Sunday, December 23, 2012

Mont St. Michel

{This group of posts pertains to my Christmas vacation in which my family came to visit me. The posts are based on notes I took during the trip and then wrote up after returning. They are post-dated to reflect the proper sequence of events. This is Part 4.}

Ok, I have to preface this by saying that I have been to Mont St. Michel before, so some of the wonder and awe of seeing it for the first time had already occurred for me. That said, it is still simply amazing. The other thing I will say is that this is going to be a really really long post. Yeah sorry about that. 

Mont St. Michel is one of 38 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France. France has the fourth most properties on the list, behind Italy, China, and Spain. The 2 closest to me are Mont St. Michel and Le Havre. Apparently the whole town of Le Havre made the list, so it's now on my list of things to visit. Mont St. Michel is about an hour's drive from Caen. 

We had a much less rainy day, but it was still overcast and windy. Oh well, take what you can get. There have been some changes since my last visit as they build a new bridge, but I'm going to talk about that in a separate post. We had the guide again today, and it was interesting to have a different point of view. The first time I came with a group from my school in Tours led by the art history professor. Obviously, they both covered a lot of the same basic stuff, but my professor was much more focused on showing us the architectural styles of Mont St. Michel while our guide told us more of the history. Very interesting. 

According to legend, Saint Michael (or Michel in French) appeared to Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, (later sainted and given a feast day on September 10th) in a dream directing him to build a church in his honor. A couple things about Saint Michael. The Archangel Michael was known early on as a healer but in France in the Middle Ages his claim to fame was the slaying of a dragon. The idea spread that Michael could tell the difference between Good and Bad and could intervene on your behalf to help you into heaven, if you kept on his good side. So besides many portrayals of St. Michel with swords and standing on defeated dragons, you will also see plenty of statues of St. Michel holding scales or iconography portraying him overseeing the weighing of souls. Definitely an important guy in the heavily Catholic, Middle Ages France. 

Anyway, poor Aubert woke confused and decided it was just a weird dream and forgot all about it. The next night Saint Michel came back and tried again. Once again, Aubert shrugged it off as a weird dream. The third night, Saint Michel pointed directly at the rocky island and touched him on the forehead. Aubert got the message and within a year there was a little church dedicated to St. Michel on the island. That was 708 AD. 

The monastery was started sometime in the 1000s and was expanded during 12th and 13th centuries, thanks to the patronage of the Norman dukes and the King of France. It owes its fortress-like appearance to its strategic position and important role in the 100 Years War. No one was ever able to take the Mont, adding to the idea that it was protected by St. Michel and boosting later pilgrimage. Besides being an island, at low tide the Mont is surrounded by sandy planes riddled with quick sand. The tides at Mont St Michel are also a power to behold. The water level rises about 50 ft between low and high tide and the tides change swiftly. Anyone stranded on the flats would be in very serious danger. During this war, cannon fire caused part of the church to collapse. They rebuilt it the 1500s in the gothic style (think ornate) that was popular at the time, and reinforced the base with huge columns. Another portion of the church was lost due to a fire that caused one of the towers to come down and take out part of the sanctuary. This would have been about the time of the French revolution, and at that time the Church was heavily on the outs. Since the monastery at the time was too small and too poorly funded to properly rebuild, they just cleared away the damage and added a new wall to close off the church. During the days of Empire, it was a prison. Today it is government owned and one of only 6 sites that are profitable, out of about 100. Mont St Michel is able help fund the restoration and maintenance of many other historical sites. 

During the Middle Ages, Mont St. Michel was a very popular pilgrimage site, on the level of Rome. People wanted to garner favor with Saint Michael, and going there to pay your respects was a great way to do it. You could also get the monks to pray on your behalf or for a loved one, because after all their prayers must be more powerful. Of course that comes at a cost. The monks are busy people, copying Bibles and worshiping the Lord all day. You've got to give them something in return. The very wealthy like Kings and Dukes, sent money to the monastery, or donated land from which the monastery could receive taxes. Lesser nobles and wealthy merchants would send food or goods, like cloth. Most people though had barely enough to survive on, so they gave what they had: time and effort. Most of the monastery's expansions were carried out by laymen who would volunteer to do manual labor for, say, a week in exchange for the monks' prayers. I like to think it worked out for everybody. 

It's still amazing to me how old it is, and how well constructed given the tools available. I mean, come on, the most recent parts of it are still hundreds of years old, and the oldest are 1300 years old. It seems inconceivable to be able to walk across a stone floor put there by people who would not be able to conceive of the year 2013. Heck they probably would've been boggled by the idea of 1013. 

Despite it's huge size, at maximum it held about 60 monks, although at times it was as few as 6. Traditionally it was inhabited by Benedictine monks, they returned for a short time in 1966 to coincide with the 1000 year anniversary of the official start of the order there by Richard I Duke of Normandy. Today it houses about a dozen monks and nuns of the Monastic Fraternity of Jerusalem, a Catholic group that aims at promoting monastic desert in urban environments. 

The original chapel is no longer open to visitors but it formerly held a variety of relics including the alleged skull of St. Aubert with a hole in the forehead. It has since been determined to be a neolithic skull, far too old to be Aubert. But the poor Norman monks can hardly be blamed for the mistake since there's no way they could have known about the common practice of trepanning during neolithic times. Trepanning involves drilling or carving a hole into the skull. Based on cave paintings, it appears that neolithic people used trepanning as a cure for seizures and mental disorders. But there's no way the people in the Early Middle Ages could have known that. They found an old skull with a hole in the forehead. No wonder they believed it was Aubert; it fit with the story too well. 

 I've already mentioned the amazing tides of Mont St. Michel. They are the largest in Continental Europe and considered among the most impressive worldwide. The tide is even more extreme at the Spring Equinox. I personally plan on going back to see it. It's on a Friday so I could take the day off, get there super early in the morning and enjoy the view. 

Here are some of my pictures from Mont St. Michel. For me, it's an architectural wonder and I hope you get some sense of that from the pictures. 

As we approach, at fairly low tide

Through the mist

Mont St. Michel

Looking out over the bay

The old island cemetery

The twisting stairs around town

The fortress entrance to the monastery
Looking back through the archways to the island of Tombelaine, a couple km away

The main walkway up to the cathedral

The 'new' front of the church and the steeple

The three story gigantic monastic building

Beautiful archways in the cloister

The cloister

Looking up at the Abbey

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