Notre Dame des Fontaines | ‘Sistine Chapel of the Alps’

What’s incredible about the Sanctuaire Notre Dame des Fontaines is the contrast between its remote, peaceful forest setting and its interior, plastered floor to ceiling with medieval frescoes of vivid hues and jarring realism.

The Sacred in the Ordinary

Wandering to the unexpected sacred place in the middle of a natural setting is like finding treasure in an enchanted forest.

I discovered Notre Dame des Fontaines when on assignment for a Maritime Alps hiking story. I wouldn’t have found the secluded chapel in the woods without my guide, Jackie Parsons.

Jackie is the owner of Hedonistic Hiking, an all-inclusive gourmet tour company. She knows the secrets hidden within the mountains of France and Italy, including this mystifying sanctuary.

Summary

In this story, you take a virtual tour with me on my hike to the remote Notre Dame des Fountaines. 

You’ll see photos of Notre Dame des Fountaines, learn where it is, and I’ll reveal to you how we got there.

After a fun synopsis of the history and culture of the hidden sanctuary, I’ll tell you a bit about the priest-artist who created these shocking panels in the 15th century.

At the end of the article, I share some ways you can meditate inside and outside the pilgrimage chapel. I think you’ll find the so-called “Sistine Chapel of the Alps” as eerie–yet fascinating–as I did.

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Where is Notre Dame des Fontaines?

Notre Dame des Fontaines —also called The Chapel of Our Lady of the Fountains—is located high in the mountains 48 miles / 80 kilometers from the beaches of Nice, France. The chapel is a 2.5 mile / 4 km walk east of the village of La Brigue, close to the Italian border. (See map above.)

Although Sanctuaire Notre Dame des Fontaines is not located in Parc National du Mercantour, it is in the aire d’adhesion, a Mercantour National Park buffer zone.

We left from Saint-Martin-Vésubie in the morning, drove over a spectacular mountain pass via the Via del Sale, a challenging historic gravel road mule track and arrived in La Brigue in time for a gourmet picnic lunch and wine.

Medieval traders built the Via del Sale or Salt Road through the Maritime Alps to transport salt to Limone Piemonte and eventually to Turin, Italy. Quite a feat of Middle Ages engineering since the road had to surmount the 5,305 foot / 1.617m pass. In the 1400s, the mule track passed by the Notre Dame des Fontaines chapel.

Why is it called Notre Dame des Fontaines or Our Lady of the Fountains?

Notre Dame des Fontaines, French for Our Lady of the Fountains, is called that because of a miracle involving water. Seven small intermittent springs come together as one stream just below the shrine to Our Lady of the Fountains. But they didn’t always flow.

According to legend, the La Brigue springs dried up, probably due to earthquakes.

Unable to water their fields, villagers vowed to erect a chapel to the Virgin if she returned water to the springs. Miraculously, water began gushing again, and the people of La Brigue kept their promise, built a sanctuary near the springs, and named it Notre Dame des Fontaines.

Historical documentation further supports the legend. Eudoxie de Tende, of the Laskris noble family who lived in neighboring Tende around 1278, was the daughter of a Byzantine emperor of Nicaea. After the natural disaster that stopped the springs, she announced that a chapel would be built/or was built as a place of prayer.

While Countess Eudoxie’s mention of the prayer chapel remains ambiguous, the earliest recorded mention of the sanctuary in 1375 indicates that its construction predates that.

What is documented is that the Count of Tende Honoré—also of the Laskris/Lascaris noble family—commissioned Giovanni Canavesio to create the fresco cycle in the second half of the 15th century.

Watering Hole for the Mule Trains Passing on the Via du Sale

It is important to note that not only were the springs essential for the village farmers, but they were also a vital watering hole for the mule trains passing by on the Via du Sale, known as the Route du Sel on the French side.

The road called Via del Sale (Latin), Route du Sel (French) and Salt Road (English) connects Provence to Turin.

Photos of Notre Dame des Fontaines Chapel

front of Notre Dame des Fontaines Chapel is two times taller than it is wide and drab gray with small circular window near peak of roof and two doors on each side of ground level
Notre Dame des Fontaines Chapel | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

The exterior of this chapel gives no clue to the inner beauty hidden within its gray walls. But walk inside, and you discover the real treasure…

Detail of 15th Century Frescoes at Our Lady of the Fountains

Detail of Last Judgement with Saint Michael the Archangel, arbiter and the damned | Frescoes by Canavesio, image by ©Michel Royon / Wikimedia Commons

The shocking illustrations inside the sanctuary will give you a taste of Late Middle Ages theology. Lively and grotesque frescoes cover the chapel from floor to ceiling, depicting the life of Jesus, often referred to as the Passion of Christ, Mary, the Virgin and the Last Judgement.

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Frescoes by Giovanni Canavesio

The damned cast into the yawning hell | Frescoes by Giovanni Canavesio, image by ©Michel Royon / Wikimedia Commons

Messages coded into the 15th-century frescos, such as bat wings, bull horns, raven claws and snake tails, representing traits of the devil, tell stories of rebellion and death, the rewards of sin.

Monster eats money changers and thieves | Frescoe by Giovanni Canavesio, image by ©Michel Royon / Wikimedia Commons

These terrifying scenes of the devil were painted by priest and painter Giovanni Canavesio in the 1490s.

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Gruesome depiction of the suicide of Judas with entrails out of stomach cavity | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

You’ll experience the feel of the sanctuary as Medieval worshipers encountered it: in natural light without electric lighting.

I found the macabre depictions of beasts, baddies and naked people curious yet ironic while visiting with a company named Hedonistic Hiking.

Hiking to Notre Dame des Fontaines

An easy 2.5 mile / 4 km hike from La Brigue takes you along a pretty trail to Notre Dame des Fontaines.

Arriving by hiking to the pilgrimage chapel after our picnic lunch made me feel as if I had found a gem in the midst of an enchanted forest.

During our nine-day gourmet hiking tour, Jackie quickly pointed out evidence of the Southern Alps’ history.

An after-lunch book reading was one tradition of the tour company, and it gave us time to digest our sumptuous meals while feeding our souls with stories of human endeavor.

On this trip, we listened to A Thread of Grace, a novel based on the true story of Jews escaping Nazi genocide by hiking over these same mountain passes.

The Historical and Cultural Significance of Notre Dame des Fontaines

painting of men in medieval clothing nailing, jumping and pulling ropes around Christ on cross that is laying on the rocky ground, a white shroud lays beside
Detail of Notre Dame des Fountaines panel picturing soldiers nailing Jesus to the cross | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

The historical significance and the artistic distinction of the frescoes at Notre Dame des Fontaines, created by Giovanni Canavesio, have earned it the moniker “The Sistine Chapel of the Alps.”

The church’s origins trace back to the 12th century, with significant expansion undertaken in the 1490s. A notable inscription near the entrance, dated 1583, marks the completion of the frescoes on October 12, 1492. Interestingly, this date coincides with Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World.

Inscription under the scene of the Crucifixion dates the completion of the Canavesio frescoes | Photo by ©Michel Royon / Wikimedia Commons

Canavesio collaborated with Giovanni Baleison for some frescoes, but the Passion Cycle was done solely by Canavesio. According to sources, when Canavesio and Baleison worked together, they allocated the decorative tasks into distinct sections, with each artist assuming their own responsibilities.

Canavesio’s Work Here Compared to Other Masters

Art historians have compared Canavesio’s work at Notre Dame des Fountaines to other masters of the time. For instance, the giant skeleton dominating the damned is said to be a repeat of the Last Judgment painted by Jan van Eyck. See below:

The giant skeleton dominating the damned is said to be a repeat of the Last Judgment painted by Jan van Eyck | Photo from Metropolitan Museum of New York
Last Judgement fresco by Canavesio at Notre Dame des Fountaines | image by © Michel Royon / Wikimedia

Pilgrimage to Notre Dame des Fontaines

The office of the bishop and diocese recognized Notre Dame des Fontaines as a holy site and place of pilgrimage in 1375.

Sanctuaire Notre Dame des Fontaines attracted pilgrims from areas we now call Liguria and Piedmont, Italy and Provence, France.

It is said that the liturgical frescoes covering the chapel’s interior were carried out at the end of the Middle Ages and were probably funded partly by pilgrim donations.

Today, with its striking frescoes, the pilgrimage chapel has been a significant tourist attraction, with an average of 12,000 people visiting the site each year.

Meditating at Notre Dame des Fontaines

Triumphal arch in the nave of Notre Dame des Fontaines | Frescoes by Giovanni Canavesio, image by © Michel Royon / Wikimedia Commons

Pews make it easy to sit and contemplate. But if you’re like me, you’ll really want to walk around and meditate on the images.

Sharply contrasting colors might draw your eye to the triumphal arch in the nave behind the altar. The nave is offset with equally resplendent scenes of the Life of the Virgin and Childhood of Christ at the front of the church. But the real draw here is the panels on the aisle walls.

You could follow the chronological order of Christ’s last days by starting with the fourteen panels on the aisle walls. On the right, facing the altar, go to the first panel depicting Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Canavesio, a priest and an accomplished artist, painted all fourteen panels portraying the Passion of Christ.

On the opposite wall (left when facing the altar) are more scenes climaxing with a colossal crucifixion panel. The most controversial here is the panel depicting Judas’ suicide, illustrating the punishment he received while dangling.

Note the realism of this fresco: Judas’ face looks strained, his tongue protrudes, and the rope is situated at the nape of the neck bent unnaturally.

But look for the abstraction that depicts an inner message: Judas’ eyes look alive and horrified at what is happening to his body.

A “mini Judas,” representing his soul, leaves the body and is delivered into the hands of a hellish figure.

As you leave, you’ll see a monumental fresco by Canavesio of the Final Judgement with some apocalyptic scenes of hell and heaven on the back wall by the main door.

Stop for a while to let the images tell their story.

Art historians say that Canavesio used his Biblical knowledge as a priest to create these images.

Do they generate terror in you? Do they lead to a better understanding of Christ’s triumph over death?

The suicide of Judas with the fall of his bowel from the stomach cavity | Photo by ©Michel Royon / Wikimedia

For Further Contemplation

Several small springs come together as one stream just below the shrine to Our Lady of the Fountains | Photo by Carl Ottersen via Wiki

To debrief your pilgrimage to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Fountains, go outdoors to the springs and contemplate the water bursting from the earth.

Some liken the stirrings of the Holy Spirit to a fountain of heaven overflowing from the heart of God. How is the miracle of Our Lady of the Fountains, which renewed the fields and water troughs, similar to a flood of heaven washing over you?

Pray, “Lord, spring up a well in me.”

Consider that seven miracles of Christ involve water. How is God speaking to you through the water coming up from the ground?

RELATED: How to Use Art to Experience God While Traveling

MAP YOUR STAY

Where to Stay When Visiting Notre Dame des Fontaines

We stayed at

Recommended Reading

Here’s your recommended reading for visiting Sancturaire Notre Dame des Fountains:

Table of Contents

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Hi, I’m Stacey

UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel is a travel blog focused on immersive travel that highlights food, wine and the spirituality of place. I also occasionally write about life as a Camino de Santiago pilgrim. I hope you enjoy what I post here. Feel free to leave comments! Read more…

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As is common in the travel industry, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was provided with accommodations, meals, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review,  the author believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

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2 thoughts on “Notre Dame des Fontaines | ‘Sistine Chapel of the Alps’”

    • Thanks so much for your comments about Notre Dame des Fountaines, Jan! Let me know if you have any questions about this remote chapel!

      Reply

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