The chapel Notre-Dame du Haut

Table des matières

HISTORY OF THE HILL OF BOURLÉMONT

JUSQU'EN 1944

The history of the hill is unknown to us before the 11th century. What was there before this time? The situation of the hill at the entrance of the Belfort Gap, a natural way between the Saône Plain and Alsace, leads to think that it was used as a strategic place during the Antiquity. There might have been a Roman military camp.

The privileged situation of the site, at the top of the hill, encouraged the settlement of a place of worship, probably at a time when Christianism was taking root in the region at the end of the 6th century A.D.

A pilgrimage was mentioned as early as the 9th century. Pilgrims have come from the whole region ever since to pray to the Virgin Mary on the 8th September, Nativity of Mary. Unhappily, we have no ancient sketch of the Chapel dating from this period.

It is only during the 20th century that the second pilgrimage was established, on the 15th August, for the Assumption.

During the French Revolution, in 1789, the chapel was sold as a National Property. This is a turning point in its history. Indeed, 40 families from Ronchamp bought the chapel in 1799 in order to give it back its religious function. Ever since and up to now, the top of the hill has been privately owned.

Between the French Revolution and WWII, the chapel underwent many changes. It was rebuilt after it was struck by lightning and burnt to the ground in 1913.

 

The history of the hill is unknown to us before the 11th century. What was there before this time? The situation of the hill at the entrance of the Belfort Gap, a natural way between the Saône Plain and Alsace, leads to think that it was used as a strategic place during the Antiquity. There might have been a Roman military camp.

The privileged situation of the site, at the top of the hill, encouraged the settlement of a place of worship, probably at a time when Christianism was taking root in the region at the end of the 6th century A.D.

A pilgrimage was mentioned as early as the 9th century. Pilgrims have come from the whole region ever since to pray to the Virgin Mary on the 8th September, Nativity of Mary. Unhappily, we have no ancient sketch of the Chapel dating from this period.

It is only during the 20th century that the second pilgrimage was established, on the 15th August, for the Assumption.

During the French Revolution, in 1789, the chapel was sold as a National Property. This is a turning point in its history. Indeed, 40 families from Ronchamp bought the chapel in 1799 in order to give it back its religious function. Ever since and up to now, the top of the hill has been privately owned.

Between the French Revolution and WWII, the chapel underwent many changes. It was rebuilt after it was struck by lightning and burnt to the ground in 1913.

LE CORBUSIER'S VISIT TO RONCHAMP

LE CORBUSIER'S VISIT TO RONCHAMP

This chapel was finally bombed down in 1944 during the fighting of Ronchamp’s Liberation. Indeed, the Germans had entrenched themselves on the hill. It was used as a strategic vantage point and the bell tower as a transmitting set of military radio. The First Armoured Division made its way slowly. It first liberated the hill on the 30th of September and then the village of Ronchamp on the 2nd of October.

But the chapel was seriously damaged. The building at the time was mostly from the 19th and 20th century and deprived of any architectural interest. The question was: should it simply be preserved and repaired? The owners consulted the Diocese of Besançon to make a decision. Archbishop Dubourg set up a Sacred Art Committee, in charge of studying the building plans of churches and their furniture. It was this Committee who decided on building many churches in Franche-Comté in a modern contemporary style. The Sacred-Heart Church in Audincourt, 40 kilometers away from Ronchamp, and its decoration by Fernand Léger and Jean Bazaine is a beautiful illustration of this choice.

Different building projects were examined, but none of them was deemed satisfactory by the Diocesan Committee. They finally accepted the idea, which had been submitted by two members, to ask Le Corbusier. He was not a believer and he answered that he refused to work for the Catholic Church, that he called “a dead institution”.

The members of the Diocese finally persuaded him to come to Ronchamp in 1950. He was struck by the view on the landscapes that he immediately called the “four horizons”.

 

THE NEW
NOTRE-DAME DU HAUT

Photo chantier Le Corbusier Bueb Ronchamp

The building of the Chapel started at the end of 1953 in difficult conditions, with neither running water nor proper road and with only one electric generator. The concrete was mixed on the spot and carried with buckets to the different places of the building site. Rainwater was also collected on the hill. The Chapel was thus built with simple and cheap materials: stones from the ancient chapel, cement, steel. But for Le Corbusier, it was not a problem : « great wealth isn’t necessary to achieve great art”, he said.

The building site was managed by André Maisonnier, a young architect from Le Corbusier’s studio. The foreman was François Bona, who was only 23 years old. The team of masons was small but they were enthusiastic workers.

Reading the sketches drawn by Le Corbusier was difficult for the local workers. The greatest difficulty arose when the reinforced concrete shell was cast. 600 poles of pine trees were set up inside the chapel to support the formwork. It was a unique task as the concrete shell was thin, the curved shape was complex and the available technical means were unsophisticated.

At the end of the construction of the Chapel, in 1955, Maisonnier quickly built the basin to collect rainwater from the roof. A cistern sent out the water to the two houses. The shape of the basin may have no symbolic meaning, since Maisonnier was merely inspired by the shapes used by Le Corbusier, as in La Tourette convent.

Over sixty years have gone by since the inauguration, on the 25th of June 1955. The Chapel was well built, and it is in a good state and still well-preserved. Yet concrete cracks must be repaired before they make the coating of the building fragile. Renovation works should go on a few more years before the Chapel looks its original splendid self again.

 

En bâtissant cette  chapelle, j’ai voulu  construire un lieu  de silence, de prière, de paix,  de joie intérieure

DISCOVERING

THE CHAPEL NOTRE-DAME DU HAUT

THE ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN

Le Corbusier designed his Chapel with the four facades oriented towards the four cardinal points. In the south and in the east, the concave walls embrace the world, engaging into a dialogue with the surrounding mountains. In the north and in the west, the facades close up. The Eastern wall, with its two choirs, is the main answer to the project: an exterior choir for great Masses on pilgrimage days and an inside choir for the ordinary masses. The three towers are side chapels, even if their shapes remind of bell towers. They are the reminders of their predecessors in the ancient chapel. The supporting structure of the Chapel consists in 15 columns of reinforced concrete which are inserted into the walls which stabilize them.

The architect was thus free to give free shapes, as he puts it, to these walls which are not load-bearing. Contrary to what might be imagined, these enveloping walls were not made of reinforced concrete. They were made with the stones of the ancient chapel which were coated with projected roughcast and whitewashed. The only wall which is not made of stones is the big southern wall. It is entirely hollow. It consists in a skeleton-structure covered with expanded metal (a kind of wire mesh) and directly coated with roughcast. Everything is finally covered by a concrete shell.

Le Corbusier explained that the idea of this shape came to his mind after he had come across an empty crab shell on a beach in the United States. His walks and unexpected findings of stones, bones or shells were frequently the origin of new inventions to draw or to build. Two membranes of 6 cm thick reinforced concrete form a hollow shape, a shell. Seven cross walls, cast and united to the columns, hold them fast together.  Finally, a frame of beams lies inside the two concrete membranes.

This shell is relatively light and resistant, and it contributes to the good isolation of the Chapel. We do not know if, for Le Corbusier, the marks left by the pine formwork were supposed to give the shape of a boat to the shell- thus evoking Noah’s Ark perhaps. Still the sea is everywhere in the Chapel with the window of the sea and the pilgrims’ scallops on the eastern door.

The Mediterranean Sea and its different cultures had a special place in Le Corbusier’s imagination. He found many sources of inspiration in his travels and they can be traced in the Chapel. The most inspirational place for Le Corbusier was the Parthenon in Athens, that he visited in 1911. The hill can be compared to it, with a temple dedicated to a Virgin at the top. The Athenian temple remained a constant reference in the architect’s works.

THE INSIDE OF THE CHAPEL

“The inside is a sculpture in counter-relief. The four walls, the ceiling, the floor, everything plays a part in a disarming simplicity”, Le Corbusier wrote about the inside of the Chapel. The inside volume, without any decoration, is extremely innovative. The space has the shape of a funnel which opens towards the choir: the floor goes down, the vault goes up, and the walls spread apart towards the altar, which is the focus of attention. This place of unity is also a space divided by three secondary chapels which invite to peace and contemplation.

One of them is painted red. When lit by the morning light, it blazes. Is it the colour of blood, of Christ’s sacrifice? The architect never answered this question.

Le Corbusier’s effort makes us raise our gaze to Heaven, thanks to the light which sculpts spaces: the light wells radiate a divine light which fills the faithful of emotion. As to the vault, it looks as if it was raising, transported by light, a symbol of resurrection.

The statue of the Virgin and child standing in the eastern wall survived the war. In all likelihood, it dates back to the beginning of the 18th century AD and it used to be surrounded by the two wooden angels that you have seen in the Porterie.

Placed high up and against the light, it evokes the reference to the Book of Revelation: “a great sign appeared in Heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” Le Corbusier had the idea of creating the star constellation with the holes of the scaffoldings in the stone wall. In the morning, the statue of the Virgin sheds its light on us, like some miraculous apparition.

The movements of the sun in the sky are taken into account to shape the interior space. In the afternoon, the southern wall, which is 3 meters large, filters the light and creates a subdued light that favours meditation. The chapels facing each other at the entrance light up and become dark in turns.

The inside of the Chapel, which Le Corbusier wished to be as pure as possible, is not empty for all that. The architect designed himself the furniture and the works of art. Indeed, he was a painter and what we would call today a “designer”. He considered that architecture is one of the fine arts and that a good architect ought to be able to know all of them and to develop his skills.

The tabernacle stood on the altar. With the change in liturgy that followed the council of Vatican II, it was placed on the left of the altar. The cross, the benches and the confession boxes are made of iroko wood, a rot-resistant and gorgeous Brazilian wood. The Breton cabinetmaker Joseph Savina made them. He realized many wooden sculptures from drawings by Le Corbusier, at the end of the architect’s life. The benches are placed only on one side of the Chapel, in front of the statue of Holy Mary. Le Corbusier wrote that Man’s destiny is to pray while standing. So, he wished to make no bench, but the patrons asked him to. The rest of the space is left free for moving around.

All the paintings were made by Le Corbusier: the large portal, the windowpanes and the tabernacle. Beyond their liturgical function, the colours are meant to « make the splendor of raw concrete vibrate”, as Le Corbusier said to Jean Martin, an enamel worker in Luynes (Indre-et-Loire), where he painted the enamels of the Chapel. The tabernacle was enamelled by Le Corbusier after he finished the Chapel, in 1957. The door represents the Paschal Lamb, symbolizing Christ’s Sacrifice.

Its sides are painted with four-winged birds, like the Byzantine archangels, and with butterflies symbolizing the soul. At the back, the sun setting in the sea is a metaphor for death and resurrection. As for the windowpanes and the portal, Le Corbusier used only elements of nature and cosmos. A crucifix stands at the top.

The windowpanes and the portal bear representations of nature and of the cosmos, as an echo of nature outside. This nature is also Christian : a bird evokes the Holy Spirit’s dove, Mary is said to be “as bright as the sun”. Allusions to the Lorette litanies and to the Book of Wisdom are numerous: the Virgin is said to be “as  beautiful as the moon”, “morning star”, “mystic rose”.

These symbols can be seen on the large portal. Le Corbusier may have left several ways of interpreting his paintings. Inside, we can see the Earth rising towards Heaven. The two hands joined in prayer can represent the Assumption of the Virgin or of the faithful whose faith is sincere.

La Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut à RONCHAMP_ Haute Saone
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THE OTHER WORKS OF THE HILL

LES ŒUVRES DE LE CORBUSIER

LES ŒUVRES DE JEAN PROUVE

L’ŒUVRE DE MICHEL CORAJOUD

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