Rothko Chapel

By: Linda Peterson

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: February 19, 2017

The Rothko Chapel, on Yupon Street and Sul Ross in Houston, was commissioned by Dominique and John de Menil. The building was originally conceived as part of Philip Johnson's campus design for the University of St. Thomas, but became an independent project when the Menils discontinued their association with that institution. The Menils commissioned a series of paintings by Mark Rothko, who collaborated with Johnson in the design of the structure. The chapel itself is an austere structure without windows; the skylight that Rothko insisted upon proved to be a poor source for lighting the paintings, and in 1978 a baffle system was introduced. The chapel has an octagonal floor plan in which fourteen paintings are arrayed in eight panels. A triptych of three abutted canvases hangs on the north wall, the east wall, and the west wall. The south wall holds a single canvas. The remaining four canvases are placed on the diagonal axes. The ascetic paintings are limited in color to deep brown, purplish red, and black and express what Rothko called "the timelessness and tragedy of the human condition." Art historian Robert Rosenblum said of the works, "It is as if the entire current of Western religious art were finally devoid of its narrative complexities and corporeal imagery, leaving us with the dark, compelling presences that pose an ultimate choice between everything and nothing." Dominique de Menil said that the works evoke "the mystery of the cosmos, the tragic mystery of our perishable condition, [and] the silence of god, the unbearable silence of God."

The Rothko Chapel is owned and directed by the Rothko Chapel Board, of which Dominique de Menil is president and Thompson L. Shannon executive director. The chapel invited individuals and religious groups of all denominations, as well as non-believers, to use its facilities. It has hosted Quakers, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Copts, Greek Orthodox, Sufis, and Buddhists. In addition to providing a neutral venue for such luminaries as the Dalai Lama, who met there with representatives of various religions and disciplines during his visit in September 1979 to the United States, the chapel has hosted performances by such religious ritualists as the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey (1978) and the Gyuto Tantric Monks of Tibet (1985). The park in which the Rothko Chapel is located contains several sculptures from the Menil Collection, including Barnett Newman's sculpture Broken Obelisk, which is situated in a reflecting pool opposite the chapel entrance. John de Menil purchased this monumental, twenty-six-foot-high work in 1968; it is dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated in that year. Newman requested that the sculpture be blasted free of its rust-proofing so that the Cor-Ten steel surfaces could acquire a typical Houston patina.

The Rothko Chapel sponsors colloquia and since 1981 has presented awards for demonstrations of a commitment to truth and freedom. In 1988 the Second Oscar Romero Award for work in the area of human rights was presented to Paulo Evaristo Cardinal Arns, Archbishop of Sâo Paulo, at a chapel ceremony. The birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., was celebrated there annually until it became a national holiday in 1985; the United Nations Declaration of Human rights continues to receive annual recognition. In July 1973 the chapel sponsored "Traditional Modes of Contemplation and Action," a colloquium that brought together nineteen international religious scholars and resulted in the publication of Contemplation and Action in World Religions. In October 1983 another colloquium, "Ethnicities and Nations," brought anthropologists and other scholars together to discuss problems faced by traditional ethnic communities when they are incorporated into modern nations. This conference produced Ethnicities and Nations: Processes of Interethnic Relations in Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. In the pursuit of better understanding between religions and cultural traditions the Rothko Chapel works with such organizations as the Monchanin Cross-Cultural Center in Montréal, Quebec, the Center for Cross-Cultural Studies in Santa Barbara, California, the Fraternité St. Dominique in Cotonou, Benin, the Department of Islamo-Christian Studies in Beirut, Lebanon, and the Instituto per le scienze religiose in Bologna, Italy.

Dore Ashton, About Rothko (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983). Kelly Saenz, The Rothko Chapel: The Slow Arrow of Beauty (M.A. thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1980). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Linda Peterson, “Rothko Chapel,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 23, 2022,

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February 19, 2017

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