Monday, April 23, 2012

La Belle France

A magnificent statue
in the grounds of the Abbey
After our delicious French breakfast, we asked our new ami (friend) Serge if there were any things worth seeing along the road to Carcassonne - our next stop. He replied Oui! (do I have to translate this one?) and showed us un carte (a map) of the area, pointing out a possible route we could take. After faire la bise (the well-known French practice of cheek-kissing) and waving Au Revoir, we jumped into our zippy rental car and promptly headed off on the wrong side of the road.

Just kidding. It could have happened. As it was, the little country road was only wide enough for one car, so it didn't really matter which 'side' we were on...

It was a lovely drive through the French countryside, with les vignobles (vineyards) to be seen in every direction, and we soon arrived at our first stop: L'Abbaye de Fontfroide, a former cistercian monastery.

The chapel

The exterior of the Abbey

The Abbey was founded in the late 11th Century by Benedictine Monks, and became part of the Cistercian movement in 1145. Cistercian monks are of the Roman Catholic faith and believe strongly in manual labour and self-sufficiency of their cloisters. Before long, this Abbey became one of the richest in the Cistercian movement.

The website for the Abbey today claims that it was "a bastion of Orthodox Catholicism" in the midst of the 'Cathare' country around it. Catharism was a movement that emerged in the Languedoc region of France (and was also found in other parts of Europe) that largely protested against what it called the moral, spiritual, and political corruption of the Catholic church.

During the Inquisition of the 13th century, Catharism was largely wiped out, while their Cistercian counterparts were also suffering a decline. The movement had a large following across Europe (including in Wales and Ireland) and it was difficult to keep track of everyone. Also, because Cistercian orthodoxy had such a high ideal, any failure to live up to this was a big deal.

At this stage, many monasteries had begun to relax their regulations in regards to things like dietary restrictions and sources of income. Attempts were made to reform the Cistercian movement, but its steady decline had begun.

The Cloister

In stark contrast to this, the Abbey Fontfroide was booming (perhaps due to the relaxing of it's regulations, as was mentioned in the previous paragraph??). The land development undertaken by the monks, as well as the generosity of benefactors, meant that Fontfroide was now one of the richest cloisters around.
The original well after which
the Abbey was named

But all good things must come to an end.

One of the Abbey's monks became a cardinal and then a pope (Benedict XII), and while he was in these positions he helped to ensure the protection of the Abbey . In 1342, he passed away, and the Abbey Fontfroide began its own decline.

Soon after, the Black Death rampaged through France, and numbers of monks at the cloister reached an all time low.

The living quarters of the wealthier 1700s Monks 

From the 15 - 18 Centuries, less than 20 monks resided at the Abbey, and in the 1700s, there were only 10 monks - though they managed to employ 20 staff to serve them! The Monks enjoyed a relatively good life, and spent much time redecorating the Abbey, and bringing in quality paintings and statues.

In February 14, 1791, the last monk departed and many items from the Abbey were sold and the profits given to local hospitals. In 1833, the monastery was sold to an individual, Monsieur de Saint-Aubin, who began a project of restoration.

Monk prison!! (We wanted to know
what sort of sin you had to commit to
get locked in here....)

The story does not end there, however, as a second community of Cistercian monks moved into the monastery in1858. These monks lived in relative austerity, and ended up leaving in 1901 to go into exile in Spain. The Abbey was again abandoned.

The view of the Abbey from the nearby hill

The story has a happy ending though, when in 1908, the Abbey was purchased by the wealthy Madeleine Fayet and her husband Gustave. The couple spent over 10 years restoring the property, and then enjoyed it with their famous artist and musician friends. Madeleine Fayet lived until 1971, after seeing all major restoration completed. The Abbey remains in her family today.

A Wee Note on Stained Glass
The Colours were unbelievably vibrant
The glass in the chapel was beautiful - the colours were unbelievably vibrant, especially the aquamarine colour of the singular panel shown beside.

Apparently the original glass was largely destroyed by the time the Fayets purchased the property, so they asked an artist friend to make some glass for the chapel. He had not actually made a stained glass window before, so had to study up on the techniques and materials used!

In the end, he made the windows in a contemporary style, and thus the pictures and colours are not an authentic representation of what the original Abbey windows would have been (though still absolutely gorgeous!).

Beautiful stained glass in the Chapel
There were also some beautiful window panels in the former sleeping quarters of the monks. It turns out that these were made from panels of stained glass windows that were damaged during World War One. We think they came from various churches around the area, and were made by the same Fayet artist friend into the beautiful windows below:

After taking a tour around the beautiful Abbey, we climbed part of the nearby colline (hill) to take in la vue superbe (the great view). It was a gorgeous day, with sun breaking through the clouds.
We hardly wanted to leave, but with the day rushing away from us, we knew we had to get back on the road.

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