From the origins to the twentieth century
The first traces of habitation on the hill date to Antiquity. The Romans probably set up a camp, a strategic point overlooking the route to Germania. From the beginning of Christian evangelization of the area in the fourth century, a sanctuary dedicated to the Holy Mary could have replaced a pagan altar. During the Middle Ages a parish church of Ronchamp and the neighbouring villages - was dedicated to Our Lady of September (marking 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, which appoints a chaplain, as well as priests in 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, (150 years after the purchase of the chapel in 1799) a property company was formed by descendents of the families. 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, it appealed to Le Corbusier, the only architect who might be able to give 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 like a white arch with openings for coloured glass. The frame of the roof, the form of which is 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 construction and spatial organization, the two essential elements of creation are highlighted: matter and light.
The chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut retains a many-coloured wooden statue of the Virgin
dating from the end of the 17th. century; and 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 de Pelerin) and the Chaplain’s House (La Maison de 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: “Thank you, all the users, I am rewarded.”