ABBAYE DU THORONET – “the very stones …”

This lens through which we see things … can it change, grow, shrink, even disappear?  Who are we, watching the world we travel in?

I took the A8 highway north-west from Antibes on the Côte d’Azur and travelling about 80 kms. moved through  800 years, or at least, to the place made by those who lived then.  Armed with knowledge of Romanesque architecture and the lives and history of Cistercian monks, I approached this abbaye, planned and erected in the historically pivotal 12th-century.

The basilica form and bell tower

The basilica form and bell tower

I saw the plain eastern facade, compared it with the majestic portals of Notre Dame de Paris, Chartres and Vezelay.  The outline of the basilica was there, an echo of the earliest Italian basilicas, and, if you take it far enough, edifices in ancient Egypt.  But already the sheer isolation of the abbey was touching me.  It would probably have taken these monks days, if not a week, of walking before they came upon other human beings.  Who were these people who sought such total severance from the ways of the world?  The Cistercian movement rose in 1098.  Under Bernard of Clairvaux the movement grew to 280 abbeys by his death in 1154 and to 500 in France alone by 1200.

There are two modest entrances, one not used.  I cross the threshold into the permanent dusk of the church.  There are no electric lights.  This is what the monks experienced eight hundred years ago.  Far above me is the barrel vaulting with the merest hint of a Gothic point, a meeting of two architectural eras.

Nave and altar (west)

Nave and altar (west)

I am alone in the church.  The great stone pillars pour from the height into the stone floor.  There is nothing else, no ornamentation, no figuration.  Wait … at the nave I dimly see a statue that could be a figure of Christ and, on the opposite side, figures of a Mother and Child.  These are probably recent additions.

Light from the east

Light from the east

But the light … The windows have no stained-glass colour.  There are three on the western side, above the altar, and three on the eastern   ̶   to suggest the Trinity.  The church was built on an east-west axis, so that sunrise would illumine morning prayers and sunset, the evening prayers.  The monks lived with an expectation of Christ’s return in morning light.  Of this light, Le Corbusier said in the early-1950s, “The light and shadow are the loudspeakers of this architecture of truth.”

Chapter Hall

Chapter Hall

It is noticeable that the adjoining buildings  ̶  the cloisters, the chapter hall, the dormitories, the lavabo  ̶  are built on a slope so that the church could be erected on the highest point of the site, a firm rock surface serving as a foundation as well as providing a symbolism. I walk through these spaces, admiring especially the gracious low-vaulting of the chapter hall.  It bursts from the floor like thick stylized branches, the most striking ground-level ornamentation at the abbey.  The cloisters themselves, with simple, muscular column arches, were the hub of life for the monks, where they meditated   ̶   the steps of the cloisters are worn smooth  ̶   where they studied and perhaps relaxed.

Stairs worn by centuries of use

Stairs worn by centuries of use

It appears a small world to me.  To them, it was the beginning of eternity.  I wonder about them, these people who maintained this life for more than six hundred years until the deconsecration of the abbey in 1785.  Who were they?  Who am I, asking this question?  Perhaps my wonderment at these people, my admiration and even respect, come from the world I inhabit, belonging to a tribe that is a little more than 350 years old, who did not have a literature to speak of in the year 1900, whose language, Afrikaans, was recognised as late as 1926, whose folk music never discovered the minor-key. Perhaps too, fundamental to the lens through which I see Thoronet, is my Methodist (Protestant) upbringing that has evolved to the ubiquitous sensual-sceptical worldview of the 20th-century. To this I add my “tic”:  agnostic-mystic.

Cloister

Cloister

But my lens is also my individuality and maybe that  keeps a lens from constricting my experience.  As a teenager it came to me that a church is fullest when it is empty.  I return to the church, not empty as it was when I arrived.  Now a different kind of fullness awaits me.

I am preceded by a babble of school kids who filter out at  the entrance.  A small huddle of adults with their tour guide gathers between the few simple pews.  While they chat in subdued tones, the guide explaining and informing, I take up a position at the back of the church, marvelling anew at the space.   The Middle Ages were times when most  people lived in cramped wooden structures and here over me is the vaulting of stone, the material that symbolized eternity for those lives.  This would be how you represent the House of God on earth.  One writer speaks of Thoronet as “the measure of perfection”. Modern architects, generally speaking, do not feel such  weight, what occupied their Medieval counterparts with a profundity that is beyond us.  Then too, they had knowledge and skills that even today we do not fully understand and about which we can only speculate.  This was the science of acoustics, something I experienced for the first time years ago at Kloster Eberbach on the banks of the Rhine in Germany, also a Cistercian monastery.

The Cloister at the heart of the lives of monks

The Cloister at the heart of the lives of monks

The tour guide, a Corsican by name Antoine, I hear later, a thin man with thick grey-black wavy hair, moves from the tourists to the centre of the nave.  He begins a Gregorian chant, though it might too, be his own improvisation.  He strolls to the chapel to the right of the nave and down the broad, empty side aisle.  And he sings.  Suddenly the church has a choir.  He walks past me at the back of the church where I am sitting. And he sings. It is as if the towering arches of vaulting embrace his voice, as if the rising stone columns harmonize with  the voice, as the gold of the sound fills everything.  He strolls down the other side aisle, returning to the nave.  He stands before the altar and lets silence descend.  His tour group have no words. Hours, days, after I leave Thoronet, perhaps even for the years to come, the voice fills the vaults of my brain.  It may that be that the lens through which I have seen these things, heard these things, experienced them, can vanish after all.

The very stones shall sing

The very stones shall sing

 

 

 

© Will van der Walt

www.willwilltravel.wordpress.com

Thursday 28th May, 2015

Sources:  Friederich Heer:  The Medieval World (1961)

Jean-Yves Andrieux:  L’Abbaye du Thoronet (Belin Herscher 2001)

Wikipedia:  Thoronet Abbey

Photos:  Will

 

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