Wednesday, December 10, 2008

La Sainte-Baume

Massif Sainte Baume

One of Le Corbusier`s (1887-1965) unbuilt buildings was La Sainte-Baume Basilica, France at the Massif Sainte Baume (above)

It was to be an underground cathedral in La Sainte-Baume, France. It was to be carved out of a rock in a mountaintop setting, and accessible only by a bridge across a ravine. The plans for the cave-like cathedral are an uncanny reminder of underground structures like bunkers.

Although unbuilt, its story deserves to be better known. The concept was to exercise an important influence on modern European Church architecture.

The Sainte-Baume is a mountain ridge spreading between the départements of Bouches-du-Rhône and Var in southern France. Its summit is 1147 metres high.

There is a French tradition that Mary Magdalene, her brother Lazarus, and Maximinus, one of the Seventy Disciples and some companions, traversed the Mediterranean in a frail boat with neither rudder nor mast and landed at the place called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer near Arles.

It is said that Mary Magdalene came to Marseille and converted the whole of Provence.

She is then said to have retired to a cave on a hill by Marseille, La Sainte-Baume ("Holy Cave"), where she gave herself up to a life of penance for thirty years.

The cave is now a Christian pilgrimage site (see below)

The grotto of St Mary Magdalene

In the Revolution, the shrine was desecrated. However, in 1859 the Dominican friars once more took up their guardianship of the sanctuary. Father Lacordaire, greatly exerted himself in the restoration of La Sainte Baume. He wanted La Sainte Baume to speak of the most beautiful friendships:

“This should be the summit of human and divine affections”;

“Jesus Christ loved souls, and he passes on to us this love which was the basis of Christianity... It is friendship, love, that by which God became man and died for men, which could conceive of this.”

Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume (Var)

Nearby Mary Magdalene was said to be buried and over her tomb was constructed a basilica, begun in 1295, and consecrated in 1316.(see above) In medieval times for centuries it was a popular place of pilgrimage under the care of the Dominican order. It was referred to as the "Compostela" of South East France. The Basilica is still extant and in use. It is the largest Gothic building in south-eastern France

After the Second World War (in 1948) there was a plan for an underground basilica, dedicated to Peace and Pardon, at La Sainte Baume.

The plan was devised and developed by four men: Edouard Trouin, Fernand Léger, Father Couturier and Le Corbusier.

For Father Couturier and Le Corbusier, it was a testbed for later constructions: the Chapelle de Ronchamp and the Monastery de la Tourette.

Edouard Trouin (1907-1979) was the owner of the land around Sainte Baume. Fernand Léger was an important French artist renowned especially in the interwar years.

Trouin had a dream of creating a City of Peace and of Contemplation. He longed to return to the time when Provence was the Delphi of the West. He was educated by the Jesuits in France and in Italy. He studied law. Later he became passionate about art and architecture. Le Corbusier described him in a letter to a friend:

« Trouin… c’est un personnage pittoresque et de haute valeur, à mon point de vue. Vous auriez un réel plaisir à le questionner sur sa thèse qu’il connaît à fond ».

Trouin met Le Corbusier in 1945. Corbusier had just completed the Cité Radieuse in Marseilles.

The aim was to create "invisible architecture". The whole building was underground. It was a Utopian dream.

The grotto`s entrance would look out on a view which would go all the way to the Mediterranean. See the plans of Le Corbusier below.

The plans of Le Corbusier


  1. Thank you for posting the designs of Le Corbusier and your thoughts to them...
    I would like to share some information: at the Russian Tretjakowskaja Galereija, there is a wonderful exhibition of designs by the artists of the "Revolution", before Stalins decret of 1932. It is called "Theatre in the oeuvre of artists in the 1920s - 1930s. Graphics and drawings of the fond of the Tretjakow Galery". It lasts until 10th of march. Here is the link to it (just in Russian).
    I find it a pity, that there are so few connections in the exhibition and art world between Russia and Europe. Surely, there is politics, but art is a monade by itself, it would be a Luhmann sphere, and it CONNECTS.
    The Russian museums are so RICH in their funds, they have so much treasures, why not open them to all? So the world can discuss in scinetific or non-scientific ways thos treasures of mankind.
    Sorry, I'm often sad about this, I wouldn't disturb you, that read this, just think about...

  2. Thank you, this was very useful information for an Architecture School Project at Uni!

  3. It is a shame that not a lot of people know about this design! If it was built, it would have been amazing.