New Bishop’s Chapel in Annecy, France

Since 2001, Bishop Yves Jean Marie Arsène Boivineau has been bishop of the diocese of Annecy, which is in eastern France near Switzerland.

A Pray Tell reader recently sent in this story about the bishop’s new chapel. Its design is quite interesting. (And it appears that they do the sprinkling rite with a green branch. We do the same at St. John’s.)

Annecy 1

Annecy 2

More photos can be viewed here.

The piece behind the altar was completed twenty years ago and moved here from another space. The diocese reports that the design of the chapel, including the furniture and stained glass, was carried out with a view toward simplicity and a spirit of contemplation. The Marian blue and white colors of the windows contribute to this.

The Cross does not have an image of Christ; its golden harmony is meant to appear celestial. Gold colors are also used in furnishings throughout the space, which underlines the unity of the People of God with the Lord.

Annecy 3It’s a challenge to design a small chapel like this convincingly. We’ve all seen various successes and less-than-successes in hospitals, nursing homes, chanceries, and the like. Sometimes the chapel appears to be an afterthought, and its size and proportions are all wrong. Low ceilings and carpetting are unfortuante not only for the acoustics of the sung and spoken word, but for the “feel” of the place for prayer and worship.

This space feels right  to me – at once spacious and intimate, prayerful while remaining more liturgical than devotional. The floor plan is based on good Eucharistic theology and draws the assembly into the sacred action at the altar table. I suppose the style is a bit stark, perhaps even monastic. I suspect the mildly contemporary artistic style will be appreciated by European Catholics, who are a bit more accustomed to contemporary art (in church and in society) than we in the U.S. tend to be.

Oh – let’s hope the electric piano can be replaced someday with a small tracker! But that would cost a bit of money.

Your thoughts?



  1. Putting aside the usual checklist of liturgical design detail discussion points (of which there would be many in this example) concerning “what’s a Catholic chapel supposed to look like”, I would observe that lowered ceilings (to accommodate utility functions) is one of the more common flaws. (The other common problem is materials.) It invariably makes a space look like a function space that happens to be usable as a chapel.

    To compare another modern chapel of a similar size (probably smaller in area, but not volume), from 1988 in Switzerland:

    The effect of the difference in vault treatment can be profound, even if measured in small units of size.

  2. I will let you know my thoughts in three weeks after I visit Annecy. St. Francis de Sales is buried there and it has a special place in our Salesian spirituality. I’ll add visiting the Bishop’s Chapel to my list.

  3. I rather favor the altar-ambo axis in a (daily) chapel because it gives the ambo due weight in a small space, while also favoring an antiphonal seating arrangement which is in turn ideal for communally praying the liturgy of the hours.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:
      Agreed. The lone candle was on my putative but unpublished list of details….

      I like the material of the wall art, but having looked at many photos of it, it’s more curious than revelatory in terms of substance.

      I note that the chapel employs the staggered/zigzag wall-window device made famous in the nave of Coventry Cathedral.

  4. What strikes me most about it (apart from the somewhat mysterious altarpiece) is the choice of what I would call “domestic” materials. Almost everything looks like it could have been bought at IKEA (not really, but that’s the aesthetic) and I can’t help but think that this was a deliberate choice, underscoring the “family meal” aspect of the Eucharist. In contrast, the chapel that Liam linked to is very un-domestic in its feel and I suspect would have less of the family meal vibe and perhaps more of an “unbloody sacrifice” feel.

    [For the record, I think that “family meal” is a legitimate element in our understanding of the Eucharist (though not the only one), so I’m just noting the aesthetic choice, not condemning it.]

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:
      Agreed again (then again, I tend to agree with you on so many things). Hence my choice of comparison, which I deliberately chose to help illustrate non-verbally some important differences within the “modern” design family, as it were.

  5. To be honest, while it might not be a bad as some chapels that have built in to nooks and crannies of nursing homes, the altar is a bit too small for my taste.

    Admittedly this is a personal peeve, but surely it could have been somewhat bigger than the bare minimum space needed to hold the chalice and pattens. The missal is even falling off the side of the altar which really IMHO means that it is not fit for purpose, never mind being fit for symbolism. Its size could be a good size to represent an altar of sacrifice, but it is a little too small to represent the table of Christ.

    In the rite of dedication of an altar we pray: “make it a table of joy, where the friends of Christ may hasten to cast upon you their burdens and cares and take up their journey restored.”

    This mini table is more like the size of a tray for a tv dinner than a worthy table for the Lamb’s High Supper!

    1. @Fr. Neil Xavier O’Donoghue:
      Your comment brings to mind something that was sub-surface as I read Fr Anthony’s post: a liturgical design that tries too hard at reinvention of customary design without sufficient attention to other levels of design decisions often ends up coming across as shallow, and I’ve gotten over my former sense of obligation to applaud it for the effort. The question is not so much, Could I pray [here/there]?, but, Am I drawn to pray [here/there] again, and again? (If a design’s promoters have to argue me into an affirmative on the second question, they’ve probably already lost.) It’s a question on which a lot of design today gets a middling grade at very best.

  6. One give-away in the final few photos is the ciborium on the altar. Evidently Communion was given from the tabernacle instead of bread consecrated at the celebration itself (cf. GIRM 85)….. Hm. And just where is that tabernacle? Well, it appears to be that rectangular cupboard with a cross on it, mounted on the wall above the credence shelf, behind where the bishop and other ministers are standing.

    KLS asks whether one can pray in this space. It’s difficult with such a low ceiling. I would say No, not with that many people in there. If I were alone in that space, then Yes.

    As far as one-candle-or-two is concerned, a considerable number of altars will be found in Europe with two candles at one corner of the altar, arranged diagonally in an appealing assymetry, rather than at both corners. Having just one candle seems to be a development of that, rather than just omitting the candle on the other side. On a small altar, it makes sense not to clutter it up.

    The custom of having seven candles when a bishop is present is only rarely found, and indeed sometimes derided as being an extraordinary form practice.

    1. @Paul Inwood:
      ” . . . .arranged diagonally in an appealing asymmetry, rather than at both corners.”

      Having seen this much in my past life on this side of the pond, I would say it was much less frequently an appealing asymmetry (actually: rare), more just asymmetry for it’s own sake. It’s takes a finely proportioned and crafted set of circumstances (candles, candleholders, altar, predella, and relative volumes of the sanctuary space and overall church space) to pull off asymmetry better than symmetry in this regard. It’s virtually impossible with squat candles in squat holders. Mind you, I loves me some Ikebana influenced design. But that’s a relatively easier context in which to pull off asymmetry successfully. Instead, asymmetry too often just calls attention to the question “why this?”.

  7. Looks like the harrowing of hell – a simultaneously crucified and glorious Christ taking hold of Adam and Eve and leading them to upwards to heaven.

  8. I quoted Dix on altar candles four years ago on this thread
    and hope no-one minds my posting the quote again here, as it seems apposite.
    Dom Gregory Dix’s comment on altar lights in his Shape of the Liturgy [pp.419-421]. (Any emphases are mine, and it may need to be continued in a subsequent comment.)

    Candles on the Altar. For reasons already stated the standing of any object whatever on the altar was entirely contrary to the devotional conventions of the early church. Lamps and candelabra were hung above it, and standard candlesticks were stood around – sometimes six or eight of them. But the altar itself remained bare of such ornaments for almost the first thousand years of christian history in the West, and perhaps to an even later date in the East. This feeling of the special sanctity of the altar began to break down in Gaul in the eighth century in certain respects, but it is not until the ninth century that we find candlesticks being stood upon it, and for some while they were not common even in great churches. There was one which was placed upon the altar in Winchester cathedral c. A.D. 1180, but apparently as a special little ceremony on Christmas day only, and this is the earliest English reference to such a practice that I know. This custom of one altar candle (moved around with the book at low mass) became fairly common in France in the thirteenth century, and was still not unknown in England as late as the fifteenth century. It is said to survive to this day at low mass in Carthusian monasteries. […to be continued…]

  9. [continued…]
    It is not, however, until the very end of the twelfth century (c. A.D. 1195) that we first find candles upon the altar at Rome; and then they are two in number at the Pope’s ‘stational’ mass on the most solemn feasts. By A.D. 1254 the number on such occasions had risen to seven. Further than that it never went. The Papal custom of two candles on the altar was widely adopted in the early thirteenth century, and lasted without change in some of the great French and Spanish collegiate churches down to the eighteenth century.
    It is by no means clear how the current notion that two candles was the specifically ‘English Use’ originated. The multiplication of altar candles was in fact rather characteristic of England and the North generally, once the custom of having them at all had come in. Thus e.g., at Chichester before the end of the thirteenth century the custom on feasts was to burn seven tall lights each of two pounds’ weight of wax upon the altar and eight more in trabe (on a shelf above the altar-screen-the fore-runner of the Renaissance ‘gradine’). At S. Augustine’s Canterbury there were two such trabes with a row of six candles on each, and apparently a third row of six actually upon the altar. At Exeter early in the fourteenth century there were still no candles on the altar itself, but a row of ten behind it. At Lincoln there were five; at S. David’s cathedral there were fourteen; and so on. There appear in fact to be instances from mediaeval England of every number of altar candles from one to twenty, except seventeen and nineteen. […to be continued…]

  10. [ continued…]
    If we enquire the reason for the widespread increase in the number of altar candles during the thirteenth century, it is to be found, I think, in the change in the shape of the Western altar from the antique fashion of a cube some 3 ft. square to that of oblong altars 10, 12, or more feet long, in the new gothic churches. The increase in the number of candles comes in first in the great churches, which were mostly being rebuilt about then in the new style, only because the new shape of altar came in first in the great churches, which always tend to set fashions.
    Such things have nothing to do with religion or its practice (or even with what is called ‘loyalty’), as the mediaeval churchmen were sensible enough to perceive. But the portentous behaviour of nineteenth century English bishops and lawyers, and the ‘fond things vainly invented’ by some ritualists, have succeeded in impressing it upon the mind of most modern Englishmen that they somehow closely concern the genius of christianity. Such questions were formerly decided by custom, by aesthetics or by mere convenience, not by courts of law. To the mediaeval taste a row of candlesticks looked better than two on a long altar, and so they had a row — of three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten or whatever number their finances or fancy or just the fashion of the moment suggested; or they varied the number on different days according to the rank of the feast or the dignity of the celebrant. […to be concluded…]

  11. [concluded…]
    In Germany and Holland in the fifteenth century some churches took to having hundreds; in the same period in Sicily and Sardinia some churches preferred to retain only two; and nobody questioned their right to do as they liked in either case. The modern Anglican celebrant can have six candles upon his altar like some of the Avignon Popes in the fourteenth century, or seven like the Popes at the end of the thirteenth century, or two like the Popes at the end of the twelfth century, or even none at all like the Popes at the end of the eleventh century — and be happily conscious that historically he is being just as ‘Roman’ whichever he does. If he really wants to be ‘primitive’ in such matters, he must celebrate facing the people across the altar — like all the Popes in every century — and with no candles and no cross (and no vases of flowers or book-stand) — like all the Popes for the first thousand years. What preposterous nonsense it is to try to erect sacristy orthodoxies and even tests of theological allegiance out of these minute details of pious furnishing, that have varied endlessly throughout christian history and have never meant anything in particular by all their changes!
    So wrote Dix some sixty years ago. Although his highlighted comments were aimed at English high-church Anglicans, it seems to me that they have not lost their appositeness in the wider liturgical debate of the 21st century 🙂
    Kind regards,

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