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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.


It is possible, however, to prove a completely contradictory thesis, namely the idea of ​​an “anti-Catholic” character of the work? Is it possible to obtain a satisfactory result from extensive and thorough analysis of the problem formulated in this way? In other words, can an attempt to obtain certainty on the basis of extensive argumentation obscure the areas where it is impossible to be certain? To what extent can uncertainty be suppressed so that the reception of an argument can lead to something more than just the receiver’s momentary bewilderment? Hence, is this anything more than mere rhetoric? Consideration of these issues may be facilitated by a comprehensive statement made by Alois Fuchs (1877–1971), a prominent Catholic theologian and historian of art, whose in-depth analysis of the architecture of the chapel tried to stop the wrongly, in his opinion, motivated praise and at the same time to demonstrate the incompatibility of the work of Le Corbusier with the architectural traditions of the Catholic Church.[5]

Alois Fuchs’s pamphlet

There are no serious reasons why the clearly biased, relatively extreme and isolated statement made by Fuchs should be regarded as devoid of reason, wrongly justified or unscientific. Fuchs rarely confuses facts, and even when – indeed rarely – he strikes a mocking tone, he restrains himself to the limits of scientific discussion and, despite some signs of irritation, he honestly represents the opposite views while his own position is well-argued. Therefore what was the reason that his statement failed to play a major role in the discussion of the chapel on the hill? The content of his pamphlet shows that Fuchs accepted changes in the religion and had no reservations about the demands of the Liturgical Movement; therefore he was not a relentless extremist and did not lack common sense. Paradoxically, it is his opponents that were extremists. Le Corbusier often deliberately sharpened his views, and those who commissioned the chapel, Father Couturier and Canon Lucien Ledeur, may also be regarded as religious avant-gardists and modernists.[6] The importance of the ​​“progressive” (modernist and leftist) ideas, however, grew in the late 1950s, and over the following decades this view became sufficiently widespread to significantly obscure the traditionalist and conservative views. Perhaps it is today, despite the irreversible changes in the social and religious consciousness of the Western world, that one can appreciate the logical correctness of certain themes in Fuchs’ arguments.

Fuchs assessed the level of discussion about the work of Le Corbusier as low, in particular the arguments put forward by supporters of the building. His intention was “extensive criticism of the chapel”, which was not only scientific, but also – one might say – “official”. Fuchs was a priest, a doctor of theology and a professor of apologetics, and the main part of his extensive achievements concerned the history of art. Mainly associated with the diocese of Paderborn, he was also the art advisor there. The pamphlet discussed here was originally a lecture given in Philosophisch-Theologische Akademie (formerly Academia Theodoriana) at the archbishopric in Paderborn. The position that the author held does not underestimate the scale of at least some of his arguments. It is also no coincidence that almost at the very beginning of his text he quoted a statement made at the meeting which was held on 12 June 1956. The content of this statement was as follows:

The participants of the annual conference in St. Meinolf/Möhnesee, consultants and contractors in the field of art in the Archdiocese of Paderborn express their anxiety about the fact that the pilgrimage church built by Le Corbusier at Ronchamp has met with far-reaching positive recognition in the press, and has even been taken into account by German architects as a model for their projects. Therefore we declare that the church is an example of a search for novelty, a work of lawlessness and disorder, in which Le Corbusier with unprecedented radicalism has made a breach of the tradition of the Catholic church building and even repeatedly opposed the general rules of the building trade. Furthermore, we state that this church is completely devoid of sacred character, which must be present in such a building.[7]

The quoted text contains, in brief, some of the main theses in the considerations of the German theologian. The authors of the statement – just as Fuchs himself intended to do – cautiously referred to their admiration of the chapel, while trying to reduce its influence and pointed to its non-compliance with tradition as well as errors in the architecture of its shape. With regret Fuchs noted that the editors of one of the main journals devoted to church art argued with that statement in an editorial text and tried to show the positive values ​​of the avant-garde work erected in the diocese of Besançon. The result of the attempts made by the editors of “Das Münster” was, in his opinion, “tenuous”. The solutions used by the architect to ensure optimal conditions for the liturgy had been applied before and were not – as Fuchs argued – Le Corbusier’s personal achievement. To other issues, such as incorporation into the landscape or the use of a sub-ceiling slot illuminating the interior, he decided to give broader consideration. The theologian’s reflection was to follow from the circumstances of the commission, to a thorough examination of the location of the chapel in the landscape, analysis of the plan, materials used, description of the elevation and the interior (including the equipment), to more general reflections on artistic, sacral and architectural values of the work.

In the section on the circumstances of the construction, Fuchs, more clearly than many other authors, pointed to the exceptional, against the background of the then French governors of the diocese, understanding shown by Archbishop Maurice-Louis Dubourg for the views of the editors of “L’Art Sacré” and the fact that even his successor, Marcel-Marie Dubois, who consecrated the chapel, was more restrained in this respect. He also recalled that the clients gave the architect complete freedom to shape the structure. This information makes one realise the uniqueness of that situation, which produced an exceptional economic situation for the emergence of that unconventional project. In the negative tone, Fuchs indicates that Le Corbusier had no predisposition to building churches. He also points to the lack of acceptance for the shape of the chapel from the local parish priest and the local believers. Ascribing to them a statement that the building is “a tasteless and simply godless monster”, which lead to “tearing the hair out of their heads when they saw the structure rising above the ground” looking like a rhetorical exaggeration; however, this procedure can be seen as an attempt to respond to equally expressive statements made by the chapel’s advocates. Reviews of similar clarity are an exception in Fuchs’ text, which can be explained by the original, i.e. lecture as the form of presentation, admitting a little more sharpness of one’s views. It also reveals a certain dependence on the principles of homiletics, which is completely understandable, given that the person uttering these views was not only a long-term teacher, but also a priest. To say that the work “does not comply with the Church” underlines clearly that, in a sense, Fuchs speaks ex officio.[8]

The German theologian very soberly verifies the location of the chapel in the landscape.[9] He points out that the location of a building on a hill has always been beneficial for its reception and in this respect it is difficult to ascribe the merit to the architect. A few decades later, Alexander Tzonis pointed to a number of white chapels dedicated to the prophet Elijah, which stand on the dark, often volcanic hills of the Aegean Sea.[10] Admiration for the work of Le Corbusier additionally relied on a statement deriving from the architect’s own belief that the lines of the chapel reflect the shapes of the surrounding landscape. This claim is difficult to prove. The architect himself used metaphorical expressions concerning “acoustic landscape”, but he perceived its echo both in orthogonal structures and in those resembling earlobes.[11] The two main chapel walls bend towards the inside while the covering of the towers seems to “listen” to voices of the environment but it is difficult to treat these forms with complete literalness as a result of the impact of continual landscaping. “If we consider the relation of the chapel to the four horizons, we cannot find any explanation what the relation of each elevation to the corresponding horizon would be. As it should be an accurate and tangible phenomenon, therefore proof of its manifestation on all four sides should be easy to carry out. However, we do not have enough trust to simply accept such a claim, and indeed, we are convinced that it is impossible to prove”.[12] There also appears a more fundamental problem here: whether a building in general should be influenced by the environment. According to Fuchs, it should not. Architecture separates one from the place of its location; it is a man-made structure and communicates a message related to interference in a location. This is especially true of a church. Thus when Silvio Galizia stated that Le Corbusier had managed to “introduce into the interior the delicate and careful lights and half-shadows of the landscape”, it sparked Fuchs’ objections;[13] Fuchs explained that in a church building one expects an inner space with a more specific mood, which, it might be added, is appropriate for performing particular religious rites. Expanding Fuchs’ view, it is worth recalling that light in Christian churches has traditionally been “denaturalised”, passed through animal membranes, thin plates of cut alabaster, small glass panes or stained glass whereas in Ronchamp light is deepened in its naturalness. The architect used a solution which was the opposite of that most commonly used in churches. Although some of the light entering the interior is associated with religious symbols, the remaining light, by its variability and intensity, creates in the chapel an atmosphere of a temple of nature. It would, moreover, be consistent with the dreams expressed by Charles L’Eplattenier (1874–1946), who – in the days when he was a teacher of the young Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris – expressed the desire to erect a work that would worship nature and also be a tribute to the new art. He stated: on top of the highest hill “we will build a monument to nature, and we will make it the purpose of our life”.[14] Charles Jencks has no doubt that this is the way Le Corbusier used the commission entrusted to him in Ronchamp.[15]

Another issue concerning the functioning of an art work in the environment is the recognition of its purpose. This raises the question to what extent such a specific type of object as a chapel can be a sign so very illegible for the receivers? Modernist architects ignored the issue of clarity of forms, leading to the paradoxes of the type of situation described by Charles Jencks where a boiler house (which had a chimney-like tower) was more like a church than the chapel designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and standing on the same site.[16] The users of Le Corbusier’s work did not belong to progressive social groups and had particular expectations concerning places of worship; the chapel, which did not meet their expectations, was not a functional building. Fuchs wrote: on seeing that object, “even still far away, they would like to joyfully welcome in their longed-for pilgrimage destination a clearly recognizable and obvious House of God. In Ronchamp this understandable desire is not fulfilled in any way”. The work of Le Corbusier remains enigmatic, although its shape is not limited to a simple geometric shape and allows multiple comparisons. The appearance of the building brings countless associations, the number of which in the most important authors who have commented on Ronchamp reaches thirty. They include the shape of a boat, a big sail, a rock which is broken off, etc. Therefore the architect had a chance to direct and concentrate their associations around the content of the building intended for worship. Yet the work most closely resembles a castle ruin, a bunker or the casing of a machine for electricity transmission. “The building remains enigmatic”.[17] Its symbolic components do not add up to form a whole. An example is the alleged “nautical character” of the work, its similarity to the ark. Fuchs describes this as follows: “The southern wall with a slight deviation develops towards the south-east, where it also rises towards a pointed, vertical edge, which, when viewed from the south, resembles the bow of a ship. This leads to the identification of elements of symbolism related to a ship throughout the building, but the similarity of the south-east corner – and only this – to the bow of a ship does not make the entire chapel a ship”.[18] Fuchs’ observations regarding deficiencies related to the symbolism of the building cannot, therefore, be considered inaccurate.

Extensive analyses of that ecclesiastical author are not always as convincing as in the case of criticism of the chapel’s intelligibility. When he writes that the object “already in its plan deviates from all that has been created in the sphere of the Catholic Church building”, it should be noted that the use of an L-shaped plan is not a sign of extraordinary extravagance. We are actually dealing with a rectangle or, after more accurate observation, with a trapezium expanding towards the altar [Fig. 1]. The north-eastern corner of the chapel is extended because of the entrance to the sacristy and the stairs leading to the stand for the singers are hidden there. In this way the letter L is created but it cannot be denied that a similar, though much smaller extension of the south-eastern corner creates a kind of transept, and the whole refers to the sign of the Tau cross. Raising the interior in the south-east part also resembles high aisles in Catholic churches. Although the shape of the chapel “softens” the simplicity of the cuboid, this basic form of a block is retained. One can talk about some loosening of the forms, but the radicalism of modification of the plan and the form and was not exceedingly large.

Similarly, Fuchs’ criticism of the common recognition that the whole building was made of concrete, whereas in fact concrete is the material only of the internal structure of the south wall, the roof (built of two concrete membranes) and the covering of the towers [Fig. 2], did not achieve its aim. It should be added that the architect himself had suggested the use of concrete in the whole building, as was also demonstrated in the photos of the finished elevation.[19] The author of Paderborn accurately corrected that common opinion and stated that, except the southern part, the walls were built of the brick and stone remains of the previous building, and the whole was covered with thick-grained concrete coating. Le Corbusier applied concrete where necessary but as he had the demolition material at his disposal, he used it to erect the remaining walls.[20] Therefore he faked something that was not there, but he cannot be denied much creativity. A few pages later, Fuchs himself admitted: “The strange roof of the chapel can be called a miracle of technology. And it is not an exaggeration. He [Le Corbusier] can be called a technological genius”. Complaining about illusion in the art world, even when authors verbally proclaim the need for honesty, is not convincing. Art creates illusion and the German expert on the subject must have known statements made by Kant, Schiller and Hegel on this topic.[21] At this point Fuchs lacks full logical consistence in his considerations as he argues for the lack of generous use of concrete while a little further he acknowledges its masterly use. It should be noted that a certain deficiency in the use of this material here is generously compensated for by virtuosity.

In the crucial part of his argumentation, the author shows totally impersonal common sense. Starting from some selected but influential and quickly spreading ideas about the pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp, he then tests the main components contained in them by means of simple counterarguments. Similarly to Anton Henze, discussed above, he follows in this respect the order of the classical description used in the history of art. Having mentioned the history of the chapel’s creation, he analyzes its plan, building material and exterior facades and the appearance of the walls inside the building. Coming to the description of the external features of the building he notes that while none of the four elevations has the character of a facade, the southern side is privileged in a way as it is seen first by pilgrims and tourists approaching along the path. It contains the main, decorative entrance but its appearance is determined primarily by irregularly spaced window openings of different sizes. It is these openings that inspired the author’s wider reflection.

According to Fuchs, “Description of the external shape of the south wall as unacceptable simply imposes itself. Instead of windows being regularly shaped and arranged in some order, it has 27 holes which are mostly rectangular, but apart from that, formed quite differently in size and proportions, similar to shooting holes, which are scattered along the wall in an extremely disorganized way. In the entire history of the building trade one could not find a similar example of the application of disorder in the arrangement of windows” [Figs. 3–4].[22] The situation would be perhaps less annoying if not for the fact that many commentators saw in the arrangement of the south wall windows a highly rational ordering principle. Support for this thesis was provided by three separate lines of reasoning: some authors suggested the relationship of the arrangement of the windows with Piet Mondrian’s painting, others saw the “Modulor” system of proportions created by Le Corbusier, still others pointed to the chapel architect’s highly specific knowledge of “acoustic components in the domain of form”. The first of the above methods of argumentation was used by Anton Henze, who in the pamphlet by Fuchs is one of the most frequently cited persons, a kind of the main villain. Opposing Henze’s views, the author of Paderborn indicates that Mondrian’s painting was based on “vertical and horizontal lines maintained in an interconnected structure and cannot be compared with the total arbitrariness with which the rectangles were scattered around the south wall”.[23] It is also impossible to find evidence for the use of the “Modulor”, at least when it comes to the ratios of the distances between the holes.[24] The same is true of “acoustic components in the domain of form”. This metaphor is exceptionally vague, and Henze’s and Boesinger’s arguments do not change the situation. The arguments of the chapel’s supporters oscillated around views specific to the teachings of the Pythagoreans, but claims about the relationship between beauty and numerical proportions, while appealing to reason, are not unequivocally translatable into artistic practice.[25]

The disorder in the composition of the southern wall is – according to Fuchs – even more annoying inside, where it is enhanced by the exposition of deep glyphs of the windows.[26] The angled wall configuration also turns out to be unacceptable as, according to the German theologian, it violates all previous rules of construction. Disharmonious composition is perhaps a smaller error than serious breaches of the building trade. Those cases of non-compliance with the principles of construction are: the eastern wall, almost as corrupted (bent) as the southern one;[27] moreover, the total renunciation of symmetry and bending down of the ceiling, which is hung on the blocky imposts located between the walls and the ceiling. Admirers of the building were usually delighted at that solution, which consisted of a sub-ceiling fugue of light and which produced an impression that the ceiling floated [Fig. 5]. Unlike them, Fuchs stated: “Allowing the ceiling to float is contrary to the essence of architecture, because architecture cannot float, it has to stand. Creating the appearance of floating is in conflict with today’s strong demand for the truth in art”[28] [Fig. 6]. In another part of his argument Fuchs widely cited similar accusations made ​​by Linus Birchler (1893–1967) from the excellent Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zurich.[29] The Swiss professor of architecture regarded the ability to balance the horizontal perpendicular values to as fundamental in architecture. The diagonal walls in Ronchamp destroyed one’s sense of peace and security while the ceiling, curved downwards, overwhelming the users. “The sense of static security has never been so questioned in the building trade as it was done in the chapel at Ronchamp”, wrote Birchler.[30] This only confirms Fuchs’ earlier opinion that the architect “in view of the rules that one cannot violate, showed a completely mindless liberty”.[31] A departure from the simple geometrism of building shapes as well as from balance and symmetry is treated by both authors as an attack on the inviolable values of architecture. Such an approach to the problem seems to be an exaggeration from today’s point of view, but Le Corbusier’s proposals, when compared to the traditional paradigm of architecture, could be treated as its complete breach rather than just another modification. Although with time the ovals or slants used in the composition of the walls gained acceptance within brutalist architecture, at the time when Le Corbusier’s building appeared they were a novelty that were only beginning to give rise to a new current of architecture. However, the case is not unequivocal: it is to be noted that the scope of application of curved lines was so limited here that to this day authors such as Stuart and Hurtt situate the architecture of Ronchamp within orthogonal model transformations.[32]

The themes present in Fuchs’ brochure, presented so far, are so representative of the whole, that they allow for omitting his further analyses and for focusing on the question that the author implicitly raises: was the work of the French architect also a breach of the tradition of Catholic Church buildings, and perhaps even a generally anti-Catholic work? Concerns in this regard are scattered throughout Fuchs’ text; they begin as early as in the discussion of the relationship of the chapel to the landscape. A close relationship of a building with nature cannot gain acceptance when the building’s purpose is to link it with the supernatural.[33] A building of this kind must also differ from those of a secular nature, and this difference is essential to its sacred character. The sacred character of a Catholic building consists mainly in being rooted in tradition, which involves maintaining the specificity of a church building. What is essential is not the use of historical styles but the general characteristics, in particular a certain solemnity of form that distinguishes a church from a secular building. Among such elements are the use of towers or an extended entry area but the crucial aspect is “a solemn, celebratory tone, which made ​​it something more than a utility space”.[34] In the course of a long development, argues Fuchs, there has been established a specific “shape reserved only for worship”.[35] After World War II, this view became guarded by the church offices, which is thoroughly supported by the German author. The concept of sacrality ​​based on the opposition of sacred values to secular ones ​​was clearly defined in the legal and church regulations and, in his opinion, must be taken into account when evaluating a work created for the needs of worship.[36] “If the Church in its legal code requires compliance with the standards of sacred art (serventur artis sacre leges) and if Instructio de Arte Sacra, issued on 30 June 1952 by the Holy Office, and addressed to all the bishops of the world, clearly demands that church buildings are not made ​​similar to secular architecture, which means that they must differ from it, therefore there can be no doubt that the sacred is understood as the opposite of the secular”.[37] In view of this opinion, it should be noted that almost from the very beginning of the construction of the chapel there was a general agreement that Le Corbusier “completely broke with the previous tradition”. What Fuchs draws from that is the final conclusions in which he forcefully states that the architect “in no way tried to preserve in the building the general character of a Catholic church. Instead – both in the whole and in details – he sought to invent something absolutely new, unusual, unprecedented, perplexing or confusing, and even repulsive. His chapel cannot be described as sacred”.[38]

Only the comparison of Fuchs’ arguments with the views of Henze reveals the advantage of consistent logic in the former. His arguments, while not arousing enthusiasm at a time when the Church was entering the way set out in the encyclical Ad Petri Cathedra (1959) as an aggiornamento, did not contain the insurmountable contradictions which characterised Henze’s opinion. According to Fuchs, the mission of the Church went beyond the current time and did not overlap with an easy acceptance of the requirements of modern times. One may also note that – in contrast to Le Corbusier and Henze – the specificity of the Christian religion and the traditions of Catholicism did not become blurred in that author by the influence of other religious, para-religious or religious-scientific doctrines. The sacrum was not subject to syncretism or universalisation. Following Birchler’s words, Fuchs was therefore right to conclude that the interior of the chapel might well meet the needs of Buddhists and anthroposophy, but it was not compatible with the doctrine of the Catholic Church.[39] In its long history, the Church “christianized” different traditions, but in the case of the Ronchamp chapel it is its own tradition that became diluted and weakened.

But does the positive evaluation of the Paderborn author’s remarks mean that he spoke about Ronchamp with reasonable accuracy? It seems that his resistance to the acceptance of the chapel’s form is not connected with a desire to know the intentions of the architect, but aims at revealing his own world of values. By imposing specific requirements on Catholic Church architecture, Fuchs created a vision of a building that would not make use of historical forms, but would inherit the main features developed in the tradition: a recognizable shape of the building (equipped with towers and a decorative entrance) as well as the solemn and festive atmosphere of the interior. Expectations so formulated were very ambitious and it is difficult to indicate objects that meet them. Fuchs’ argumentation had many of the characteristics of an official statement, was a refinement and an updating of certain normative aesthetics but still, despite its extensive size, it did not have the cognitive values typical of scientific activity.

Empirical analysis – an experiment by John Alford

The method with which John Alford attempted to explain the peculiarities of the chapel at Ronchamp represents the cognitive tradition characteristic especially of the humanities in America. Martin Jay described this kind of research attitude – not without profound reasons – as “a song of experience”.[40] An approach of this kind, in spite of its apparent simplicity, is characterized by internal tensions, contradictions, and the use of various forms that make it impossible to define clearly. An experience presupposes recourse to an individual, personal impression that inherently goes beyond the general values. This method also requires a specific openness, a kind of lack of assumptions, which, together with the subjective element gives the end result of the research a special character of individualism and, while being scientific, makes it a “story”, “saga” or “song”. In a distant way, this resembles the proposals of narrative knowledge (once proposed in the philosophy of Schelling), whose distinction was intended to save the values ​​of individuality and resistance to what is general.[41] On the other hand – which paradoxically denies the irrational aspects of the methods for establishing the experience (as in Dilthey) as the basis for research – the attitude represented by Alford is similar to the phenomenological approach, which can be regarded as extremely rational. Limiting the role of prior knowledge, the suspension of assumptions (described by Husserl as epoché but occurring already in the ancient sceptics as the temporary suspension of previously accepted beliefs) are clearly applicable in the argumentation of the American author.

Alford’s article on the chapel in Ronchamp[42] was a kind of continuation of the observations made ​​several years earlier in the article Modern architecture and the symbolism of creative Process.[43] In his work on the chapel, Alford draws the reader’s attention by revealing, like in a report, consecutive stages of his research: he presents an obvious starting point (his surprise at the “wilful oddity”), describes the main impressions, the correctness of which he verifies almost “in front of” the reader, considers the causes of specific impressions, and finally creates his own explanation that is persuasive, but mostly by virtue of beautiful comparisons, and the bold interpretation of metaphors used. Although in effect the reader receives an explanation that the chapel is “the Ship of Life or of the Soul […] riding time and eternity”, the assessment of this explanation begs the following: “maybe it is not completely scientific, but certainly better than scientific”. But is it really “unscientific”?

The set of characteristics typical of a scientific approach and that of Alford’s procedure do not show significant differences, and minor differences allow us to understand the role of a kind of aura that surrounded a rhetoric of objectivity. In normal scientific procedures in the humanities, a separate function belongs to numerous appearances of obtaining results which have universal validity, while the sources of the formulated claims rooted in individual tendencies inherent in a particular person are suppressed. Elements of reasoning in the standard analytical and hermeneutical procedures (though for the most part non-definable) and in the rules adopted by Alford differ mainly in unusually explicit emphasis on the subjective components of the study in the process of explaining a given work. At the beginning, Alford emphasizes his lack of knowledge about the object and his approach to it with “an entirely open mind”.[44] However, it does not mean starting the argumentation with actions of a purely intellectual nature, but being open to impressions. Explanation, therefore, starts from an experience. “Actual contact with the building left me deeply moved and enormously impressed, particularly by the overpowering effect of fused order and vitality in the monument, and this paper results from attempts to explain to myself what this sense of authoritative power, order, and vitality are due to”.[45] According to the American author there is minimal evidence allowing us to identify the building as a church, but there are also no other formal or substantial patterns that would make the chapel directly understandable. In that unusual situation concerning a radically innovative work, one needs to begin by considering the conditions that gave rise to the initial impressions of strength, harmony and peace. The impression of power is based on the suggested thickness of the walls, which give a sense of solidity to the whole building. However, “[t]he source of the sense of order and repose is much more difficult to identify”.[46] Except for the horizontal floor, one cannot see any correct planes or right angles and straight lines. In that unstable interior, however, one experiences tranquillity and a sense of harmony of space. The reason is probably the use of a suggestion of enormity, great volume, which contributes to the impression of contact with the “a precinct of power”. Enormity of space in sacred buildings may be seen as mysterious and demanding respect, as stated by Alford following Herbert Read’s work Icon and Idea.[47] What may serve as evidence is the behaviour of people in the chapel: regardless of whether they have come there for religious purposes, or just to satisfy their aesthetic curiosity, they behave in a way that suggests silence and submission to the mood of repose. The researcher is aware that, in fact, the building is not as huge as e.g. Hagia Sophia, so he looks for other explanations of the contemplative states which are often experienced when visiting the chapel. He notices the window over the eastern entrance, which – like the windows of Gothic churches – enhances the verticality of the interior, but also produces a clear impression of stability [Fig. 7]. “This long vertical window has very complex aesthetic functions”, because it introduces in the distorted spaces an element of support allowing for the sense of balance of verticals and horizontals.[48]​​ The complex way in which the formal values of the chapel contribute to creating the mood of repose has its analogy in the effect exerted on the viewer by the ceiling which “sags, one might say, like a piece of hung canvas”. The effect of the convex ceiling seems to be unclear to the author, but – in his opinion – does not interfere with the dominant mood. There is nothing that would violate the atmosphere which checks ordinary aspirations and drives, and this results from such development of the space which makes the delimiting planes at once both rigid and flexible, sometimes massive and sometimes devoid of weight, or both. Elusiveness and non-obviousness of features introduces an impression of unreality that suspends the need to set unequivocal responses.

A major difficulty also concerns the explanation of the formal basis of the “profound sense of stable and permanent order in the interior” of the chapel.[49] The building has no readily identifiable symmetries or strong straight and horizontal lines, which are the features that usually contribute to an implication of regularity in the order of a structure. While explaining the problem, Alford refers to the claims of Le Corbusier, who asserts that he based his design of the chapel on an “acoustic component in the domain of form” and suggests that this component is as subtle, precise and inexorable as the laws of mathematics. As mentioned in the analysis of Alois Fuchs’ argument, this type of statement generated a great deal of concern. However, Alford shows pragmatism here and comes to the conclusion that the matter was considered using a hardly profound analogy. He takes it for granted that Le Corbusier “does not assert (and the assertion would hardly have been credible) that he surveyed the surrounding hills and valleys with instruments and somehow worked out a set of basic topographical proportions, which he then applied to his design” but, unlike many other authors, he tries to reflect on the current value of the scientific statement of Le Corbusier. He is aware of the fact that the treatment of the shape of the chapel as a result of research on the acoustics would be a mistake, and the statement made by the architect is primarily a metaphor “as little descriptive as were the ancient theories of the music of the cosmic spheres”, but he is attracted by the issue of the similarity of certain psychological and physiological experiences in artists and scientists. In this regard he referred to the book The psychology of invention in the mathematical field by Jacques Hadamard, who noticed the phenomena of visual imagination in the cognitive processes of many mathematicians, including the emotion of mathematical beauty, harmony of numbers and forms and geometric elegance in Henri Poincaré.[50] Le Corbusier was not a mathematician but an architect and his building has architectural values rather than mathematical ones; however, it cannot be ruled out that in some border cases there are similarities between the two fields. Since it is the architect himself who wrote that it is not the requirements of religion but psychological and physiological values that were the basis of developing that form, perhaps an explanation of the building should be sought in the writings of scientists of the brain or the nervous system. This is another task that Alford set himself. Once again, considering a statement which he regards as an excessively casual metaphor, he wonders about the possibility of its verification. In this case he points to the work by d’Arcy Thompson, who attempted examination of selected organic forms (such as regular spirals, shapes of horns, etc.) as comparable to the laws of mathematics, physics and mechanics.[51] Leaving the matter undecided, Alford says that although the architect’s notion of an “acoustic component in the domain of form”, quoted by him, has no strict character, the issue itself is scientific and constitutes a problem that can be rationally considered. Provoked by Le Corbusier’s thesis, Alford accepted the possibility of studying the phenomenon of kinship between distant areas of human activity, although a debate on border situations could not lead to any satisfactory results. The author reveals the possibility of interpreting events, quotes or proposes his own arguments in favour of the emerging opinions, but does not commit himself to the integration of the object of his reflection in the framework of phenomena that are already known. While Fuchs verifies the compliance of the specific features of the chapel with a particular system of values, Alford treats it as an expression of creativity that goes beyond the possibility of knowledge. For Fuchs, such a nature of the object posed threat to the integrity of the Catholic doctrine; for Alford it meant an involvement in the processes subjected to scientific research. What are these processes? Is it possible to analyze them exclusively within the study of art?

In the middle of his discussion, Alford abandons attempts to make the chapel understood on the basis of suggestions derived from the claims of Le Corbusier, leading – at any rate – to barely satisfactory results; he undertakes to create his own comparisons which are “of perhaps a lower order” but which locate the work within the generally experienced existential phenomena. He follows associations aroused by comparing the chapel to selected works of sculpture and architecture. First of all, he notes the similarity of the chapel to Brâncuşi’s sculptures of 1908, in which the sculptor simplified the human figure into geometric shapes, and at the same time introduced a special feature of archaisation similar in nature to works by folk artists. Alford then mentions Trethevy Quoit, a megalithic tomb in Cornwall [Fig. 8], a work which is equally simple and universal. The author explicitly points out that the similarity may be largely or entirely coincidental but the structures of the chapel and the British dolmen are analogous. In both cases we are dealing with a number of vertically set supports of the roof, which rests on them heavily tilted to one side and recessed into the interior. An equally suggestive similarity seems to be found, according to the author, between the windows deeply embedded in their glyphed niches and burial recesses in the catacombs. The French building resembles a symbolic stronghold due to the thickness of its walls. The combination of these features makes the prayer chapel as not just an ordinary place of spiritual refuge but also a kind of fortress against death.

According to Alford, the human culture has developed various concepts relating to human existence after death.[52] One was associated with the preservation of the body, another assumed the existence of a component which is independent of the body, i.e. immortal, or – as St Thomas Aquinas said – which has the desire for eternal existence. In addition to these two, the belief has also been cultivated that survival is possible through participation in the processes of the universe (perceived as having the attributes of organic and living beings). Alford is inclined to the notion that, after 1928, the imagination of Le Corbusier gradually departed from the concept of mechanistic symbolism and turned towards the concept of combining the shapes of artefacts with forms of the human body (as a reflection of the general laws of nature and the cosmos). The chapel would be a further consequence of these changes in the views of the artist, and – according to Alford – it expressed a fusion of rationally organized forms (i.e. ones based on the hidden rules of the cosmos but also referring to the shape of mechanisms devised by man, such as an ocean-going ship, “one of the greatest achievements of modern engineering”), animate organic forms (such as the human body with its spirituality) and the symbols of the cosmos (traces of which are the openings in the eastern wall, mimicking the constellations). The chapel is therefore “the Ship of Life or of the Soul, according to one’s particular beliefs, riding time and eternity”.[53] The elaborate analysis performed by Alford, who begins with initial impressions to analyze first the views of the artist and, in yet another step, a series of formal and substantial analogies, ends with a literary metaphor, almost “an ardent act” in the interpretation of art.

Besides negotiations – the theses by Richard Biedrzynski

In his book Kirchen unserer Zeit of 1958 (Chapter Am hohen Ort von Ronchamp), Richard Biedrzynski shows his knowledge of the main opposing views on the chapel on the hill, which emerged within the three years between his publication and the chapel’s consecration.[54] The authors of many of the previous judgements concerning the building, the correctness of which cannot be resolved even today, had taken extreme positions, virtually ruling out any form of compromise. The danger faced by successive researchers consisted in shifting the discussion towards objectivity, neutralizing the adversaries’ fever, but also to a specific method described by Nietzsche as “antiquarian history”.[55] Biedrzynski avoided this trap by adopting, as a starting point for his assessment of the work on the hill, an art doctrine in which development is understood as introduction to the resource of artistic possibilities of constantly new solutions. At the same time, he adopted in his study the rules of post-Kantian theorists of the humanities, such as Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert, who opted for such a description of artistic phenomena that accented unique and unrepeatable features. It is not a coincidence that the motto of Biedrzynski’s book was an aphorism by Goethe stating that “There are few things of the past which one should miss, there only are ever new phenomena formed from elements of the past”.

Biedrzynski began his research with three extensive citations from the speech of Le Corbusier at the consecration of the chapel, the sermon by Archbishop Dubois and parts of the speech by Alois Fuchs. In the first, the French architect explained his intentions, not hiding his peculiar views on the totality of mathematics and its participation in the creation of “inexpressible spaces”, a sense of sacredness separate from the world of religion and an inclination for bold creative works made of concrete. Dubois, in turn, compared Le Corbusier’s enthusiasm, his audacity, but also his masterly skills with the builders of Gothic cathedrals, expressed his approval of the building and included it in religious traditions. The quotation from Fuchs showed the work as an unmatched manifestation of the pursuit of novelty, lawlessness and disorder, as a breach of not only the Christian tradition but also of the rules of the building trade. Commenting on these three statements, Biedrzynski noted that a compromise between positions so different is impossible and any subsequent statements must entail answers to basic questions, such as whether the work remains within the Christian tradition or not. Making these discrepancies deeply contradictory is, to a large degree, a rhetorical measure aimed to justify the position taken by Biedrzynski. However, it is not just rhetorical; it also resists philosophical traditions. Presenting his own view, Biedrzynski puts himself in the position of an author who is able to assess the work without taking any side in the dispute. It should be noted that although the discussion has so far focused on the discussion of the Christian or non-Christian nature of the work, the roots of the dispute lie deeper, namely in a more general intellectual tendency to split arguments along two opposing axes, present in the whole Western metaphysics. But does the “Kantian” point of view, assumed by the German author, provide protection against involvement in bipolar modes of thought?

Biedrzynski assumes that, building the church in special circumstances and under special terms, Le Corbusier was not fully obliged to comply with the traditionalist and conservative principles. He further notes that in his building the French master in no way violated any broader commitments to the principles of architecture and the use of the building. In this way, he outlines the difference between the basic (in a way, inviolable) and specific (variable) conditions of every building. The difference so outlined rise to the next point in the author’s argument stating that the architect found himself in a situation that made him depart from the most anticipated solutions, both in reference to a church building and an ordinary work of architecture, and to breach the tradition of modernist architecture. The consequence of the exceptional circumstances was a work about which Biedrzynski was justified in saying: “We are faced with a mystery of uniqueness”.[56] This statement should be considered decisive in determining the attitude of the commentator. Freely referring to the typology of historical writing styles of Hayden White, one can also say that in the process of proving his theses Biedrzynski dramatized his narrative, reinforcing the strength of the existing contradictions in his descriptions while he situated the artist and his work as if beside these tensions, which was a way of reconciliation and harmonization of these remote positions. Describing the nature of the hill, he pointed out that in its long history (dating back to the time of the Celts and Romans) it was alternately a place of worship and military bastion, which means that sometimes it was a place of pilgrimage and surrender of one’s will while in other situations a post of command or defence, thus a space of affirmation of the human will. “It was a holy mountain and a military bastion. A place both sacred and strategic”.[57] The Christianization of the hill, dating back to the sixth century, has not changed in this intertwining of concentrated prayer and battle noise, and the sacred buildings erected there were demolished during subsequent wars. Such was also the fate of the neo-Gothic church, which in 1944 was bombed by the French after the German army made ​​the hill their place of resistance.

According to the analyzed author, the clash of opposites was also related to the legal status of the place, which in the last year of the French Revolution had been bought from the state by some of the families of Besançon. Certainly, that enterprise cannot be compared with the rebellion in the Vendée in 1793, but the event had signs of a counter-revolution. Paradoxically, the chapel hill was not owned by the Church and in a situation where François Mathey (an influential official at that time) and Lucien Ledeur (Secretary of the Committee of Art in the diocese, associated with the Dominican avant-gardists of the “L’Art Sacré” journal), both born in Ronchamp, undertook negotiations with Le Corbusier concerning the creation of the chapel’s design, there were obstacles in carrying out their idea in addition to the initial resistance of the architect.[58] Coincidences contributed to a number of bizarre actions taken by people involved in the project: the “church” party made a proposal to the architect, encouraging him to “indulge” his fantasies. Even at that initial stage they resigned from the imposition of strict traditional requirements. The architect also had to make concessions in his aversion to Catholicism, and find arguments to justify his acceptance of the commission. Although in many aspects of the project he remained true to his personal, complex religious beliefs, he created a work that adequately fulfils the functions of a Catholic chapel: the silhouette with its towers makes the building stand out as a church, the decorative entrance on the south side has the features of the portal, the inner space has the character of the nave, the main altar, the side altars and the outside altar are well integrated into the plan of the chapel. Therefore, the work was designed by a unique artist but “at the same time with great obedience to the liturgical implications of this exalted place”.[59] The term “great obedience” may be seen as exaggerated but one must agree with the following opinion: “In this case we speak with conviction about a rare harmony between artistic freedom and church use”.[60]

Biedrzynski, who at the beginning of his argumentation revealed knowledge of different views on the chapel, focuses his analysis on the most controversial issues. Among them was a problem of the relationship of the building to the landscape. Fuchs especially doubted the wisdom of Le Corbusier’s statement about the mathematical nature of this relationship and about the action of “visual acoustics in the realm of forms” of space. Biedrzynski admits that at first the work seems rather alien to the landscape, “almost African”, but during observation it progressively gains character which is “familiar and necessary”. However, beyond that vague metaphor used by Le Corbusier, is there an explanation of the nature of the link between the natural and the artificial form? For the author of Am hohen Ort the ambience is mysterious and intuitive, but it does not exclude the existence of an order that is deeply encoded and hardly conceivable. Complementing Biedrzynski, it may be added, following Heraclitus, that “a hidden harmony is better than a visible”.[61] Based on the mysterious ground of all harmony, the correspondence between the unusual shape of the work and its surroundings is noticeable but beyond metaphor – inexplicable. In this part of his text, the author also discusses a broader phenomenon of the use of metaphor in language and fine arts. Numerous associations which the work gave rise to, such as “sail, ship, cave”, indicate the human ability to describe the world different from rational discourse. Fantasy and poetry in language and visual arts are a separate part of human cognitive activity, which lies outside knowledge and belief. “Our language feeds not only on pure concepts, but also on visual metaphors. In a metaphor one tries to express an experience by using a confidential comparison, a prop of the power of imagination”.[62] What should be particularly appreciated is the architect’s description of the small church as “the ark”. According to Biedrzynski, at the time not too distant from the end of World War II, the chapel could legitimately appear to be a “wrecked ship of humanity” on the “hill of hope”.[63]

Further issues raised by Fuchs were: the problem of the sacrality of the work, being rooted in the tradition of religious architecture and its compliance with the rules of the building trade. The fact that Biedrzynski focussed on these three issues was clearly a reaction to the claims made ​​by Fuchs. For the first time in the discussion of the chapel on the hill, the very object of analysis became largely replaced by a polemic with the views of other commentators. Referring to Fuchs’ theses on sacrality viewed as remaining consistent with the tradition and the church law, Biedrzynski pointed out that the starting point for inviting Le Corbusier to work on the chapel were the views of Father Couturier, who said: “Everyone can already see that the instinct directed towards the sacred is more pure and perfect in ‘outsiders’ than in many believing artists, and even in many members of the clergy. This statement may seem outrageous but it is a fact which in our times is hard to deny. The Spirit breathes where he wills…”[64] This provocative opinion brought Christian holiness close to a universally understood sacredness, proper to forms of religion of an original character. This issue allows for the formulation of two diametrically opposed views. One would assume that the concept of sacredness comes from the study of the history of all kinds of religious beliefs and it is an attempt to scientifically extract from them the main, recurring factor. Then the greatest tendency towards the sacrum could be found in the secular scholars of religion. Like many of his contemporaries, Le Corbusier had this type of religious interests and had a great sense of the sacred hidden in the rules of reality. However, one might suspect that Couturier had something else in mind and his opinion, if approached in an understanding way, was of somewhat “propaedeutic” nature. The monk saw the lack of faith in his contemporaries and assumed that the ability to feel the uniqueness in the world would be useful for its awakening. This ability may, in its development, direct one to God. The secular understanding of the mystery of the world and the religious cult of holiness would therefore have points of contact. The recognition of the sacrum would be a prerequisite for faith. This might not have been very far from the Christian tradition, which had previously used the values of the created world for the worship of God. Father Couturier can be attributed an attempt to Christianize the way of understanding the sacrum that was characteristic of his time, an attempt similar to Christianization by beauty or profound adaptation of Platonic philosophy. One cannot be entirely surprised by Couturier’s approach and his insistence on employing outstanding artists to create works of the church, when a reflection on beauty always reveals its mysterious and “non-human” nature. At some point, the cult of beauty replaced the worship of God. It seems that Couturier tried to reverse that trend. An important role in his conception of art was played by the combination of artistic values with church building. He wrote: “Indeed, a sacred building is not a secular building which becomes sacred through an act of consecration or its later use. A building is sacred by the quality of its forms”.[65] Biedrzynski supplemented that statement with his claim that at the point of transition from what is useful to what is sacred (numinosum), which transforms the house of man into the house of God, there may occur – by the power of art – a leap that is full of mystery, unpredictable and almost undefined. “If this transition does not occur, then even the richest church becomes merely a witness to its own poverty”.[66]

Fuchs directed a number of serious allegations against the architecture of the chapel. The lack of symmetry and harmony, the sloping ceiling, the preaching of false information about the concrete nature of the work – it is simply impossible to list all the reservations… “Everything is against the rules, hence the accusation of architectural heresy, arbitrary declination of all the principles of the past”.[67] According not only to Fuchs, the building is “an expression of the lack of basic architectural principles” (grundsätzlicher Ausdruck einer architektonischen Grundsatzlosigkeit).[68] On the contrary, according to Biedrzynski, the building emanates internal consistency and correctness. It forms a logical and consistent whole according to its own laws. “It is right! […] It is of a single casting. […] it is a space necessary for itself and defining itself”.[69] But can one also justify the fact that the south wall is only seemingly solid, when in fact it is empty in the middle [Fig. 9] and its shell was formed from sprayed-on concrete? Is it possible to speak of dishonesty? The author replies to these questions with a long series of similar questions, “are the ceilings of the Gothic cross, net or stellar vaults massive? How about Gothic walls, which would preferably not like to exist? They also live on religious fiction, which also uses a risky technological design. This medieval engineering of God borrows an appearance of non-reality from coloured light and in this way disembodies stone […]. It wants to provide visionary, enchanted, celestial aspects, that dreamed-of other world which is revealed in the mystical flames of colours of high choirs. […] No one sees this as unfair, but only as the audacity of means which serve a higher, sacred purpose”.[70] Baroque is characterized in a similar way in order to reach the following conclusion: “Compared to those tricks of the technological forces of imagination and inventiveness of structure, the solutions that Le Corbusier applied within his walls and hid from the eyes are to the highest degree modest and entirely legitimate”.[71] One can discover even more elements of the great traditions of church architecture in the building: the entrance to the interior is through a side portal (as the main door is closed on weekdays). Yet, “if anyone knows the old Romanesque churches, they are aware that such a quiet, almost secret access to the interior can touch the heart more powerfully than the grand entrance through the portal with carved figures, as in western Gothic facades”.[72] The southern wall as seen from the inside resembles a big stained-glass window, and the flood of colours flowing through it supplements supplicatory Marian prayers hand-written on coloured panes [Figs. 10–11]. The gestures made ​​by hands shown on the main door have their counterparts in the gestures of God on the bronze doors of Hildesheim, in the signs of the oath made ​​by angels in the old Gospel Books or the gestures of the figures of the Isenheim altar. The altar was placed in the middle of the east wall altar while the statue of the Virgin, famous for its miracles, was moved to the right side. This setting has a clear theological justification: “Salvation lies in the Lord’s sacrifice, intercession is made ​​by Madonna”.[73] “There can be no question of a breach of the Christian tradition”.[74] At the end of Biedrzynski’s dramatic text, emotions wear off and the chapel is seen as an average parish church: the walls and towers like those in a solid God’s castle, inside a high nave, altar, miraculous image, benches… Deep oppositions have found their reconciliation. Thanks to a contract with the church, the architect was able to turn, in a more determined way, to specific human needs and to perceive man as a spirit at play. The Church involved in the service of God and in the house of God unruly individuals and unconsecrated particles of modernity. Unrestrained modernist creativity, more willing to descend into the depth than to rise upwards, temporarily – through art – found itself suspended between heaven and earth.


Three other interpretations of Le Corbusier’s work (following the two presented in the previous “Sacrum et Decorum” yearly) contain almost extreme differences.

Fuchs’ extensive commentary refers the object to the value which the author would like to be considered permanent and inviolable. One can see the author of Paderborn as a religious activist who believes in the power of well-established standards and practices, is opposed to the contemporary trends, but also feels lonely among his fellows.[75] His negative assessment of the projection of modernist fantasy, openly abandoning tradition, seems to be in this situation at least initially understandable.

Alford, in turn – apparently – does not take any preliminary assumptions, but his openness is also a dogmatically assumed axiom and he evaluates the creativity of the architect as unequivocally positive. This allows the scholar to follow the intentions of the artist, to understand complex changes in his work and ultimately to produce a bold interpretation. However, there occurs a significant “affinity of souls” here, hiding values as strong as in Fuchs. In his set of beliefs Alford implicitly assumes that the freedom of the artist’s actions and beliefs does not affect the rights of other people and, therefore, is not only acceptable but also has positive social value. This gives rise to a suspicion that both authors did not just explain the work but used it for reflective preservation of their own prejudices.

Can this statement also be applied to the conciliatory interpretation of Richard Biedrzynski, carried out from the perspective of an art historian? It seems that it can! This expert on Kant had found all previous disputes and conflicts satisfying as they allowed him the discovery of dimensions that had so far been neglected by the mind. “[…] the antinomies force us against our will to look beyond the sensible and to seek in the supersensible the point of union for all our a priori faculties; because no other expedient is left to make our Reason harmonious with itself”.[76] Where there is no agreement, we may suspect the existence of a separate reality, functioning according to its own laws. In the field of art, the play of imagination and mind, independent of the other domains, is of decisive importance. And although Kant emphasized the lack of directing beauty to an external goal – which many of his commentators, from Herder to Gadamer, argued with – there is no obstacle against beauty achieved in a work of art being put into practice (morality). The slightly dramatized text by Biedrzynski ends with the reconciliation of art and religious needs. However, this is a story that above all proves the usefulness of the Kantian system: a story which confirms the initial views of the author.

Le Corbusier was the one who spoke for himself most boldly and directly. Anton Henze spoke just as a porte-parole of the architect. John Alford attempted to describe the work with purified senses and mind but was not able to go beyond language and its rules. It was only the comparison with other works and literary metaphors that enabled him to create an interesting interpretation. Alois Fuchs saw in the chapel, above all, some forms of heresy, against which he wanted to protect the world of his religious values. For that reason his interpretation of the chapel on the hill developed in the direction of an official report on the rules of church art. In turn Richard Biedrzynski wanted to avoid entanglement in the unsolvable issues but only created a story showing the efficiency of the system which situated aesthetic values alongside cognitive and moral ones. The problem was that the same system had created tensions and brought an insoluble 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 doctrine and turned into simple procedures for validating the earlier assumptions.

The situation of a modern researcher of the chapel at Ronchamp is marked by a growing interest in the dependence of all previous interpretations on undisclosed bias, entanglements in language and metaphysics. In the work on the understanding of the building an increasing role is played by exploration of the hidden rules that govern the way it is described while it is itself dispersed into a moving horizon of endless possibilities of description. However, is emphasizing the unknowability not just another illusion and the appropriation of the heritage of Nietzsche, according to whom there are no facts, only interpretations?[77]


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: www.classicpersuasion.org [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: oll.libertyfund.org [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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