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.
The cloister is my favorite part of the whole monastery. As with other abbeys the cloister’s function is above all a communications center inspired by the atrium of a Roman villa and providing access to all the essential rooms: to the east, the refectory and the kitchens which no longer exist; to the south, one door led to the church another to the dormitory; to the west, the three traditional apertures must have opened into the chapter hall that was never built and a small door led to the archives. Only the north gallery, in the direction of the sea was not meant to serve as a way of communication with other rooms. The principal functions of monastic life, except for work and reception, were thus distributed around the cloister.
The fact that the cloister sits on top of other halls means that the construction had to be different (and lighter) than the rest of the building, with a double row of petit columns and a wooden barrel vaulted roof, just as in the church.
Still, the arches have lovely floral carvings that draw the eye upwards. The columns were originally the same white limestone, but time and the elements required a change to granite in 1878 which changed the appearance somewhat. The unbroken continuity in the rhythm of the supports and the absence of the solid masonry at the corners permit the eye to move unhindered and at the same time assures an absolute transparency towards the center of the cloister.
The “faux” columns along the walls give a sense of symmetry to the portico and let us see what the original columns looked like.
The view from the open north side is beautiful but in a way remote, your attention is naturally drawn back to the much closer and immediate cloister. The columns are as tall as a man and are spaced a shoulder’s width apart. This difference in scale compared to the other rooms is all the more striking in view of the fact that truly imposing spaces must be crossed before arriving at the cloister. The impression of weightlessness aroused by the cloister as a whole is thus accentuated. It is as if the cloister is floating high above the world, a little like heaven, with a meditative, airy quality which never fails to take the visitor’s breath away. If I could imagine a piece of heaven on earth I think this is what it would look like.
The rectory is a very large room with a wooden barrel ceiling, very functional. The kitchen is long since gone, but it must have been in this room.
Even though the room is functional, you can still see graceful notes of decor in the delicate columns and recessed stained glass windows. Because every stone had to be hauled up here, the masonry is smaller and I love the variations in color between the individual pieces.
We went down some stairs (there are always more stairs) to the Salle des Hôtes, hall of guests. This was this lovely bas relief of St Michel putting a hole in the head of Bishop Aubert to convince him to build the church. The face of St Michel has been damaged.
The Salle des Hôts is a huge room with two enormous fireplaces, more than six feet tall, which you can see at the end of the room. Although the monks lived in austerity, their royal and noble guests were welcomed here in style. The Guests' Hall, located directly below the Refectory, was filled with color, from the light streaming through the stained glass windows to the banners that once hung in front of the grand double fireplaces where the food was prepared. The original floor was red and green tiles while the ceiling was painted blue with gold stars. This room is said to be the inspiration for Paris' Saint-Chapelle.
I love these ceilings, so symmetrical, forming an elegant spider web above your head.
There are small chapels between the great rooms, this is the Chapelle de Sainte Madeleine.
As we came outside briefly, we came upon this little Abbot's garden, probably used as a medicinal herb garden or officina. I love the seclusion and the little well. I might imagine the small house to the right was used as a storeroom for the herbs.
This is the crypt of giant pillars, aptly named. For some reason this made me think of Atlas, bearing the weight of the world on his back.
Even here they have the lovely ceilings with a little rose at the top of the arch. This crypt was rebuilt after the collapse in 1421, to support the Gothic chancel of the abbey church. You can see by the thickness of the pillars, about 15 feet around, that the monks were determined that it would never collapse again.
This is the crypt of St Martin, built after the year 1000 to serve as a foundation for the south arm of the transept of the abbey church. This crypt has a vault with an impressive nine-meter span and is part of the original Romanesque church.
After this, you go through a very narrow passage to the monk's ossuary (where they stored bones). Notice how thick the wall is.
Following the dissolution of the religious community during the Revolution, and until 1863 the abbey was used as a prison. This wheel was installed around 1820 in order to hoist provisions to the prisoners held in the abbey when it was turned into a prison. It is a replica of the pulleys used for hoisting building materials in the Middle Ages.
I think the idea was that people would get inside the wheel and walk, sort of like a rat on a similar wheel.
This would then drag the wooden sledge shown here up the wooden rails. It probably sounds more fun than it actually was. Classified as a historic monument in 1874, the Mont underwent major restoration work. Since then, work has gone on regularly all over the site as you can see above.
The small Etienne chapel just beyond the old ossuary was a small funerary chapel.
We then went up a passageway that looked like it was cut from solid stone. As we walked through the Abbey, I was continuously amazed at the engineering skill and massive amounts of work performed centuries ago.
These two isles surrounded by much older looking square pillars are the remains of the original crypt church, Notre-Dame-Sous-Terre. Abbot Mainard and the twelve Benedictines settled there in 966. The rectangular chapel with its massive stonework nearly two meters thick, was transformed into a crypt during the building of the Romanesque church. Nowadays, one can enter it through a long flight of stairs.
Forgotten for a long time and even obstructed, Notre-Dame-Sous-Terre is buried in the primeval heat of the earth. Even in the depth of winter, heat oozes up, warm and cozy. In the deepest part of this sanctuary, behind a small altar, one discovers the exposed rock of the initial Mont Tombe. Touching the stone is considered to confer healing properties, I touched it and it was warm.
The Salle de Chevaliers was built to hold up the cloister; this was the work and study room of the monks. Much of their intellectual work has come down to us; the abbey’s manuscripts are preserved at Avranches.
The visit to the Merveille ends at the Almonry on the first floor beneath the Guests’ Hall. This was the place where the monks received the poor as well as pilgrims from all walks of life. Today it is a very large gift shop. Just imagine carrying all that stuff up to the shop.
Outside, the beautiful garden that we saw on top was filled with people enjoying the day.
The gardens near the wall are full of beautiful plants, we sat down and enjoyed the view.
Official Site: http://www.ot-montsaintmichel.com/index.htm?lang=en