Inside Mont Saint Michel
So after walking to and around Mont Saint Michel, you’re probably wondering what is inside this mystic fortress. While strategically important, the site was first settled as a religious community and so it contains an extensive and historic abbey. The Romanesque style Abbey Church, Cloisters and support rooms are incredible. After the French Revolution, the site was used as a prison but was reclaimed in the late 19th century as a historical landmark. The stone architecture underwent several waves of restoration to reveal the original medieval complex (with the exception of iconic steeple topped by a St. Michael statue).
The geographic high point of the mountain is topped by the religious high point – the Abbey Church. The altar, surrounding aisle and small chapels are all done in a Gothic style. This is the first interior space you come to after climbing up Mont Saint-Michel so the elegant stone work and light, airy space is a wonderful surprise.
While these vaults are gorgeous, it is worth pointing out that the Abbey Church was originally built in the 11th century in a Romanesque style. In a rush to see the lovely Gothic altar, many people don’t notice the symmetry, rounded arches and carved capitals of this earlier style. The entire nave (or the main seating area) is the early Romanesque church, complete with a wood beam ceiling. In the 13th century the front of the church was damaged by fire and rebuilt in the Gothic style popular at that time.
Since the church was abandoned late in the history of Mont Saint-Michel, there are few decorations in the church. In total, I found one almost Celtic looking male saint, a carved relief and this lovely medieval Madonna and Child below. The polychrome colors have held up remarkably well. There is something innocent and primitive about their faces that reminds me of American Folk Art. I’m happy to see them returned to the church, although they look a little in awe of the soaring Gothic interior.
Like most monastic communities, Mont Saint-Michel has a garden in the cloister which was circled by a ornate arcade.
Many of the figural decorations were destroyed during the French Revolution. For example, below are the remains of a Christ enthroned carving.
Although likely a repaired sculptural element, I loved this beautiful vignette of a farmer checking his vineyard. The scene is lush and overgrown, nearly spilling out of the spandrel space. The farmer seems to be tenderly cradling a bunch of grapes in his hands. It is a kind image that must have comforted and strengthened the monks who walked through this passageway thinking of the many Biblical vineyard parables.
The main monastic dining hall is cavernous. It sits against two major outer fortress walls and so very little space was available for windows. The architect invented an ingenious solution. The window niches are triangular in shape. The stone around the small lancet windows opens up into the room allowing more light in and creating the illusion of large windows framed with thin decorative columns. Can you see the optical illusion below?
The Abbot’s rooms and private chapel just off the dining hall were lovely, peaceful and had excellent morning sunlight.
In order to create a flat plane on the top of a mountain for the massive Romanesque church, thick stone crypts were constructed under the transept (cross part) of the church. Used for storage and workshops, these spaces are noticeably cooler than the upper section of the Abbey.
Combining these beautiful interiors with the spectacular view from Mont Saint-Michel, I have to think that this was a very enjoyable place to live. With its dependence on mainland farming and the constant threat of invasion, it is incredible Mont Saint Michel has survived so well. Somewhat demystified now, but still wholly impressive, Mont Saint Michel was an incredible experience.