The structure of argumentation in early interpretations of the Chapel at Ronchamp (Part II)

Cezary Wąs

University of Wrocław


Contemporary reflections on the chapel at Ronchamp designed by Le Corbusier to a greater degree than before lead to analyses of previous interpretations of this work, arousing much controversy ever since their appearance. Research on the sources of his inspiration led to important discoveries, but entanglements of all descriptions in value systems, hidden assumptions, the structures of language and thought turn out to be no less interesting. Analyses undertaken in the present study concern five texts (the first two had been discussed in the previous issue of the “Sacrum et Decorum”), which appeared in the first few years after the building of the chapel. Statements made by the five authors, although chosen at random and only on the basis of their distinctive spaciousness and wealth of argumentation, revealed deep differences upon more careful inspection. Le Corbusier spoke on his behalf most boldly and directly, not hiding his specific views, especially on the feeling of sacredness separate from the world of religion. Anton Henze attempted to make the work familiar by blurring the contradictions between Christianity and para-religious inclinations of the architect, present in his work. John Alford sought to describe the chapel with purified senses and mind but he could not go beyond language and its rules. It is only literary metaphors that enabled him to create a beautiful interpretation. Alois Fuchs saw in the building above all some forms of heresy, against which he wanted to protect the world of his religious values. His interpretation of the work on the hill developed in the direction of an official report on the rules of church art. Richard Biedrzynski wanted to avoid being buried in insoluble matters but only created a story showing the efficiency of the system which situated aesthetic values alongside cognitive and moral ones. The problem was that also this system created insoluble tensions and brought a lack of consent to the full separation of art from cognition and ethical issues. The author’s narrative, however, did not develop into a possible attempt to breach the coherence of the Kantian doctrine and turned into simple procedures for validating the earlier assumptions.

The conclusions of the discussion of selected interpretations lead to the reflection on the impossibility of capturing decisive statements about the chapel. Contrasting views of different authors were, after all, supported by satisfactory arguments, and cannot be dismissed even when they are mutually exclusive. However, there is a growing concern that the adopted and in a sense external point of describing selected accounts of the work just contains subsequent illusions and hidden assumptions that in the course of further research should be characterized as equally uncertain, like all the previous ones.

Keywords: Le Corbusier, Ronchamp, modern architecture, sacred architecture



Previous research on the architecture of the chapel at Ronchamp showed very diverse sources of inspiration that constituted the main ground for its formal solutions. In its basic shape, the building is a “petrified tent”, i.e. another version of the structure which Le Corbusier applied in its purest form in the Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux in 1937. The concave walls (south and east), the corner which resembles a mast and the roof that is similar in form to a canvas roof sagging under the weight of rain water, were the most frequent arguments in favor of the thesis on the use of the tent design.[1] The roof, placed diagonally on the building, was based on the sketch of a dam that the architect had made ​​in 1945.[2] Dazzling white and deep-set windows of the south wall were the result of a fascination with the architecture of the M’Zab region, especially with the Sidi Brahim mosque in El-Atteuf. The “periscope” way of lighting the side chapels referred to the concept used in the so-called Serapeum, part of Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli. All of the above-mentioned references are supported by Le Corbusier’s sketches, notes or published statements. Researchers also point to a number of other potential roots of the solutions; however, some of the interpretations have the character of virtually unverifiable hypotheses. Some less confirmed sources of inspiration include such ideas as Neolithic tombs and the ventilation system of traditional houses on the island of Ischia.

The system of ideological borrowings was equally complex. The architect came from a Protestant family which maintained the conviction concerning connections with the Albigensians or Cathars. Although he abandoned his parents’ faith while still in his youth, he was interested in unorthodox religious factions and beliefs throughout his life. Researchers reconstructed Le Corbusier’s system of religious convictions, indicating both those that came from reading in his youth as well as those that were formed under the influence of books collected in his later life. Some of these beliefs were related to the role of outstanding individuals who create new rules for the functioning of society and it is clear that these views reinforced the architect’s personal inclinations to act in a highly distinct way which exposed him to conflicts and the frequent rejection of his projects. Aspiring to the role of a prophet and a legislator, the architect also delighted in stressing the “persecution” to which he was subjected. Some other of his quasi-religious beliefs related to the learning and artistic expression of the mysterious order contained in the organisation of the cosmos, nature and man. Such an approach as his was shared with many artists of his time, who – as, for example, Piet Mondrian or Mathieu Schoenmakers, who shared his attitude – saw the laws of nature in mystical terms and tried to visualize mathematical expressions of the principles governing the world.[3] Gnostic and Orphic themes, or those derived from anthroposophy and theosophy as well as a whole range of further themes whose primary sources cannot be determined, were transformed by Le Corbusier in his poems, paintings, sculptures and works of architecture, adapting their characteristics to the needs of art.

Both in the formal and ideological sphere, Le Corbusier also referred to Christianity. His recognition of the specific simplicity of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, described by the architect in his work Vers une architecture, may serve as an example. The method of lighting the interior with a row of sub-ceiling windows, used in that church, has its counterpart in the chapel on the hill, where the light is filtered through a narrow gap under the ceiling. It should be noted, however, that the architect’s attitude to the Catholic Church was highly ambivalent. Le Corbusier appreciated the sensuality of the rites, which was greater than in Protestantism, and the “secret” survival of earlier, more primitive cults ensconced within them. However, he regarded the modern Catholic Church as a “dead institution” and did not feel the need to build temples for it. The exception, which is the chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut, was made under the influence of persuasion of the reform-minded Dominicans in Paris from the circle of the “L’Art Sacré” journal (mainly Marie-Alain Couturier) and their supporters from the diocese of Besançon. The commissioning of a project from that avant-garde artist was also facilitated by the fact that the site of an earlier church building (destroyed during World War II) was owned by Ronchamp inhabitants associated in Société Civile et Immobilière (the association was later transformed into Association Oeuvre Notre-Dame du Haut), whose aim was the construction of a new church.[4] In addition, it was not an ordinary parish church, but a chapel of pilgrimage, located away from the town centre, visited especially on the occasion of celebrations related to Our Lady. The confrontation of these circumstances with the statement made by a certain scholar that “Le Corbusier’s chapel has a much more ‘Catholic’ effect than many of the later buildings erected by Catholic architects” may, in this situation, come as a big surprise. The ignorance of the author of this opinion about the “Catholicity” of the work is all the more surprising given that the literature on the chapel is abundant, and the most important information about the circumstances of its construction has long been present even in those publications that deal with the architecture of the 20th century in general.

Translated by Agnieszka Gicala

[1] S. Cohen, S. Hurtt, The Pilgrimage Chapel at Ronchamp: Its Architectonic Structure and Typological Antecedents, “Oppositions”, 1980, nos. 19/20, pp. 144–146. The English version of the non-English quotations by the translator, unless marked otherwise.

[2] D. Pauly, Ronchamp – lecture de d’une architecture, Paris 1980, pp. 52–53.

[3] M. White, De Stlij and Dutch modernism, Manchester 2003, pp. 24–26; H.J. de Jager, H.G. Matthes, Het beeldende denken. Leven en werk van Mathieu Schoenmaekers, Baarn 1992.

[4] The Association was founded on 26th September 1949; with Jean-François Mathey (the son of François Mathey, who initiated the project) as its president, Jean-Marie Maire and Edmond Damesy as vice-presidents. The owners of the ground were a group of about 40 Ronchamp families, who had bought it from the state in 1799.

[5] A. Fuchs, Die Wallfahrtskapelle Le Corbusiers in Ronchamp, Paderborn 1956 (38 pages).

[6] Lucien Ledeur (1911–1975) was the secretary of the Commission of Sacred Art in the diocese of Besançon. He participated in the invitation of prominent artists to decorate churches in Les Bréseux (1947, Alfred Manessier’s stained glass), Audincourt (1949, stained glass and tapestries designed by Fernand Léger, Jean Bazaine’s mosaics) and Maiche (1950, colours by Jean Le Moal). For more information on the activities of the committee and canon Ledeur, cf. A. Flicoteaux, Le Chanoine Ledeur et la Commision d’art sacré du diocese de Besançon de 1945 à 1955, [memories], Paris 1998, and Un artisan de l’art sacré. Le chanoine Lucien Ledeur de Besançon, 1911–1975, impr. P. Attinger, Neuchâtel 1977. An interview and presentation of his work is also included in the journal “Cité Fraternelle. Hebdomadaire d’Action Catholique de Franche-Comte et du Territoire de Belfort”, issues of 4 July 1964 and 23 January 1966.

[7] Fuchs 1956 (ft. 5), p. 6.

[8] Ibidem, p. 9.

[9] Ibidem, pp. 9–11.

[10] A. Tzonis, Le Corbusier. The poetics of machine and metaphor, London 2001, p. 178.

[11] Theses about gathering “voices of the landscape” in the building first appeared in the travel records from 1911, cf. Le Corbusier, Journey to the East [1966], transl. I. Zaknic, N. Peruiset, Cambridge (Mass.) 1987, pp. 212, 217; later also in Vers une architecture, cf. idem, Towards a new architecture, transl. F.A. Etchells, London 1931, p. 168.

[12] Fuchs 1956 (ft. 5), p. 17.

[13] S. Galizia, I. Galizia-Faßbinder, Le Corbusiers Wallfahrtskapelle in Ronchamp: Notre-Dame-du Haut, “Das Münster” 9, 1956, nos. 1–2, p. 31. Silvio Galizia (1925–1989) was a Swiss architect who created numerous modern churches, including in Rome.

[14] Le Corbusier, L’Art decoratif d’aujourd’hui, Paris 1925, quoted after: Ch. Jencks, Le Corbusier and the Continual Revolution in Architecture, New York 2000, p. 263. Cf. also: A.M. Vogt, Le Corbusier, the Noble Savage. Toward an Archeology of Modernism, Cambridge (Mass.) 1998, pp. 17–18.

[15] Jencks 2000 (ft. 14), p. 263.

[16] Ch. Jencks, Architektura postmodernistyczna, Warszawa 1987, pp. 16–17.

[17] Fuchs 1956 (ft. 5), p. 11.

[18] Ibidem, pp. 18–19.

[19] Another building, strongly suggesting a similar structure of reinforced concrete, was the house of dr Truus Schröder-Schräder in Utrecht, designed by Gerrit Rietveld, which revealed its brick structure only during the renovation. The dependence of the house on its appearance, rather than its actual structure, is documented by numerous photographs included in the work of P. Overy (et al.), The Rietveld Schröder House (Wiesbaden 1988), in particular two series of photos taken by F. den Oudsten before and after the restoration of the house.

[20] Damage of the material caused by the fire made it mostly suitable only as the filling of the space inside the south wall.

[21] Cf. G.W.F. Hegel, Wykłady o estetyce, transl. J. Grabowski, A. Landman, vol. I, Warszawa 1964, p. 186.

[22] Fuchs 1956 (ft. 5), p. 13.

[23] Ibidem, pp. 13–14.

[24] Ibidem, p. 15.

[25] Ibidem, pp. 16–17.

[26] Ibidem, pp. 23–24.

[27] Ibidem, pp. 24–25.

[28] Ibidem, p. 28.

[29] Ibidem, p. 37. Without wishing to question the reasoning of Birchler, it should be noted that he was above all a distinguished art conservator, whose scientific specialty concerned the early Middle Ages and the Baroque in Switzerland.

[30] Ibidem, p. 37.

[31] Ibidem, p. 33.

[32] Cohen, Hurtt 1980 (ft. 1), p. 143.

[33] Fuchs 1956 (ft. 5), p. 10.

[34] Ibidem, p. 35.

[35] Ibidem, p. 36.

[36] Ibidem, p. 34.

[37] Ibidem, p. 35.

[38] Ibidem, p. 36.

[39] Ibidem, p. 37.

[40] M. Jay, Songs of Experience. Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme, Berkeley 2006, pp. 361–400.

[41] Cf. K. Filutowska, System i opowieść. Filozofia narracyjna w myśli F.W.J. Schellinga w latach 18001811, Wrocław 2007, pp. 254–306.

[42] Alford was a historian of modern art (and a painter) associated with universities in Canada (Toronto) and the United States (including Indiana University and Middlebury College); he died in 1961. J. Alford, Creativity and intelligibility in Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, “The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism”, 1958, no. 3, pp. 293–305.

[43] Idem, Modern architecture and the symbolism of creative process, “College Art Journal”, 1955, no. 2, pp. 102–123.

[44] Alford 1958 (ft. 42), p. 293.

[45] Ibidem, p. 293.

[46] Ibidem, p. 294.

[47] Herbert Read, Icon and idea: the function of art in the development of human consciousness, London 1955.

[48] Alford 1958 (ft. 42), p. 295.

[49] Ibidem, p. 296.

[50] J. Hadamard, The Psychology of invention in the mathematical field, Princeton 1945. By referring to this book, Alford made the right choice because Hadamard was not only an outstanding mathematician (see Hadamard matrices, Hadamard product) but also a researcher of issues of epistemology. The above-mentioned work was reprinted in 1975 and 1996. Hadamard described the creative processes of one hundred famous mathematicians, including Carl Friedrich Gauss, Hermann von Helmholtz and Henri Poincaré.

[51] D.W. Thompson, On growth and form, Cambridge 1951 (vol. 1), 1952 (vol. 2). This – as one might think – faded book (first published in 1917) has been reprinted several times (including in 2010), also in translations into other languages. Alford does not write much about it, but again – as earlier in the case of Hadamard – he indicates that it is a remarkable work in scientific writing. Its author exhibited an extraordinary fascination with the beauty of the organic world and its intricate regularity, at the same time creating a work of literature in the area of ​​research reporting.

[52] Alford 1958 (ft. 42), pp. 303–304.

[53] Ibidem, p. 304.

[54] R. Biedrzynski, Am Hohen Ort von Ronchamp, in: idem, Kirchen unserer Zeit, München 1958, pp. 106–116; cf. also: T.O. Brandt, Kirchen unserer Zeit by Richard Biedrzynski, “College Art Journal”, 1959, no. 4, pp. 375–376. Richard Biedrzynski (1901–1969), who also used the pseudonym Richard Bie, was the author of a doctoral dissertation, published in 1923, dedicated to the influence of Kantian ethics on British critical idealism. He was also a critic and journalist (related to the “Stuttgarter Zeitung”), the author of numerous books on theater, film and art. Biedrzynski wrote books on Marx, Russian art, stained glass, Winckelman, Pompeian painting and dozens of artists from the Middle Ages to the present.

[55] “Antiquarian history”, in a more precise meaning which is in line with the intentions of Nietzsche, is directed against the outstanding individuals, but in this particular case the diagnosed threat was regarding the actions of an avant-garde artist as a set of facts which can be clearly defined and understood; see: F. Nietzsche, The use and abuse of history for life, transl. A. Collins, New York 1985.

[56] Biedrzynski 1958 (ft. 54), p. 107.

[57] Ibidem.

[58] Cf. footnotes 4 and 6.

[59] Ibidem, pp. 10–11.

[60] Ibidem, p. 111.

[61] Harmoniê aphanês phanerês kreittôn (ἁρμονίη ἀϕανὴς ϕανερῆς κρείττων), Hippolytos, Refutatio omnium haeresium, in: Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, ed. H. Diels, W. Kranz, Berlin 1903, 54, ch. IX, 9, par. 5, p. 48. Harmony so understood is identical with Logos; cf. H.-D. Voigtländer, Sprachphilosophie bei Heraklit, “Hermes” 2, 1995, p. 153. The English version of the quotation after: [accessed: 21 October 2012].

[62] Biedrzynski 1958 (ft. 54), p. 109.

[63] Ibidem.

[64] Ibidem, p. 108.

[65] Ibidem, p. 109.

[66] Ibidem.

[67] Ibidem, p. 110

[68] Ibidem.

[69] Ibidem.

[70] Ibidem, pp. 111–112.

[71] Ibidem, p. 112.

[72] Ibidem, p. 114.

[73] Ibidem, p. 115.

[74] Ibidem.

[75] Cf. Nietzsche 1985 (ft. 55).

[76] I. Kant, Critique of judgement, the English version after: [accessed: 21 October 2012].

[77] „Nein, gerade Tatsachen gibt es nicht, nur Interpretationen” – F. Nietzsche, Nachgelassene Fragmente, 1885–1887, Nachlaß VIII, 7 (60), in: idem, Sämtliche Werke. Kritische Studienausgabe, eds. G. Colli, M. Montinari, München–New York 1980, vol. 12, p. 315.

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