March 2017 Print

Mont Saint-Michel

by Dr. Marie-France Hilgar

Since the mists of time, this rock has always been sacred. It was a place of Celtic worship. In the 6th century, Christian hermits built two sanctuaries dedicated respectively to St. Symphorien and St. Etienne. The donkey that brought them food was devoured by a wolf. Heavenly wrath exploded and the wolf was made to take the place of the donkey in the hermits’ service.

In 708, the bishop of Avranches was visited by St. Michael the Archangel, who ordered him to erect and consecrate a sanctuary to him. The bishop somehow thought it was the devil who had spoken to him. The Archangel appeared again with no more success. At his third appearance, St. Michael put his holy finger on the bishop’s head and poked a hole in it through which one could see the brains. Now the bishop was convinced. He was to edify the sanctuary where a bull which had been stolen and tied up would be discovered. The oratory should be as large as the area that had been trampled by the bull. But a huge stone, probably a dolmen, was standing at the very spot and no one could move it. The 12th son of a worker managed, with his foot, to knock it down. Then the sanctuary could be built. Based on a round plan it can accommodate 100 people. It was consecrated on the October 6, 709. It is Our-Lady-Underground, the Pre-Romanesque church of the 10th century. It was to be merged into the foundations of the abbey church of which it was to support the nave in the 11th century. Our-Lady-Underground has two naves whose choirs are topped with galleries. The two altars were respectively dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and to the Holy Trinity.

The Mont became Norman in 911. In 966, Richard I, Duke of Normandy, accused the canons of numerous sins and threw them out. Twelve Benedictine monks settled then on the Mont. Over the centuries, the abbey was richly endowed by the dukes of Normandy, not to mention by lords worried about the salvation of their souls, by the gifts of the faithful, and finally by the kings of France. During the Hundred Years’ War, all the west of France was occupied by the English except Mont-Saint-Michel. It soon became the symbol of resistance to the English. The king of England desperately wanted to capture the Archangel Sanctuary. The siege lasted over 19 years but the besieged beat off all the assaults and even launched attacks. The heroic resistance of the inhabitants of the Mont reinvigorated supporters of the king of France.

Work on the abbey church stated in 1023 and lasted up to 1080. It was built on the originally cone-shaped rock. Since it is 80 meters high, the church was to be 80 meters long. The first difficulty to overcome was to cope with the narrowness of the top by creating a huge artificial platform. The church has the shape of the Latin cross. The middle part, crossing of the transept, lies on the very top of the rock, which has been slightly levelled. Crypts were built on east, south and north slopes so that they supported the choir and both of the arms of the transept. The fourth crypt existed already: it is the pre-Romanesque church. It was strengthened and now supports the nave, which was originally longer. The nave is typical of Norman naves with its three levels: tall arcades, galleries, and high windows above. It is topped with a beam roof; the use of wood, lighter than stone, allowed the building of tall and very opened walls. Side aisles were covered with groined vaults. The north wall collapsed in 1103. It was rebuilt at a later date. The relieving arches surmounting the high windows of the south wall had been left derelict, and the packing of the first level of the arches with stuffed mortar was replaced by bonded stone. The nave no longer includes seven bays as original but four, which are marked off by the engaged half columns. In 1776, fire damaged the first three bays which were near collapse. Maurists, monks of the Mont at that time, decided in 1780 to pull them down and have the present neoclassical façade with its Romanesque capitals built. The three former bays are now marked by some small rises in the ground. The Romanesque nave was preceded by a narthex. It was modified in the 12th century and set off with two towers. The whole crossing was rebuilt in the 19th century. The north part of the transept had been shortened in the 13th century during the erection of cloisters, but the south arm of the transept remained untouched. In 1421, in the middle of the Hundred Year War, the Romanesque choir collapsed. Raised up to five meters higher than the church entrance, it included an ambulatory. The construction of the present choir took some hundred years to complete. On the outside, very graceful flying buttresses support the new choir with fine colonnettes upon the piles of the choir which spring 25 meters high up to the high windows without anything to interrupt their ascent.

One of the first places of pilgrimage for Western Christendom after Jerusalem, Rome, and Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, Mont-Saint-Michel welcomed more and more pilgrims without succeeding in rivaling with Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle. Whatever the motivation of these men, women, and even children—a spiritual quest, a deep devotion, an offering of thanks, a penance, or a serious offence to expiate— all of them had to face a hazardous crossing full of dangers. “Mont-Saint-Michel in Peril of the Sea” was a justified name. In 1318, in a single day, 13 pilgrims were suffocated to death in the crowd, 18 drowned, and another 12 disappeared in quicksand. A proverb says that little beggars go to Mont-Saint-Michel while the big ones go to Saint-Jacques. The kings of France, up to Charles IX, came and paid homage to the sanctuary of the Archangel. Some of them, like St. Louis, Louis XI, and François I, came several times.

A Period of Decline and Restoration

A commendam in 1516 led to the decline of the abbey. The abbot was appointed by the king and no longer needed to live on the Mont. Monks were left to themselves and morals loosened. It is only in 1622, when the monks from Saint-Maur settled on the Mont that the abbey restored spiritual and intellectual activities. Louis XI converted a part of the abbey into a prison equipped with an iron cage. In the 17th century, the Mont became known as the Bastille of the Sea. During the Revolution in 1793, three hundred priests who refused to take an oath to the civil constitution were sent to prison there. In 1811, the abbey was turned into a jail, then in 1817 into a prison and reformatory for men and women sentenced to hard labor or deportation. The buildings were arranged into weaving work rooms or hat and shoe factories: the abbey was mutilated. From 1793 to 1863, 14,000 prisoners stayed at the Mont. The prison was eventually closed in 1874 by Napoleon III despite the petitions sent out by the inhabitants, who feared they might lose a valuable source of income. The beginning of tourism gave a new boost to the village economy. In their own way, people of Mont Saint-Michel perpetuate a millennium tradition in trade and the hotel business.

The Mont is not just two churches but a huge composition of many structures, and is considered to have three levels of buildings, all with architectural wonders. The lower floor includes the Cellar, where supplies were preserved. Its groined vaulting comes down upon square pillars. The original plaster cast realized for the famous statue of the Archangel stands majestically in this room. The Almonry is divided into two naves and roofed with groined vaults. It is characterized by its plainness: capitals are bare. Humbler people were received in this room, probably dating from the 12th century. Also on the lower floor are the Guard room, Abbey dwelling, Dungeons, lodging of the bailiff, a Romanesque entrance, and the Aquilon’s room, which is the Romanesque almonry. On the intermediate floor, besides Our-Lady-Underground, are chapels to St. Marie-Madeleine and St. Etienne, more abbey dwellings, the Great Pillars crypt, St. Martin’s crypt, and the Promenoir. The Great Pillars crypt is made of huge pillars, nearly six meters round, which stand up as a forest of stones. Ambulatory and radiating chapels reproduce here the plan of the Flamboyant Gothic choir.

Emanating from St. Martin’s crypt is an atmosphere which pervades the pre-Romanesque church, Our-Lady-Underground. It supports the south arm of the church transept. It has a half-round apse with an oven vault. The cradle-vault strengthened by a transverse arch spans nine meters. The Promenoir, so-called in the 19th century, answered, in all likelihood, the purposes of refectory, chapter-house, or scriptorium. A row of median columns with monolith shafts parts it into two naves. All that remains in the thickness of the wall is the entrance for a passage. The intersected rib vaults, built after the north wall of the nave had collapsed, are among the very first ones built in Normandy. The Knights’ hall is divided into three naves by stout columns. Sunken moldings are very pronounced, the ornament of the round abacus capitals evokes plants and the profile of arches with very deep grooves. It was assigned to the copying out and illuminating of manuscripts. A heightened gallery is arranged in the south. It was formerly closed by a partition wall so that the guests could go back to the church while respecting the monastic enclosure. The Order of St. Michael Knights gave its name to the hall because it is said that the knights held their first meeting there. The Guests’ Hall, a state-room for distinguished guests, is divided into naves by a row of very thin columns. It was richly ornamented with tapestries, paintings and stained glass windows. The floor was paved with enameled tiling emblazoned with the arms of France and Castile: princely ostentation and architectural elegance were reserved for prominent guests. They could meditate in St. Madeleine’s chapel before their having their meal. Both of the monumental fire-places were used as kitchens.

The top floor with the Gothic church includes many chapels: to St. André, St. Scubillion, St. Pierre, St. Anne, St. Martin, St. Pair and St. Aubert, as well as the cloisters, refectory, kitchens, dormitory and infirmary. Building work ended with the construction of the cloisters in 1228. At the top floor of the west building, cloisters are suspended between sky and ground, like a closed space lending itself to meditation, and yet opening up to the sky. Their lightness is enhanced by the fineness of the collonnettes. Set out in a quincunx, their double row makes tripods and ensures an even and light distribution of loads upon the vaults of the lower floor. The frieze, arranged as a tapestry, consists in a multitude of flower and plant motifs and turns the north gallery into a real stone-lace. The openings, glazed by now, bear witness to a project for a third building on the west side which finally was dropped. As far as the refectory is concerned, the eye is at once amazed by the space and luminousness of this room, like a huge vessel made up of only one nave. Side walls look plain. Actually they are pierced by a series of narrow windows which appear only when one walks down the room. Thus pierced with windows, walls still remain strong enough to hold the weight of the super structure. Monks used to eat their meals in silence, not only feeding their bodies but also their souls. “Recto tono” readings of holy texts were made from the lectern opened into the south wall, on the right (reminiscent of a retreat). The southwest corner led to the kitchen, which was removed by the time of the Maurists. A hoist was set into the stone work and used to bring food down to the almonry.

A Continuing Symbol of Christendom

All the way on the top, the statue of the Archangel has graced the spire since August 6, 1897. It is 4.50 meters tall and weighs 450 kilos. The chased-copper statue was restored once in 1987 and covered with gold-leaf. The points of the wings and the sword act as lightning-rods, which happens to be very useful in a place where lightning has started many fires over the centuries. It was lowered by a helicopter and carried up again in the same way. (The article in DICI 337, of June 17, 2016, showed that the statue has been restored for a second time.) Because the wings are full of sand, the gold painting of 1897 had practically disappeared, leaving a dull pale yellow. So the statue was taken down again, and for two months, four artisans, two of them gilders, worked to prepare it to face the whims of the weather for at least another 50 years; thicker gold was used. It cost the Center of National Monuments 450,000 euros. The title of the article in DICI announces: “Mont Saint-Michel Celebrates 1050 Years of Monastic Presence.” The author probably subtracts the years when there were no Catholic community there. However, according to our sources, in 1966 Benedictines were present on the Mont and since 2001, a community of monks and nuns of the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem offer full liturgical services. With two to three million visitors every year, Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most visited monuments in France. It is included in the Unesco’s list of World Heritage Sites.