From the origins to the twentieth century
The first signs of occupation on the hill goes back to Antiquity. The Romans probably set up a camp, a strategic point overlooking the road to Germania. From the beginning of the Christian evangelization of the area in the fourth century, a sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary replaced a pagan altar. During the Middle Ages, a parish church of Ronchamp and the neighbouring villages was dedicated to Our Lady of September (celebrating the Nativity of the Virgin Mary on 8th September). But with the construction of a new church in the village centre in the eighteenth century, the chapel on the top of the hill became a pilgrimage chapel and was then called the chapel of Our Lady of the Heights (Notre-Dame du Haut). During the French Revolution, the chapel was sold as a national property, but forty families in Ronchamp decided to buy it in 1799 in order to restore its original spiritual vocation. Since then, the chapel has been private property, attached by convention to the Diocese of Besancon, to which it appoints a chaplain among the priests of the village.
Le Corbusier’s intervention
In the nineteenth century, the Bishop of Besancon took care to beautify and to enlarge this place of pilgrimage. In 1913, however, a fire partly destroyed it. Rebuilt in 1920, the chapel was once again severely damaged by bombing during the liberation struggles in September 1944.
In 1949, an estate company formed by descendants of the families who bought the chapel 150 years ago saw the light. With the support of and a proposal from The Besancon Diocesan Commission for Sacred Art, which included in particular Francois Mathey, Inspector of Historical Monuments, and Abbot Lucien Ledeur, the company called upon Le Corbusier, the only architect capable of giving a new spirit to contemporary sacred architecture.
In spring 1950, Le Corbusier, encouraged by his friend Maurice Jardot and despite his reluctance, came on to the hill. The surrounding landscapes and the history of the site affected the architect and found an echo in his thoughts and feelings. Francois Mathey and Lucien Ledeur were finally able to convince him. On the 4th April 1954, the first stone of the future chapel was laid; and on the 25th. June 1955 the new chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut was inaugurated. The construction had been led by a team of builders under the direction of the delegated architect, André Maissonnier, a native of the region.
“I wanted to create a place of silence, prayer, peace, inner joy” said Le Corbusier on the day of the inauguration.
A sacred monument of modern architecture
The chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut is built based on a white arch with coloured glass openings. The frame of the roof, inspired by a crab shell, is made of raw concrete. With materials such as concrete, stone, wood, cast iron, bronze, enamel and glass, Le Corbusier created a masterpiece surprisingly light and luminous. By constructive qualities and spatial organization, the two essential elements of creation are highlighted: material and light.
The chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut retains a multi-coloured wooden statue of the Virgin dating from the end of the 17th century. Its walls, wrapped in concrete, are built with stones from the old church. There are, however, sixteen fortified concrete pillars that carry the shell of the roof. A manifesto of modern sacred architecture, the chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut is a fine example of the material union between past and present.
In addition to the chapel, there are, on the hill, two other buildings designed by Le Corbusier: the Pilgrim Shelter (L’Abri du Pelerin) and the Chaplain’s House (La Maison du Chapelain). He also erected, on the ridge, the Pyramid of Peace, a memorial in honour of the soldiers who died for the liberation of Ronchamp in 1944.
During his visit to Ronchamp in 1959, Le Corbusier said: “Thanks to you all users, I am rewarded.”
"Historical Monument" classification:
The Notre-Dame du Haut chapel, classified in 1967
The shelter of the pilgrim and its furniture, classified in 2004
The chaplain's house, classified in 2004
The pyramid of peace, classified in 2004
"Heritage of the twentieth century" label:
The chapel Notre-Dame du Haut is the first site in Franche-Comté labelled Heritage of the twentieth century, since 1999.
Inscription on the World Humanity Heritage List by the UNESCO *:
The Notre-Dame du Haut Chapel is part of the architectural work of Le Corbusier, a contribution to the modern movement inscribed on the World Heritage List by UNESCO since 17th July, 2016.