Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire Abbey is an attractive and important Romanesque church on the Loire River close to Orléans in central France. It has been a major place of pilgrimage since 673, when the relics of St. Benedict were brought here from their original resting place in Montecassino. In addition to its elegant 11th- and 12th-century architecture, it boasts a large collection of interesting Romanesque (and some Gothic) sculpture.
History of Saint-Benoît-Sur-Loire Abbey Church
The abbey at Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire (originally known as Fleury Abbey) was founded around 630-50. But its history really begins in 672or 673, when some of its monks traveled to Montecassino Abbey in Italy, dug up the remains of St. Benedict of Nursia (d. 547) and his sister St. Scholastica and brought them home. The relics were interred at Fleury Abbey, which was renamed Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire ("St. Benedict on the Loire").
The coup was made possible by the earlier sack of Montecassino by the Lombards, after which it lay in desolated ruins for over a century (581-714). There is some evidence that in 749, a bit of the relics were returned to their original home at the request of Pepin the Short and the pope. Either way, Saint-Benoît became a major place of pilgrimage due to its possession of the mortal remains of the Father of Western Monasticism (and current patron saint of Europe).
The renown of Saint-Benoît Abbey was further enhanced by the able leadership of Abbot Gaucelin, an illegitimate son of King Hugh Capet, who began serving in 1004. He established an influential abbey school and began construction on a new abbey church. The west tower, still known as Tour de Gauzlin after its patron abbot, was begun in 1020.
The church that stands today was begun around 1071. There was a destructive fire in 1095, but the church was complete enough for it to be dedicated on March 21, 1108. Construction continued to about 1130. The nave was either rebuilt or completed later; it has been dated to the late 12th century. The nave vault is one of the few Gothic elements, added in the early 13th century. Also from this period is the richly-sculptured north portal.
In 1525-27, the monks of Saint-Benoît refused to accept their first commendatory abbot. As a punishment, the third level of the west tower was removed. (The unusually-shaped roof that takes its place was added in the 17th century.)
In 1562, the abbey was pillaged by Huguenots (Calvinists) during the Wars of Religion. The abbey buildings were restored by Cardinal de Richelieu but destroyed in 1760-1800 during the Revolution. Saint-Benoît's monks were also dispersed during this period.
The abbey church, which thankfully managed to escape destruction, was restored from 1836 to 1923. The abbey was refounded in 1944 and the abbey buildings were rebuilt by Benedictine monks after World War II. A community of about 40 Benedictine monks live and work at Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire today.
What to See at Saint-Benoît-Sur-Loire Abbey Church
The Abbey of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire is located in a pleasant village of about 2,000 people close to a bend of the Loire River, 25 miles (40 km) east of Orléans. A good general view of the church can be enjoyed from across the fields to the southeast. Closer views of the fine Romanesque chevet are partially blocked by newer buildings, but worth seeking out.
Approaching from the west, where there is ample parking and an open plaza, visitors first come upon the large Tour de Gauzlin, named for the abbot who commissioned it. The boxy west "porch-tower" was begun in 1020, but may not have been completed until later in the 11th century.
The lower level serves as a porch for the west entrance, while the taller upper level houses the Chapel of St. Michael (not accessible to the public). There was once a third level, but this was removed in the 16th century and replaced by the present unusual roof and belfry in the 17th century.
With three portals on each side, the tower is as a model of the New Jerusalem as described in Revelation 21: "And it had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates... on the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates." The bottom level is open and divided into nine squares by pillars and transverse arches.
The columns of the narthex are decorated with interesting Romanesque capitals (c.1070-80). One Corinthian-style capital bears the inscription: UNBERTUS ME FECIT ("Unbertus made me.") Thus we know the name of the master sculptor who oversaw these Romanesque masterpieces in the narthex. Their subjects include:
Before going inside, be sure to have a look on the north (left) side of the church, where there are intriguing Romanesque reliefs set into the tower wall and a fine Gothic north portal of the early 13th century. The sculptures are of very high quality and retain some traces of their original paint. The tympanum depicts Christ in Majesty with the Four Evangelists, while the lintel tells the story of the discovery and transport of St. Benedict's relics to Fleury.
The nave and side aisles are later than the rest of the church, dating from the late 12th century. The nave vault is a Gothic addition of the early 13th century; it may have previously had a wooden roof.
The north aisle is home to an interesting discovery made during restoration of the north portal: an unfinished sculpture ensemble of the Virgin and Child with eight saints, dating from the mid-12th century. Only the Madonna in the center and a few of the figures on the far right were completed, providing an interesting glimpse into the process used by medieval sculptors.
The eastern part of the church, including choir with ambulatory, crypt and transept, were built from the late 11th to early 12th century. The transepts each have two apsidoles in their east wall; those in the south transept are modern reconstructions. The north transept has a relief of the face of Raynaldus, the Norman chief of the Loire. The transept crossing is occupied by a fine set of choir stalls dating from 1413.
The sanctuary (or presbytery) is exceptionally large, enclosed within a tall, U-shaped triforium with blind arches and carved capitals. It is paved with an intricate 4th- or 5th-century Roman mosaic floor in polychrome marble, which was installed in the previous abbey church around 1000 and preserved in the present church. On the north side is the effigy tomb of King Philip I of France (d. 1108), a benefactor of the abbey. He died just five months after the church was consecrated.
The relics of St. Benedict have been enshrined inside a massive pillar in the crypt since 1108, when the high altar was dedicated. Built in 1067, the crypt is an atmospheric place, with large cylindrical pillars and a double ambulatory supporting the choir above.
Connected with the crypt but on a higher level is the Hall of Saint Mommole, dating probably from the 10th century. It is divided into two aisles of three bays each and covered with a groin vault. The cushion capitals are decorated with Carolingian designs.
Quick Facts on Saint-Benoît-Sur-Loire Abbey Church
|Names:||Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire · Fleury Abbey · Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire Abbey · Saint-Benoît-Sur-Loire Abbey Church|
|Categories:||shrines; monasteries; pilgrimage destinations; abbey churches|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||47.809538° N, 2.305874° E|
|Phone:||33 (0)2 38 35 72 43|
|Hours:||Usually open during daylight hours|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Saint-Benoît-Sur-Loire Abbey Church|
- Personal visit (July 19, 2008).
- Peter Strafford, Romanesque Churches of France: A Traveller's Guide (London: Giles de la Mare, 2005), 154-56.
- Kenneth John Conant, Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture 800-1200 (Yale University Press, 1993), 266-69.
- Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire. Encyclopædia Britannica (2009). Retrieved January 17, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
- Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire - Art-Roman.net
- Abbaye de Fleury - official website
- Photos of Saint-Benoît-Sur-Loire Abbey Church - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Saint-Benoît-Sur-Loire Abbey Church, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire
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