Travelling through Burgundy? A highly recommended stop is the Abbey of Fontenay. Situated an hour’s drive to the east of Vézelay, this Cistercian monastery was founded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in 1118. It is one of the oldest and most complete Cistercian abbeys in Europe, and in 1981, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Almost every building of the original complex survives: the church, dormitory, chapter house caldarium, refectory, dovecote and forge– all of these structures are original.
St. Bernard broke away from the existing monasteries in France (Cluny, Citeaux) because he believed that were not sufficiently austere enough and did not reflect the original intent of the Rule of Saint Benedict. The Abbey of Fontenay was designed to evince Cistercian fundamental principles of simplicity, usefulness and self-sufficiency. It is surprising to see the beautiful results that these principles produced.
The Abbey’s church is classic Romanesque, featuring a symmetrical plan, with thick stone walls and massive cruciform piers sustaining high, large barrel vaults consisting of pointed arches. (Pointed arches were chosen because they would support a tall building for thousands of years. And they did!)
Neither the exterior nor interior of the church are decorated. St. Bernard of Clairvaux opposed art which would lead the eyes away from images of God to images of the world. Instead, he believed that only light itself should enliven the church. He also chose to site the windows according to numerical ratios corresponding to musical harmony. For example, the seven windows in the west of the interior were distributed according to a musical ratio.
The absence of decorative elements makes the church very attractive to the modern eye. The architecture itself becomes the star. Inside, the church is breathtaking — an immense space, airy, cool and dim, pierced by shafts of light filtered through geometric stained glass windows. Just as Bernard intended, thoughts turn ineluctably to the spiritual.
The other original buildings are laid out symmetrically and set among lush lawns and manicured flower, vegetable and herb gardens. The forge is particularly interesting. Cistercians believed that “work is prayer” and their abbeys became centers for technological progress in the Middle Ages, making significant advances in agriculture and in metallurgy. At Fontenay, the forge, water wheel and mill pond– along with the building that houses them– are as strikingly beautiful and simple as the church itself.
You can also visit a small museum onsite which displays the original grant of authority to found the monastery signed by Pope Alexander III in 1168.
The Abbey is surrounded by 1200 acres of woods with walking trails throughout. It is truly a quiet and spiritual place, worth visiting on a day or weekend trip from Paris. For more information, visit www.abbayedefontenay.com/en/.
By Fern Nesson
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