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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 850 – 1050

AD 850 – 1050

History

The foundation of a religious community on the Montmajour island might have been inspired by a similar, early Christian foundation south of Arles.8 In 949 archbishop Manasses and Gontard, provost of the chapter, gave “the island of St Peter which is named ‘of the Greater Mount’” to Teucinde, noblewoman from Arles and Gontard’s sister, in exchange of her property of Barcianicus. In 955 a charter mentions the “monastery of St Mary Mother of God and of St Peter the Apostle”, the “brothers who serve the Lord Christ Jesus there” and “Norgaldus, superior in charge of the monks”.9 From 960 on the community received substantial donations from the local aristocracy and was reputedly granted exemption between 963 and 998. In 977 Teucinde bequeathed “the island which the common man calls Monte Majour” as a legacy to “Mary Mother of God and to Peter, prince of the Apostles” and to abbot Mauringus and his monks. While the “island of St Peter” mentioned in 949 would suggest the existence of a chapel dedicated to the “prince of the Apostles”, the additional mention of the Mother of God since 955 would most likely refer to a second sanctuary created in the meantime by the monastic community.10

In the 10th century Arles, capital of the ‘Kingdom of Arles’ until 1032, became the ‘first city in Provence’.11 Provence became a county under Burgundian rule. The destruction of the Arab strongholds on the coast in 972, increased the power of the counts who adopted the title of ‘Marquis of Provence’ and whose descendants became the chief benefactors of Montmajour. The wealthiest monastic institution in Provence at the end of the 10th century 12 became a dynastic burial place 13 and the increasing aristocratic influence reduced the independence of the abbey.14 In 1016 was begun the construction of a new church dedicated to the Virgin and All The Saints.15 In 1018 Count Guillaume IV was buried “with honour in the foundation of this church”.16 His mother Adalaïde (+ 1026) and Geoffroy I (+ 1059/1063) were likewise buried in the new church]

After 1016 and before 1030 a ‘crypt’ also called ‘church’ in the same source was dedicated to the Holy Cross, a relic of which being in the possession of the monastery.18 Upon the same occasion an indulgence was granted to pilgrims visiting the church on the anniversary of the event, in order to finance the ongoing construction of the new church of St Mary.19 A church of St Peter is mentioned before 1079 in a liturgical text listed in a lectionary from Montmajour.20

Archaeology

Though no archaeological evidence has yet been found of any construction related to the very first buildings of the monastery, a levelling of the site in the late 10th or early 11th century, including material from a late antique context, has been evidenced by the archaeological survey of the destroyed western parts of the Romanesque abbey] The diverging position of these structures, being the earliest of the Romanesque monastery, suggests the pre-existence of an earlier complex at the time of their erection around 1100.22 Fig. 5 The extensive carving of the bedrock which reshaped the top and northern slope of the hill nearly completely when the monastery was rebuilt in the 12th and 13th centuries and again in the 18th century accounts for the absence of visible remains of securely dated earlier traces.

Fig. 5: Montmajour. Plan of the cellar remains (10th-12th centuries). Credit: F. Paone, INRAP

Fig. 5: Montmajour. Plan of the cellar remains (10th-12th centuries). Credit: F. Paone, INRAP

The oldest extant building, the chapel of St Peter, was erected in the second quarter or third of the 11th century in one of the rocky shelters in the cliff on the south side. Fig. 6 The seemingly awkward choice of the site and the semi-troglodyte construction of the church suggest that the natural cave had been used previously by the community.23 The chapel consists of a barrel-vaulted main nave supported by round arches resting on ashlar pillars flanked by columns. Fig. 7 Fig. 8 Unlike the (heavily restored) southern wall which is entirely built in masonry, the aisle on the north side was completely excavated from the wall and ceiling of the natural cave. On the east side, the main nave is terminated by a vaulted apse, a passage nearby, flanked by an ornate pillar Fig. 9, leading to a series of narrow and low chambers, equally built into the natural hollow and contained by the continuing south wall of the church. The same wall also includes a separate vaulted vestibule on the western side which was designed as a burial place, with graves carved into the bedrock alongside the northern wall. The original access to the chapel remains uncertain as it was replaced by the actual staircase descending to the chapel from the top of the hill. Columns of a similar type as those found in Saint-Pierre were re-used in the windows of the main apse of Notre-Dame Fig. 10. This suggests that they were saved from destruction when the 11th century church was pulled down for the new church.24

Fig. 6: Montmajour. View of the chapel of St Peter. Credit: A. Hartmann-Virnich

Fig. 6: Montmajour. View of the chapel of St Peter. Credit: A. Hartmann-Virnich

Fig. 7: Montmajour. Interior of chapel of St Peter (second quarter or third of the 11th century), oldest extant building in elevation. Credit: A. Hartmann-Virnich

Fig. 7: Montmajour. Interior of chapel of St Peter (second quarter or third of the 11th century), oldest extant building in elevation. Credit: A. Hartmann-Virnich

Fig. 8: Montmajour. The capitals, closely related to those in the contemporary tetraconch of Venasque in northern Provence and in the cloisters of the Burgundian abbey of Tournus, being adorned either with both foliate capitals loosely inspired by the Corinthian prototype, or with geometric interlace. Credit: A. Hartmann-Virnich

Fig. 8: Montmajour. The capitals, closely related to those in the contemporary tetraconch of Venasque in northern Provence and in the cloisters of the Burgundian abbey of Tournus, being adorned either with both foliate capitals loosely inspired by the Corinthian prototype, or with geometric interlace. Credit: A. Hartmann-Virnich

Fig. 9: Montmajour. Chapel of St Peter, ornate pillar. Credit: A. Hartmann-Virnich

Fig. 9: Montmajour. Chapel of St Peter, ornate pillar. Credit: A. Hartmann-Virnich

Fig. 10: Montmajour. Column re-used in the windows of the main apse of Notre-Dame. Credit: A. Hartmann-Virnich

Fig. 10: Montmajour. Column re-used in the windows of the main apse of Notre-Dame. Credit: A. Hartmann-Virnich

Art and Architecture

Original Charters and Manuscripts (11th-12th centuries)

Few charters and manuscripts from Montmajour have survived. The abbey’s earliest charter, written on parchment, is dated to the year 977.25 Most significant documents known today were preserved as copies in the 15th-century cartulary 26, a rather poor substitute for a very important lot of medieval archives which were largely lost or destroyed like elsewhere, like the liturgical objects of the abbey which have also disappeared.

For the same reasons very few liturgical books of the 11th or 12th centuries have survived and only two illuminated lectionaries from the Romanesque period are known to have allegedly been created at Montmajour.27 The most valuable of these lectionaries includes 95 folios decorated with 66 polychrome initials Fig. 11 Fig. 12 and two biblical scenes. Fig. 13 Fig. 14 The second book totals 106 folios, less ornate, with only 15 initials. Fig. 15 These illuminations are largely inspired by early mediaeval prototypes and reflect in particular the insular tradition in Carolingian an Ottonian manuscripts. Earlier traditions, probably transmitted by Carolingian prototypes, are reminiscent of late Antiquity like the ‘temple facade’ motive in one of the lectionaries. Fig. 16 This might suggest the existence of a local or on a larger scale a southern form of artistic expression consistent with the influence of the antique heritage in the architecture and sculpture of Romanesque Provence.

Fig. 11: Initial letter in zoomorphe style, 11th-12th centuries. Credit: BNF, ms. Lat. 889, fol. 13

Fig. 11: Initial letter in zoomorphe style, 11th-12th centuries. Credit: BNF, ms. Lat. 889, fol. 13

Fig. 12: Initial letter with a stylize animal, 11th-12th centuries. Credit: BNF, ms. Lat. 889, fol. 47v

Fig. 12: Initial letter with a stylize animal, 11th-12th centuries. Credit: BNF, ms. Lat. 889, fol. 47v

Fig. 13: Heavenly Jerusalem on two folios, 11th-12th centuries. Credit: BNF, ms. Lat. 889, fol. 5v-6

Fig. 13: Heavenly Jerusalem on two folios, 11th-12th centuries. Credit: BNF, ms. Lat. 889, fol. 5v-6

Fig. 14: St Paul receiving the law from Christ Pantocrator, 11th-12th centuries. Credit: BNF, ms. Lat. 889, fol. 7v

Fig. 14: St Paul receiving the law from Christ Pantocrator, 11th-12th centuries. Credit: BNF, ms. Lat. 889, fol. 7v

Fig. 15: Initial letter in the zoomorphe style, 11th-12th centuries. Credit: BNF, ms. Lat. 889, fol. 79v

Fig. 15: Initial letter in the zoomorphe style, 11th-12th centuries. Credit: BNF, ms. Lat. 889, fol. 79v

Fig. 16: Facade of a Christian temple, with pediment, which reminiscent a late Antiquity theme. Credit: Latin 889, fol. 5

Fig. 16: Facade of a Christian temple, with pediment, which reminiscent a late Antiquity theme. Credit: Latin 889, fol. 5

References

8 A monastery located on a suburban island in the Rhone river south of Arles is mentioned at the time of archbishop Aeonius (ca. 494-502).
Février, Paul-Albert, ‘Arles’, in Février, Paul-Albert, Topographie chrétienne de cités de la Gaule des origines au milieu du VIIIe siècle, III, Provinces ecclésiastiques de Vienne et d’Arles, Viennensis et Alpes Graiae et Poeninae, Paris, 1986, p. 84. Two churches were still in existence at the time of archbishop Noton, in 827.
Albanès, Joseph-Hyacinthe, Gallia Christiana Novissima, III, Arles, Valence, 1900, col. 79-81; Février, Paul-Albert, ‘Arles’, in Février, Paul-Albert, Topographie chrétienne de cités de la Gaule des origines au milieu du VIIIe siècle, III, Provinces ecclésiastiques de Vienne et d’Arles, Viennensis et Alpes Graiae et Poeninae, Paris, 1986, p. 77, fig. AH

9 Laget-Mognetti, Élisabeth, L’abbaye de Montmajour, Ph.D. Thèse de l‘École des Chartes, Paris, 1969, p. 46

10 Ibid, p. 43-44
Magnani, Éliane, Monastères et Aristocratie en Provence, milieu Xe -début XIIe siècle, Vita Regularis. Ordnungen und Deutungen religiösen Lebens im Mittelalter, 10, Münster, 1999, p. 610

11 Stouff, Louis, La ville d’Arles à la fin du Moyen Age, Aix-en-Provence, 1979, p. 61

12 Laget-Mognetti, Élisabeth, ‘L’abbaye de Montmajour’, in Congrès archéologique de France, 134, 1976, Pays d’Arles, Paris 1979, p. 187

13 Rouquette, Jean-Maurice (dir.), Arles, histoire, territoires et cultures, Paris, 2008, p. 264-265

14 Magnani, Éliane, Monastères et Aristocratie en Provence, milieu Xe -début XIIe siècle, Vita Regularis. Ordnungen und Deutungen religiösen Lebens im Mittelalter, 10, Münster, 1999, Chapter 2

15 The mention of the king of France in a foreign political context seems enigmatic.

16 After Dom Chantelou, author of a manuscript history of Montmajour (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, ms. Lat. 13915) quoted in Laget-Mognetti, Élisabeth, ‘L’abbaye de Montmajour’, in Congrès archéologique de France, 134, 1976, Pays d’Arles, Paris 1979, p. 187.

17 All the dynastic graves were transferred later on to the Romanesque cloisters when the major abbey church was entirely rebuilt in the 12th century.
Rouquette, Jean-Maurice, Provence romane 1. La Provence rhodanienne, La Pierre-qui-Vire, 1974 (Zodiaque), p. 360
Laget-Mognetti, Élisabeth, ‘L’abbaye de Montmajour’, in Congrès archéologique de France, 134, 1976, Pays d’Arles, Paris 1979, p. 187

18 Rambert, seventh abbot of Montmajour, had invited Archbishop Pons (d. 1030) to dedicate this “crypt of stunning construction” which he had built.
Laget-Mognetti, Élisabeth, ‘L’abbaye de Montmajour’, in Congrès archéologique de France, 134, 1976, Pays d’Arles, Paris 1979, p. 187

19 Ibid.

20 Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, ms. lat. 889. A sermon was to be read “in the basilica of St. Peter on the day of Holy Pentecost”, and likewise another “in the basilica of St. Mary on the holy day of Easter” (quoted in Laget-Mognetti, Élisabeth, ‘L’abbaye de Montmajour’, in Congrès archéologique de France, 134, 1976, Pays d’Arles, Paris 1979, p. 188).

21 Paone, Françoise, ‘Arles. Montmajour : Monastère Saint-Maur’, in Bilan scientifique. Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Service Régional de l’Archéologie, Aix-en-Provence, 1995, p. 116

22 Ibid.

23 The similar case of a late antique cubiculum under the church of the concurrent abbey of Saint-Victor near Marseille, which was also transformed into a chapel in the 11th century, might also account for a conscious choice of a site which could be convincingly related to early Christianity, though this intention was not explicit or made obvious by fake ‘evidence’ before the 15th century. Hartmann-Virnich, Andreas, ‘L’abbaye de Montmajour’, in Rouquette, 2008, p. 354-356; Démians d’Archimbaud, Gabrielle; Esquieu, Yves; Fixot, Michel and Hartmann-Virnich, Andreas: ‘Espaces d’accueil et pôles occidentaux dans l’architecture religieuse préromane et romane de Provence’, in Sapin, Christian (ed.), Avant-nefs et espaces d’accueil dans l‘église entre le IVe et le XIIe siècle. Proceedings of the International Colloquium of Auxerre, 17-20th June 1999, Editions du CTHS, 2002, p. 180-203
Hartmann-Virnich, Andreas ‘_Restauratio formae primitivis ecclesiae_. La construction d’une mémoire: l’évocation des premiers temps chrétiens dans l’architecture du premier âge roman. L’exemple de la Provence’, in Carozzi, Claude and Sato, Sho-Ichi (eds), Histoire, fiction, représentation, 21st Century COE Program of International Conference Series N. 8, March 2007 (Proceedings of the International French-Japanese Congress, Aix-en-Provence, 23-25th October 2006), Nagoya, 2007, p. 15-37

24 Hartmann-Virnich, Andreas, ‘Notre-Dame de Montmajour : les colonnettes du chevet et le groupe ‘Montmajour-Venasque-Tournus’ ’, in Fixot, Michel (ed.), Paul-Albert Février de l’Antiquité au Moyen Age, Proceedings of the International Colloquium at Fréjus, 7-8th April 2001, Aix-en-Provence, 2004, p. 97-110
The small size of the columns would have fitted the groin vaults of the crypt mentioned in the written source, rather than the pillars of the church itself.

25 Marseille, Archives Départementales des Bouches-du-Rhône, 2H1-650

26 Marseille, Archives Départementales des Bouches-du-Rhône, H(002)0092

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

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