This post was most recently updated on April 14th, 2016
Abbey Montmajour stands on a rocky outcropping in the middle of a beautiful plain just outside of Arles, France. It used to be an island in the sea marshes until they were drained. Ever since a community of Benedictine monks settled here in the 10th century, it has been a destination of intrigue, pilgrimage, and fascinating history.
Because this abbey was made entirely of stone, much has been preserved through the centuries. It is an amazing sight to see as you approach it by car — as it appears to rise above you.
No longer furnished, it stands empty — except for a few art installations. But the architecture is nothing short of spectacular, and it stands as tribute to the skill and devotion of those that built it. Admission was 7,50€ for adults while children under 18, students 18-25, the disabled, and the unemployed may enter free. It is well worth the price of admission to explore this incredible abbey and see the views from the top of the tower!
The Church of Saint Peter was the first church built here during the 11th century. It is currently undergoing reconstruction, so we were unable to view it. The relic of the True Cross kept there attracted so many pilgrims, that another reliquary church was built just outside of the complex to contain it: the Chapel of the Holy Cross. It was completed in the 12th century.
Within the walls of Montmajour, you will also find the Chapel of Notre-Dame-la-Blanche, built in the 12th century. Montmajour, as an abbey and monastery of the Benedictine Rule, expanded in wealth and influence. It included more land, fisheries, vineyards, olive groves, and forests. By the 13th century, there were 60 resident monks (a large number for that period of time). Additions to the abbey during the 14th and 15th centuries included a beautiful cloister, a sacristy, archives room, and galleries.
Black Plague and Hundred Years’ War
During the 14th century, the surrounding area suffered from the Black Plague (nearly half the population of Provence died) and also endured the hardships of The Hundred Years’ war. At this time, a fortified tower was built to help defend the abbey.
Abbey Montmajour’s abrupt end
In the 16th century, the Wars of Religion forced the monks to move back to Arles as soldiers of the Catholic League occupied Montmajour. When they returned only a few years later, the monastery was in ruins. In the 1600’s, it was given to a new Benedictine congregation, the Maurists. They begin a grandiose period of construction. In the 1700’s, the Saint Maur Monastery was built. Sixteen of the twenty-five planned bays had been built by the time of the French Revolution, but at that point the monastery was used as a stone quarry, with its roof removed and timbers stripped. Only ruins remain.
During World War II, the Nazis used Abbey Montmajour to store confiscated weapons. Before retreating in 1944 after Operation Dragoon, they set the munitions on fire. Although there was great damage, it did not prove fatal to the Abbey.
To walk among the remains of Abbey Montmajour is a very moving experience. We nearly had the abbey to ourselves the day we visited. I loved how the light poured in through the arches of the cloister.
I lifted my eyes to appreciate the heights of the vaulted ceilings in the Church of Notre Dame. Magnificent!
I climbed several stories to reach the top of the defensive tower. Dizzying!
And the view? See for yourself!
Not far below, I spied a farmer feeding his small herd of beautiful Camargue horses.
I imagined the arrows held ready to shoot marauders when I saw the arrow slits carved into rock.
And I thought of the desperation of a small group of monks who sought peace and enlightenment, trying to protect themselves and their lifestyle in the midst of so many wars and tribulation.
Strolling through the abbey enclosure was most definitely like revisiting a medieval time. We were there for a little over an hour, and it was time well-spent. A few minutes more spent in the Montmajour gift shop produced some beautiful postcards, and then we were on our way to our next stop, Chateau de Baux. For visiting hours and more information about the Abbey Montmajour, click here. You can explore on your own or join a French-speaking tour. Here’s a short video, taken from a courtyard behind the abbey (and featuring my son and daughter-in-law):
More interesting facts:
Because rock was so plentiful, graves were carved into the bare rock, and you can still see many of them open to the elements now. One legend states the graves held soldiers of Charlemagne, who had died defending against the Saracens.
Symbols carved into the cloister walls included many animals. Each was symbolic of a character trait similar to those of men, and represented the desire to subjugate those traits during the spiritual war between good and evil.
The monks of the Benedictine Rule promoted intellectual work. In 1739, the Montmajour library catalogued 2,346 works and by 1790, there were over 4,600. The monks read Moliere, Crebillon, Fontenelle, and Cervantes, among many.
Vincent Van Gogh walked to the surrounding fields of Abbey Montmajour at least 50 times while he lived in Arles. He loved to paint the workers as they struggled in the fields. He also painted scenes which included the abbey.
I hope that if you’re in the Arles area, you won’t miss this incredible ancient site. You won’t have to fight crowds of tourists, and you might leave feeling much more refreshed and enlightened!