Fontenay Abbey, Burgundy

NESTLED in its own valley of the Châtillonnais (Côte-d’Or) region of Burgundy, a few kilometers from Montbard, the Cistercian abbey of Fontenay was founded by St. Bernard of Clairvaux in 1118 on the site of a former hermitage on land donated by his maternal uncle. The main church building was begun c.1139 on a more suitable site donated by another uncle and was consecrated in 1147 by Pope Eugenius III, a friend and protégé of St. Bernard. By 1200 the monastic complex that survives today was largely complete and large enough to serve 300 monks. Additions to the main complex continued. In 1269 it became a French royal abbey. The two-story gate house was added in the 15th century, as was the present roofing of the dormitory. The present abbot's house was constructed in the 18th century.

The monastery suffered during the Hundred Years’ War — when it was pillaged in 1359 by the English under Edward III — and began its decline in the 16th century during the Wars of Religion. In 1745 the large refectory was destroyed. The monastery was secularized during the French Revolution. In 1790 the remaining eight monks left the abbey and in 1791 it was sold to the Huyot family, which turned it into a paper mill that remained in business until 1906.

In 1852 the monastery was designated a French national historic site. Its present owners, the Ayard family, restored the complex from 1906 to 1911 in a form closely resembling its original. The dormitory was restored in 1960. In 1981 Fontenay was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site; and restoration continued into the 1990s. Today the monastery welcomes nearly 120,000 visitors a year.

One of the most striking aspects of the monastery was the use of its mill run to power the heavy metal-working hammers that dominated its forges, a technical innovation that represents a major breakthrough in Western technology. The iron ore for the forge was mined from a local hill. The forge's furnace was powered by charcoal from the neighboring forests of the Châtillonnais, the destruction of which helped fuel the iron industry of the region.

The architecture of Fontenay is one of the best preserved examples of the austere and powerful Cistercian style, which eschewed the lovely representational sculptural tradition of Cluny and other Burgundian centers of Benedictine monasticism and embraced Bernard's call for simplicity, abstraction and purity of line.

To view the gallery of photos, go to Plan.

For Italica Press titles that focus on medieval monasticism and religious life, see:

Eileen Gardiner, Visions of Heaven & Hell Before Dante

William Melczer, Pilgrim's Guide to Santiago de Compostela

Francesco Petrarch, On Religious Leisure (De otio religioso)

Peter Speed, Those Who Prayed.

Further Reading:

Auberger, Jean-Baptiste, OFM. Mystère de Fontenay: La spiritualité de Saint Bernard en majesté. St. Léger Vauban: Zodiaque, 2001.

Aynard, François and Nicolas Bruant. Fontenay, l'abbaye et son vallon. Huitième jour. N.d.

Bazin, Jean-François. Fontenay Abbey. Trans. by Angela Moyon. Rennes: Ouest-France, 1987.

Bégule, Lucien. The Abbey of Fontenay. Malakoff: L. T.-H. Laurens, 1986.

Boutevin, Patrick. Fontenay Abbey. Moisenay: Gaud, 1994.

Hatot, Thierry, François Aynard, and Anne-Marie Piaulet. Abbaye de Fontenay. Clermont-Ferrand: L'Instant durable, 2000.

Seurot, Patrick and Lyonel Chocat. Fontenay, abbaye médiévale. Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne: La Taillanderie, 2001.

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