…on to Fontevraud Abbey (Pt. III)

Fontevraud Abbey:

What can one say? The tombs of Henry II, Richard, Isabelle d’Angoulême and Aliénor (dare one be on first name basis with that lady?)

 It rained. The countryside is somewhat rolling hills with fields and a few forested areas. The abbey sits in somewhat of a dip and one has to walk through a narrow passage from the parking lot to get to it, go through the modern,  well-stocked visitors’ center (I checked out the books, of course), and there it was, right in front of you.

Amazing. And it stopped raining and the sun peeked out.

The place wears well its almost ten centuries.

The interior with its surprisingly light, soaring space and cupolas reduces one to size, compelling humility and piety, if one is so inclined. Some people describe it as ‘lacking in warmth and intimacy,’ but I was awe-struck by it.

The tombs that used to cover the bodies (destroyed during the French Revolution) are set in the middle of the nave; people leave flowers by Aliénor’s effigy.

The place is sizeable with major alterations and additions made over the centuries. The famous kitchens date to the 12th century, as do parts of the abbey church, all set among gardens of lush greenery.

It is easy to forget that the place served as a prison from l804 until the 1960s, housing over the years political prisoners and otherwise. Rooms were carved out of the large spaces to house some 1,000 inmates,  resulting in the consequent destruction of the interior features.

????????????????????????????????????In going over the place, I discovered fragments of frescoes that have been recovered, including the feet of Raymond of Toulouse and the coats of arms of several Plantagenets.


Because of the many changes, the queen-duchess would have recognized only a few features of this place where she took the veil before her death on April 1, 1204 (or thereabouts)—but I could not deny its impact on me. Aaaahmezing!

Could this lovely carving next to the entry be her in her youth?

A few comments–I don’t consider myself a philistine when it comes to modern art, and since the abbey now must partly pay for its keep, I understand that it offers exhibit space as a cultural center.

However, when we visited, the cloister garth had a ‘exhibit’ installation which I at first thought was construction scaffolding. It was a monstrous series of wooden walkways that filled the whole garth, and frankly, looked like a fist in the eye. Moreover, since it rained (as I guess it does in that part of the world), the planking was slippery and the words “major liability suit” sprung to mind of one from this side of the pond. The artist’s purpose, apparently, was to replicate the way the prisoners used to walk up and down the stairs of the abbey….

My question is this: since there already are real stairs that the prisoners really walked on, what’s the point of putting up that monstrosity to depict it? I had expressed that sentiment to a visitor (who was a Frenchman) and the young man rolled his eyes and shook his head—my reaction exactly.

Another installation was in the nuns’ dormitory—a barn-like room with wooden rafting on what would be the second floor. I would love to have seen the workmanship of the rafting (I think it was l6th or l7th century), but the place was dark—not just dark, pitch black.

Once my eyes adjusted, I noticed that the artist hanged from the ceiling a curved line of what looked like long neon tubes that emitted sort of reddish light without actually lighting up whatever there was underneath on the floor.

Good thing I stopped and saved my shins because in the middle of the floor were what looked like wooden barges, painted or draped in black. I couldn’t tell. It looked like I had stumbled into the departure lounge to Hades—interesting, I suppose, but all I thought about was that those red lights are perfect to give someone who suffers from epilepsy a seizure. Can you say “major liability suit”?

After trooping around for several hours, we departed just as it began to mist, very gently. For the rest of the road to Chinon, we dwelled on Fontevraud’s historical life. Like I said—altogether amazing.

                     Crest of abbess Mathilde, playing her part in The Sixth Surrender as well.

About Hana Samek Norton

I am a historian who writes 'history with a story' in off-duty hours.
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