Friday, August 22, 2014

Abbaye de Fontenay

Montbard, France

France has more grand, historic buildings than you can shake a stick at. My favorite so far is Fontenay Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage site located in the Burgundy region.

Entrance to Fontenay

It was a Cistercian abbey designed to be a place where more than 200 monks could live a life of simplicity and self-sufficiency conducive to prayer and reflection. The abbey was founded in 1118, and construction of the church started in 1139 under the guidelines laid forth by the abbey's founder, Saint Bernard, which included simplicity in decoration and a single large sleeping area shared by all of the monks.

Dormitory shared by the monks. The bedding was simple and they
laid on the floor.

Walking into the church gives a bizarre feeling of both weightiness of almost a millennium of history and light airiness created by the high ceilings and soft glowing sunlight from the windows.

The high ceilings encourage you to look upwards.

The facade was stripped bare over the years, and the few remaining sculptures seem lonely and crumbled. The effect is completed with the tomb of Knight Mello d'Epoisses and his wife. I wouldn't have been surprised to find Indiana Jones hanging out behind one of the pillars.

13th century enamelled floor tiles.

From the church you can walk into the cloisters where the monks would have done their reading.

Hallway surrounding the cloisters' courtyard.

The other, smaller rooms in the structure have impressive examples of Romanesque vaulted ceilings.

Chapter House where the monks assembled to discuss their readings and other business.

The gardens surrounding the abbey are beautiful and very peaceful with a balance between careful sculpting and natural formation. Several statues and flowing fountains form a focal point that invites you to come sit and enjoy the sunshine and cool breeze.

The bubbling of a fountain completes the peaceful setting.

Also noteworthy is the feat of engineering that can be found in the forge. The monks used iron ore from the surrounding hills to create tools. In order to work the iron, someone had the idea to construct a tilt hammer which used water power to drive the heavy hammer. Dating to 1220, it was one of the earliest hydraulic hammers in Europe. Today visitors can see a reconstruction, or take a look at this video to see a similar hammer in operation in an Austrian blacksmith shop.

A wheel captures the force of the river...
...which turns a shaft with a cogwheel. The teeth of the cog catch the lever to the left,
which has the hammer on the other end, and the lever is first lifted and then dropped as each
tooth moves upwards.
The forge building.

The abbey declined in the 16th century after the practice of Commendation was introduced and abbots were nominated by the king rather than by the monks. It was sold off and in the early 19th century was turned into a paper mill until it was bought by the Aynard family a century later and underwent restoration.

It is still privately owned by the same family, but many of the buildings are open for tours.


Abbaye de Fontenay

Near Montbard, Burgundy region.




Open daily from 10-6 in the summer (with guided tours each hour), 10-5 in the winter. Please remember that the French take a lunch break from about 12-2 and many places, including the Abbey, may close for several hours in the middle of the day.


Adults: 10 for unguided tour, a couple euros more if you take the guided tour in French. Discounted rate for kids and large families.

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