The Marian pilgrimage site of Scherpenheuvel has existed for over 400 years and remains the most popular pilgrimage town in the Benelux. Many pilgrims light a candle for the Virgin Mary during their visit. This age-old popular devotion is flourishing once more despite the erosion in support the Catholic Church is currently facing. Visitors light a candle in remembrance, to ask a question, or to reflect on something. There is a human story behind every lit candle. The votive candle chapels symbolize the union with Mary. People are not alone in their joy, their worries or their grief.
The pilgrimage site of Scherpenheuvel asked us to design new candle chapels to replace the old ones. A restoration of the old chapels was not an option since they had no historical value and, moreover, they were not part of a new overall vision for the revaluation of the Pilgrimage site. Our unique challenge was to re-interpret intimate historical design objectives and to revive them in a contemporary solution. Both the functional design of the chapel and the emotional experience of burning candles were central to this challenge.
Empathy is always central to Achilles’ work. Empathy is the central key for every design thinker. In this case this means a far-reaching empathy with the pilgrims and the experience of “candle burning”. And this by keeping in mind the functional requirements of maintenance and operation of the chapels.
The construction is clearly divided between areas used by pilgrims and areas used for maintenance and service. There is a strict division between both main functions (front end and back end), meaning that quick maintenance does not interfere with the intimate and unmediated experience of burning a candle. The chapel also has clear instructions for its use built into its design. Special day candles were developed for the chapel. Thanks to the Marian crown at the top, they are perfect for burning outside. The cardboard lids serve as intention cards and enable people to share their stories with Mary.
The pattern of the rear wall depicts a rosebush, the symbol of Mary, much like the arctic starflower and the private garden surrounding the Basilica. Thanks to the perforated rear wall, among others, the chapel fits in seamlessly with the private garden. The outer structure, made from weathering steel, refers to the ubiquitous ferrous sandstone on the site.
The result is two beautiful and functional candle chapels that form a contemporary interpretation of an age-old Marian symbolism. Or just a beautiful place where hundreds of pilgrims experience an intense moment of reflection every day. An old ritual in a new jacket. Both their form and function are fully designed to provide ‘a soothing encounter with Mary’. The same formal language was continued in the church houses. An offering table was also designed for this.