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Cezary Wąs

University of Wrocław


In the study of art, it is customary to rationalize at least some aspects of this special object of reflection, which in its essential features eludes the forms of academic discourse. This is particularly true of the most outstanding works of art, which always invite multiple readings. A perfect case in point is the wide spectrum of interpretations engendered by the Ronchamp Chapel; the structure has been variously defined as a manifestation of avant-garde modernism, a specific form of functionalism, or an expression of the architect’s hidden esoteric inclinations. Ever since it was finished, attempts to elucidate it have proven difficult. Early judgments include a number of statements notable for their rich argumentation and strength of reasoning. Arguments they employ, however, often go in different, and sometimes opposite, directions. The present analysis of two out of five selected interpretations of the Ronchamp Chapel (the other three will be covered in the next issue of “Sacrum et Decorum”) seeks to demonstrate that the interpreters’ intention was to make the building widely understood and accepted. Even though the two interpretations exhibit certain similarities, they are also distinctly different. Using the typology suggested by Hayden White, one, highly individualistic interpretation could be described as politically “anarchist”, while the other, whose author treats profound changes in religion and art as nearly self-evident, could be labelled “liberal”.

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


A Polish art historian has recently quoted approvingly the opinion of a protestant scientist, saying that Le Corbusier’s chapel in Ronchamp has a much more “Catholic” effect than many later constructions built by Catholic architects.[1] At first, double satisfaction is evoked in the recipient facing such a statement: first, because the construction is adequate to its purpose, and second, that this has been confirmed by an almost independent expert. The problem appears when, on second thoughts, we realize that in both general and specialist literature the building is seen rather as an expression of the author’s modern pantheism, the more so that, with regard to this building, he declared his lack of interest in satisfying religious demands and needs.[2] Further investigation into the matter would lead us to discover that many serious and comprehensive arguments were attempted in order to prove that the chapel is in profound discord with the requirements imposed by the Catholic religion. With time, the question may arise what is “Catholic effect”, as the term is rather vague, and the protestant scientist speaking on the matter may not be entitled to provide an adequate judgment on the fundamental values of Catholicism.

At this point, it needs to be clarified why one should refrain from the simple criticism of unauthorized opinions. In a situation when an opinion is quoted and its content is confronted with other authors’ claims, it is forgotten that the quote, and the opinion itself, leave a temporary but overwhelming charm on the reader/listener. Perhaps what should be considered is not the truth value of the given opinion but rather the cause of the efficiency of its persuasive force. For this purpose, among the almost infinite number of interpretations, it is useful to distinguish several which are in particular representative, and to consider not only what their general sense is, and in what systems of values the employed argumentation types belong, but also what system the used arguments form, what their rhetorical organization is, and how structural elements of these interpretations create certain persuasive power (only partly dependent on the object in question).

Five texts have been selected for further analysis; they were produced within three years after Le Corbusier’s chapel in Ronchamp was built. The author of the first one is the architect himself; of the second one – a declared admirer of the work (Anton Henze), of the third – an opponent (Alois Fuchs), of the fourth – a researcher declaring the so-called “open mind” approach towards the work (John Alford), and of the fifth one – so to say, in addition – an architecture historian, attempting to summarize the discussion so far and to formulate a view that would reconcile the contradictions produced earlier (Richard Biedrzynski). The present article constitutes the first chapter of a two-part study, and includes interpretations of views presented by the first two of the above-mentioned authors: Le Corbusier and Henze. The second chapter of the study will present the examination of the characteristics of the remaining three texts.


Le Corbusier

A short book on the chapel of Ronchamp written by Le Corbusier himself was published as soon as 1956, and over a year later its more polished version was published, and translated into many European languages.[3] The chaotic organization of its short chapters corresponds very well with the architect’s rhetorical style; he mainly uses short, as if unfinished sentences, which resemble a hasty report and frequently reveal strong emotions. The direct nature of his expression is supposed to evidence its authenticity, yet the included narrative plots occasionally change it into a short story, and the whole text becomes a metaphor.[4]

Le Corbusier begins, quite unexpectedly, with a violent negation of the opinions expressed by some of the contemporary critics, who saw Baroque inspirations in his work:

This little chapel of pilgrimage, here at Ronchamp, is not a pennant marked “baroque”. Reader, do understand. I hate this term just as in the same way I have never liked, nor looked at, nor been able to admit baroque art.[5]

What are the sources of this work, then? The architect wishes to dispel all doubts in this matter:

In 1910 I spent six weeks at the Parthenon. At the age of 23 my consciousness had determined its future direction.Then he quotes his diary: Laborious hours in the revealing light of the Acropolis. Perilous hours which brought a distressing doubt about the (real) strength of our strength, the (real) art of our art.

Those who, practising the art of architecture, find themselves at a point in their career, their brain empty, and heart broken with doubt in face of the task of giving living form to dead material, will realise the despondency of soliloquies amongst the ruins. Very often I left the Acropolis, my shoulders bowed with heavy foreboding, not daring to face the fact that one day I would have to practise. The Parthenon is a drama…[6]

The processional route up, the Propylaia, the irregularly distributed buildings, some of them viewed from an angle, the space before the buildings, dedicated to rituals and assemblies, the mighty temple of Athena, the sharp light and deep shade, the panoramic view from the hill… All these elements, when you empathize with the architect’s reactions, create a specific tension, an absolutely metaphysical drama. Le Corbusier suggests that the hill of Ronchamp repeats the ancient drama in the Christian version:

During a pilgrimage, the witness makes his testimony. He testifies to the most agonizing drama ever to have occurred.[7]

Le Corbusier’s vague premonition perceived on the hill in Athens, that “one day he would have to practise”, was transformed into a passionate process and fulfilled:

The work is done. Come what may.[8]

Unsystematic yet comprehensive are Le Corbusier’s descriptions of the nature of the creative process, and the opinions he reveals on the application of buildings, the main forms and contents. His descriptions reflect not only the very personal but also very peculiar views of the author. Le Corbusier reports on the course of the creative process:

When pondering and working out a project (town planning, architecture or painting), always a long process, I bring into focus, I realise, I come to the point. I have made an immense effort without a word spoken; over the drawing boards of my office at 35 rue de Sèvres I do not speak.[9] Referring strictly to Ronchamp, he says it was a life full of passion, a life of fight, conscientious effort, thorough examination, continuous questioning and reconciling which must be done every minute, every second between thousands of factors, which eventually will become a unity in the important work…[10] The beginning is: June 1950: on the hill, for three hours I was trying to learn the place and its surroundings. I wanted to absorb the place.[11] The end was also in June, five years later: Let Ronchamp bear me witness: five years’ work with Maisonnier and Bona, his workmen and the engineers, all isolated on the hill…[12]

In the above, our attention is drawn to the emphasis put on the emotional sphere in the creative process (“immense effort”, “full of passion”), which in the reader’s reception gains a more significant position than the fragments on getting the commission, the course of the construction itself (very modestly described), the technical solutions employed and the materials used, or the list of persons contributing to the creation of the chapel. The architect attempts to give justice to all the people involved in particular stages of the construction: from Bishop Dubourg, interested in the enterprise, to the obstinate commission-givers (the Dominicans and the priests associated with Besançon), engineers (as the much-praised Maisonnier), the construction manager and all his workers, to photographers. The fragments of matter-of-fact character, prevailing in size, do quell, but do not eliminate the impression that we are witnessing a description of violent phenomena, strong emotional tension and a peculiar emotional state in which the direct contributors participated. Le Corbusier most briefly expressed this in his speech at the consecration ceremony. In the speech, which he also included in his book, the architect almost openly distanced himself from the exclusively Christian, or rather Catholic, application of the building:

In building this chapel, I wished to create a place of silence, of prayer, of peace, of spiritual joy. A sense of the sacred animated our effort. Some things are sacred, others are not, whether they be religious or not.

Our workmen, and Bona the foreman, Maisonnier from my office, 35 rue de Sèvres, the engineers and the calculators, other workmen and firms, executives and Savina are those who brought this project into being, a project difficult, meticulous, primitive, made strong by the resources brought into play, but sensitive and informed by all-embracing mathematics which is the creator of that space which cannot be described in words.

A few scattered symbols, a few written words telling the praises of the Virgin.

The cross – the true cross of suffering – is raised up in this space; the drama of Christianity has taken possession of the place from this time onwards. Excellency, I give you this chapel of dear, faithful concrete, shaped perhaps with temerity but certainly with courage in the hope that it will seek out in you (as in those who will climb the hill) an echo of what we have drawn into it.[13]

The statement that the original aim was to build a place of “silence, of prayer, of peace, of spiritual joy” clearly indicates that the construction was “universalized”, that it had been made – in the architect’s intention – as a meditation space for representatives of all religions and for non-religious persons. First of all, the chapel is dedicated to the contemplation of a generally understood “sacredness”, as the author says: “Some things are sacred, others are not, whether they be religious or not”. It was this sacredness reaching beyond any particular religion that animated the builders of the chapel. One of the possible formulae of contemplation of the sacred or the sanctified is Christianity. Le Corbusier admits it. Therefore “a few scattered symbols, a few written words tell the praises of the Virgin”, and “The cross – the true cross of suffering – is raised up in this space”. Some of those who climb the hill will understand – as Le Corbusier believed – this duality, and the chapel will become for them the expression of this supra-religious concept. The second part of the content programme of the construction refers to the questions of art, which connects the visual signs and contents with the sacred organization of the universe. The chapel – again, according to the architect – is animated with the spirit of “all-embracing mathematics which is the creator of that space which cannot be described in words”. This ineffable space is, in other words, the unusual, extraordinary, miraculous space, but also possibly the sacred space. Mathematics creates the sacred space, the Ronchamp chapel is animated with both: mathematics and sacredness. Mathematics and sacredness are synonyms. The created chapel space, as the whole space per se, is an image of the sensed mathematical sanctity – sacred mathematics. Space in its dimensions is ineffable (marvellous), and so is the space of the chapel. Both can be labelled as “la boîte à miracles”.

Some of the authors refer the signs that Le Corbusier placed in the windows to the texts of the Litany of Loreto, orMagnificat, yet apart from the quotes from Ave Maria in the north wall windows next to the presbytery, the words and symbols are but another proof of the universal nature of the chapel:

The sun, the moon and birds, a pentagon and a pentagram, clouds, the sea, a meander, windows and two hands […]Abstract art which today evokes hot disputes is the reason why Ronchamp exists: the architectonic language, the plastic equation, symphony, music or number (yet bare of all metaphysics) – in the valid, strict rule of ineffable space – liberates. […] The pentagon jumps forward to my eyes. […] The whole ultimate effect of a work is determined by the basic lines. It was so in the oldest and highest cultures. It is inexplicable why the modern artists are indifferent, or even hostile towards this attitude, towards the structure of a work.[14]

The above quote calls for some ordering. Le Corbusier remarks that the language of visual arts or architecture is a certain mathematical equation, resembling musical harmony. It is based on the essential lines which give strength to architectonic messages. Some of these lines (or outlines) are abstract (as e.g. pentagon or pentagram), some can be found in symbolic figures (such as the sun, the moon, birds, clouds, the sea, a meander, windows, a hand). This is the message of the oldest and “highest” cultures. The task Le Corbusier assigned himself consisted in using the traditional signs and activating their original powers in connection with the particular commission he received. Also in this case, the sacred force included in the signs precedes the Christian message and prevails over it. In Le Corbusier’s artistic cosmology there is one more additional element that animates forms (fills them with life and spirit). The element is the light:

The key / is light // And the light illuminates forms / and the forms have an emotive power to evoke/ through the play of proportions / through the play of relations / what is unexpected, surprising// but they also have the power through spiritual play / their grounds / their true birth / their ability to last, / the structure / the mobility, the bravery, / yes, even audacity, the play / of creatures which are the substantial creations, / the bases of architecture.[15]

The light brings forth the formal game of proportions, which reveal artistic wondrousness, but it is also thanks to the light that their formal and audacious spiritual game with the bases of architecture is revealed: the ability to last, the structure, the mobility. If we add the meanings resulting from the metaphors of “visualized acoustics” and “ineffable space”, it becomes obvious that in creating Ronchamp, the elementary role was played by Le Corbusier’s well-developed personal artistic theory, which put aside not only religious conditioning, but also dependence on artistic doctrines.

From elements of various religious and artistic theories, Le Corbusier created his own, entirely independent concept. You can still find in it the well-known views of the connection of the cosmic sacredness and the universal order with the art, but the whole is permeated by individual effort and personal experience. Except for the initial fragments of his book, the architect does not place himself in opposition to his contemporaries, neither does he feel religiously indifferent, which would have offended his commission-givers. His extensive expression of his own religious and artistic beliefs is intertwined with fragments in which he speaks with respect of the Marian cult and the sign of the cross.

Five days before the consecration the cross was brought, the size of a man. Since that moment Ronchamp stopped being a construction, and a construction site. The cross broke the silence of the walls, it announced the great tragedy that once took place on a hill. When Bona took the cross on his shoulders and carried it down the aisle to the altar, suddenly such powerful sublime atmosphere started to spread that the workers, the whole crew, started joking so as to be able to carry on working at all.[16]

The architect does not reveal his views on the cosmic, sacred meaning of the crossed lines, or the right angle. Avoiding conflict, mixing statements in which respect for the universally understood sacredness neighboured with respect for the strength of the Christian symbols was an important factor in the effect that the work had later on. It could satisfy the Christian users because of the concession made to their religious traditions, but also – for which the architect cared more – it could evoke admiration with its artistic values and their relation to the sacredness perceived in a modern way. The propaganda of the work presented in Le Corbusier’s book exactly voices its creator’s intentions, but also corresponds to a certain tendency in Catholicism, i.e. the indifference to some religious threads of non-Christian character, which is based on the conviction that they can be adopted. The knowledge of adoption of many pagan elements by Christianity in earlier epochs could have encouraged a similar attempt at Ronchamp.

Anton Henze’s apologia

Anton Henze’s (1913–1983) book, Ronchamp. Le Corbusiers erster Kirchenbau was published already in 1956.[17] The author was at the time strengthening his position of a modern art expert, also an expert on the sacred art.[18] He devoted altogether three books to Le Corbusier.[19] His short study on Ronchamp was published in one volume with Le Corbusier’s consecration speech (25th June 1955) placed on the first page, and with the speech of Marcel-Marie Dubois (the Bishop of Besançon in 1954–1966), delivered at the consecration, placed on the last pages. This constructional brace reflects the contents of Henze’s study, extending between the approval of the artistic reasons included in the work, and the liturgical and pastoral requirements. The author often combines contrasting features of the work into unique entities, in a way that suggests that such combinations are inevitable both in the existing reality, and in the results of actions of creative individuals.

In this approach, the very location of the village and the hill is foretelling the contradictions in the building itself:

Ronchamp is situated in the Belfort Gap. The Vosges Mountains touch the village limits from the north-east. From the west, upper Saône opens its gentle valleys, and from the south-east, Jura presents its subalpine skyline.[20]

The geographical location of the village on the border between the mountains and the valleys is completed by the numerous traces of human activity:

The Basil-Paris railway and the Belfort-Dijon route pass through the village. Industrial enterprises push towards this line of transport. The landscape conceals airports, from which jet fighters start for the sky. Nature and technology, whatever is growing and whatever is invented, cross here and create the new image of the landscape.[21]

The history of the hill near the village is, as Henze shows, another proof of clashing and reconciling oppositions. The hill was a sacred place already in the pagan times, the legend of a Christian chapel built there goes far back in time, yet the hill “has not only religious, but also military significance”:

During each war, anyone who passed the Belfort Gap, fought for it; chapel after chapel were destroyed. The last one, built after the WWI in the neo-Gothic style, was destroyed by artillery fire in the battle of 1944.[22]

In the spirit of the argument between “the historicizing and the modern architecture”, Le Corbusier was chosen to be the designer of the next chapel on the hill. Henze very briefly refers to the circumstances of giving the commission to Le Corbusier, merely mentioning two French Dominicans, Pie-Raymond Regamey (1900–1996) and Marie-Alain Couturier (1897–1954). In their articles in “L’art sacré” they propagated the idea that the offers to create religious works of art should also be directed at the recognized avant-garde artists, often not associated with the Catholic church.[23] The author notes e.g. the friendly relations between the then Bishop of Besançon, Maurice-Louis Dubourg (1878–1954) and the circle of editors of “L’art sacré”, and his influence on the priests of the curia, who got directly involved in negotiations with Le Corbusier: among them Lucien Ledeur (1911–1975), the secretary of the committee for the church art, and also (not mentioned by Henze) François Mathey (1917–1933), the local historic buildings inspector at the time, and the director of Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris from 1955 on. Further in his book, Henze mentions, in this context, hiring Henrie Matisse for works in the Rosary Chapel of the Dominican Sisters in Vence, and employing Fernand Léger in the parish church of Sacré Cœur in Audincourt. Hense devotes a lot of attention to the chapel itself, whose description contains a detailed characterization of its artistic and liturgical-pastoral values.

This part of the study begins with an opinion on the relation between the building and its surroundings, followed by the description of the facades (south, west, north, and east). The main constructional achievements of the chapel are mentioned. Then there comes the description of the interior, and more general considerations of the sculptural and painting values of the building, which, combined, create the Gesamtkunstwerk, dominated by architecture. All is concluded by elevated words on the symbolic values of the chapel. Henze uses words of admiration with moderation. According to the German author, the chapel will appear to a pilgrim or tourist approaching the hill as “a ship (emerging) from clouds”. The object is “foreign to the landscape”, but at the same time “akin to it in a strange way”. In his matter-of-fact depiction of the facades, the author elevates the tone only when describing the main entrance: “On the door glows a painting full of red, blue, green, and yellow signs”. The next signal of appreciation appears first in the introduction to the interior description: “The space which embraces the entering guest is as powerful and simple as the exterior, but at the same time moved, and delicately innervated”.

The values of the work, an example of the generally understood visual art, are defined through the movement they contain: the movement, representation of which awakes interest in both sculptors (as Rodin) and painters:

The constant change of balance and movement cause the forced dynamics; various space values permeate each other. Crystal-like and geometrical forms, organic forms and the invented ones all aim for higher unity. In the system of a simple and at the same time vey complicated order, time and space pervade each other. All this can be found in modern sculpture, but not only there. Since Futurism and Cubism, we observe similar phenomena in painting, and now also in architecture.[24]

Ronchamp, and especially the division of the south and north walls, together with the stained-glass in splayed windows, illustrate integration of painting and architecture. After the works by Matisse, Léger or Bazaine, Le Corbusier – also taking advantage of the achievements of Mondrian and Kandinsky – refined the phenomenon of those two arts permeating each other. Referring to the above-mentioned sculptural values, it could be added that Le Corbusier “achieved a diaphanous unity of architecture, sculpture and painting, and facing it, we cannot decide where one of them ends and the other begins”.

Gesamtkunstwerk, a result of integration, which we behold, is entirely architectural; painting and sculpture regain in it their old powers of signifying. Notre-Dame constitutes a monumental and poetic harmony; it possesses its sacred glory, and yet retains its human dimension. Not only does it express Le Corbusier’s life-long yearning for the unity of the three arts, but it also reveals the knowledge of the harmonious order, which he enclosed in the simple Modulor formulae – his measurement system.[25]

Resulting from the reflection on the old systems of proportion associated with the proportions in human body, and from the application of mathematical systems as the “golden ratio”, Modulor was to give architecture the kind of harmony that would allow its users to find themselves in agreement with the building, at the same time referring to the more universal harmonious relations.[26] In his work entitled Modulor 2 Le Corbusier claimed that the system was used in designing the Ronchamp chapel. Hense follows the suggestion:

Using Modulor may be clearly noticed in all of the Ronchamp plans and models. The initial plan was checked and modified by Le Corbusier during the long period of work. The Plan and the outline remained unchanged, while each next redrawing brought changes in proportions […] The roundings and angles of particular forms, but most of all the composition of openings in the south and north walls, were being changed until the state was reached in which the whole construction was well-tuned.[27]

According to Henze, the phenomenon observed here is the discovery of the “mystery of order” and the application of the architect’s knowledge of “the acoustic components in the domain of form”. In his book, the architectonic and, in fact, poetic metaphor of acoustics of forms is presented as a kind of science.

Acoustics of forms is no aesthetic game. Hans Kayser, in his “Harmonik”, arrives at a realization that the tone-vibration numbers and the tone-ratios act as the elementary mechanism in the structure of the world, and in all forms. He claims that man has internal hearing, which reacts to harmony and order […] present in everything[…].[28]

The appropriate “tuning” of a work allows its transition from just being useful to being a symbol. “Tuning” a work means strengthening its integrative functions. A building, in such a case, not only harmonizes with the landscape and binds spirit and nature, but also connects the past and the future, and refers what is human and man-made to God. The last function is presented by Henze as a question, as if he wanted to mark his uncertainty: “Is the Ronchamp chapel a symbol of religio, a metaphysical bondage of the 20th-century man?” Yet in many other places in his book he provides the question with a clearly positive answer.

The connection of a building to the landscape and the divine forces in the universe, and the association of people’s concerns with their hope for salvation is expressed by Henze in rather elevated words:

It is striking that the chapel, in its forms, corresponds to the landscape over which it dominates. Le Corbusier used the acoustics of form also in the relation of the chapel to the landscape. The building was planned to blend with the landscape without introducing a false note, but at the same time to take over its rhythm and to supersede it, to magnify its sound and express its inner nature.[29]

In this case, Henze does not just associate the “acoustics of form” metaphor with the Neopythagorean theories, but rather elaborates on it in a poetic manner, adding further terms connected with music: “sound”, “rhythm”, “a false note”. The chapel absorbs and transfers to the contemporary people the divinity of the universe:

When one tries to trace the process by which the present is connected with the primeval forms of the quarters of the uninhabited, one can see something from the fire of the sun and the great march of the cosmos enter the interior, introduced through the windows, which try to ensnare the starlight with punctures of unequal size and with the changing angles of the embrasures.[30]

Such terms are not only unusual in descriptions of architecture, especially windows, but are also unique in the definitions of the cosmos and the cosmic sacredness (“the primeval form of the quarters of the uninhabited”). The expression “quarters of the uninhabited” is pure poetry. The author stops rational argumentation and instead begins to use poetic logic.

Henze believes – without negating the value of linking the past and the present in the chapel – that the building is first of all the image of raising the contemporary concerns towards God:

The chapel would not be a symbol, if its acoustics corresponded merely with the geological-geographical landscape. But it also corresponds to the people down there, the ever-active sons of the century, who, in their workshops and tractors, cars and jet planes, keep fulfilling the old commandment to “subdue the Earth”. It responds to their fears and doubts, hopes and faith, and from all sides of the sky it gathers, with the heads of its towers, the sweat, tears and cries of the main characters of the century – the worker, the prisoner, and the soldier – to place them before the altars of their saint patrons: Saint Joseph, Saint Mary Patron of Prisoners, and Saint Mary Queen of Peace All this is folded up into a sign, shaped as a form, placed in the highest point of the land, between the Earth and the sky: understanding enclosed in the form of technical pilgrims, who collide with the limits of time and space and at the same time testify that certainty and salvation they are seeking can be found in the community that gathers around the altar in God’s tent.[31]

The above words enable a more insightful reflection on Henze’s opinions concerning the community values of the chapel, in the context of its strictly religious application. The author appreciates moving the miraculous painting of Mary and little Jesus to the right from the altar axis. This location, according to Henze, adequately represents Mary’s theological position in the Church. It was also appropriate to use eight long benches only on the right, and to leave the left side empty, as it allows some pilgrims to pray in peace, and others to circulate freely at the same time. However, what Henze appreciates most is incorporating five altars into one area: four inside the building and one outside. The internal altars, inscribed in the church space without splitting its unity, are in an obvious way useful in a pilgrimage church, which is frequently visited at the same time by several groups, conducting Liturgy separately. The main altar, in turn, may be used by large assemblies, and the external altar – on important Holy Days.

The puzzle of the modern church-building, which is creating adequate space for the liturgy without moving individual praying persons out of the church, was solved by Le Corbusier in an original and unique way. […] The prayer space is not separated from the liturgy space. It is at the same time an enclosed and integrated part of a larger whole, which is uniformly oriented towards the altar.[32]

This complex unity results from the reflection on the relations among people and their relation to God:

Architecture begins with he human being, with the questions: how people treat their fellow human beings, what social and transpersonal forms they create together, and in what relation to God they are […] Architectural design has its source in the communal imagery of people, and at the same time it is supposed to shape this imagery. Church architecture should shape the community which wants to be formed, it should confirm it and reinforce it. It should build spaces in which everyone is in contact with everyone else, and all are in contact with the altar[…].[33]

Henze makes the above claim, that the so-called uni-spatiality is associated with the postulates of the Liturgical Movement, despite the fact that the arrangement of benches in the chapel is rather traditional, the presbytery is flattened and moved towards the nave because of the size of the land plot, and the possibility to arrange the available space in a more “amphitheatrical” way was not used when the place before the altar was designed. The interior of the chapel still has the nave axis (though not very noticeable), and this also makes it depart from the postulates of creating centralized church spaces. Henze overemphasizes the communal and novel shape of the building. It is clearly more centralized than the earlier chapel, but the traditional longitudinal plan is still, in a very subtle way, marked in the building, and even the plan of the cross is fractionally noticeable. Counting the chapel at Ronchamp among the works which unequivocally follow the postulates of the Liturgical Movement is an exaggeration. The reasons for the “flattening” of the longitudinal plan were probably more complex – in the case of Le Corbusier perhaps even misleading – and stemmed rather from the universalization of the religious application of the shrine. Contrary to some obvious truths, Henze first treats the building as a symbolic work and sees in it the expression of people’s desires, and then, contrary to his own earlier conclusions, when analysing the religious contents he ignores all their non-Christian sources.

To confirm the official approval of the Church, Henze includes Bishop Dubois’s consecration speech at the end of the book:

In the times of the cathedrals, as one book says, a style emerged that was permeated with spiritual joy: love of art, disinterestedness, and joy of life in the creation. The joy, as we believe, you experienced when you were building the walls around this place. This high-rise of Mary, intended to dominate the land, became to you what you mentioned when speaking of the 13th-century builders: an act of hope, a gesture of courage, a sign of bravery, a mastery test. Rodin, who wrote about cathedrals as you do, called them the milestones of the Roman-Catholic way of Christianity. You, Master, decided to place here, on our Christian way, the milestone of Mary. Last months have shown clearly enough how glad people are to stop here. You hand the chapel over to us. When in 1952 you were handing over the housing unit to Claudius Petit, you said that you had made it for people. Here, Mr. Corbusier, you have been working for someone much greater – for God and His Mother. Please remember: the soul of the real radiant city is here, up the hill. I have often thought about those who build our churches today and create impressive pictures for the churches: under these vaults, I thought that they had been built, before these paintings, that they had been created, that they encourage us to pray and to become saints. The perspective of prayers, from now on rising to God from this place, may be the highest praise for you, Mr. Corbusier.[34]

Henze’s argumentation included in the book appears to be a refined version of the speech quoted above. The Bishop’s words reveal the values associated with the creative process, and only then do they focus on the religious application of the whole building. The vision of Gothic as a style permeated with “spiritual joy” and “love of art”, although justified by the interpretative tradition dating back to the Romantic period, could be used referring to Le Corbusier’s attitude during his work on the chapel, yet it is at the same time a peculiar interpretation of the style, an interpretation in which the artistic thread prevails over the religious values. Only the application itself counterbalances the entirely positive evaluation of the artistic involvement. The Bishop spoke with understanding of the “gesture of courage, sign of bravery, a mastery test”, to say later that the chapel is “a milestone on our Christian way”. However, the association of the chapel with Christianity is chiefly based on the fact that it is a place of prayer. The Ronchamp chapel does not express a theological or liturgical programme, and does not show any relation with the views of the famous contemporary French Catholic thinkers (e.g. Jacques Maritain or Étienne Gilson). It is rather Bishop Dubois’s speech that reveals the knowledge of Le Corbusier’s theoretical approach, especially when the “radiant city” concept is recalled. Like the above-mentioned interpretation of Gothic, this reference makes sense only at a very general level, since the idea ofville radieuse was in certain aspects affected by the ideas of the Russian urban planners (as Nikolai Milyutin), and was politically related to syndicalism, of which Le Corbusier was a follower for some time.[35]

The Bishop stressed his reflection on the contemporary creators of churches and religious paintings, and made a claim that their works “encourage us to pray and to become saints”. It may be presumed that his considerations were triggered first of all by works of artists who, like Le Corbusier, got involved in their creation against their personal religious views. Therefore, doubts may be raised as to whether he was right in his opinion. The main users of the buildings, i.e. the faithful of the Ronchamp parish and the pilgrims from around Besançon, showed some reserve towards the building, and their needs were fulfilled as if “despite” its artistic shape. For the (French and foreign) Christians, the chapel could be a proof of vitality of their faith, since its servants were even the religiously indifferent artists. Yet, only in a moderate degree can we acknowledge the influence of those artists’ works on the spirituality of the recipients. Chapels by Matisse and Le Corbusier are places of prayer, and Leger’s paintings decorate the walls of the Audincourt church, still they are not significant factors affecting the religious involvement of their users. Works of that kind did play a role – small as it was – in the processes described several years later as aggiornamento, but they were considered important first of all within the sphere of art. The further history of both religion and art only confirmed the uniqueness of this attempt at bringing together the two domains, between which the gap only widened, from then on.

Instead of conclusions

The analysis of two of the five selected interpretations of the Ronchamp chapel shows that both the text by Le Corbusier and the study by Henze, chronologically close to the moment of construction, are oriented towards such a presentation of the work that is understandable and widely acceptable. Despite this similarity, the two interpretations differ significantly. Using Hayden White’s typology, the first interpretation, strongly individualistic, may be considered politically “anarchist”, while the other, whose author treats great changes in art and religion as almost obvious, may be considered “liberal”. These two discussed texts are diametrically different from the interpretations to be presented in the second part of this study.


Translated by Anna Ścibor-Gajewska

[1] The opinion quoted comes from: O. Söhngen, Der Begriff des Sakralen im Kirchenbau, in: Kirchenbau und Ökumene. 11. Evangelischer Kirchbautagung in Hamburg, Hamburg 1961, p. 194. I would like the author to remain anonymous.

[2] One of the most popular 20th-century books on architecture says: “The Chapel at Ronchamp speaks of a similar pantheism, this was an artist for whom natural forms were capable of a divine and magical character”, cf. William J.R. Curtis, Modern architecture since 1900, London 1996, p. 421. It is a simplification, but it is much closer to the opinion of Le Corbusier experts than is the thesis of the chapel’s “Catholic effect”, cf. C. Wąs, Znana czy nieznana? Kontrowersje wokół interpretacji kaplicy w Ronchamp, in: Quart. Kwartalnik Instytutu Historii Sztuki Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego 1 (19), 2011, pp. 73–93.

[3] Quotes in the Polish version after: Le Corbusier, Ronchamp, Stuttgart 1957. Quotes in the English version by the translator, unless marked otherwise.

[4] The inspiration for these remarks were the theories of Hayden White presented in the compilation Poetyka pisarstwa historycznego [Poetics of historical writing], Kraków 2000, although they are used here in a very general way.

[5] Le Corbusier (ft. 3), p. 7; English version after: Le Corbusier, The Chapel at Ronchamp, London 1957, quoted after: www.guardian.co.uk.

[6] Le Corbusier (ft. 3), p. 6.

[7] Ibidem, p. 134.

[8] Ibidem, p. 129.

[9] Ibidem, p. 7; English version after: cf. ft. 5.

[10] Ibidem, p. 7.

[11] Ibidem, p. 88.

[12] Ibidem, p. 7; English version after: cf. ft. 5.

[13] Ibidem, p. 9; English version after: cf. ft. 5.

[14] Ibidem, p. 123.

[15] Ibidem, p. 27.

[16] Ibidem, p. 128.

[17] A. Henze, Ronchamp. Le Corbusiers erster Kirchenbau, Recklinghausen 1956.

[18] In his work, the author refers, among others, to his earlier book, Kirchliche Kunst der Gegenwart, Recklinghausen 1956, which was also published in the U.S., cf. idem, Contemporary Church Art, transl. C. Hastings, New York 1956, and was republished in Germany, Aschaffenburg, 1962.

[19] His book entitled Le Corbusier, Berlin, 1957, was published in Dutch, Norwegian and Spanish. The same author’sLa Tourette: Le Corbusiers erster Klosterbau, Starnberg, 1963, was also published in English (La Tourette: The Le Corbusier monastery, transl. J. Seligman, London 1966). Additionally, Henze was the author of many works on the contemporary painting, and of monographs on individual artists (e.g. Picasso, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec).

[20] Henze (ft. 17), p. 6 (the book has no pagination, therefore the numbers of pages given here refer to numbering from the first page of the book cover, numbered 1); quotes in the English version by the translator.

[21] Ibidem.

[22] Ibidem, p.7.

[23] The literature on the phenomenon and the persons involved is vast. Among the most important volumes we should mention Stephan Mann’s Künstlerkapelle von Matisse bis Mack, Frankfurt am Main 1996, a published version of his doctoral dissertation, defended at the University of Marburg in 1996.

[24] Henze (ft. 17), p. 18.

[25] Henze (ft. 17), pp. 21–22.

[26] The main systems of proportion in arts were described by Rudolf Wittkower in: “The Changing Concept of Proportion”, in: Daedalus 89, 1960, no. 1, pp. 199–215 (on Modulor, cf. p. 212). For further information on Modulor, cf. R. Padovan, Proportion. Science – Philosophy – Architecture, London 1999, pp. 317–335.

[27] Henze (ft. 17), p. 22–23.

[28] Ibidem, p. 23. Henze refers here to the works by Hans Kayser (1891–1964), a German music theoretician, whose views on universal harmony influenced e.g. Paul Klee. The book recalled here is probably, re-published several times,Akróasis. Die Lehre von der Harmonik der Welt, Basel 1946 (first edition: Basel 1938, last edition: Basel 2007).

[29] Henze (ft. 17), p. 26.

[30] Ibidem, p. 25.

[31] Ibidem, p. 26.

[32] Ibidem, p. 15.

[33] Ibidem, p. 13.

[34] Ibidem, pp. 27–28.

[35] After several transformations, Le Corbusier’s ideas approached the “linear city” concept, which was created by Arturo Soria y Mata (1844–1920; his first article on the subject appeared in March 1882 in the Madrid “El Progreso”), but which was known in the 1930s chiefly in the version created by Nikolai Milyutin (1889–1942), in a work dated 1930 (its Polish translation is: “Socgorod: problemy budownictwa miast socjalistycznych”, in: Radzieckie koncepcje nowego osadnictwa z lat 1928–1931, Warszawa 1967, pp. 145–152). On Soria y Mata’s idea cf.: G.R. Collins, “La Ciudad Lineal de Madrid”, in: Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 18, 1959, pp. 38–53; A. Bonet Correa, “Paisaje urbano, Ciudad Lineal y masoneria”, in: Revista Ciudad y Tetritorio 90, 1991.

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