The Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque is a lovely medieval Cistercian abbey that is one of the best places to see Provence's famed lavender fields. Founded in 1148 and once again populated by Cistercian monks, the peaceful abbey welcomes visitors and provides overnight retreats.
History of Senanque Abbey
Located in a wild valley just north of Gordes, the monastery was founded in 1148 when the lords of the area donated the land for a monastery. It was populated by a group of twelve Cistercian monks from the Abbey of Mazan in the Vivarais, called upon to move here by the Bishop of Cavaillon. Already in 1152 a daughter monastery was founded, at Chambons in the Vivarais.
Construction on the abbey church began first, around 1150, the monks lived in simple huts in the meantime. The church was consecrated in 1178 by the Bishop of Cavaillon. Only the choir was completed at that time; work on the nave began in 1180 and continued until early in the following century. Construction of the monastic buildings, such as the dormitory and refectory, also began around 1180 and were completed by about 1250.
Continued donations from local lords expanded the abbey's domains and attracted a continuous stream of new recruits. The abbey reached its high point in the 13th and early 14th centuries, when it owned four mills and large sections of land as far as Arles and Marseilles. By the 15th century, however, the abbey began to decline and fall into corruption, resulting in mismanagment of assets and a fall in recruitment.
Reform came in 1475 with a new abbot, John Casaletti from the University of Avignon, who enforced the Strict Observance of the Rule. Soon new recruits to the monastic life began to arrive again at Sénanque Abbey. His successor, Francois d'Estaing (1509-29) was the first of the commendatory abbots, all of whom carried out their duties (unlike many elsewhere). Abbot Francois, in fact, became known as the "father of the poor" by caring for plague victims.
In 1544, the medieval way of life at Sénanque came to an end when it was attacked by Waldensians during the Wars of Religion. It never regained its former importance. The property was eventually sold to the state in 1791 during the French Revolution. The abbey was again inhabited by Cistercian monks in 1854, who set to work restoring the buildings, but in 1903 new laws against religious congregations forced the monks to leave.
Monastic life resumed in 1926 but ended in 1969, after which the monks left for the Abbey of Saint-Honorat at Lérins, near Cannes. Thereafter the Abbey of Sénanque was operated indirectly by monks of Lérins as a cultural center with retreat facilities.
Finally, in 1988, six Cistercian monks left Lérins to reestablish the monastic life at Sénanque Abbey. They remain there today, following the medieval cycle of prayer, silence, study and work. The monastic way of life and upkeep of the buildings is is financed by the cultivation of lavender and honey, donations, entrance fees and sales in the gift shop.
What to See at Senanque Abbey
Like all Cisterican abbeys, Sénanque is lovely in its austere beauty. With no decoration to distract the monks per the instructions of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the harmonious proportions of its Romanesque architecture can be fully appreciated.
The stone of Sénanque Abbey has weathered to a gentle heather-gray that seems to blend effortlessly with the natural landscape, especially in July and August when the sea of lavender surrounding the abbey is in full bloom. Visitors approach the abbey from the north, from which there is a panoramic view across the fields of the main apse with three windows, flanked by the low roof sheltering four apsidoles, the sacristy (tall rectangular structure), chapter house (with close-set windows) and warming house (far right, with chimneys).
The church is unique in having no main portal in its main facade - another enforcement of the Cistercian ideals of modesty and simplicity. Instead, the interior is entered via two modest doors that open into the side aisles. The nave, even more beautifully harmonious than the exterior, has five bays and a gently pointed barrel vault. The choir was built first (c.1150-60), followed by the nave (after 1180).
Over the crossing is a large octagonal dome supported on squinches with six decorative foils each, reflecting the vision in Revelation of four beasts with six wings. The capitals in the crossing are decorated with intriguing geometrical figures and symbols in low relief.
The main apse behind the altar is flanked by two smaller apsidoles on each side. Dimly illuminated by a single narrow window, these are used by individual monks to celebrate Mass.
The only non-Cistercian element of the church is the fine Gothic tomb of Lord Geoffroy of Venasque, dating from the 13th century. He would have paid a high price for such an enviable resting place, next to the high altar in a devoutly austere community.
Adjoining the church are the attractive 12th-century cloisters and monastic buildings including the refectory (housing an exhibit on the history of the Cistercian order), chapterhouse, warming room and dormitory (with an exhibit on the abbey's construction). These can all be visited on a guided tour.
The gift shop is large and excellent, offering a wide range of books on spirituality, Cistercian history and the region of Provence, as well as various products handmade by the monks.
The Abbey of Sénanque offers residential retreats to members of the public interested in a time of quiet meditation. Visitors can stay up to eight days for a modest charge of about €30 per day, during which they are invited to join with the Cistercian brothers at meals (taken in silence) and the services conducted throughout the day. Retreats are not available in January and February and arrivals may not take place on a Monday. To request a retreat, write to the Frère Hôtelier (hospitality brother) at Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, 84220 Gordes France.
Quick Facts on Senanque Abbey
|Names:||Abbaye de Sénanque · Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque · Senanque Abbey|
|Categories:||monasteries; abbeys; scenic settings; forest settings; abbey churches|
|Faiths:||Catholicism; Cistercian order|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||43.928229° N, 5.186942° E|
|Hours:||Church and abbey grounds open daily throughout the day. Abbey buildings accessible by guided tour.|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Senanque Abbey|
- Personal visit (June 19, 2008).
- Notre-Dame de Senanque Abbey, English ed. (Editions Ouest-France, 2007). Excellent book purchased in the abbey shop.
- Abbey Notre-Dame de Sénanque - official website
- Julie Roux, trans. Barbara Jachowicz-Davoust, The Cistercians (MSM, 2005), 234-39.
- Paul Stirton, Blue Guide Provence and the Cote D'Azur, 2nd ed. (London: A&C Black, 2003), 153-54.
Map of Senanque Abbey, Gordes
Below is a location map and aerial view of Senanque Abbey. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.