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Ronchamp - La Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut

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Listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site in July 2016

Occupying a stunning position on the top of the hillside, La Colline Notre-Dame du Haut, between the lower slopes of the Vosges mountains and the final foothills of the Jura not far from Belfort in Franche-Comté, Le Corbusier's chapel is a one-off  masterpiece of architecture. If you catch it on a day with clear blue sky, there is a purity and simplicity about it as the brilliant white walls contrast with the dark concrete roof. The roof design and the concave walls make the building flow. Walking around the outside Le Corbusier said: 'A miscellany of shocks one after the other constantly batters your senses. You walk, you circulate, you never stop moving or turning around.' You cannot see the chapel at a single glance, but as you go aound, all is revealed.

Le Corbusier's Chapel at Ronchamp, photo burgundytoday.com Le Corbusier's Chapel at Ronchamp, photo burgundytoday.com Le Corbusier's Chapel at Ronchamp, photo burgundytoday.com

This has been a place of pilgrimage since Celtic times. When the chapel was bombed during the Second World War, it was so important that it had to be rebuilt. France had lost nearly 2000 religious buildings destroyed by war and so it was decided that a renaissance was needed and  artists and architects of the day such as Chagall and Matisse, Léger and Le Corbusier were asked to revitalise the churches. This chapel was inaugurated on June 25, 1955 after five years of design and two years of building work.

Chapel of Light

The white walls are pierced with different sized and shaped openings. The main door of cast iron was decorated by Le Corbusier in brightly coloured enamel work and it only opens on pilgrimage days. To enter the chapel, you walk around the other side of the building.

The contrast of the bright light outside and the dark interior is striking but the myriad of lights like a celestial coming break through the apertures, and the inclusion of primary tones of glass colour your vision. This is not stained glass but Le Corbusier ' sometimes combed the glass with mineral oxides like glass enamelling, in which he scratched, rubbed and played with paint runs.' There is fluidity and vitality, silence and space.

There is a stark altar in each of the three chapel areas which provide 'a haven of contemplation and prayer.'  Le Corbusier said: 'The key is light and light illuminates forms. And these forms take on an emotive power through the proportions, through the interplay of unexpected, stunning relationships...' The pulpit and the confessionals, the sparse furniture and the simplicity are all in harmony.

Outside once more and under the shelter of the sweeping roofline, at one end of the building there is an open air chapel where 10,000 pilgrims can congregate, spilling over the lawns. There is also a pilgrim's shelter and the Chaplain's house.

Convent Sainte-Claire

Renzo Piano's Chapel at the Convent Sainte-Claire Ronchamp.photo burgundytoday.comDue to the popularity of the chapel both for pilgrims and tourists the Order of Les Clarisses nuns was invited to settle at Ronchamp and give spiritual guidance. Architect Renzo Piano was asked to come up with a design for the gatehouse visitor centre, the convent, and accommodation and work space for the nuns. This had to be in keeping with the spirit of Le Corbusier's concept and in harmony with the environment. The convent was opened in 2011.

La Colline Notre-Dame du Haut is open all year except January 1.
April 1 - Oct 31 from 9.00-19.00
Nov 1 - March 31 from 10.00-17.00

For reference:  Well illustrated paperback , 'Ronchamp, Chapel of Light' by Yves Bouvier and Christophe Cousin, in English, ISBN 978-2-84093-224-6, available from the Ronchamp shop

Places to stay

La Maison d'Hotes du Parc, Ronchamp
Château de la Houillère, Champagney

Self-catering Holiday Rental

Rougegoutte, sleeps 2-4, ref: 1284156a
Plancher-Bas. sleeps 5, ref: 1050791a

SEE ALSO

Belfort

Ballon d'Alsace

A-Z Franche-Comté - highlights at a glance