Friday, June 4, 2010

Mont Saint-Michel

Le Mont Saint-Michel, probably France's most famous abbey, rises improbably from a small, rocky island, now connected to land by a causeway. The island is similar geologically to the Mont Dol, just in the bay rather than on land. Mont Saint-Michel's first church was built by Aubert, Bishop of Avranches in 709. Benedictine monks began living on the island in 966, and a larger church was built before the end of the millenium. This was replaced in the 11th Century by a Romanesque church, which was, over the course of subsequent centuries, extended, enlarged, and fortified, with the later additions in the Gothic style. A bustling pilgrimage point during the Middle Ages, after the French Revolution the Abbey was turned into a prison. Dilapidated and unused, the abbey was was declared a historic monument in 1874. Restored in the late 19th Century, the abbey and its island have regained their status as an icon of France.

The causeway connecting Mont Saint-Michel and the mainland serves as both road and parking lot. Over the years, the causeway has amplified the silting of the bay; the government plans to replace the causeway with a bridge, so that the bay's waters, driven by the tides, can flow more freely and return Mont Saint-Michel to being an island rather than a peninsula.

From the abbey's windows, you can look out at the coast as it encroaches on the island.

From the island's ramparts, you can look out into the bay, which divides Brittany from Normandy.

Crossing through the ramparts at the island's main gate, you soon start climbing up the main street, which has commerce and bustle that recall the street as pilgrims must have found it in the Middle Ages. Hotels, restaurants, various museums, and souvenir shops clamor for the tourist's attention.

The abbey was built at the island's summit. Its central part is supported by the rock, and its outer parts are supported by foundations that have been built up around the rock. The whole point of the edifice is to reach toward the heavens. Of course, this means that visitors, like the pilgrims before them, have to climb a long ways to reach the abbey.

After reaching the top of the street, you climb flights of stairs outside the abbey.

Inside the abbey's walls, you climb more flights of stairs.

And then you wind between the abbot's residence and the foundations of the abbey itself, rising from the island's rock.

The abbey was built of granite brought by boat from the Chausey Islands. That must have been the easy part, compared to getting all that rock up the mountain.

When the abbey was converted to a prison, a hauling system was installed. This involved a buttress that served as a track for a heavy wooden sledge, which was raised up the track by a large wheel in which five or six prisoners would walk, as if they were in a large hampster-wheel.

The 19th-Century sledge is no longer used. To its left is a modern cable-car system, which during our visit this was being used to lift supplies for a meeting of personnel of a major French bank.

Visitors to the abbey, alas, are not hauled up on cable-cars. But when, after all that climbing, you reach the top, you get to see one of the masterpieces of religious architecture. The facade is actually more recent than the rest of the abbey. Part of the nave had been removed, and this Romanesque revival front then enclosed the remaining part of the nave. You can see the outlines of the old nave in the raised stone of the platform.

Inside the abbey, you walk through the Romanesque nave, with the Gothic choir ahead of you. In the Middle Ages, this now-sober space would have been much more colorful, with painted walls, tapestries, devotional objects, and so forth.

The choir is unusually light, especially with the morning sun streaming in from the east.

Of course, looking light doesn't make it light. On the level below, the choir is supported by massive, closely set pillars.

I mentioned that parts of the edifice other than the center of the abbey were built up on foundations surrounding the central rock. The most striking part of this is the Merveille, the marvel, which contained the living quarters for the monks. The three stories of the Merveille, which was built up on the north side of the abbey, were constructed in a mere 25 years.

At the top floor of the Merveille, alongside the nave, you find the cloister, which is itself a marvel of Gothic grace, with its twin rows of slender offset columns. In her blog posting about Mont Saint-Michel, Susie included photos of some of the wonderful spandrels above the columns' capitals.

Next to the cloister, also atop the Merveille, is the refectory, whose many tall windows, seen here from the outside, bring in a great diffuse light.

From the inside of the refectory, the windows' deep insets make it so that you see only a few of the windows directly; the rest of the windows light the room, unseen. This produces an overall effect that combines solidity, grace, warmth, and light.

The abbey also has spaces with much less grace but still with interest. Its development over the years, with different styles, designers, and needs, led to odd, left-over and service spaces, such as this little courtyard that recalls M.C. Escher.

The abbey also has elements of unexpected charm, such as this wall along the west side.

As you leave the abbey to return to the city below, you pass through the abbey's gardens, on the north side, near the foundations of the Merveille. The gardens, with their plantings and walks overlooking the bay, provide some moments of serenity before you dive back into the street and its crowds.

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