Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

The island was not only dedicated to St Michel, the Celts used it to worship the god Belenus and the Romans built a shrine to Jove. After Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul, the area became known to the Romans as Armorica, from the Celtic term for “coastal area” including the Brittany peninsula and the territory between the Seine and Loire rivers. From around 350 the Mount was a key port for the trading of tin to the rest of Europe. In 495 a vision of the Archangel of St Michael appeared on the Mount. Between 450 and 500 AD, when the Roman power and population were dwindling, many ships brought fugitives from Britain to Armorica. Around the time of the Roman departure, the Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons began a migration to the Eastern coast of Britain, where they established their own kingdoms. The post-Roman Celtic-speakers of Armorica were colonists from Britain, resulting in the Breton language, a language related to Welsh and identical to Cornish in the early period and still used today. They also retained control of Cornwall and Northwest England, where Kingdoms such as Dumnonia and Rheged survived.

Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

The island's cathedral story starts in 709 AD with Bishop Aubert of Avranches. The legend goes that the archangel Michael kept appearing in the bishop's dreams. Michael begged him to build a church on the barren rock known then as Mont Tombe. While the bishop initially had his doubts, he was eventually persuaded to build an oratory on the top of Mont Saint Michel. The mount gained strategic significance in 933 when William “Long Sword”, William I, Duke of Normandy, annexed the Cotentin Peninsula, definitively placing the mount in Normandy. It is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry which commemorates the 1066 Norman conquest of England.

Couesnon River, Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Couesnon River, Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

It is located approximately one kilometre (just over half a mile) off the north-western coast of Brittany, at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches. The population of the island is 44, as of 2009. The island has held strategic fortifications since ancient times, and since the 8th century AD has been the seat of the monastery from which it draws its name. Over time the bay in which the Mont resides has silted up, hastened by the causeway to the island. On 16 June 2006, the French prime minister and regional authorities announced a €164 million project to build a hydraulic dam using the waters of the river Couesnon and of tides to help remove the accumulated silt deposited by the rising tides, and to make Mont-Saint-Michel an island again. You can see the dam in the above picture. The causeway will be removed to be replaced by a bridge.

Saint Michel

Saint Michel

Angelic visions and visitations often played a significant part in the lives of the Celtic Saints. For the Celt, both pagan and Christian, perception of the next world overlapped strongly with the awareness of this one. Important Saint Michael sites are usually on hilltops, mountains or other high places – for example, the parish church on the dramatic rocky outcrop at Brentor in Devon, or St Michael's tower on the summit of Glastonbury Tor. Skellig Michael off the coast of Ireland, St Michael's Mount in Cornwall, and Mont St Michel in France are indicative of the archangel's role as a guardian of spiritual sanctuaries, and together these three islands protect the western sea approaches to Europe. He is assigned many tasks, being the commander of the heavenly legions and a divine messenger who protects the faithful from evil attacks. He is best known, however, as a slayer or subduer of the dragon. In this capacity he has become a great patron in both the East and the West under his other name of St George. Note the slain dragon at his feet in the sculpture shown above. In 1067, the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel gave its support to duke William of Normandy in his claim to the throne of England. It was rewarded with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island off the southwestern coast of Cornwall which was modeled after the Mount and became a Norman priory named St Michael's Mount of Penzance.

Mont Saint Michel Walls. Normandy, France

Mont Saint Michel Walls. Normandy, France

As you get closer you see the fortified walls.

English Cannon Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

English Cannon Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

During the Hundred Years' War the English tried three times unsuccessfully to capture the Mont, this is one of the cannons they left behind in 1454. The fortified abbey withstood these assaults; it was the only place in western and northern France not to fall into English hands.

Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Mont Saint Michel Gate. Normandy, France

Mont Saint Michel Gate. Normandy, France

As you enter, you see the famous La Mère Poulard restaurant; supposedly the omelette was invented here.

Mont Saint Michel Town. Normandy, France

Mont Saint Michel Town. Normandy, France

The streets are narrow and packed with shops, sloping sharply upward.

Eglise Saint-Pierre, Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Eglise Saint-Pierre, Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Eglise Saint-Pierre is a small chapel at the bottom of the hill with services at 11 AM on all days but Monday and services at 11:30 and midnight on Thursday. The English attempts to take the Mont were watched closely by Joan d'Arc and she is represented outside the chapel.

Mont Saint Michel Garden. Normandy, France

Mont Saint Michel Garden. Normandy, France

Surprisingly lots of trees and flowers.

Grand Degré, Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Grand Degré, Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Finally you get to the real climb upwards. The church suffered significant fire damage in 922. A monastery was started in 1017, with stones hauled at low tide from the mainland in Brittany. The abbey was designed by an Italian architect named William de Volpiano daringly placing the transept crossing at the top of the mount. Crypts and chapels were added underground to give the architect a platform on which the abbey could be built. This was difficult because of the conical shape of the island. Nevertheless, Volpiano persevered and erected quite an impressive structure. The trek to the church is not for the faint of heart. It is quite a workout to get up the many stairs to the abbey. The first spurt of grand construction commenced in 1020, with Abbot Hildebert's ambitious works. Instead of removing rock to make a level base for the church, Hildebert added a masonry foundation to make a level base, and built from there. By 1058, the church was well-enough established to host William and Harold of Normandy. That construction was completed in 1135, but in the meantime Abbot Roger II planned and built a trilevel gallery/cloister/dormatory as well. The Grand Degré, the steep, narrow staircase seen above, leads to the abbey entrance, from which a wider flight of stone steps climbs to the Saut Gautier Terrace (named after a prisoner who jumped to his death from here) outside the sober, dignified church.

Mont Saint Michel Abby Entrance. Normandy, France

Mont Saint Michel Abby Entrance. Normandy, France

During the 12th century the abbey was reinforced and a facade was added by Robert de Thorigny. In the 13th century, a donation by the king of France, Philip Augustus, in the wake of his conquest of Normandy, enabled a start to be made on the Gothic section of the “Merveille”, two three-story buildings, crowned by the cloister and the refectory. The Merveille contains a number of great halls, kitchens, cloisters, and a dormitory. Work was completed around 1230.

Les Fraternités Monastiques de Jerusalem, Mont Saint Michel Abby Entrance. Normandy, France

Les Fraternités Monastiques de Jerusalem, Mont Saint Michel Abby Entrance. Normandy, France

With the celebration of the monastic's 1000th anniversary, in 1966 a religious community moved back to what used to be the religious dwellings, perpuating prayer and welcoming the original vocation of this place. Friars and sisters from “Les Fraternités Monastiques de Jerusalem” have been ensuring a spiritual presence since the year 2001.

Merveille, Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Merveille, Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Abbot's Passage, Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Abbot's Passage, Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Even more stairs up to the grand terrace. The little bridge connects the abbots living quarters to the Merveille.
Saut Gautier Terrace, Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Saut Gautier Terrace, Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Unfortunately, Hildebert's original masonry was not adequate for supporting the weight of the granite his successors placed upon it. In 1300, one of de Torigny's towers collapsed, followed in 1421 by the collapse of Hildebert's nave. In 1420 the structures were reinforced again and the original choir collapsed. In 1618 the de Toringy facade started to collapse, and had to be pulled down a mere century and a half later. In 1622 a terrace replaced three nave bays and a facade that had been destroyed.

Remnants of Prior Construction, Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Remnants of Prior Construction, Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

When you look over the side of the terrace, you can still see the remnants of prior construction. A half formed arch, floors at different levels and doors to nowhere.

Saut Gautier Terrace, Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Saut Gautier Terrace, Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

The view is pretty amazing. Sheep have been reared in the Mont-St-Michel Bay since the 11th century. One of the specialty foods in Normandy is Agneau de Pré-salé or Salt Marsh Lamb. Agneau de pré-salé is lamb that graze on salt marshes and the meat from the lamb has a unique flavour and tenderness. Le grévin, grazed on the salt marshes surrounding the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel is perhaps the most famous of the four pré-salé lamb varieties or brands. The others are L’estran from the bay of Somme et d’Authie, the Agneau des herbus from d’Ille et Villaine and the Agneau des Havres du Cotentin from Havres du Cotentin. The total production is a little more than 10,000 lambs a year.

Chapel of Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Chapel of Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

This is the church on the terrace. Because the rest of it collapsed, it has a single nave.

Chapel Interior of Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Chapel Interior of Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

It is a small church but mass is held daily. Mass is celebrated every day except Monday at 12.15, on sunday at 11.30 ; no entrance fee. You have to be at the entrance of the abbey at 12.00 and on sunday at 11.15.

Chapel Interior of Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Chapel Interior of Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Because the church is heavy and the first one collapsed, the ceiling is a wooden barrel vault.

Nave of Chapel of Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Nave of Chapel of Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

The apse is small but nice with colorful tiles and columns.

Side Isle of Chapel of Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Side Isle of Chapel of Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

There are aisles on each side of the nave.

Spire of Chapel of Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

Spire of Chapel of Mont Saint Michel. Normandy, France

They have evening services here, sometimes with a gregorian choir. I stayed the night several years ago and the experience was unforgettable. It is a good vantage point to view the spire although the statue is facing away.

 

References:

Legends and Romances of Brittany, Louis Spence 1917: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/lrb/index.htm

Celtic Saints: http://www.houseofnames.com/wiki/celtic-saints

 

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