Saturday, January 12, 2008

Mount Saint Michel

Mount Saint Michel, France

Mount Saint Michel, FranceMount Saint Michel

Big Abbey; Small Island

A grand Romanesque Abbey built on the top of a rocky tidal island; that is Mount Saint Michel a widely acclaimed structure that has been featured in many movies and the theme in ‘Disney Land’ theme; ‘Time Keeper’. This cone-shaped island carries on its top the majestic structures including abbey, castle fortress etc built in gothic style; at about 73 meters (240 feet) above sea level. It is at the north western part of France (Normandy) jutting in to the English Channel. The English and France fought many wars for its custody and this tiny islet has been stage to many important historical events.

A mystical place

Mount Saint Michel, France The Mont at low tide surrounded by mud flats - seen from the air

There are many rocky islets in the sea lying un-noticed by history but that is not the case with this particular islet ‘Le Mont Saint Michel’ (as the complex is known in French), it is just one km from the mainland; once a part of it; as time passed, the connecting land link yielded to the insistent sea-waves and finally narrowed to a strip that vanishes during high tide and reappears during low tides, thus giving this part of the land a mystical status –at times an island and at times not!. This distance between Normandy to this isle is just one km at the mouth of Couesnon River near Avranches. The surrounding sea is also known for the extreme tides that invades the coast.

Its long history

This island -formerly known as ‘Mont Tombe’- was a stronghold of the Romano-Briton culture, with construction of the monastery in 8th century it came to be known in the present name - Mount Saint Michel. The Franks (an ethnic stock of West Germanic origin) captured it; thus ending a legacy that lasted even after the exit of the Romans in AD 460. In the early 10th century Duke of Normandy annexed the whole area and the island became a part of his strategic locations. Later this islet came in to the hands of the French. During the ‘Hundred years of war’ between Britain and France; Britain made several futile attempts to capture this island, some of the equipments they left in the attempts are still kept in the premises as show pieces.

The Saint who drilled a hole!

Why such a majestic structure was built in an islet only partly accessible is a natural question, there is only one legend to answer it. Long ago in the early 8th century (AD 708) Arch Angel Michael appeared in the dreams of Mr. Aubert (later he was declared a Saint) the bishop of Avranches and asked him to build a church on the island of Mont Tombe (the present Mont Saint Michel). Bishop Aubert ignored it as just a dream even the dream was repeated twice. On the third time to make the Bishop remember the request for ever, St. Michael touched bishop’s head with his fore-finger, like poking with a red hot iron rod bishop’s head got pierced leaving a hole! Aubert never forgot about the dream and immediately started with the execution of the church’s work!

A daring design

Mount Saint Michel, FranceMont Saint Michel

King Richard II of Normandy entrusted the job of building such an abbey on the top of the island hill to William de Volpiano an Italian contractor. Mr. Volpiano had the credit of constructing the Abbey of Fecamp. Volpiano’s design was a bit daring one as its transept (the center point between two sections cross) crossing was proposed on the summit of the hill, for support of weights the gaps of the surrounding parts of the summit was to be filled by constructing several crypts and chapels! In 12th century Robert de Thorigny rebuilt the structure and added the facade to it.

A pilgrimage center

Mount Saint Michel, FranceSaint Michel image courtsey:

Like Rome and St. Jacques de Compstelle; this island rose as one of the most important places of pilgrimage especially for the Medieval Europeans, thousands of pilgrims walked through the land bridge to the church (a journey called ‘path to paradise’ seeking blessings from St Michael -the archangel of judgement (Pesiur des Ames). Friars and sisters from Les Fraternites Monastiques de Jerusalem stay here for ensuring physical presence; this practice is in vogue since 2001 (with the celebration of the Monastery’s 1000th anniversary that passed in 1966; which for them is the abbatial dwelling (staying in abbey worshipping god) .

Witness to mutiny and arson

Mount Saint Michel though built as an abbey is also a medieval castle with prominent fortification with two towers to defend any possible forced entrance in to it. As a castle it has experienced many horrific scenes.

Thorigny the terrible!

One Mr. Robert de Thorigny a Briton allied to the French King who rose to the chair; attacked the island massacred its population and set fire to the crypts. The fire spread to the main building and the entire roof collapsed. Still the Mr. Thorigny could not get entrance in to the structure due to strong fortification and had to retreat.

Real revolution!

The French Revolution also had its impact on this island structure. The ‘revolutionaries’ who came to power did not find it as a bad idea to use this historical structure as a prison, -prisons and labor-camps being parts and parcel of real revolution- as the revolution progressed a rare historical monument had to be subjected to alternations to make it fit for a torture camp! A massive reconstruction was needed to repair the damages made by the revolutionary jailors. As in the case of most of the historical structures this abbey had also undergone many destructions and reconstructions.

Then a fire

Mount Saint Michel was mainly built of granite at places limestone and cloister also has been used. In 1856 a fire that broke out and wreaked much destruction to the structure, it remained un-repaired for about 18 years until 1874.


Mount Saint Michel, France

Philip Augustus; the king of France was shocked by the actions of his ally; he allowed a liberal grant to the authorities for the reconstruction of the abbey. The work was done by Hilderbert in 1023 in a gothic style. That was the times of monastic reforms engineered by King Richard II and Volpiano. In addition to the original structures a refectory and cloister were added. King Charles VI further fortified the structure by adding courtyards and ramparts.

The present state

Mount Saint Michel is a UNESCO approved World Heritage Site since 1979 and a tourist hot spot that attracts not less than tourists from world over. There is a village that is on the south east side of the rock between walls, the main vocation of the villagers is rendering services to the booming tourism industry.

Modern facilitations with an eye on monetary concepts have done much to the damage of the entire island. The Couesnon River was canalized to save space thereby reducing the natural flow of water, the old land bridge –which was partly submergible- that connected this island with mainland was converted in to a permanent causeway; all these stopped the free flow of water and silt which scurried the mud away. The resultant mud-banks got transformed in to pasture lands. The net result is the damage of the entire ecosystem.

At present a 150 million Euro plan has been proposed (Project Mont Saint-Michel) to build a hydraulic dam that could solve the problem of silt accumulation. But this will only be completed in 2012 if all goes as planned.

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