LA CHAPELLE DE NOTRE DAME DU HAUT A MASTERPIECE OF ARCHITECTURE
The Chapel of Le Corbusier, Notre Dame du haut – Ronchamp: An Architectural and Religious Experience
The Immediate Context of Natural Beauty
The Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut ('Chapel of Our Lady of the heights') by Le Corbusier has brought an otherwise unimportant village of only 200 inhabitants into the spotlight. The village now enjoys international fame for both architectural and spiritual reasons. The non-traditional configuration of the chapel and the traditional village life below exist side by side. Art and spirituality rise far above the every day life below, transforms it and bears it upward. From below the pointed form of Le Corbusier discreetly nestles in the hillside vegetation, almost intimidated by the robust down-to-earth bell tower of the parish church below. "Nestling" is the term we deem appropriate as the form distinctly reminds us of a bird emerging from its nest and about to take flight; a stark contrast to the bell tower firmly anchored, static and irremovable below. The bell tower also points to the heavens but what a difference! Le Corbusier's form is lighter, more breath-taking. Yet both pointed forms aim in the same direction, to the same heavenly sphere that justifies the existence of both. Architecturally speaking, one may be seen as representing the body, the carnal dimension of life and the other, the more subtle spiritual dimension. Not to be seen as antagonistic but exquisitely complementary, just as the body and spirit of each individual constitute fine unity of being.
The chapel, built on a hill-top, on the Colline de Bourlémont, overlooks and dominates the small village of Ronchamp. Hence the name Notre Dame "du haut" (haut = high). Its isolated and elevated location (472 metres high) was clearly an important factor in the planning context of the church as it is clearly conducive to a meditative frame of mind. The choice of location continues the biblical tradition where many important divine revelations took place on hills or mountains for example the revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai, the beatitudes (sermon on the mount), the transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Topography is therefore immediately conducive to a spiritual experience that has its roots in the beauty of nature that proclaims the glory of God. The context of the chapel is therefore of vital importance. Not only does the chapel of Le Corbusier overlook the village but it also overlooks the village church. It therefore distinguishes itself not only from all the secular aspects and activity of the village but also from the sacred focal point of the village - the parish church. The natural context immediately helps to enhance the special character of the work of Le Corbusier. The human beauty of art immersed in the beauty and art of God's creation. This becomes even more evident in its wider context of the nearby Jura mountains.
The Chapel is a source of contrast of many kinds: it marks a complete break with traditional church architecture. Its elevated and white exterior constitutes a stark contrast to the dark underground activities of this one time mining community. Not least of contrasts is that this place of faith and worship was the artistic creation of a man who did not share the same faith and worship. His faith was in art and beauty.
Once the visitor has purchased his entrance ticket for 3 euros and left behind the shop selling souvenirs and publications and enters through the gate he can leave behind the material tangible world and enter the world of the spirit.
As the visitor walks up the tarmacked pathway aligned with bushes and trees he soon catches a glimpse of the architectural jewel as it looms above, pointing towards the heavens, almost as if it is about to take flight and bear away the spirit of the onlooker with it. A sight not out of place in this modern space age. There is something dramatic and breathtaking about this structure as it suddenly appears through the vegetation of the pathway. Immediately one gets the essentially sublime rapport between architecture and nature, between God's creation and man's.
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