Scattered throughout France are the ruins and remains of hundreds, if not thousands, of medieval abbeys and monasteries. From 529, when the first great monastic order was established by St. Benedict, until the French Revolution, these often remote shrines to a simple, prayerful life thrived as refuges for those who rejected the trappings of everyday secular life. Only traces remain of some (many were destroyed during and shortly after the French Revolution), while others have survived the centuries intact in varying degrees. Many have been restored and today serve as museums. Some of the most famous ones, such as Mont Saint Michel, Cluny, Vézelay and Fontenay are visited by thousands of people each year. A few are still home to monks and sisters that follow doctrines set down almost two thousand years ago.
Various orders developed over the centuries as disagreements grew about the best way to live a life devoted to god. Benedictine, Cistercian, Fontevraud and Chalaisian are just some of the different names you will hear associated with the various abbeys in France. Most of the abbeys were self-sufficient, supporting themselves by producing wine, oil, ale, wool and other products. Manual labor was seen as a way to commune with the lord.
Located in the heart of Var department of southern France, Le Thoronet Abbey is one of the best remaining examples of the Cistercian order in France. A shining example of Romanesque architecture it was built near the end of the 12th century. This remarkable collection of buildings has seen growth, prosperity, decline and deterioration over the last 800 years. It was almost lost altogether to the ravages of time, doomed to disappear completely, were it not for the efforts of Prosper Mérimée, a French writer and one of the first men to inspect and catalog historic monuments in France during the early 1800s.
Today Le Thoronet is a very popular destination for those wishing to travel back in time and see what the life of a monk was like hundreds of years ago. Beautifully restored, its clean, simple, stark architecture is an outstanding example of the harmony and purity the Cistercian monks sought not only in their spiritual life but their physical surroundings. In fact, it has been a source of inspiration for many modern architects including the famous Le Corbusier and Fernand Pouillon. Pouillon wrote a very famous (and influential) book about Le Thoronet called Les Pierres Sauvages (The Stones of the Abbey).
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Located in Saint-Nicolas-lès-Cîteaux (just south of Lyon in Burgundy), the Cîteaux Abbey was founded by a group of monks from the nearby Molesme Abbey in 1098. The Molesme Abbey was a well-known Benedictine monastery founded in 1075 by Saint Robert of Molesme. Robert left the abbey when dissatisfaction over the loss of adherence to the strict Benedictine order resulted in an uprising among some of the monks. Together with a small handful of dedicated believers Robert established the new Cîteaux Abbey in 1098. It was originally intended to be a Benedictine monastery but instead became the first in what came to be known as the Cistercian Order. Here the monks followed a stricter observance of the Rule of St. Benedict, written in the 6th century.
Benedictine rule required the monks to devote an equal amount of time to manual labor as they did to prayer and meditation. They strove to live a life centered around humility, obedience and poverty. Their relations with the outside world was limited to the bare minimum and they strove to create a completely self-sustaining existence. Simplicity was a guiding light throughout the order and it is reflected in everything from the simple cowls they wore to the straightforward and uncomplicated buildings they constructed. By eliminating the distraction of details the monks felt they could focus more clearly on their relationship with God.
Four “daughter” abbeys sprung from Cîteaux: La Ferté in Saône-et-Loire, Pontigny in Yonne, Clairvaux in Aube and Morimond in Haute-Marne. In 1114 the Charter of Charity was created to codify the various institutions and to insure that they all followed the same religious principles. An annual meeting was established in Cîteaux where all the various abbots would meet and discuss the future of the order.
More than seventy other abbeys were already scattered around the country at the time when the first Cistercian abbey, Notre-Dame de Florièges, was established in Provence, on April 14, 1136. In 1154 there were 280 Cistercian monasteries and by the end of the 12th century over 500.
The Early History of the Abbey: From the 12th to the 15th Century
Two local aristocratic families, the House of Castellane and the House of Baux, played an important role in the founding of the Abbey, providing the monks with money and goods. In 1147 a deed was ratified by the count of Provence, Raymond Bérenger II, for land on which to build. The initial abbey was established in the commune of Tourtour, close to the Florièges river, hence the name Notre-Dame de Florièges. About a dozen monks from the Mazan Abbey in the Ardèche department traveled to the Var with the intention to found this new abbey.
After only a few short years at Florièges the decision was made to move the abbey to the current location at Le Thoronet. Nothing remains today of the original abbey at Florièges though a chapel built sometime after the 12th century still stands. The new site at Le Thoronet lies about 25 kilometers south of Florièges in the Massif des Maures mountain range. It is believed that the land for the new abbey was donated by The Châteaurenard family around 1147 and within ten years the monks had moved into their new home. Though the new site was far from large population centers (as required under Cistercian rule) it provided several springs and nearby rivers in addition to much richer soil.
Over the next few decades donations of money and gifts continued to support the monks and more land was bequeathed to them. They supported themselves mostly through agriculture and livestock work. Surplus quantities were sold at the nearby markets. While the abbey was never particularly affluent, it was able to maintain work on the development of the main buildings between 1150 and 1250 on a continuous basis which resulted in an architectural consistency that is somewhat rare in other abbeys from the same time period.
It is believed that the monks, along with lay brothers and even external workers were responsible for not only the design but the construction of the abbey. A wide range of types of stone was used over the years in the construction of various buildings. Some of the necessary stone was sourced from nearby quarries and some came directly from the immediate site. There are various shades of white, pink, grey, red and more that give the buildings a variety of wonderful hues, especially when seen at different times of the day in various degrees of light. Lime from a local manufacturer was used for the mortar to bind the stones together.
Late in the 13th century donations to the abbey began to dwindle. The monastery was in decline with no more than twenty-five monks in residence. In 1328 the abbot even accused his own monks of trying to rob the local villagers. In 1348 the great plague struck the area and everything came to a standstill. For many years afterwards looters, thieves and bandits roamed the French countryside fostering fear and insecurity among the population. Much of the population sought shelter in fortified villages and towns. As with many other similar small monasteries at the time Le Thoronet fell into decay and ruin.
Turmoil and Decay: From the 15th to the 18th Century
Early in the 15th century a proposal was made to incorporate Le Thoronet into the diocese of Fréjus. While this idea was ultimately rejected a new system was incorporated that would eventually lead to the downfall of abbeys all across France. An abbot was appointed by the king or pope (usually as a political or financial reward of some kind) to oversee the abbey. This “abbot” was not a monk, was not elected by the monks and generally had no real connection with the Cistercian community. He usually lived outside the abbey and basically just collected the revenues, giving only a small portion back to the monks. Obviously this did not sit well with the monks and resulted in many conflicts. The first such abbot at Le Thoronet was the Bishop of Ross (he lived in Scotland!), appointed in 1430.
Between 1562 and 1600 the Wars of Religion raged throughout France. All over the country Catholics and Protestants fought from one village to another. Fearing for the archives of the abbey, which contained the deeds of ownership among other priceless documents, the abbot of Le Thoronet moved the archives to the nearby Château de Carcés for safekeeping. In late 1595 or early 1596 soldiers under the command of the Duke of Épernon, a former governor of Provence, ransacked the abbey. Some of the buildings suffered serious damage and were left in ruins. Today there is no trace of them.
The first half of the 17th century saw a period of prolonged conflict at the abbey. A young abbot, Honoré Chieusse, remained in charge for over forty years. Repeated claims were brought against him by the monks in courts of law and in the internal organization of the Cisterdian order stating that he failed to provide adequate funding and maintenance for the monks and abbey. Almost all the claims were found to be credible and justified. Each time Chieusse would promise to make amends and each time he failed to do so. There were only four monks and four servants left at the abbey when Chieusse died in 1650.
In the following years the abbey enjoyed a comfortable, if not prosperous, existence. During the 17th century the abbot decided that the order’s rules were too strict. Slowly but steadily decorative features such as statues, fountains and ornamental trees were added to the property. Le Thoronet also saw sizable adjustments made to the lifestyle of the monks. Meat, which had once been banned, was now eaten regularly at meals. Each monk was given a private bedroom. In fact, the villagers and farmers who lived near them, many of whom leased land from the abbey, began to grow resentful of the monks. This perception of affluence would lead to the eventual downfall of the abbey during the French Revolution.
In the late 17th century Balthazar de Phélipeaux d’Herbaut became the abbot of Le Thoronet. Unlike the previous abbots he reinvested all of the income the abbey generated back into it. During his forty years of leadership he oversaw the restorations of many buildings, added a large garden area to the property and had a bell cast for the church. Nonetheless by the late 18th century the abbey had fallen into a debt that could not be resolved. In 1785, following the death of the last abbot, the abbey was “deconsecrated” and became part of the property of the Bishop of Digne. In 1789 the farmers who leased land from the abbey were recognized as landowners. In 1790 all the church property was nationalized and the last seven monks left the estate.
Modern Times: From the French Revolution to the Present
Part of the abbey was sold to a local merchant, Pierre Féraud, in May of 1791. The abbey church remained under state control, but most of the other buildings became privately owned. There was a proposal in 1810 to turn the property in an orphanage but it never materialized. In 1838 the abbey was registered in a list of national buildings that were eligible for state funds to help with restoration and repair. Work was done on the church roof and steeple.
In 1854 the state started a long process of repurchasing the various parcels of Le Thoronet. The cloister, dormitory and chapter hall were the first sections to return under government supervision. Still, it wasn’t until the late 1870s that real restoration work began. Under the supervision of the renowned architect and art historian Henri Révoil this work continued until 1891. More work was done between 1907 and the late 1930s. Things came to a halt though when World War II tore through France and Europe.
The 1950s and 1960s saw additional work done on the abbey. Major damage was done to several structures during this time due to landslides and heavy rains which produced subterranean movements. During the late 1980s a drainage tunnel was dug to divert water away from the buildings. The visitor reception area with a ticket office and gift shop was added in the 1990s. Today Le Thoronet is open to the public and often hosts many artistic and cultural events such as concerts, seminars, exhibitions and talks. The first time I visited the abbey an exhibition titled Anima Mundi by Anne and Patrick Poirier was featured throughout the site.
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A Walking Tour Around the Abbey
Le Thoronet sits beside a small stream surrounded by a thick forest of oak and aleppo pines. From the main road there’s a short stone paved walk which leads to a small bridge and a medieval stone gatehouse. Once inside the gatehouse you’ll pass through the gift shop where you can purchase tickets. As you step into the first courtyard you’ll see various structures scattered around you in all directions. There are at least two dozen points of interest on the grounds, from a 17th century fountain to the cemetery and the outbuildings. I’m only going to touch on the most significant and popular ones as it would require an entire book to cover everything. The abbey church is far and away the most impressive building so we’ll begin our tour there. You should have no problem finding it, it’s straight ahead.
The Abbey Church
One of the first things you’ll notice about the church is how simple and uncomplicated it is. From the outside the walls look plain and stark. There are no carved decorations, no buttresses, no cornices, none of the ornamental touches that are so much a part of most churches in Europe. Unlike most of the churches you’ll find in France there is no large, welcoming central entrance. This church was not open to the public, it was used only by the monks and as such it was built to reflect their needs and beliefs. On the western facade there are two small side doors, each of which leads into one of the side-aisles in the church. The left door was used by the lay brothers and the right door by the monks. Along the south wall you’ll see a recessed repository that was used to hold the bodies of the dead before burial, one of the very few of its kind to be found in Provence.
As you step inside the church you’ll see that the barrel-vaulted nave has three bays which lead to a choir with a semi-domed nave and a small, simple altar. Three arched windows symbolize the holy trinity: the father, the son and the holy spirit. The space feels much larger inside than it appears from the outside. The absence of elaborate ornamental decorations, altars, paintings, statues, wooden stalls and other embellishments we are so used to seeing inside churches gives the interior of the church a vast, imposing, monumental atmosphere that is really quite awe-inspiring. The purity and elegance of the simple construction creates a glorious sense of wonder and reverence. Sometimes less really is more. If it feels “empty” to you, you are looking at it the wrong way.
Every aspect of the church was designed with function in mind. Each activity that took place inside the walls was meant to exist in harmony with the architecture. It was built for the sole purpose of providing the monks a place to meditate, pray, chant and sing, activities which they were engaged in during a large portion of their waking hours. They worshipped together in seven daily ceremonies and also used the church for periods of private prayer and reflection. Statues, paintings and other decorations were seen as unnecessary adornments that could easily distract the monks from their spiritual pursuits. A few stained glass windows were recreated in the 1930s, based on examples of 12th century Cistercian stained glass found in other monasteries.
It is believed that the church is the work of one single “master builder,” though nothing is known about him. It’s possible that a Cistercian monk skilled in architecture and building could have designed and overseen the construction. It’s also possible that a laymen was responsible for the design, working from a specific set of instructions provided by the monks. No records exist that might give us more insight into the origins of this magnificent structure.
I like to look at this church and think about how the austerity and simplicity to which the monks dedicated their life is reflected in the architecture. The clean stones, the grand pillars, the beautiful curves and arches, the purity of the lines, the small windows which allow limited sunshine to filter through the space creating a remarkable relationship between shadows and light. Everything becomes part of one large artistic and spiritual experience.
From the side of the church you can follow a short set of stairs up to the dormitory. Early in the 1900s heavy rain caused the vaults to collapse and it was partially rebuilt. In medieval times the dormitory was much larger than what we see today, in fact it most likely extended down to the nearby stream. Today it features floor tiles which are similar to the geometrical designs from the Cistercian abbeys in Burgundy. In the center of the room is a “dogleg” staircase which leads down to the cloister. This was restored in the 1930s.
As you enter the dormitory you’ll find a small room that once served as the private bedroom for the Abbot.
Often considered the “heart” of any monastery, the cloister at Le Thoronet connects the church to the rest of the grounds. It was most likely often filled with monks moving from one building to another. A covered walkway (the galleries) surrounds a completely enclosed garden area. Two openings in the walkway provide access to the garden and the patch of sky which seems to open into the heavens.
As with the church the architecture here is very straightforward, clean and simple. Each of the four “galleries” features a slightly tapered barrel vault ceiling and twin arches with an oculus above and between them line the interior walls. These oculi allow a bit of extra light into the galleries and add a simple design into the otherwise modest arches. The alternating design of pillars and columns with the arched openings between them is a beautiful example of the stark architecture the Cistercians were known for. In two of the galleries, the northern and the western, the capitals are adorned with small curled leaves which form hooks of a sort. In the other two galleries the capitals are mostly just simple rectangular slabs.
What’s interesting about the cloister at Le Thoronet is that it is not built on level ground due to the sloping gradient of the land. This requires some stairs at the end of the galleries to get from one to another.
Each of the galleries was designed for a specific purpose and need. The eastern gallery was devoted to intellectual life and includes the library, the chapter hall, the parlour and the scriptorium. Activities relating to the human body were found in the gallery farthest from the church: kitchens, latrines, the lavabo and the refectory (dining hall). The southern gallery was an area commonly used for reading, either with a group of other monks or alone and features stone benches (which were restored in 1920s and 1930s) for the monks to sit on while reading.
This small hexagonal building located in one corner of the garden contains a fountain which supplied the monks with their everyday water. This particular fountain, with its large accompanying structure, is actually quite rare among Cistercian abbeys. Normally the fountains were not given such attention and embellishment.
The fountain we see today is actually a reconstruction done in the 1930s. Sometime in the 19th century a fragment of the upper basin of the fountain was discovered, the only remaining trace of the original fountain. The Cistercian monks were well known for their ability to create water systems throughout the abbeys, moving the water from the springs through watertight pipelines into the various buildings.
The Chapter Hall
Every morning the monks would gather in the chapter hall to read from the Rule of Saint Benedict and to discuss various aspects of their communal life. Here they also settled any disputes that might arise among the monks, offered public confessions and received their instructions for the day. Adorned with central columns and six low ribbed vaults the chapter hall provides a sense of closeness and intimacy that is unique in the abbey. It is also the most elegant room featuring capitals adorned with water leaves and carved ornaments. Ears of corn, pine cones, hearts, flowers, a cross and a hand holding a crosier are just a few of the other carved embellishments found in this room.
A relatively new addition to the abbey, the fountain found in the courtyard near the church was built at the end of the 18the century. It originally sat at the end of a small avenue of chestnut trees, which unfortunately, have since disappeared. Two springs located near the abbey supplied the entire population with drinking and irrigation water.
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More Buildings and Structures
The cellar is where the monks made wine and olive oil. Featuring a large pointed barrel-vaulted ceiling this room now holds a large screw type oil press.
The buttery, a large room used to store food and drink, features an unusual trapezoidal layout.
The lay brothers building once consisted of a dormitory and a refectory, and is now only partially restored.
The parlour was a small passageway that led from the cloister to the outer garden. This was the only place in the entire abbey where the monks were permitted to talk.
The library was a small room located along one of the galleries of the cloister.
The armarium, a room where the monks stored manuscripts and the scriptorium, a separate room where the monks worked copying manuscripts by hand. Both rooms are located adjacent to one of the galleries of the cloister.
A large water basin, added in the 18th century, is located in front of the church’s main façade.
The tithe barn was used to store tithes from the neighboring population, usually paid in grain or cereal.
Lost now is the refectory (the dining hall) which is thought to have been quite large. A lack of maintenance and landslides led to the steady deterioration and eventual complete destruction of this important part of the abbey. Some remaining arches and walled in doors are all that remain.
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The Three Sisters of Provence
Le Thoronet is actually one of three Cistercian abbeys in Provence. Sénaque Abbey, near the village of Gordes, and Silvacane, near the village of La Roque-d’Anthéron, are also worth a visit if you are in the area. I’m the kind of person who likes to complete “lists,” so when I found out that there were two more abbeys related to Le Thoronet I, of course, had to visit them both to complete the trilogy.
Silvacane Abbey is about 90 minutes northwest of Le Thoronet near Aix-en-Provence. It’s very similar in design to Le Thoronet yet still quite interesting in its own way.
Sénaque Abbey is another hour northwest of Silvacane. It is the only one of the three where monks still reside. It’s also quite popular for its fields of lavender that are planted on one side of the abbey making it very photogenic in the early summer months when the lavender is in bloom.
Le Thoronet is located in the Var department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of southeast France. It can be found just north of the A8 highway that runs from east to west along the French Riviera. If you are coming from Nice (or somewhere else in the east) exit at Le Cannet-des-Maures and follow the A57 to the D17 and then the D79. The road is well marked and you should have no trouble finding the abbey.
If you’re coming from the Aix-en-Provence (or somewhere else in the west) take exit 35 from the A8 and then follow the D79 to the abbey.
There’s a large, free parking area next to Le Thoronet. The admission price is 8€ for a single ticket. Children under 18 are free, as are 18-25 European nationals, disabled persons and the unemployed.