Mont-Saint-Michel is a craggy, conical island, about half a mile (0.8 kilometer) across and standing half a mile from shore in the Gulf of Saint-Malo, near the border of Brittany and Normandy on France’s northern coast. The north side of the island is wooded and the west presents a barren face to the sea. A fortified village of fewer than 100 inhabitants huddles on the lower southern and eastern slopes and the great Benedictine abbey, dating from the thirteenth century, crowns the entire mount, towering about 240 feet (73 meters) above. The integration of monastery with village and both with the rock was noted by UNESCO as “an unequalled ensemble” when the site was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1979. Mont-Saint-Michel is an architectural feat for that reason and others: the audacity displayed by the builders on so difficult a site and the harmony achieved between its parts, which were built in many architectural styles over five centuries.
The place known as Mont Tombe, which became Mont-Saint-Michel, has a spiritual history dating from pre-Christian times. There the Gauls had worshiped Belenus, the god of light, and there the Romans consecrated a shrine to Jupiter. By the fifth century a.d. the secluded crag and the Scissy Forest around it had become a retreat for hermits. There is a tradition that in 708 St. Michael appeared to Aubert, twelfth bishop of Avranches, directing him to build a sanctuary to the archangel on the mount. In October of the following year, Aubert consecrated a simple circular oratory, to accommodate about 100 people, and built cells to replace the earlier huts, but not before an abnormal tide—some sources say a tidal wave—had gouged a channel between rock and shore, creating the islet. At low tide a land bridge connects to the mainland across beaches of gray silt; at high tide it is covered by about 40 feet (14 meters) of water.
Under the sponsorship of Richard the Fearless, Duke of Normandy, Abbot Mainard occupied the island in 966 with twelve Benedictine monks from Monte Cassino. He built a rectangular chapel with 6.5-foot-thick (2-meter) stone walls on the ruins of the oratory. By that time, the Benedictines had enjoyed four centuries of prominence in western Europe and monasticism had reached a zenith. In France, the abbeys—there were about 120 of them— exercised great influence in many spheres: spiritual, artistic, intellectual, economic, and political. Besides the Benedictines, whose other Normandy houses were at Fecamp, Lessay, and Lonlay, the Premonstratensian (Canons had established themselves at Ardenne and La Lucerne. Eventually, Mont-Saint-Michel would become a magnet for thousands of the faithful from all over Europe.
The next building phase was initiated by Abbot Hildebert II in 1017. An extensive masonry foundation
leveled the entire top of the island and an abbey church was built on the summit. Mainard’s sturdy chapel formed its crypt and was later named Notre-Dame-sous-Terre (Our Lady Underground). The rest of the new cruciform church—with its seven bays, the nave was nearly 230 feet (70 meters) long—was supported on masonry walls and piers. The project, designed in the latest style (now known as Romanesque), was completed by 1135. That was not the end of the architectural development, and about thirty-five years later Abbot Robert de Torigny commissioned a new west front with twin towers.
In 1203 the French king Philip II Augustus sent an expeditionary force against the abbey, and some of its dependencies were destroyed by fire. To compensate for the damage, a generous endowment allowed Abbot Jordan to immediately commence the granite conventual building known as La Merveille (the Marvel), flanking the church on the seaward side of the rock. Remarkably, the extensive, logistically
difficult works were completed by 1228. The Marvel began at 160 feet (49 meters) above the sea and consisted of three terraced levels. The lowest housed the almonry and cellar. The second was taken up by the kitchens; a huge refectory with timber barrel vaults; a guest hall, adorned with tapestries, stained glass, and glazed tiles; and a scriptorium (now called the “hall of the knights”). At the top was the monks’ dormitory and a beautiful arcaded, vaulted cloister attributed to Raoul de Villedieu.
In contrast to that tranquil security, the Marvel has been described as “half military, half monastic.” Louis IX visited the Mont in 1254 and later helped to pay for its fortification. Strategically located, it acquired a defensive role and housed a garrison jointly paid by king and abbot. Through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, both the abbey and the town were enclosed by walls on the land side, adding another texture to the varied architecture of the rock. Frequently attacked, it would never be captured, even remaining unconquered when English armies took most of the fortresses of Normandy early in the fifteenth century.
There was a series of structural failures in the abbey church. In 1300, one of de Torigny’s west towers fell down. More serious was the collapse in 1421 of Hildebert’s Romanesque choir. France was still at war with England, and all thought of reconstruction was deferred until 1446, when a massive base known as the Crypt of the Large Pillars was built as foundation for a replacement building. Work on the new choir began in 1450 and it was completed in 1521. Apsidal in plan, with radiating chevet chapels, it was naturally built in the contemporary, highly ornate French style, appropriately named flamboyant because of the flamelike patterns of its window tracery. Other architectural failures followed: in 1618 the de Toringy west facade started to collapse, and eventually it was pulled down in 1776, together with, the three western bays of the nave.
The monastic foundation seemed to decline with the buildings. Although by the twelfth century under de Toringy, the Benedictine abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel had acquired fame for its intellectual life, drawing pilgrims from across Europe, about a century later its power had begun to slowly wane. As the balance of its role tipped from devotion to defense, the size of the community decreased. In 1523 it was granted in commendam to Cardinal Le Veneur, the series of commendatory abbots continuing until 1622—by then hardly any monks remained—when control passed to the reformed congregation of St. Maur. In turn, the Maurist monks were dispossessed during the French Revolution. From 1790 the abbey, its name ironically changed to Mont Libre (Mount Freedom), was used to incarcerate criminals and political prisoners. Napoléon III abolished the prison in 1863. Having gone full circle, the buildings were leased to the Bishop of Avranches until 1874, when the Commission des Monuments Historiques appointed the architect E. E. Viollet-le-Duc to restore it. In 1966, in recognition of the monastery’s millennium, the French government allowed the resumption of monastic life on Mont-Saint-Michel; since then a community of monks, nuns, and lay oblates lives in a part of the abbey, reviving the ministry to pilgrims.
This has been a complicated story, whose point is just this: the architectural feat of Mont-Saint-Michel was not achieved in a day, a month, or a year. The harmony and the unity of its parts, diverse in date, style, and function, took 500 years to realize.