It was exactly a millennium ago that the first stone of the abbey church of Mont Saint-Michel, in French Normandy, was laid. The monument that the poet Victor Hugo called the “Khéops of the West” has since become one of the highest symbols of French Catholic identity and one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world, with more than 3 million visitors a year.
This important anniversary will give rise to a number of celebrations that will continue through the fall of 2023.
Standing on relatively inhospitable terrain, enthroned on a rocky islet less than a kilometer in diameter, surrounded by a vast sandy plain subject to the vagaries of the tides, the UNESCO World Heritage site has stood the test of time, offering itself as a spectacle for dozens of generations to see.
Indeed, the history of this place of prayer and pilgrimage was as precarious and tumultuous as its surroundings.
While the construction of the present abbey church dates back to 1023, a first church dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel is said to have been built as early as 708 on the mount, then known as Mont-Tombe.
According to “Revelation,” the oldest text reporting the context of the abbey’s construction (written around the beginning of the 11th century), St. Aubert, then-bishop of Avranches, was visited three times in a dream by the archangel, who instructed him to erect a sanctuary in his honor on the summit of the site, “so that he whose venerable commemoration was celebrated at Mont Gargan [the first great shrine dedicated to the Leader of the Celest Army, in the Puglia region of Italy] might be celebrated with no less fervor in the middle of the sea.”
St. Aubert undertook the building of a first church with the capacity of about a hundred people, consecrated in October 709, and given the name Mont-Saint-Michel-au-péril-de-la-Mer. The prelate installed 12 canons there, responsible for praying the Divine Office and welcoming local pilgrims.
The canons were replaced in the 10th century by Benedictine monks at the behest of Richard I, duke of Normandy, who had little taste for the canons’ opulent lifestyle.
In 1023, the order undertook the construction of the abbey church we know today, based on three rock-cut crypts and the former chapel. This ambitious project marked a decisive step in the international outreach of the site, where miracles abounded as the flow of pilgrims from all over Christendom expanded.
“This edifice is like Noah’s ark laid over the crypts,” said François Saint-James, a guide and lecturer at Mont Saint-Michel, in an interview with Le Devoir newspaper, underlining the architectural prowess required for this medieval project. “It was a time when France was covered with a white cloak of churches, as a monk from Cluny once wrote. You have to imagine the gigantic scale of the work. The granite blocks were cut on the Chausey islands, 34 kilometers from here. Caen stone, a soft, light stone that’s easy to carve, was used. ... When, in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War, the Romanesque choir collapsed, it was rebuilt in flamboyant Gothic style.”
While the abbey’s architectural evolution continued uninterrupted until the 19th century, one of its highest points was the construction of “La Merveille” (The Wonder) in the 13th century, a jewel of Norman Gothic art. It consists of two buildings on three levels, supported by high buttresses, with a cloister and refectory, 80 meters above sea level, beneath which were built an almshouse, a storeroom, and guest rooms.
The fame of the shrine started to decline in the 17th century, when part of the abbey was turned into a prison by the royal power. Seized by central government during the revolution, it became a detention center for priests deemed hostile to the Jacobin terror.
In the 19th century, the site, listed as a historic monument in 1874, was gradually returned to monastic life and its original vocation as a sanctuary. The abbey’s distinctive silhouette was further enhanced by a neo-Gothic spire in 1897, topped by a gilded statue of the archangel.
To mark its 1,000th anniversary, a special tribute is being paid to the abbey that many have dubbed the “Wonder of the West” with the exhibition “La Demeure de l’Archange” (The Archangel’s Abode) retracing its glorious and tumultuous history through some 30 masterpieces, until Nov. 5. Many of these items, which include sculptures, scale models, statues, and silverware, will be on display to visitors to the abbey for the first time.
Another highlight of the many celebrations taking place over the summer and part of the autumn will be the “Millennium Solstice,” a never-before-seen light show projected onto Mont Saint-Michel from various spots in the bay on the evening of June 23.
The beauty of this sacred site, trodden by millions of pilgrims over the centuries, has been celebrated and immortalized in the writings of many great men of letters over the last few centuries, from Gustave Flaubert to Théophile Gautier and Victor Hugo. In particular, it inspired the novel “Les Merveilles du Mont Saint-Michel” (1879) by the prolific writer Paul Féval. He had already paid tribute to the monument a few years earlier, in “La Fée des grèves,” with these lines often quoted by admirers of the famous Mont:
“Twilight broke. Mont-Saint-Michel was the first to emerge from the shadows, offering the golden wings of its archangel to the reflections of the dawning dawn; then the sides of Normandy and Brittany lit up in turn. Then again, a sort of light steam seemed to rise from the receding sea, and all was veiled except for the statue of Saint Michael, which dominated this wide ocean of mist.”
Solène Tadié is the Europe Correspondent for the National Catholic Register. She is French-Swiss and grew up in Paris. After graduating from Roma III University with a degree in journalism, she began reporting on Rome and the Vatican for Aleteia. She joined L’Osservatore Romano in 2015, where she successively worked for the French section and the Cultural pages of the Italian daily newspaper. She has also collaborated with several French-speaking Catholic media organizations. Solène has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
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St. Frances dreamed of becoming a nun, but in obedience to her parents' wishes and the advice of her confessor, she agreed to marry. Her life of charity and service is a model for wives and mothers to this day.