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.
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.
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.
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.
The eight tribune and false triforium bays lead seamlessly to the central dome, which rises just above the clerestory windows.
The groin-vaulted ambulatory runs completely around the central choir, covered by more of the 15th century frescoes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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°