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The Cloister  

at Le Mont Saint Michel

The Cloister


Due to the nature of the Mont and the way that the abbey has needed to be constructed, the cloister is on top of the rest of the abbey buildings and not at the centre of the complex. Despite this, the cloister which crowns the Merveille [1] has maintained the form and functions of other cloisters found in all other monasteries with just a few subtle differences which set it apart, turning it into a symbolic representation of an ideal monastic life.


As with other abbeys the cloister’s function is above all a communications centre inspired by the atrium of a Roman villa and providing access to all the essential rooms: to the east, the refectory and the kitchens which no longer exist; to the south, one door led to the church another to the dormitory; to the west, the three traditional apertures must have opened into the chapter hall that was never built and a small door led to the archives. Only the north gallery, in the direction of the sea was not meant to serve as a way of communication with other rooms. The principal functions of monastic life, except for work and reception, were thus distributed around the cloister.


The cloister also served as a passageway, and as in all the other monasteries, it was the place set aside for the monk’s personal meditation. Paradoxically, this symbolic centre of the Benedictine abbey, the very essence of which was the community life that St. Benedict considered the only truly monastic way of life is the only space in which the individual is more important than the community.


The columns are as tall as a man and are spaced a shoulder’s width apart. This difference in scale compared to the other rooms is all the more striking in view of the fact that truly imposing spaces must be crossed before arriving at the cloister. The impression of weightlessness aroused by the cloister as a whole is thus accentuated.

The purely physical need to make the cloister, which rests on the vaults of another room, as light as possible explains the airy quality which never fails to take the visitor’s breath away.


It was impossible, due to the restrictions of weight to cover the portico with stone vaults and columns and buttresses. The covering therefore had to be of wood, and the plastered barrel vault in wood provides the galleries with their astounding perspective.


The weight and thrust of the framework are sustained externally by thick solid granite walls, decorated with blind arcading, and inside by the double arcade, set slightly askew, with its two overlapping rows of pointed arches. These authentic small ogive cross vaults in between carried on the acutely pointed arches hollow out the wall and ensure the triangulation which provides the whole with a perfect stability.


Unusual esthetic effects combine with the physical advantages of this type of architecture. The unbroken continuity in the rhythm of the supports and the absence of the solid masonry at the corners permit the eye to move unhindered and at the same time assures an absolute transparency towards the centre of the cloister.


The cloister is designed to be closed off to the outside yet extremely open to the centre. It is placed so that no other building rises higher and the slope of the roof reaches directly up towards the sky drawing our attention upwards towards heaven giving the monks a continual reminder of the subject of their meditation.


Unfortunately for the original architect later restorations have considerably changed the character of the cloister. Practically all the columns, which were once made of limestone imported from England, were replaced in 1878 changing the colour and initial impact of the design. Even more damaging to the original design and purpose of the cloister is the opening of the three apertures walled up until the 19th century originally meant to lead to the un-built chapter hall. The opening of which transforms the cloister into a belvedere, with astounding views of the bay means our attention is now drawn to the sand and sea rather than the sky as had been the architect’s original intention. The creation of a garden at the centre of the cloister would have been impossible before modern methods of waterproofing were perfected. This addition is with thanks to Y. M. Froidevaux, an architect charged with the preservation of historical monuments, whose work left a deep mark on Mont Saint Michel in the latter part of the 19th century.


The restoration of the sculpture was not as radical above the small columns, is abundantly covered with sculpture. All the spandrels between the arches are filled with plant elements.

It is characterized by particularly deep carving, and by the fact that the decorative elements invaded the wall and tended to vanish from sight. In Mont Saint Michel the decorative elements project from the plane of the wall, all carved in depth with a marked play of dark and light.


It is possible that the sculptors are the three figures, don Garin, master Pierre and master Roger, represented in the south gallery. The only other figures in the decoration are a vintner in front of the refectory and, above all, four religious figures facing the openings which were to lead to the chapter hall. They depict St. Aubert, the founder, Christ on the Cross, Christ in Majesty and oddly enough, St. Francis of Assisi. Under the figure of Francis a scroll which disappeared in the revolution noted that the cloister had been completed in the year the saint was canonized, 1228. The representation of St. Francis is important on two counts: one is that this is one of the oldest portraits of the ‘Poverello’ who died in 1226; the other is that the figure is directly opposite the three openings which marked the abandonment of the construction yard of the Merveille.


The cloister of the Merveille, a major example of architecture, bearer of ideas that seem eternal, however still falls into a well-defined historical perspective.


[1]  The Merville is a collection of three buildings comprising of 6 rooms built along the north face of the Mont including the Salle des Chevaliers, Salle des Hôtes, the almonry, the monks refectory, the cellar and the guard room.