Founded in 1100, the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud (Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud) is now a museum and cultural center. The beautifully restored abbey complex includes a Romanesque abbey church with royal tombs, a lovely Renaissance cloister and a fascinating Byzantine-Romanesque kitchen.
History of Fontevraud Abbey
Despite its present grandeur, Fontevraud Abbey had humble beginnings. It was founded in 1100 by Robert d'Arbissel, a traveling preacher and ascetic, in what was then a remote location. His monastery soon attracted religious and royal patronage, including the support of the Bishop of Poitiers and the counts of Anjou. The new monastic order based at Fontevrault (or Fontevraud) Abbey eventually had over 100 daughter houses in France. Not surprisingly, conflict soon arose between the austere Robert and his wealthy benefactors. He left in 1104, returning only occasionally thereafter.
The present abbey was built by these wealthy benefactors in 1105-60. In November 1119, Pope Calixtus II consecrated the church and confirmed the rules of the Fontevrault Order, which were patterened on the Benedictine rule.
Henry II Plantaganet (1133-89), king of England and count of Anjou, and his queen, the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine (d. 1204), were among the royal benefactors of Fontevraud Abbey. Both were buried in the abbey church and several other members of the royal family were buried with them later.
Fontevraud Abbey was rather unique in the Middle Ages for housing a combination of monks and nuns, who were always ruled by an abbess. The abbey eventually had four sections to house various communities: the main Grand-Moutier cloister for virgins; the Madeleine for married or other non-virgin nuns; St-Lazare for lepers and other afflicted persons; and St-Jean-de-l'Habit, outside the abbey walls, for the monks. The monks were responsible for conducting the sacraments for the entire community.
Two successive abbesses of Fontevraud reconstructed the Romanesque cloister in the 16th century. Renee de Bourbon renovated the south gallery in a Gothic style (1519), then her niece Louise de Bourbon rebuilt the three other galleries in a more classical style (1530-60).
The abbey was closed and declared national property in 1789 after the French Revolution. Fortunately, in 1804 Napoleon decided to use the abbey as a prison, which ensured its survival. The downside, of course, is that much damage was done to the art and architecture during this period. The church was divided into four floors of living space and a storage room and the chapter house became the prison court. The abbey was used as a prison for nearly two centuries; the last prisoners left in 1985.
Fontevraud Abbey was fully restored in the early 20th century by Lucien Magne, a pupil of Viollet-le-Duc.
What to See at Fontevraud Abbey
The best views of the abbey are from the east, where extensive terraced gardens rise behind the chevet of the church and the Saint-Benoit infirmaries.
The abbey church (1105-60) at Fontevraud is impressive but austere, lacking the usual warmth and intimacy of Romanesque churches because of the 19th-century destruction and heavy restoration. The church was built in a combination of Romanesque regional styles. The chancel and transept were built first in a typical Loire Valley style, with radiating chapels at the east end, while the slightly later nave reflects the influence of southwest France, topped with four cupolas on pendentives. Carved capitals in the nave, also in the southwest style, depict animals, plants, and biblical scenes.
The main attraction of the abbey church is a fenced-off area near the front of the nave, which contains four royal effigy tombs dating from the 12th and 13th centuries. Each one is topped with a painted effigy of its occupant. The remains of the royals are no longer in the tombs, and were probably destroyed at the Revolution. The tombs are those of:
The Grand-Moutier cloister dates from the 16th century and is a combination of Late Gothic and Early Renaissance styles. The south gallery was built in 1519 and the other three galleries in 1530-60. The galleries are spacious and bright, with rib vaulting above and checkerboard tile below. The central garden is tidily landscaped and there is a fine view of the south flank of the church from the north gallery.
The large and elegant chapter house also dates from the 16th century. Two fine pillars support the vault and divide the space into six bays. The tiled floors contain the initials for the two abbesses who rebuilt the cloister and chapter house: RB (Renee de Bourbon) and L (Louise de Bourbon), as well as the arms of the Bourbon family (crowned wings) and Francis I (salamander).
The walls of the chapter house were painted by Thomas Pot, an artist from Anjou, in 1563. Subjects include the Washing of the Feet; Betrayal of Judas; Flagellation; Crowning with Thorns; Crucifixion; Burial; Resurrection; Ascension; Pentecost; and Assumption of Mary. Contemporary portraits of Renee and Louise were included in the Crucifixion painting, and portraits of later nuns were added by other artists to the other scenes.
The Romanesque kitchen is a fascinating structure with a Byzantine style cupola and fish-scale pyramid roof, like those seen in nearby Poitou. It dates from the same period as the church (c.1105-60) and was restored in the early 20th century by Lucien Magne, who added a lantern to each chimney.
After the abbey was dissolved, the original function of this building was forgotten. A variety of suggestions were made, including a baptistery, cemetery lantern, or round church. There was also a legend that a robber would light fires in it to attract hapless travelers. It is now known to have been a kitchen or a smokehouse, based on comparison with similar structures elsewhere and its separation from the other buildings (it now joins the southwest corner of the cloister).
Other sights include a monumental Renaissance staircase, three dormitories (the largest of which has a beautiful timber roof and is used as an exhibition hall), and the Saint-Benoit infirmaries and mortuary chapel. The latter contains a fine relief of the Last Judgment dating from the early 13th century.
Quick Facts on Fontevraud Abbey
|Names:||Fontevraud Abbey · Fontevrault Abbey|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||47.181017° N, 0.052013° E|
Fontevraud l'Abbaye, France
|Hours:||Jan-Mar, Nov-Dec: daily 10am-5:30pm|
Apr-Jun, Sep-Oct: daily 9:30am-6:30pm
Jul-Aug: daily 9:30am-7:30pm
Closed on Jan 1, May 1, Nov 1, Nov 11, Dec 25
|Lodging:||View hotels near Fontevraud Abbey|
- Personal visit (July 17, 2008).
- Visitors' Guide: Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud. Pamphlet provided by the abbey.
- Peter Strafford, Romanesque Churches of France: A Traveller's Guide (London: Giles de la Mare, 2005), 147-50.
- Official Website in English
- Photos of Fontevraud Abbey - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Fontevraud Abbey, Fontevraud l'Abbaye
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