The Rotunda of Ottmarsheim (Dennis Aubrey)


In the Alsace department of the Haut-Rhin, the Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul is one of the outstanding medieval churches still standing. It was founded by Rodolphe d’Altenburg of the Habsburg family as an abbey church for a community of Benedictine nuns in 1030 and consecrated by Pope Léon IX in 1049. This date of construction makes it the oldest surviving church in the Alsace.

The church is a copy of the Palatine Chapel of Charlemagne at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) which, in its turn, was inspired by the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. Built between 790 and 805 by Charlemagne in Aix-la-Chapelle, the Palatine Chapel was considered the most beautiful church in Christendom.

Exterior, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Exterior, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The main structure in Ottmarsheim consists of two parallel octagons – one for the exterior walls and the second the nave arcades. This creates an ambulatory around the entire central choir. There are three chapels on the east side and a small narthex on the west.

Plan, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin)  (Encyclopédie BS)

Plan, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) (Encyclopédie BS)

The multi-level construction is beautifully arranged with a gallery supporting the octagonal dome. The central domed choir is surrounded by massive piers bearing stolid, unornamented arches. The elevation shows that there are four apparent levels to the church. The octagonal nave features single bays at ground level with sturdy walls supporting the arches.

Nave arcades, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave arcades, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Above this level, a tall arch is divided into two sections. The first, the tribune, is comprised of three arches supported by slender columns with undecorated capitals. The top third of the tribune is divided into three more sections under the covering arch creating a simulated triforium. Finally, above these tribunes are the clerestory windows.

In this shot, it is possible to see the wonderful painted murals of the tribune level, which is where the nuns gathered for services. Mainly representing the four Evangelists and scenes from the lives of saints, they date from the second half of the fifteenth century and were uncovered during the restorations of 1875.

Nave, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) Photo by PJ McKey

The eight tribune and false triforium bays lead seamlessly to the central dome, which rises just above the clerestory windows.

Dome, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Dome, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The groin-vaulted ambulatory runs completely around the central choir, covered by more of the 15th century frescoes.

Ambulatory vault, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Ambulatory vault, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Unlike so many other medieval works, the Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul has survived the violent history of this region without major changes. It is one of the few churches that remains largely in its original state.

There were some very trying moments for the church, however. It was damaged in War of Swiss Confederations in 1446 and again in 1525 during the brutal German Peasants War. This was a war of reform, often led by Protestant clergy and the church at Ottmarsheim fell victim to the internecine warfare.

Funerary monument, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin)  Photo by PJ McKey

Funerary monument, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) Photo by PJ McKey

During the Thirty Years War Swedish troops led by King Gustavus Adolphus ranged into the Alsace where they looted and burned the abbey. There was significant damage and the dome collapsed, but the church was saved from total destruction by the strength of its octagonal structure. The church was rebuilt in 1695.

Arcade with frescoes, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin)  Photo by PJ McKey

Arcade with frescoes, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) Photo by PJ McKey

Destruction was threatened in the modern era as well. There was major fighting in the immediate area during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, World War I, and World War II.

After the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the Alsace became part of Germany, and German authorities restored the church in 1877. The frescoes were rediscovered at this time beneath a layer of plaster.

Arcade, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin)  Photo by PJ McKey

Arcade, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) Photo by PJ McKey

We are used to the destruction caused by war but a disastrous electrical fire in 1991 caused significant damage to the frescoes and destroyed the 18th century organ built by Joseph Waltrin. It took eight years of restoration before the church was reopened in 1999.

Central chapel, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) Photo by PJ McKey

Central chapel, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) Photo by PJ McKey

PJ and I had a very moving experience while photographing in the church. We had noticed signs throughout the region announcing an upcoming competition for choirs. While we were in Ottmarsheim, a group of about thirty young people entered the church. They were accompanied by a few chaperones and we could see that they were special needs students. They seemed fascinated by the church and explored quietly, trying to avoid getting in our way. One boy, however, watched us and then discretely followed us around, photographing what we were photographing (something that actually happens quite often) with his small point-and-shoot camera. PJ and I smiled at each other.

Arcade, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin)  Photo by PJ McKey

Arcade, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim, Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) Photo by PJ McKey

Then, curious, this same youth entered a small side chapel. Suddenly he began singing, and as if someone had flipped a switch, the entire group began to sing and harmonize with him. They were fascinated by the way Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul became part of their choral rendition. We worked happily as the stones of this ancient convent echoed with their song.

Location: 47.787298° 7.507582°

27 responses to “The Rotunda of Ottmarsheim (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. What a beautiful church, and wonderful it’s survived the terrors of so may wars in this, one of the most battle-scared regions of Europe.
    Do you know, was the covering, concealment and plastering over of the frescoes done during some period when the church fell into the jurisdiction of protestant reformation, Swedish or German? (Due perhaps to their dislike of “idolatory”?)

    If that’s what happened, and it later helped to save them from the first major fire, then it would be a happy sort of irony. (and of course the same concealment/protective irony happened elsewhere)

    Of course the frescoes were damaged by the second, electrical fire in ’91, but by that stage one presumed they had already been photographed and thus there was a record to aid the restoration. There is a kind of grace to the whole thing anyway.

    Love your story about the boy singing. Such buildings are always beautiful, even when empty and still, but of course they are most complete when full of the sounds of prayer and song.

    The funerary monument of the knight (crusader?) is amazing. We have only two such sculptures here in Dublin from the medieval period , one in St Weybergs and one in St Audoens church (of knights I mean, there is a tiny handful more of bishops and archbishops) But in all cases they are far more worn than this superb example in your picture, the level of detail, or his arms, armour, gloves, (even some sort of amulet or charm?)- is really super overall.

    Wonderful piece Dennis, as always. Thank you. 🙂
    Arran.

    • Arran, so nice to hear from you again. I don’t know when the original plastering was done, but it is most likely at the time that the abbey was rebuilt after the Seven Years War. That is just a guess, though. I agree about the funerary monument – it is one of the most unique that I have ever seen. I love the belt wrapped around the sword and the figures on his tunic.

  2. This church is relatively close to the town of my ancestors (Hilsenheim). In my only visit there I found the church to be relatively modern and very pedestrian. In the nearby city, Selestat, there is a nice church. Another nearby town, Ebersmunster, is said to have a nice church, but we didn’t have time to go there and see it.
    We had a similar experience to yours on the occasion of our first visit to Sainte Chapelle. It was in the late afternoon on a day in late June more than 20 years ago. We entered the upper chapel, and the late afternoon sun streaming through the stained glass made the air so pink it begged to be tasted. We stood there awestruck for what seemed like hours and then, seemingly out of nowhere came this angelic sound of an a cappella choir. For a moment it seemed that we might have been transported to heaven, and as the singing continued we turned around to see a small group of young men and women singing. We learned later that it was a small choral group from Switzerland which, upon entering the chapel, spontaneously broke into song “to see how they would sound in this beautiful space.” I’ve never forgotten that moment and I think I’m unlikely to experience one like it again in this life!j

    • Jay, we recently wrote a post on the church at Selestat, which is quite beautiful. We didn’t photograph the baroque abbey at Ebermunster, though, since we concentrate on the Romanesque and Gothic churches. Your experience at Sainte Chapelle must have been extraordinary – the choir of kids that we heard was not professional by any means, but their enjoyment was as complete as you can imagine.

  3. Dennis: Awe inspiring. There was something about this particular Romanesque chuch that made me feel the earth. I can’t tell you why., Just a feeling.

    When will you put all these wonderful photos and blogs into a book your followers can cherish? This needs to happen.
    Kalli

      • I, too, am very much looking forward to your book. I already spend time each week going through the archives and current posts. I have seen a lot of photos of architecture, the Romanesque and Gothic churches but yours are the absolute best. There is clarity in both the images and commentary. the addition of the historical as well as physical description simply increases the value. So glad things are already in the works. I had thought to suggest perhaps self-publishing but finding a quality publisher would be absolutely necessary.
        Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim is certainly a very fascinating church, I will return to this post and study the images some more – once is not enough.

      • Thanks, Aquila, we appreciate the kind words so much. We are still thinking of self-publishing. My sister Ann is a book editor and she is working with us on the text now. We’ll see where we go from here.

  4. This was a good post! The singing reminded me that in New Zealand (where I holidayed) this month, an old rock band, Dragon, is currently playing acoustic concerts in a number of churches. One of the churches is Old St Paul’s in Wellington, a stunning wooden church, in and out, but no longer in service as a church – only used for concerts and weddings. The only way to worship is to sit on a pew during opening hours, while tourists wander up and down the aisle. The acoustic guitars and singing would sound great, though.

  5. Me too on every point! Any chance that the book will be ready (galley proofs perhaps?) by the time I do my design and construction of medieval churches course next April/May?

  6. Perfect timing, Dennis and PJ! I’ve stolen one of these photos for my final exam as an unknown, to see if students can make the connection between the models we studied (San Vitale and Aachen Palatine Chapel). Thanks.

      • Ooo–maybe we can connect somewhere. I finally heard from the monks after getting a French male colleague to call (!) that they’ll grant the rights to reproduce the photographs (yay!!) but questions that the press has sent since have again gone unanswered and some prints I need are still outstanding. I hope by May all is settled but I despair sometimes–they seem to have all the time in the world but my book is a year behind schedule! I’ve heard nothing directly from Père Angelico. I hope he’s okay; they did stipulate a special copy for him signed by the author…
        Meanwhile, do keep me posted on travel plans as I might be able to meet up briefly in May. My best to you both for the holidays~~ jan

      • Janet, we’ll email you with our proposed schedule to see if there is something that we can work out. We’ll be going from Vézelay to the Auvergne to the Ardeche, Provence, Pyrenées Orientale, Midi-Pyrenées, Dordogne, Limousin, Poitou, and ending in Chartres.

  7. Marvelous documentation, as usual. It’s a shame that the odors of these wonderful spaces can’t be shared. Each church, I’m sure, has its own unique smell. Thank you for your work.

    • Vann, great to hear from you again. Sometimes these odors are not quite so pleasant, sometimes just musty, but other times! They are feasts for all of the senses. One of my favorite sights is when PJ comes out of a church with her black coat covered with stone dust from leaning against the walls to get a shot. She carries the church with her when we leave!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s