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No.18: Abbaye de Mont-Saint-Michel

issue 47 February / March 2009

Sharon Stammers continues her world tour exploring the best architecture that is built with light. This issue, Lee Prince of Light and Design Associates goes for a holiday love affair

The Abbey stands dramatically upon St Michaels Mount, originally a rocky tidal island located one kilometre off the coast of  Normandy. According to legend, Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, was commanded by Archangel Michael in a dream to create a shrine on the rock who then pierced a hole in his skull when he dithered over the decision.

Consequently, Aubert built and consecrated a small church on the Mount in 709 (well you would – wouldn’t you...). With the arrival of the St Michel cult, Mont-Saint-Michel became one of the major pilgrimage destinations in medieval Christendom. For over a thousand years, pilgrims traveled by roads called “paths to paradise” to visit the shrine of St Michel with many risking and losing their lives to cross the dangerous passage of water.

In 966, the shrine was entrusted to the care of the Benedictines who built an Abbey on the site. 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 located in Cornwall, which became a Norman Priory also named  St Michael’s Mount” St Michael’s Mount. In the 11th century, work was undertaken by William de Volpiano, the Italian architect who had built the  Abbey of Fécamp. He was chosen by  Richard II of Normandy to design the Romanesque church of the abbey and ambitiously placed the transept crossing at the top of the mount. A large number of underground crypts and chapels had to be built to compensate for this weight and formed the basis for the supportive upward structure that can be seen today.

In 1204, King Philippe Auguste took the Duchy of Normandy and Mont-Saint-Michel by force and fire damaged the building. To make amends, he repaired the destruction and constructed new buildings, creating the “bâtiment de la Merveille”, a building constructed north of the church that includes halls for the pilgrims and rooms strictly reserved to the monks.

During the Hundred Years War in the 14th Century, the English laid siege to and attacked the island many times, but were always unsucessful partly because of the Abbey’s improved fortifications. Mont-Saint-Michel held out against a siege lasting 30 years. In the 15th century, the Romanesque chancel of the Abbey church was replaced with a Gothic chancel. One hundred years later, the Abbey began to fall into disrepair due to the lack of maintenance work and the decline in popularity of the monastic life. By the end of the 18th Century only a dozen monks remained.

In 1793, the Abbey was turned into a prison for political offenders during the French Revolution. High profile protestors including Victor Hugo campaigned for the Abbey to be restored. An imperial decree of 1863 finally ended the sacriligious use of the site and in 1872, the restoration of the mount was entrusted to Edouard Corroyer, an architect of the Monuments Historiques.

In 1966 a religious community moved back into the Abbey and in 1979, UNESCO classed the Mont-Saint-Michel as a world heritage site. The Abbaye de Mont-Saint-Michel is currently visited by more than three million visitors a year.

Le Mont-Saint-Michel was previously connected to the mainland via a thin natural land bridge, which was covered at high tide and revealed at low tide. The flow of water has reduced over time and in 1879, an actual causeway was built. In 2006, plans were announced to build a €164 million hydraulic  dam that will help remove the accumulated silt and make Mont-Saint-Michel an island once more.


Abbaye de Mont-Saint-Michel Abbaye de Mont-Saint-Michel


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