This past weekend my wife and I visited The Menil Collection. This museum houses the art collection of the late John and Dominique de Menil, prominent Houston philanthropists and art patrons. I am somewhat embarrassed to confess that although it has been open for nearly 20 years, this is the first time I had visited it.
Before we visited the main collection we took a walk around the grounds. There are two “chapels” on the campus of The Menil Collection. We visited the Rothko Chapel first. It is a windowless octagonal structure with stone walls and a stone floor. On the walls hang large abstract paintings by Mark Rothko. They are dark, monochromatic and nearly featureless. When I first walked into the dim light I thought the paintings must have been covered for protection. Then I realized those were the paintings. There is no other adornment and scarcely any furniture, just a few severe wooden benches and a couple of cushions for those who prefer to sit on the floor as they meditate. This space seems designed for meditation. Yet I almost felt as though my very presence was an intrusion into the silence and emptiness.
We stayed in the Rothko Chapel only a minute or two and were glad to be outside again. It seemed oppressive. We had been there once before several years ago when we attended a memorial service for a good friend’s son who had died of AIDS. My memories of the chapel itself were dim. I guess I was much more focused on the people and the service that day. Seeing it again, I reflected on what a fitting location it was for such a somber and sorrowful occasion. It occurred to me that the Rothko Chapel is the perfect metaphor for the emptiness of the modern soul. In such a chapel there is no God, no meaning, and no message from God to man – no content at all. The Rothko Chapel evokes the Eastern ideal of the extinction of self. In contrast, when we go into a Christian church there is light and music and words of hope, and most of all a community of believers gathered together to worship God.
After we visited the Rothko Chapel we walked over to see the Byzantine Fresco Chapel. It is quite different. This chapel was built to house two 13th century frescoes which had been stolen from a small church in Cyprus. The Menil Foundation rescued these pieces, restored them, and built the chapel to house them. The outer walls of bare concrete surround an inner steel box, painted flat black and suspended from above. Within the black box is a tiny chapel in the traditional cross-shaped arrangement, made from panels of frosted glass. The glass panels do not touch each other but are held by black steel supports, so that the whole effect is like one of those “exploded” diagrams you see in the assembly instructions for some machine. The frescoes themselves are suspended above this structure in the locations they would have occupied in the original medieval church.
This place seemed much friendlier and more accessible than the Rothko Chapel, and to my mind more beautiful as well. But in its own way, it too reflects the impoverished worldview of the postmodern society. The exploded structure reminded me of the disconnect in modern thinking Francis Schaeffer discusses in his book How Should We Then Live? He describes how in the Renaissance modern man decided to make himself the central reference point for all meaning and truth, rather than God. But without the transcendent to give his life meaning, man finds that he is nothing but a machine. To avoid giving into despair, Western thinkers began to split their view of reality into two realms, which Schaeffer illustrated as the upper and lower stories in a house. In the lower story is rational scientific thinking, which deals with facts and figures and has no room for value or meaning. In the upper story is irrational faith, which gives meaning and significance, but which has no factual content or objective truth. The two stories are entirely separate.
The Byzantine Fresco Chapel is the perfect picture of this philosophy. Here is this modern structure, all steel and glass. And above it floats these ethereal medieval symbols of faith, devotion and transcendence. Though they reside together in one box there is no connection between the two. Our heads have become disconnected from our hearts, so to speak. We stand amidst the glass and steel and look up wistfully at the beautiful images above. It makes me pity those whose hearts are so empty. They have doughnut souls – there’s a hole in the middle where God should be.