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Montmajour Abbey

Prestigious monument UNESCO World Heritage, the Benedictine monastery of Montmajour, established on a rocky island surrounded by a swamp two kilometers from Arles, was founded or rather confirmed in 948.

  • AD 1050 – Modern Era

AD 1050 – Modern Era

Development of the site

Like all the major monasteries in Provence Montmajour underwent a nearly complete reconstruction in the 12th and 13th centuries, at a time when an increasing financial potential encouraged the erection of large ashlar buildings in the local Romanesque style, strongly reminiscent of Antiquity.28 Unlike important abbey churches in the Languedoc such as Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Quarante, Caunes, Lagrasse and Cuxa which date back to the 10th and 11th centuries, the earlier abbey churches of Montmajour and Saint-Victor near Marseille were entirely replaced on a larger scale. The new church of Notre-Dame which was not yet completed when the monks took possession of it in 1153 29 was conceived on two levels with a large crypt built into the excavated rock. Fig. 17 The upper church, erected at a slightly later date, has no ambulatory, the main apse, adorned with columns from the 11th century church on the outside Fig. 10, being flanked by two secondary apses inside the massive eastern walls of the transept. Only the two easternmost of the planned six bays of the nave were completed. The southern wall of the nave, founded on the naturally irregular surface of the bedrock served as the north wall for the vaulted cloisters which were begun subsequently and built in four major campaigns.30 In the Gothic period the church was enlarged by the addition of funerary chapels and the monastic buildings by the construction of a dormitory which was to be substantially transformed in several campaigns. In the fourteenth century a massive watchtower was erected on the South-East.

Fig. 17: Montmajour. Crypt of the new church of Notre-Dame, 12th century. A vaulted circular chapel in the centre, alluding to the Constantine rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, is girded with a barrel-vaulted ambulatory surrounded by radiating chapels. Below the transept of the upper church a series of massive arches span a transversal vaulted nave accessible by a vaulted ramp descending from the nave above.  Credit: A. Hartmann-Virnich

Fig. 17: Montmajour. Crypt of the new church of Notre-Dame, 12th century. A vaulted circular chapel in the centre, alluding to the Constantine rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, is girded with a barrel-vaulted ambulatory surrounded by radiating chapels. Below the transept of the upper church a series of massive arches span a transversal vaulted nave accessible by a vaulted ramp descending from the nave above. Credit: A. Hartmann-Virnich

In the 12th century a funerary chapel dedicated to the Holy Cross was erected in the ceaselessly growing cemetery about 250 metres to the East of Notre-Dame. The small cross-shaped quatrefoil chapel is a perfect example of the late Romanesque style of Provence. Fig. 18 On the inside, a 15th century inscription above the entrance door, deliberately carved in archaic characters Fig. 19 refers to the legendary foundation of the chapel by Charlemagne in the cemetery then attributed to his army decimated by the Saracens at Roncevaux.31

Fig. 18: Montmajour. Chapel dedicated to the Holy Cross, 12th century. This funerary chapel is a perfect example of the late Romanesque style of Provence, combining perfectly jointed ashlar limestone courses with intricately built ashlar vaults, triangular gables and acanthus leaf corbels loosely inspired by Roman prototypes. Credit: A. Hartmann-Virnich

Fig. 18: Montmajour. Chapel dedicated to the Holy Cross, 12th century. This funerary chapel is a perfect example of the late Romanesque style of Provence, combining perfectly jointed ashlar limestone courses with intricately built ashlar vaults, triangular gables and acanthus leaf corbels loosely inspired by Roman prototypes. Credit: A. Hartmann-Virnich

Fig. 19: Montmajour.  This inscription is in fact a fake, forged in 1421, date of its ’discovery’ as ’proof’ of the antiquity of the site and its alleged relationship with the legendary event. Credit: A. Hartmann-Virnich

Fig. 19: Montmajour. This inscription is in fact a fake, forged in 1421, date of its ’discovery’ as ’proof’ of the antiquity of the site and its alleged relationship with the legendary event. Credit: A. Hartmann-Virnich

After the introduction of the Benedictine reform of Saint-Maur in 1639 the monastic buildings were modernized and the Western gallery of the cloisters rebuilt after it had collapsed with the early Romanesque cellar, in 1703. The same year a new monastery designed by Pierre Mignard was founded nearby and linked to the upper level of the battered mediaeval buildings by a massive arch. The erection of the spectacular baroque monastery on an artificial platform towering above the ancient abbey Fig. 20 was not completed until 1755 and the new church never erected.32 After the secularization in 1786 the monastery was pillaged, dismantled and destroyed to a large extent. Landmarked as early as 1840 Montmajour is now property of the National Monuments Fund (Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques) and used for exhibitions of contemporary art and photography.

Fig. 20: Montmajour. The baroque ruins of the monastery. Credit: F. Paone, INRAP

Fig. 20: Montmajour. The baroque ruins of the monastery. Credit: F. Paone, INRAP

References

27 Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, ms. Lat. 889

28 Rouquette, Jean-Maurice, Provence romane 1. La Provence rhodanienne, La Pierre-qui-Vire, 1974 (Zodiaque), p. 366-411
Laget-Mognetti, Élisabeth, ‘L’abbaye de Montmajour’, in Congrès archéologique de France, 134, 1976, Pays d’Arles, Paris 1979, p. 182-193, p. 195-235
Rouquette, Jean-Maurice and Bastié, Aldo, L’abbaye de Montmajour, Paris, Editions du Patrimoine, p. 7-59
Hartmann-Virnich, Andreas, ‘L’abbaye de Montmajour’, in Rouquette 2008, p. 354-356

29 After Dom Chantelou, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, ms. Lat. 13915, fol. 153, quoted in Laget-Mognetti, Élisabeth, ‘L’abbaye de Montmajour’, in Congrès archéologique de France, 134, 1976, Pays d’Arles, Paris, 1979, p. 195

30 The earlier graves of the counts of Provence were transferred to the Northern end of the Eastern gallery and enshrined in a monumental wall tomb built with reused late Romanesque material.

31 The inscription is in fact a fake, forged in 1421, date of its ‘discovery’, as ‘proof’ of the antiquity of the site and its alleged relationship with the legendary event.
Élisabeth Laget-Mognetti, ‘L’abbaye de Montmajour’, in Congrès archéologique de France, 134, 1976, Pays d’Arles, Paris 1979, p. 220

32 Ibid., p. 220-234
Bastié, Aldo (ed.), ‘Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Montmajour. Histoire et patrimoine’, in Proceedings of the IIe Rencontres Historiques d’Arles, Arles, 4-5th May 1966, Arles, 2000, p. 288

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