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Indomitable Mont Saint Michel

As I stand along the sandy shore looking up, I understand how Harold, earl of Wessex and William the Conqueror felt when they set eyes for the first time upon this citadel on a rock. Mont Saint Michel, in Normandy France, is grandiose the way waterfalls and mountain peaks are, as if not man but an act of God placed it there for eternity. Cathedrals in general tend to be imposing edifices, but to me they represent the transience of human history. Within their stained glass halls and gilded altars lies the truth that everything changes: empires fall, religions adapt, and manmade objects don’t stand the test of time. At Mont Saint Michel, I was struck for the first time by how human hands can create an eternal atmosphere. Alone in a vast bay that dries up at low tide, Mont Saint Michel appears immutable, a force of nature that will continue unchanged beyond the short span of mortal chronicles.

Although Mont Saint Michel shares the classical Romanesque features of other French churches, it is free of intricate carvings or tactile decorations.

Instead, the shadowy vaulted rooms and austere halls feel like caverns hewed into the earth.

Nature seems to have handcrafted the inside of the monastery. I feel the same reverence as I walk the ancient passageways that I felt when glancing down upon the Grand Canyon in the United States. The lack of ornamentation adds to the abbey’s enduring characteristic. At other historic cathedrals I study how colored glass was used to depict heaven’s light or how architectural design represents man’s idea of the infinite. Yet I am always mindful of man’s creativity in the overall ecclesiastic development. Ultimately these cathedrals display the artisan’s master hand and by doing so evoke a sense of the temporal. Mont Saint Michel, with its dark granite visage reaching for the heavens, melds man’s handiwork seamlessly with nature’s. In its appearance, in its architectural restraint, and in its structural composition, Mont Saint Michel remains ageless.

Legend has it that in the year 708, Aubert, the bishop of Avranches was visited by the archangel Michael in a dream. The archangel wanted a chapel built in his name upon a rocky outcrop on the Couesnon river. The bishop declined to obey the request, either because the task seemed impossible, or perhaps because he was of a more practical disposition. Archangel Michael revisited him, and to prove his seriousness, bore a hole in Aubert’s skull with his finger! Needless to say the bishop hurried to accomplish his commission. Mont Saint Michel’s creation is founded on a story of faith and for many centuries the abbey has been a touchstone for those who wished to renew their conviction in everlasting life. The devoted prayers of all the monks and penitents sheathes the cathedral in a cloak of invincibility. Mont Saint Michel is not only built upon a rock, but also upon the strength of faith and this provides the monastery an enduring legacy.

The abbey’s isolation adds to its inflexible character. Stranded a kilometer from France’s coast, this Romanesque cathedral presents an impregnable spirit to the world. The land on which the monastery was constructed survived relentless ocean erosion to become a lonely granite outcrop. Mont Saint Michel itself weathered countless wars and invasion attempts, always standing indomitable. Together the cathedral and the island on which it rests are united in their unyielding personality. Even as the marsh land around it erodes, Mont Saint Michel remains a solitary bastion, ostensibly unchangeable. It is one of the few instances where man’s work has become timeless, enduring beyond its brief history.

The sun sets on the tidal flats of the Couesnon and still I find myself staring at the silhouette of Mont Saint Michel. I believe bishop Aubert would be proud if he could see how his simple chapel has developed into a lasting testament. His faith, the cathedral’s architecture, and its solitary situation transform man’s artistry into an indestructible force of nature. From my viewpoint, the abbey is a lone beacon of steadfastness in an ever changing world. It is also a hopeful symbol for me that our creativity can endure time’s passage.


TRAVEL NOTE:

Mont Saint Michel is one of the few architectural landmarks depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, a famous embroidered cloth depicting the norman conquest of England in 1066.


 

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7 replies »

    • Stained glass is one of the best parts of visiting ancient European cathedrals! From what I understand, they melted glass with metallic oxides, then shaped it into sheets for the colored glass. Different metals would give the glass different colors. The artist’s design was sketched onto a table and the white and colored glass cut to match the different shapes. Then the panes were baked in a kiln and bound together with lead solder. After which the portions would be joined together by hand on the window opening using iron bars and wire strips. Altogether a very arduous and long process, but the results are gorgeous, I think!

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