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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Mont Saint Michel

Mont St. Michel at dawn. The causeway is at right.                
Copyright, Jim Lane
The steps...just when you think you're
nearing the top, you round a corner and
discover you're not even close.
It's always a joy when I'm able to combine art, architecture, history, and travel into a single discourse. I dearly love all these things. Our recent trip to France daily included most, if not all, of these elements. We were in Paris for a full week and by far the most exhausting day was the excursion to Mont St. Michel--some three hours by bus from the city to the Normandy coast. In fact, it took all morning to get there. We arrived just before lunch at a lovely, modern restaurant with a glorious wrap-around view of the historic island/peninsula (depending upon the tides). It's one of the most iconic sites in all of France. However rising at six in the morning and getting there marked only the beginning of the trials and tribulations (my bladder ain't what it used to be). Then there were the steps...OMG the steps...up...up...up...a stairway to heaven (or hell, depending on how close you were to the top).

Copyright, Jim Lane
Mont Saint Michel--the village and the monastery--now a museum.
Mont St. Michel, located on the border
between Normandy and Brittany.
Mont St. Michel could best be
termed as compact.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Part fortress, part church, Mont St.
Michel is nothing if not inspiring.
Mont St. Michel is old. Its first occupants were defenders of a fortress dating back to the 8th-century. Even for a country like France, that's pretty old. Its surrounding mud flats making it accessible by land at low tide, yet highly defensible during high tide. Many a medieval knight in shining armor has met his death mired in the quicksand that still endangers those traversing the tidal lowlands without an experienced guide. Today, a modern bridge and causeway reduces the access problem except for the occasional "super tide" which beset the island earlier this year.

La Grande Rue
The Romanesque façade of the
the abbey church today.
Once inside the "city" walls, the trek to the top begins with a narrow street lined with shops, bars, and restaurants, which the French insist upon calling "Grande." At best, it's little more than twenty feet wide, sloping upwards, eventually evolving into a seemingly endless ordeal of steps. Why would anyone consider building a church atop such a torturous incline? Well, according to legend, the whole idea was that of the Archangel Michael who "suggested" to St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches, in a dream that he build a church atop the rocky crag. Now, the bishop was a sensible man, gifted with the wisdom to ignore such nocturnal urging even after repeated requests. That is, until St. Michael, losing patience and touched the prelates forehead, burning a hole. Thus, if legend is to be believed, the man who began building the church dedicated to St. Michael around 708 AD...had a hole in his head.

Mont St. Michel--first a fortress, then a monastery, later a prison,
now a museum, tourist attraction, and souvenir mart.
Mont St. Michel's "new" Gothic apse.
You might say the whole undertaking went uphill from that point on. Even though the part-time island was still primarily a military outpost, by the 11th-century, the mountaintop boasted a modest abbey church designed by the Italian architect, William de Volpiano, in a sturdy, Romanesque style. The English laid siege to the French fortress as late as 1423-24 resulting in a fire which burned most of the village and the roof of the church. When the church was rebuilt, the front façade was moved back some twenty feet making for a larger frontal plaza. But by that time, Romanesque was "out," Gothic was "in". The apse was recreated in a light, soaring, Gothic style while the nave and transept retained the original style and construction. The site's days as a monastery began in 1469 when France's Louis XI authorized the Order of St. Michael. Much like the tourists of today, pilgrims flocked to the church to worship, gaze down from its impressive ramparts, and marvel at what God and/or St. Michael had wrought. However, the Reformation movement, which swept Europe in the 17th-century, largely put an end to pilgrimages. By the late 1700s, there were barely more than a handful of monks still in residence.

Looking down from its impressive heights, it's not hard to see why
Mont St. Michel was such a formidable fortress.
A massive wheel allowing
loads to be lifted to the top.
With the onslaught of the French Revolution, the abbey was closed, the island turned into a prison, first for ecclesiastic opponents of the new government, but later to house political prisoners as well. The prison was closed in 1863 as high profile literary and architectural figures began to realize that this national treasure was better suited as a tourist mecca than a house of incarceration. It was designated by the French government as a historic monument in 1874 and some hundred years later, a UNESCO list of World Heritage Site. Though Mont St. Michel is now largely devoid of ecclesiastical furnishings as well as prison items, a few remnants remain. Among them is a massive "squirrel cage" type wooden wheel (right) in which two prisoners were assigned the chore of walking the "round and narrow" path which powered a primitive hoist used in lifting heavy items from the bottom of the mountain to the top. The place could use something similar today to power a passenger elevator. From its centuries as a church, there remains little of a decorative nature, except for probably the ugliest pieta I've ever seen (bottom, right). Worst of all, the head of Christ has long ago been broken off and lost. Except for some wooden pews in the church, there is now, even fewer creature comforts than those enjoyed by the monks or the prisoners of state marking the island's distant past. Hint--don't expect to find restrooms at the top.

The church's garden cloister with its encircling arcade is a pleasant surprise.

The pitiful Pieta.


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