Abbaye de Lerins – France

Abbaye de Lerins

Around 410 – 412 A.D. Honorat Caprais and a company of devotees, moving through a post-Roman Mediterranean world, visited the smaller of the two islands off the coast of what was to become modern-day Cannes.  In late-May, 2012 A.D., Claudie and I motored through the post-film festival streets of the city and were dropped at the harbor by Evelyne, Claudie’s friend. Honorat, who was to become a saint, laid the foundation for what is today the Monastery of Lerins.  Our visit would be more humble.

As with most places, people and events in Provence, the history of this island – 500 metres broad and 1500 metres long – is a tangled complexity: the rule of Benedictine monks in the 7th century; the invasion of Saracens in the late-millennium; the recapturing of the site by Christians from the mainland; the establishing of a fortified monastery in the 13th century; occupation by Spanish troops in the 17th century; the possession of the site by the state after the French Revolution in 1791 and finally becoming a Cistercian monastery in 1865, to mention some events.

At the Cannes harbour I saw a monk weaving his way through the people on the quay.  He was wearing a white cassock and a black scapula (a kind of drape over the horizontals) – a tradition from St Bernard of Clairvaux who decreed white cassocks instead of black for the newly burgeoning order of Cistercians.  That was ten centuries ago. In the Cannes harbour shark-like ocean cruisers seem to be lying in wait, eyeing the world through sleek eyes.

The two islands of Iles de Lerins are the larger St Marguerite and the smaller St Honorat.  Both islands have rich vegetation, dominated by deep green Aleppo pines that remind me of the Western Cape umbrella trees on the slopes of Devil’s Peak.  Between these two outcrops, a distance of perhaps 400 metres, the sea is dense with boats – yachts, motorboats and even a sail ship.  The journey in bright unexpected sunshine (after predictions of dour weather) took 25 minutes.  We trundled up from the landing, rolling our suitcases, discovering soon that the place is badly sign-posted – a good sign: it hasn’t succumbed to commercial thinking.

Along the path we passed some inauspicious ruins, a few knee-high stone walls, crumbling, overgrown with creeper and grass.  The plaque informed us that this was Chapelle St Michel that had been erected on Roman ruins.  How available the past is here!  In South Africa, we can only take cogniscance that we have the oldest human history on earth; we can’t touch it.

The gateway with headless figure

We came to a fork in the forest path. I thought, if we take the one less travelled we probably won’t get anywhere.  But a striking remnant of a centuries-old gateway, tall and ornately baroque, gave us our cue.  As I looked up at it I noticed that the figure at the apex had no head.


Moments later we emerged from the trees and saw a vineyard.  I’d read about the Cistercians being independent communities with their forms of entrepreneurship and that this monastery was known for excellent wines.  A little sign on a gate Acces Reserve aux Moines  with a caricature of a hooded monk told us that we did not have the freedom of the vineyard.  Above the line of fresh green vine leaves was the august tower of the monastery and I knew I was in Europe.

In the next twenty minutes we reported at the reception of the monastery and were shown our accommodation.  If you can imagine upmarket spartan then that is what our room was like – the best of the bare necessities.

We were soon instructed that this was a place of silence and that there would be no loud conversations – not even in the rooms.  Meals would be had with other visitors, also in silence.

We strolled around the place ushered by a little grey-thatch man with a beak Mediterranean nose and restless eyes, probably a lay brother, a post also established from the earliest days.  The architecture distantly evokes the world of Ravenna with its conical towers and tiled rooves. The pathway to the main entrance is overarched with palms.

The cathedral itself is impressive – romanesque and unadorned, light-filled vaults.  I recalled that St Bernard, in his fervor, had disapproved of statuary and other art in places of worship, a little like certain Protestants some centuries later who scrubbed off the art from cathedral walls.  The crucifix above the starkly simple altar was draped with white cloths on each side of the upright and bathed in a smallish glow from a spotlight.

What is remarkable about this 15th century crucifix, not that well proportioned, is that the Christ-figure is smiling, aptly called Le Christ souriant. It has been said that the smile prefigures the resurrection. To my knowledge this is unique in the history of the cruciform.

We took our evening meal in silence with over 50 other visitors, pilgrims and rest-seekers an experience that left Claudie and me ambivalent:  if you cannot talk to your fellows at table, you even tend to avoid eye-contact.  In the thickness of this non-communication, Claudie and I did our share of drinking only to each other with our eyes.

Sunday morning we sat in the Pentacostal mass at the base of the columns that fountain their arches pervaded by the a capella liturgy of the monks.

Will van der Walt ©

Mardi 29 Mai 2012

Sources of images: Photos by Will & Christ Souriant by


One Response to Abbaye de Lerins – France

  1. Dan says:

    What a beautifully written piece of prose. Well done Will!

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