Skip to main content

Mont-Saint-Michel: Like no other (Pt. 2)

The Abbey and Monastery

DSC01977Mont-Saint-Michel is, really, two places: the historic religious structures at the top of the island mountain, and the town below that supported it in ancient times and today. The town featured in Part 1; this time we're looking at the top, which is where it all began, with an 8th century church. The stairs above lead to the entrance of the Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel itself.


DSC01946 At the beginning: about 800 AD


The island and surrounding area changed hands among feudal nobles a number of times, but eventually became clearly Norman; so Norman that its support for William the Conqueror was rewarded with land on the English side of the Channel, including a "daughter house" on St. Michael's Island off Cornwall.



  Twelfth century

But playing in politics can be dangerous; during the Hundred Years War, English forces unsuccessfully besieged it twice. Although they were unsuccessful, they (and Breton allies of the French King) did serious damage to the Romanesque buildings. Afterwards, the King paid for repair and some Gothic facades.



15th-16th centuries


The Abbey's wealth was based on its role as a major site for religious pilgrimage, but that waned over the years and especially after the Reformation. By the time of the French Revolution, which ended all monasteries and convents in France, it was nearly uninhabited. The new rulers made it a prison for religious figures who opposed the revolution, and then for high-profile political prisoners. and then ordinary prisoners.




The Abbey's fortunes took a turn for the better in 1836 when Victor Hugo and other influentials went to bat for it, campaigning for it to be preserved as a national architectural treasure. By 1863, the prison was closed; by 1874 it was declared a historic monument. Restoration work and additions (including the tower over the crossing) have been ongoing since.




Among the architects involved was Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, who also supervised renovations at Notre Dame. Today, there's even a new small community of monks in residence (but not often in evidence).



The buildings themselves are amazing, even to people like me (whose religious friends sometimes claim I'm in churches more than they are). For a start, most churches have the main sanctuary on the ground floor, most monasteries and convents have their cloisters there as well. Here, everything is upended: The cloister is on the roof, above three great halls, each of which is further down the hill (conceptually underground but actually not).


The church itself was designed by an Italian architect of the 12th century, William de Volpiano, who took a big risk: he put the transept crossing directly at the highest point of the mountain, leaving the nave and apse extending over...nothing. But of course, there can't be nothing under them; there are crypts and chapels built into the mountain below and supporting them. 


This results in architectural surprises. The cloister, seen here, is much lighter in design and material than the usual stone arcades; it had to be that way to avoid unnecessary weight on the building whose roof it is.




Passing down to the lowest level of support, we find these huge pillars and arches. The heaviest of them are 5 meters in circumference; they are things of beauty in themselves, especially in contrasting light.





Between the light colonnade and the massive supports lie three large halls of surprisingly high ceilings and open feel. In order from the top, they are the refectory, where the residents and noble guests dined, the guest hall where pilgrims and other travelers of appropriate rank were lodged (not shown), and at the bottom the almoner's hall, where charity could be received by the poorest. That room is now the gift shop.




Of course, a feature of a hill-top location is stairs...lots of them, as was also noted in Part 1. Here are some more, and some more exterior views.











Images (21)
  • DSC01919
  • DSC01924
  • DSC01931
  • DSC01933
  • DSC01936
  • DSC01938
  • DSC01944
  • DSC01945
  • DSC01946
  • DSC01947
  • DSC01950
  • DSC01953
  • DSC01954
  • DSC01959
  • DSC01965
  • DSC01967
  • DSC01972
  • DSC01973
  • DSC01974
  • DSC01977
  • DSC01986

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

Add Comment

Comments (2)

Newest · Oldest · Popular

A visit to this church, almost exactly 30 years ago, is one of my fondest travel memories.  I stayed on the island and went to mass, it was a dark and stormy night (really), the wind howled, we were welcomed in English, the only visitors present in the small congregation and I've never felt so included as a traveler.


Part of what I remember was a distinct dip worn into the stone of the stairs on the climb into the church.  It appears from the beautiful photo at the top of this page that the stones may have been replaced since.

I'd not be surprised if the stones have been renewed; there is construction and reconstruction going on constantly (as it must have also in the Middle Ages). I cropped most of it out, but you can see some of the scaffolding in one of the pictures above.

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

Link copied to your clipboard.