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Cistercian Abbeys: The Three Sisters of Provence

Janie & Geoff

There is so much to see in Provence if you're a history buff, that it could drive you crazy. In order to preserve our sanity and marriage, Geoff and I decided to follow a theme on this trip to Provence, and restrict ourselves to visiting Roman sites. We agreed to throw in visits to three Cistercian abbeys because they were on the way to other sites we wanted to see anyway, and I have a thing about cloisters and we both love medieval architecture.

As it turned out, the Three Sisters, as these abbeys in Provence are called - Silvacane, Senanque and Thoronet - were a major highlight of the trip. Even though places such as the Pont de Gard, Vaison la Romaine, Orange, Arles, and Nimes were impressive, these austerely beautiful abbeys made us catch our breaths. We could not have imagined such simplicity and spiritual beauty built in stone.

A little background on our trip: We had gone to attend a friend's wedding in Aix-en-Provence, and while he and his new wife were honeymooning in Bali, we had the use of their house. The Three Sisters were easy day-trips from Aix.

Abbaye de Silvacane

You can visit both the Abbaye de Silvacane and the Abbaye de Senanque on the same day trip from Aix. From Aix we drove north towards the town of Cadenet and arrived at Abbaye de Silvacane, the Abbey of the Reeds, by the banks of the Durance River.

Built in 1174, this is the most recent of the Three Sisters. When the monks first settled here, they had to drain swamps before they could build the abbey and grow crops, hence the reference to reeds. The architectural style is known as Provencal Cistercian Romanesque, a "transitional" style that incorporates a few elements of the Gothic. The Gothic-style cathedrals made it to Provence much later than in the north, so many of the later buildings look Romanesque even though they were built when Gothic was sweeping the rest of France.

Abbaye de Silvacane (Abbey of the Reeds)

Abbaye de Silvacane (Abbey of the Reeds)

The Cistercian orders were the first to consciously practice what we call "form follows function" in architecture: simple, functional, stripped of any ornamentation that would take the mind away from prayer. Their philosophy was to avoid excess in any form and practice poverty, simplicity and seclusion (the seclusion part still works, we had a tough time finding signs to the abbey). Hence, the simple beauty of their buildings, where the stone was left bare both inside and out, with only simple carvings for decoration. Very few flying buttresses were needed since the monks did not strive to build for height or ostentation. The resulting effect is that you focus on the purity of the architecture, the elegance of the naves, the wonderful proportions of the spaces, the way light travels between openings. What moved us was the serenity that suffuses all areas of the abbey, both inside and out.

The Cistercians also standardized on their buildings, and all Cistercian abbeys followed the same basic floor plan. Kind of the way some fast food franchises build to the same design.

I think the rooms that gave me the most pause for thought were the library, refectory and the chapter house. The library was tiny! This is because books were so expensive back then, and that really made me feel fortunate to live in a time where mass printing makes knowledge so affordable. The chapter house and refectory, where the monks congregated and ate together, gave you a sense of the sort of communal living that they aimed for.

And let's not forget the cloisters. The cloister gardens are planted with cedar trees, boxwood and white roses. Serenity, serenity, serenity.

At all Cistercian abbeys, the monks tried to be self-sufficient, buying land to grow crops and raise animals. Each abbey was essentially a farming estate, with orchards, stables, and fields that were worked by lay brothers and hired workers.

The Cistercian order was founded by Bernard of Clairvaux. Incidentally, Bernard clashed with Abelard, of Heloise and Abelard fame. He later became St. Bernard (and all Abelard got was castrated). Bernard was critical of the corrupt monasteries of the time, hence insistent that the Cistercian order embrace poverty and simplicity. Unfortunately, the Cistercians became very successful at running their agrarian estates and went from self-sufficient to prosperous to downright decadent over the space of a few hundred years, and by the 14th century became just as disreputable as other orders. This story kind of repeats in all the abbeys we visited.

The abbey was restored in 1945. Prior to this, the abandoned buildings had been used as stables, storage and whatever else the various owners felt like doing.

Opening Hours and Location

Check a recent guidebook to be sure, but mine states that the abbey is open daily, except Tuesday, 9-12 and 2-5. Admission fee.

North of Aix, 7 km from Cadenet, south of the Durance River.

Abbaye de Senanque

From Abbaye de Silvacane we headed north towards Senanque, near Gordes. It's a wonderful trip driving through the Luberon where you can see those lovely villages perched on the hills and eat at outdoor cafes with the locals.

If you can, go to Senanque in summertime when the lavender is in bloom. The final mile of road to Senanque sweeps down the side of the valley with the abbey below to your left, surrounded by lavender fields. It's enough to make you swoon with pleasure. Unfortunately getting to Senanque when the lavender is in bloom also means being there when the tourist season booms. Somewhat less serenity, but still amazingly beautiful.

Abbaye de Snanque

Abbaye de Senanque

Built in 1148 (then it prospered, over-prospered, monks were expelled, abbey was abandoned etc.), Senanque is once again a working monastery. The monks re-settled here in 1988 and in the interests of self-sufficiency they embarked upon an additional form of economic endeavor. There is a gift shop (staffed by non-monks) selling lavender and honey products from the abbey, as well as beautiful books about Cistercian architecture, history and religion.

My husband, who is a civil engineer by training, went into raptures over the four squinches (look this up yourself, what do I know about squinches?) that hold up the cupola of the dome in the church. I headed for the cloisters.

It's interesting to see how the basic floor plan was shifted around to accommodate the geography. Because Senanque is in a narrow valley, the church faces north rather than east.

On the way back to Aix, we made a small diversion to Apt, to see the Pont Julien. It's not the Pont de Gard, it's not magnificent, it's just a little 3rd century bridge built by the Romans, but it's still carrying road traffic (for vehicles under 5 tons). That in itself is amazing. My husband scrambled down to the riverbed to look at the bridge foundations, and concluded that one of the arches of the bridge had been partially built, then moved a few feet over to get the alignment right (have I mentioned the civil engineering bit?).

Opening Hours and Location

Check a recent guidebook to be sure, but mine states that the abbey is open daily 10-12 and 2-6. Admission fee.

North of Aix, in the Luberon, 4 km north of Gordes on the D 177.

Abbaye du Thoronet

Visiting the Abbaye du Thoronet can be done on another day trip from Aix. This abbey is close to the town of Le Thoronet, and was built around 1140 (obviously the 12th century was a good time to be a stonemason near a Cistercian abbey).

We had a magical few minutes in this abbey when we went into the church. There were three backpackers standing there looking around, your usual young guys in hiking shorts and t-shirts. Then they broke into beautiful plainsong and the acoustics of the church were marvelous. We closed our eyes and imagined ourselves back in the 13th century, listening to monks at evensong.

Abbaye du Thoronet

Abbaye du Thoronet

In this photo of the exterior of the abbey, you can see a niche in the wall. This was so that the locals could bring their dead to the abbey. The corpse would be placed into the niche to ask the monks to prepare the body for burial and organize the funeral services.

Of all the three abbeys, I found this one the most interesting because there are ongoing excavations of the monastic buildings and also of the outbuildings that housed workers, animals, food storage. It really gives you a sense of how the monks conducted their lives. Also, you were allowed to climb up to the second level of the buildings and above the cloisters to look down into the courtyard below.

Opening Hours and Location

Check a recent guidebook to be sure, but mine states that the abbey is open daily: summer Monday - Saturday 9 - 7, Sunday 9 - 12 and 2 - 7; winter daily 10 - 1 and 2 - 5. Admission fee.

East of Aix, 7 km north of Cannet des Maures (on the N7 and A8), take D17 then D79.

In Closing

Photographs don't do these abbeys justice, especially since the interiors are hard to photograph (flashbulbs are not enough light in some places). Neither do words. You can only understand the impact of these buildings by standing in one. And I guess you have to really love medieval architecture. I am not at all a spiritual person, but the abbeys were a near-religious experience, perhaps even better than the seafood risotto on the island of Burano near Venice or Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream after two months of being on the South Beach Diet.

As a final note of interest, the newest Cistercian monastery was built in 2004 in the Czech Republic. The architect is minimalist John Pawson, who was also responsible for the Calvin Klein store in New York. Apparently the monks were looking through books of architecture and were struck by how the austerity of the retail store paralleled their requirements for a new monastery.

Photos

Slow Travel Photos: The larger version of these images are in the France - Provence photos section.

Resources

www.crt-paca.fr/eng/GP/avoir/dossier?DOSID=6583: Provence Alpes Cote d'Azur, regional tourism, article on the Three Sisters.

www.senanque.fr: Abbaye de Senanque (in French)

www.ville-la-roque-d-antheron.fr: Town of La Roque d'Antheron, Abbaye de Silvacane (Abbey of the Reeds)

www.provenceweb.fr: Provence Web, Abbaye du Thoronet.

www.monksonline.org/White-Monks/monastic-plant-plan.htm: Standard floor plan for abbeys

www.godspy.com: NOVY DVUR AND THE STYLISH AUSTERITY OF JOHN PAWSON. Architect John Pawson is famous for his elegantly austere Calvin Klein store in New York. Now he has brought his minimalist vision to the new Cistercian monastery at Novy Dvur in the Czech Republic. Article by Deyan Sudjic.


See Janie & Geoff's Slow Travel Member page.

© Janie & Geoff, 2005

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