29 November 2000
Mont-St.-Michel—The Wonder of the West
- Several people helped to design and build Mont-St.-Michel. It was founded by the bishop Aubert of Avranges, who the Archangel Michael is said to have appeared to, but also overseen by Abbot Hildebert, Abbot Roger II, Abbot Robert de Toringy, and Abbot Jordan (Sherwood).
- Construction began in the year 1000 and continued without interruption until the beginning of the 16th century.
- Mont-St.-Michel is truly a wonder to behold.
- As we approached the island by bus, I could see the Mont off in the distance, a perfect triangle rising into the sky. “The buildings of the monastery are piled round a conical mass of rock which rises abruptly out of the waters of the Atlantic to the height of 300 feet, on the summit of which stands the great church” (Hudleston). We crossed the almost mile-long causeway leading to the Mont. The island is set in a bay, surrounded by water, quicksand, and tangue (a mixture of sand and mud).
- The entrance is prefaced by a long walk up several flights of stairs (the Ceremonial Staircase). We walked between parts of the building and under several arches before reaching the main entrance near the top. We entered through the Guard Room, (the fortified entrance to the Abbey). There is also another entrance at the very top where we met for our tour, which began on the West Terrace with a great view of the surrounding bay. The entrance on the West Terrace has a Neo-classical facade (brochure).
- Inside, the church is an eclectic mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. There are three levels, reflecting from top to bottom the structure of mediaeval society: clergy, nobility, and the third estate. This also reflects the hierarchy of nourishment: spiritual, intellectual, and material (brochure).
- On the bottom floor is the “Salle des Chevaliers” (the Knights’ Hall) where the monks worked, the Guest Hall where distinguished guests were received, the almshouse where pilgrims were fed and lodged, the cellarium (a storeroom), and the gardens (brochure).
On the middle floor is the monastery known as the “Merveille” (the Wonder), the cloister (enclosed garden), refectory, kitchen, church, dormitory, and chartulary. The monastery is called the Wonder because it is an architectural and engineering feat. It was built after the fire of 1204 that destroyed the abbey. The innovation of vaults rising over a skeleton of diagonal arches, used to build the Merveille, led to the birth of the Gothic style. This new process allowed the massively thick Romanesque vaulting to be replaced by a lighter, more delicate structure supported by arches, thus distributing the weight over pillars, so that larger openings could be made in the walls, allowing more light.
The Church of Notre-Dame-sous-Terre, also on the middle floor, is built in Pre-Romanesque style. Some traditional features include very thick walls constructed of small rubble stone and Norman (semi-circular) arches of flat brick.
On the top floor are the Guard Room, abbey lodgings, abbey church, west terrace, and neo-Gothic bell tower spire. The abbey church was built on a platform of four crypts, which surround it and support the four arms of the cross. The framework is clad in paneled barrel vaulting, typical of most Romanesque churches in Normandy.
In walking though the different buildings, one can see the differences in architecture. There is evidence of Romanesque in the smaller, circular windows and darker rooms. The Gothic style can be seen in the pointed arches and windows, flying buttresses, and the bigger and higher windows, allowing more light.
- The exit is through the gift shop, where we came in to buy our tickets, back through the Guard Room and down the Ceremonial Staircase.
- The function of Mont-St.-Michel was to provide a place for Monks to study, pray, live, eat, and minister. It also served as a refuge for pilgrims, housing and feeding them as well. After the French Revolution, until 1863, it served as a prison.
- Mont-St.-Michel was dedicated to Saint Michael in 708 by the Bishop of Avranges, after some miraculous visitations by the Archangel Michael in which he instructed the Bishop to begin the monastery. The Mont’s ingenious architecture, beauty, and height symbolize the strength of Michael, the greatest of all angels. Also, the image of an impregnable fortress as it was never conquered, even during the Hundred Years War, earned the Mont a symbolic place in the national psyche. Lastly, for many in the middle Ages, Mont-St.-Michel was the image of Holy Jerusalem on earth.
- Out of the many amazing scenery, churches, castles, and more, Mont-St.-Michel sticks out in my mind as the most striking. It is unlike anything else I had seen. I was especially struck by the surrounding bay, made not of water, but of water and interspersed sand dunes. It was amazing to see that one could walk from the Mont to the nearby island in a roundabout way on the sand dunes and occasionally wading. And of course the Mont itself is amazing. My favorite view of it was as we first approached. The perfect triangle shape of it intrigues me. It is one of my favorite places I’ve been!
HUDLESTON, G. ROGER. Mont-St.-Michel.
Mont-St.-Michel brochure obtained while visiting.
Sherwood, Kaitlin Duck. 1994.