One of France’s major tourist attractions is also one of its oldest spiritual sites. The rocky island of Mont St-Michel is an architectural wonder, crowned by an abbey church and a Gothic monastery. Pilgrims and travelers have been drawn to Mont St-Michel, a small island in the south-western corner of Normandy, for more than 1000 years.
Connected by a causeway to the mainland, Mont St-Michel rises dramatically from a flat expanse of sands washed smooth by the powerful tides that sweep into the bay. In fine weather the conical rock, encrusted with an abbey church, monastic buildings, houses, gardens terraces and fortifications, can be seen for miles around, in the mist the dark outline of roofs and pinnacles seems to float like a ghostly palace on a cloud of vapour.
Centuries ago, the island formed a part of the land, a rocky outcrop in the marshy woodlands of this part of Normandy. In Roman times it was known as Mont Tombe, probably preserving a folk memory that the rock had been used as a Celtic burial ground. The Druids worshipped the sun here, a practice that was continued under the Romans, who venerated the sun god Mithras. A legend from this period holds that Julius Caesar, wearing gold boots and sealed in a gold coffin, was buried under Mont Tombe. In the fifth century, the land in this area subsided, and 100 years later the rock had become an island, completely cut off at high tide and accessible at other times along a dangerous passage marked by tall stakes.
The rocky outcrop of Mont St-Michel, with a circumference of around 3000ft (900m) and almost 300ft (90m) high, is crowned by one of france’s architectural wonders. In 1879 a causeway 1 mile (1.6km) long, linking the island to the French mainland, replaced the dangerous path across the flats. At low tide, the island is surrounded by sandbanks, and two or three times a year it is completely cut off by the waters of exceptionally high tides.
The island’s peacefulness and isolation soon attracted a group of monks, who built a small oratory and remained the sole inhabitants until 708, when the Archangel Michael is said to have visited Aubert (later St Aubert), Bishop of Avranches, in a dream and commanded him to build an oratory on Mont Tombe. Aubert, doubting the dream, at first did nothing, which prompted the archangel to return with the same command. Only after a third visit, when St Michael rapped the bishop on the rocky island. He was assisted by a series of miracles: the circumference of the proposed foundations was marked out by the morning dew; a stolen cow reappeared on the spot where the first granite stone should be laid; a babe in arms removed a boulder that was in the way with a touch of its foot; and St Michael appeared again to identify a source of fresh water.
The renamed Mont St-Michel rapidly became a place of pilgrimage, and in 966 a Benedictine abbey to house 50 monks was built on its summit. Work on the abbey church, which still crowns the summit of the rock, was begun in 1020. Because of the difficulties of building on such precipitous slopes, it took more than 100 years to complete the church. Partial collapses over the years have meant that large portions of the original church have had to be restored, but it is still largely a Romanesque structure with rounded arches, thick walls and massive vaulting, although the choir, added in the 15th century, is Gothic.
But the Abbey Church is only one of Mont St-Michel’s wonders. The second was begun by King Philip II of France as compensation for having burned down part of the church in 1203, during an attempt to capture the island from the Dukes of Normandy, its traditional sovereigns. La Merveille, ‘the Marvel’, on the northern side of the island, is a Gothic monastery built between 1211 and 1228.
La Merveille comprises two main sections, each three storeys high. The ground floor of the eastern side houses the aumonerie, where the monks dispensed charity and gave lodging to poor pilgrims. Above that is the sale des hotes, the principal guest room where the abbot welcomed wealthy visitors. In one of the two enormous fireplaces in this room the monks’ meals were cooked; the other provided warmth. The top floor is given over to the monks’ refectory, a large room whose thick walls are cut by high, narrow windows that flood the interior with brilliant light. During meals, which were taken in silence, a monk would read from the Scriptures.
La Merveille’s western section includes the collier, a storeroom, above which was the scriptorium where monks once copied manuscripts slavishly. In 1469, after King Louis XI founded the Knights of St Michael, this hall, which is divided into four by rows of stone columns, became the assembly place for knights of the order. The cloister is situated on top of the western section where, suspended between Heaven and Earth, it provided a haven of tranquility. Two rows of staggered, slender columns support arches decorated with sculpted foliage and human faces. The cloister was intended to lead to a chapter house, but this was never built.
Mont St-Michel has not always been a place of spiritual peace. Throughout the Middle Ages, the island was the scene of fighting as successive kings and dukes attempted to take control. It was fortified in the early 15th century during the Hundred Year’ War, and survived repeated English assaults, and it withstood an onslaught by the Huguenots in 1591. The community of monks steadily declined, however, and when the monastery was dissolved at the time of the French Revolution, only seven monks were still in residence. During Napoleon’s reign, the island, then renamed Ile de la Liberte (Island of Liberty), was used as a prison and remained so until 1863, when it was classified as a national monument. Large portions of both the abbey church and the monastery were restored, and today Mont St-Michel is rivalled only by Paris and Versailles as France’ major tourist attraction.
The tradition of Christian worship on Mont St-Michel resumed in 1922, and services have been held in the abbey church ever since. In addition, the spiritual tradition is maintained by the permanent presence of a small number of monks and nuns, while for many others it offers a place of temporary retreat from the world.