At a time when spaces for quiet contemplation are in high demand, the reopening this fall of the Rothko Chapel in Houston is especially welcome. This interfaith sanctuary was commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil in 1964 and formally dedicated in 1971. After closing in March 2019 for a major renovation, the chapel reopened on Sept. 24, 2020.

The interior serves not only as a chapel, but also as a major work of modern art. On its walls are 14 black but color-hued paintings by Mark Rothko. The shape of the building is an octagon inscribed in a Greek cross, and the design of the chapel was largely influenced by the artist. The chapel sits two miles southwest of downtown Houston in a suburban neighborhood situated between the building housing the Menil Collection of Art and the Chapel of Saint Basil on the campus of the University of Saint Thomas. The number of visitors exceeds 100,000 annually.

Lighting is key to the effect desired by Rothko, and the architectural design incorporates an oculus, which is a skylight in the form of a circular opening. Originating in antiquity, this is a feature of Byzantine and Neoclassical architecture known popularly as a “bull’s-eye.” The oculus was widely used by the Ancient Romans, with one of the finest examples placed in the dome of the Parthenon.

Susan J. Barnes states “The Rothko Chapel … became the world’s first broadly ecumenical center, a holy place open to all religions and belonging to none. It became a center for international cultural, religious, and philosophical exchanges, for colloquia and performances. And it became a place of private prayer for individuals of all faiths.”

From 1973 onward, the Rothko Chapel doubled as a center for colloquiums aimed at fostering mutual understanding on issues affecting justice and freedom throughout the world. The first colloquium drew scholars from Lebanon, Iran, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Japan, Italy, the United States and Canada. In 1981, it initiated “The Rothko Chapel Awards to Commitment to Truth and Freedom.” In 1986, a second award was established to honor and emulate the spirit of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, who was murdered in 1980.

These Rothko Chapel Awards have recognized individuals and organizations who, at great risk, denounce violations of human rights. In 1991 the Rothko Chapel marked its 20th anniversary with a joint award with the Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation, founded in 1986 with former President Jimmy Carter. Nelson Mandela was the keynote speaker and he received the special Rothko Chapel award.

The chapel serves as a place of meditation as well as a meeting hall and is furnished with eight simple, moveable benches for meditative seating; more are provided to accommodate the audience for special events. Holy books from several religions are available.

A distinctive sculpture by Barnett Newman, entitled “Broken Obelisk,” stands in front of the chapel. The sculpture sits in a reflecting pool designed by Philip Johnson and it is dedicated to the late Martin Luther King Jr. The sculpture originally stood in Washington D.C. and was offered in 1969 by the de Menils to the city of Houston as a memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Admission is free but due to Covid-19 precautions, timed ticketing reservations need to be made online at www.rothkochapel.org.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com.

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