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St Etienne Chapel
Historic site and monument, Religious heritage, Chapel in Verbier
Warning: Unsecured hours
Dedicated to Saint Etienne (Saint Stephen), the first martyr.
Set against a green backdrop on the side of the Montagnier mountain torrent, St-Etienne Chapel calls out to passers-by and historians alike. Why was such a place chosen? Was it to quash the evil spirits of Le Diabley or tame the fury of the mountain torrent? According to the annals of Valais which recount the study made by Reverend Constant Rust, the date of construction is undoubtedly 1349. Furthermore, it is clear that the...Dedicated to Saint Etienne (Saint Stephen), the first martyr.
Set against a green backdrop on the side of the Montagnier mountain torrent, St-Etienne Chapel calls out to passers-by and historians alike. Why was such a place chosen? Was it to quash the evil spirits of Le Diabley or tame the fury of the mountain torrent? According to the annals of Valais which recount the study made by Reverend Constant Rust, the date of construction is undoubtedly 1349. Furthermore, it is clear that the bodies of those who died from the Black Death (1349) in the upper part of the valley were buried under the parvis of the chapel, probably out of fear of contagion and because the cemetery around the parish church in Le Châble was at full capacity. This chapel is therefore one of the oldest in the valley.
In 1706, Monsignor François Joseph Supersaxo, Bishop of Sion, blessed the cemetery to allow for the burial of plague victims.
There are some signs that would seem to confirm the existence of a sanctuary on the north-west side of the current chapel. A vault that may well have belonged to a religious building was discovered around sixty years ago by a local resident, while they were demolishing their property in the ravine. Unfortunately, he buried the entire ruin without notifying anyone – perhaps through fear of losing his land or due to ignorance.
As is the case with all religious buildings in this valley, this chapel has suffered at the hands of the weather and the raging torrent.
In 1786, the Bishop of Sion, Melchior Zen Ruffinen, reminded the community of its obligations, although they remained deaf to his pleas and completely uninterested in the upkeep of the building. 1890: Maurice Eugène Gard, captain of the papal troops, undertook a complete restoration for the first time. They added a vestry and a bell to the chapel. 1921: another restoration: the altar was restored as well as the statue of St Etienne. This chapel houses one of the few baroque altars to be found in Bagnes. The central part of the altarpiece is a triptych from the 15th century that was once part of a previous altar. In 1995, everything was cleaned and restored.
The tabernacle, the walnut communion table, the benches and the rostrum are all the work of a local cabinetmaker.
A veritable fireworks display: the stained-glass windows from 2002, blessed at Easter 2003, are the work of an artisan glass-maker, Françoise Delavy-Bruchez from Bagnes. Here are some words from the artist:
“I was asked to decorate the chapel with abstract stained-glass windows. I decided to approach it by telling a story through the medium of shape and colour, and giving to this place of worship an atmosphere of light.
I chose to work in a range of clear and light tones, and the setting of this little church, in its natural environment, inspired me to tell the story of the creation. It windows – four of which are square and one round – encouraged me to follow a particular path. When you speak of the origins of the universe, you inevitably speak of four elements: earth, water, fire and air. While the forms remain abstract, each of them tells a story through a universe of colours and symbols.
The most prominent of all is light, radiantly divine, represented in each window by the colour yellow. The second is movement, highlighted by the “jets” of lead. Another common theme is the pearl; in a stronger colour and a different shade for each window, it unifies these four elements. These are intimately mixed, yet stand out individually due to their own forms and tones. The rich brown of the earth outlines mountains and valleys, as well as the icy blue of the water flowing down the waterfall. The crackling red of the fire creates an interplay with the wind, and the springtime greens of the air compose a dance. Interpreting an abstract work always leaves the viewer with the impression that there is a code. Yet it’s a language that is easily accessible, and everyone can interpret it in their own way depending on their own sensibilities. Indeed, it is accessible thanks to the colours and contours which one should allow to take over in order to rediscover the elements of earth, water, fire and air, which combined to create to the living world.”