isar, “Chorography (CHȎRA, CHORÓS) – A Performative Paradigm of Creation of Sacred Space in Byzantium,” Hierotopy. The Creation of Sacred Spaces in Byzantium and Medieval Russia, ed. Alexei Lidov. (Moscow, 2006) 59-90, 59. [39] Isar, “Chorography,” 69-70. [40] Christopher Rothko, quoted in Christensen, Mark Rothko: Art as an Experience, 26. [41] John Fischer, “The Easy Chair: Mark Rothko, Portrait of the Artist as an Angry Man” in Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, 137-8. [42] Dominique de Menil, “Inaugural Address at the Rothko Chapel” in The Rothko Chapel: Writings on Art, 19.

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