Bas-Rhin: The Saint-Denis Chapel in Marmoutier reveals Alsatian medieval heritage

Bas-Rhin: The Saint-Denis Chapel in Marmoutier reveals Alsatian medieval heritage
Bas-Rhin: The Saint-Denis Chapel in Marmoutier reveals Alsatian medieval heritage

The Saint-Denis chapel in Marmoutier, located in the Bas-Rhin, represents a precious testimony of medieval religious architecture in Alsace. Its history, marked by successive transformations since the Carolingian era, has recently been enriched by archaeological excavations carried out by the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap).

Under the direction of Boris Dottori, this research has revealed little-known aspects of the chapel, offering new perspectives on its role and evolution over the centuries. This study is essential for understanding the historical and cultural importance of this monument, which continues to attract the attention of historians and visitors.

The origins of the Chapel

The first mentions of a building on the site of the Saint-Denis chapel date back to the charter of Abbot Celse in 828. This document lists all the possessions of the Marmoutier abbey. It clearly indicates the existence of a sanctuary dedicated to Saint Denis from this time. The charter testifies to the religious and social importance of this site from the beginning of the Middle Ages. It also shows the wealth and influence of the Marmoutier abbey. It played a central role in the spiritual and economic life of the region. The mention of a sanctuary at this location from 828 attests to the antiquity of the cult of Saint Denis in this locality.

However, it was not until the 12th century that a more elaborate chapel was built. Built between 1140 and 1150, this Romanesque chapel included a nave divided into two separate spaces. One was dedicated to the liturgy and the other served as an ossuary.

In addition, Inrap points out that a building prior to the chapel was unearthed in the south-eastern part of the nave. It consists of a masonry block and a floor preparation level. Due to the small surface area investigated and the small quantity of furniture, the identification and dating of this building remain uncertain.

Architectural transformations and additions

In the 13th century, the Saint-Denis chapel underwent major architectural transformations. Around 1220, the original Romanesque choir was demolished and replaced by a rectangular Gothic chevet. It was then given a sexpartite vault. The stylistic characteristics of the vault supports are comparable to those of other buildings in the area, one of which, the collegiate church of Obersteigen, can be dated by written sources to 1213/1220.

The vault of Saint-Denis is considered to be the oldest in Alsace and a remarkable example of the emerging Gothic architecture in the region. It is decorated with busts representing saints who played a key role in the life of the abbey. We can distinguish Leobard, Leo IX, Benedict of Aniane, Pirmin, Maur and Stephen. These elements bear witness to the stylistic evolution characterizing this period of transition between Romanesque and Gothic.

The chapel’s transformations continued until the early 16th century. During this period, tracery windows were added to the three sides of the chevet. They allowed for greater light and a more elaborate aesthetic. A new sandstone altar was also built to house a magnificent 15th-century altarpiece. These additions and modifications reflect the chapel’s continued evolution, both architecturally and liturgically, and illustrate the enduring importance of this place of worship over the centuries.

A chapel evolving with the times

In the 16th century, the ossuary in the western part of the nave was definitively filled in. A tiled floor was placed directly over the bones. The eastern part of the nave was then excavated for an undetermined reason, probably to house a new ossuary. But archaeologists found no bones in this space. In 1575, this space was reworked, with the construction of two side walls and the raising of the floor level by about ten centimeters.

In 1697, new paving was laid in the nave. It now consists of a single space, lit on both sides by high windows. One of them bears the date 1697. The current configuration of the chapel thus dates back to this period.

View of the Saint-Denis chapel during the works (September 2019). © B. Dottori, Inrap

Some minor modifications were made to the building in the 19th and 20th centuries, in terms of decoration and interior fittings. For example, in 1920, the building underwent a restoration campaign, led by the rector Télesphore Biehler.

Recent excavations and their revelations

Preventive excavations in 2019, led by Boris Dottori of INRAP, revealed a medieval ossuary, considered the oldest in Alsace, under the tiles of the nave. The presence of funerary slabs in the chapel indicates that it served as a burial place at several periods (late 14th century, mid-17th century, 18th and 19th centuries).

Archaeologists have discovered two sandstone sarcophagi near the building, along the south wall of the nave. One of the sarcophagi is a monolithic sarcophagus with a cephalic cavity dating from the 12th century. The sarcophagus, which no longer had a lid, contained only the tibias and feet of an individual. These bones date from between 1495 and 1602. This indicates that the sarcophagus had already been emptied of its initial contents, replaced by a new burial which was itself partially extracted later. This practice, common in medieval times, shows the importance of the chapel as a place of worship. It also represents a site for funeral management.

The excavated sarcophagus (right) and the burial of the two children. © B. Dottori, Inrap

In addition, the excavations revealed the graves of young children. Inside lay the remains of two immature individuals, one aged 7 to 11, the other who died perinatally. Paleogenetic analyses determined that the older one was a boy. According to the parish registers, they could be two young brothers, Hans-Diebold and Philipp-Joseph Senwig. An epitaph inserted in the south wall of the nave mentions their death in 1665. The grave contained a pilgrimage medal made of copper alloy from the Austrian abbey of Mariazell, dating from the end of the 17th century.

The artistic and religious heritage of the chapel

The Saint-Denis chapel is not only an important archaeological site. But it also contains a real treasure of artistic heritage. At the heart of this heritage is the 15th century altarpiece. The quality and artistic richness are attributed to the influence of the famous painter Martin Schöngauer. This altarpiece is a centerpiece of the chapel. When closed, it represents the Annunciation, a biblical scene of great importance in Christian iconography. When open, it reveals a Virgin and Child surrounded by Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Barbara. These are two figures venerated in Christianity. The delicate details and bright colors of this polychrome wooden altarpiece illustrate the artistic excellence of the period and greatly enrich the chapel’s heritage.

The pilgrimage medal. © C. Leyenberger, Inrap

Over the centuries, this altarpiece was moved several times for its preservation. Originally displayed on an altar to the west of the nave, it was placed in the Gothic choir of the chapel after the construction of the new sandstone altar in the early 16th century. Today, the altarpiece finds a central place in the Gothic choir of the chapel, where it continues to attract the admiration of visitors and art historians.

Source: Inrap

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