The Troglodyte Church of Haute-Isle and its 17th century Furnishings

We often find fault with mayors who disregard their heritage but do not wish to overlook the many who fortunately assume their responsibilities and fight to protect and restore the historical monuments in their towns. We will attempt to present these as much as possible, sites where heritage is not only perceived as a burden but also an opportunity with a strong power of attraction and development.

1. The Troglodyte Church of Haute-Isle, Val d’Oise
Photo : Didier Rykner

2. Inside the Troglodyte Church of Haute-Isle
Photo : Didier Rykner

This time we will be traveling about fifty kilometers outside of Paris, not far from Mantes-la-Jolie, to visit an extremely rare kind of building in France, unique in the Ile-de-France region : the troglodyte church of the Annonciation in Haute-Isle (ill. 1), in the Val d’Oise.
Carved in 1670 into the chalk cliffs, at the expense of Nicolas Dongois the land owner, this building (which strictly speaking was not "built", except for the bell tower) has a very simple layout, with only one vaulted nave in a barrel arch. Its wealth comes from its remarkable wood furnishings consisting in a pulpit, also carved into the wall and, above all, a sculpted choir enclosure and altarpiece of very high quality. This is not really surprising since, initially, the furnishings were intended for the chapel of the Palais de Justice in Rouen [1].

3. French Scool, late XVIIth c.
Virgin Assumption
Oil on Canvas
Former picture, the work is in very poor condition today
as shown in the report and undergoing restoration
Haute-Isle, Church
Photo : D. R.

There is however a slight problem now : the furnishings are in poor condition and must be restored. The work on the church started by first renovating the floor, notably, and making the surroundings safe (the cemetery looked out over the road and had no railing to prevent accidental falls). The "tondo" painting (ill. 3) above the high altar, in very poor condition as well (when in fact an old photograph shows it as being well preserved), is also undergoing restoration. Local legend attributed it to Murillo but it is in no way connected to the master of course. This is not even a copy of one of his works as is often found in French churches, but a canvas obviously dating back to the late 17th century (thus contemporary to the altarpiece).

In order to begin the restoration of the choir enclosure, then the altarpiece, the town signed a "rural contract" with the département and the region which will provide funding respectively of 35% and 45%, with 20% to be paid by the town. We should point out that since the furnishings are listed as historical monuments, the DRAC could also be asked to help.
For a village of only 330 inhabitants, this is a heavy financial charge, especially since the subsidies often arrive much later. City hall would therefore like to either create an "Association des amis de l’église de Haute-Isle" to raise private funding or else act through a national association such as the Sauvegarde de l’Art Français. When the project has been completed, we will be sure to inform the readers at The Art Tribune. In the meantime, we invite anyone wishing to discover the church and its furnishings to watch the video below or go there directly (however, visitors must ask city hall to open up the church first [2]).

Eglise troglodytique de Haute-Isle par latribunedelart

Version française

Didier Rykner, lundi 1er octobre 2012


[1] This provenance is nevertheless hypothetical, we do not know if it has been historically proven.

[2] City hall website.

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