article | Temps de Lecture7 min

The Archangel’s Abode

Dive into the thousand-years-old history of the Mont-Saint-Michel abbey's church thanks to the exhibition's texts !

Section 1: Building on a rock: the architectural challenge

An abbey with an intricate history

Ever since the timber huts of the first hermits, traditionally dated to the 6th century, the appearance of the Mont has never stopped evolving. The earliest stone building is thought to be the 10th century church of Notre Dame Sous Terre which lies beneath your feet.

The abbey church however is the result of several periods of construction. By tradition it was abbot Hlldebert, in 1023, who commissioned the building which began with the crypt under the choir. Hildebert headed the community of Benedictine monks established there since 966. The construction of this building was a sign of the emerging influence of this important monastic order in the Middle Ages as well as the creation of a true pilgrim abbey.

However, the nave that you see today is not complete:

  • Three of its bays were lost in a fire in 1776. Traces of these missing bays can still be seen on the terrace. The present facade dates from 1780.
  • In the 12th century, abbot Robert de Torigni added two protruding towers. The northern tower collapsed in 1300 and the southern tower in the fire of 1776.
  • Only the southern side of the nave is original. The northern side was rebuilt in the 12th century following its collapse in 1103.

Looking above you, notice the timber roof. The overwhelming difficulty in building this abbey was the need for a light-weight structure and the management of downward forces through the relatively thin walls. This may explain the use of timber planking in the roof so as to reduce weight on walls which, by the nature of the site, had to be slim.

To the east, the abbey’s choir was rebuilt between 1446 and 1523 following its collapse in 1421. The work was begun by Guillaume d’Estouteville. The reconstruction of the choir was intended to precede a complete rebuilding of the abbey, but insufficient funds meant this never happened.

Pascal Biomez - Centre des Monuments nationaux

Building an abbey: a user’s guide

No money, no building

The Benedictines made money from their lands. They either imposed a tax – a ‘tithe’ – or exploited their assets themselves, as with granite from the Chausey Islands. The monks’ estates were gifts from the dukes of Normandy or their relatives. Sometimes they came from pilgrims too who, among the masses, included princes and kings.

Site organisation

As nowadays, the building site was managed by an architect. Beneath him each group of tradesmen was managed by a master who distributed the work among the artisans according to their age, experience and skills.

Quarrymen extracted the granite which was then squared off to form blocks. It was then passed to masons who ‘dressed’ the stone to produce the shapes required by the site. These masons worked alongside specialists who made the mortar to hold the stones together. Over time in the Middle Ages, a clear distinction emerged between masons who laid the stones and those responsible for dressing, sculpting and finishing them.

Pascal Biomez - Centre des Monuments nationaux

Section 2: The abbey of Mont Saint Michel in the 17-18th centuries

Reformation and restoration in the 17th century: much needed

From 1516, the pope granted the King of France personally the opportunity to nominate future abbots, consequently called a ‘commendation’. Inevitably this power fell, far too often, into the hands of royal favourites who were keen to profit from an abbey’s wealth without accepting any duties or responsibilities. This in turn led to a slow decline of great French abbeys. Mont Saint Michel was no exception.

The abbey was, therefore, in a very sad state when twelve young Maurist Benedictines (followers of St Maur), arrived to be its reformers in 1622. Their wish was to restore the abbey to its former glory as can be seen from a model dated 1701 which, when opened up to show the interior, allows a glimpse of the nave’s former altarpiece.

The choir was reorganised to suit the Maurists and became entirely open to lay worshippers. Although the high altar remained beyond the choir-stalls, a secondary altar was created at the head of the nave. Designed for pilgrims, the altar was named Saint Michel de la Nef [nave]. It was built in 1644 under the leadership of abbot Dom Dominique Huillard. Very sumptuous, composed of three parts, and emboldened by columns evoking Solomon’s Temple of Jerusalem, it was garnished with the heads of cherubs, garlands of flowers, painting and statues.


Model – 1965

Abbey of Mont Saint Michel
Paper, wood, cardboard, worsted velvet

This model is a copy of the three-dimensional rendering of Mont Saint Michel, dating from 1701 and now held by the Musée des Plans-Reliefs des Invalides in Paris. This one was made by Mr Latapie for the Millénaire du Mont-Saint-Michel commemorations in 1966. The original was made by the abbey’s monks.

Even if this model doesn’t open like the original, it’s important because it shows the state of the abbey at this time, with buildings that have now disappeared:
Robert de Torigni’s great romanesque Hôtellerie (guest accommodation), in the south-east corner, destroyed in 1817.
The entire length of the romanesque abbey church including its three missing bays.
The western facade with its triangular gable wall and southerly corner tower, before they were levelled in 1776.
The lantern tower above the crossing point of the nave and transepts. In 1609, following a lightning strike, this was rebuilt on an 11th century square tower and topped off with a sort of small cupola with lighting vents

Pascal Biomez - Centre des Monuments nationaux

Chantry endowment plaque – 1700

Varlet, engraver
Provenance: Saint-Jean-des-Champs (reserve)
Engraved copper
Inscribed: ‘Engraved 1st September 1700 Sculptor Varlet 1700

This plaque was commissioned by Messire Roger André de La Paluelle (1646-1716), a priest and graduate in theology, lord and patron of La Lucerne Abbey and priest at Saint Jean-des-Champs (Manche). His family were members of the old Norman nobility and one of their castles, at Saint-James (Manche), supplied doughty men-at-arms. In 1427, as Mont Saint Michel was being attacked by the English during the Hundred Years War, 119 knights came to defend the rock. Among them was a certain Thomas de La Paluelle, who died in 1438.

This is almost certainly one reason why a representation of Mont Saint Michel appears on one side of this object: the motto ‘QUATITUR IMMOTUS’ (flexibility survives – bend with the wind) reinforces the notion of the invincible Mont. The illustration’s outline is very close to that of the 1701 model.

Pascal Biomez - Centre des Monuments nationaux

Section 3: Restoration and creation in the 19th century: “The toad in the reliquary” becomes “the granite jewel”

Quotes from Victor Hugo and Guy de Maupassant

As well as being a place of worship and pilgrimage, the abbey of Mont Saint Michel also had a political function. From 1472, King Louis Xl had the abbey converted to contain a state prison. Following the departure of the religious community, during the French Revolution in July 1789, the former abbey remained a place of incarceration and 700 prisoners were held here, including women and children. The prison regime in the 19th century had permanent effects on the abbey and it only closed permanently in 1863.

When the monks left, all the abbey’s rooms were converted to hold prisoners and create areas for them to work in. The Salle des Chevaliers became a spinning works for the men. The nave was divided into three floors to provide dormitories for prisoners and a space for making straw hats. The conditions were appalling. Between 1820 and 1830, 457 prisoners died from disease or malnutrition.

The emerging recognition of Mont Saint-Michel as part of the nation’s heritage led, in 1862, to it being added to the list of protected historic monuments and then classified by statute in 1874. In 1872 the architect Édouard Corroyer was appointed director of works and restoration while the state, now owner of the abbey, managed the financing.

The first of Corroyer’s works was aimed at consolidating the south-west corner and waterproofing the West Terrace. This was when the tombs of two 12th century abbots were discovered, those of Robert de Torigni and Martin de Furmendi. He next concentrated on the upper parts of the Merveille.

After Corroyer was sacked, Victor Petitgrand took over in 1888. His mission was to restore the abbey church’s central tower which threatened to collapse. In 1894, he had the XVllth century tower demolished, along with the supporting pillars at the junction of the transepts. All this was replaced by a tower with a Neo-gothic spire, much influenced by the one at Notre Dame in Paris, built by the great architect Viollet-le-Duc. In 1897 the spire was topped off with a statue of St Michael, copying a work by the sculptor Emmanuel Frémiet. This radical addition today gives the abbey its distinctive verticality.

From 1898, Paul Gout took over the work begun by Petitgrand. Rigorous by nature, his contributions to the abbey were just as impressive. He waterproofed the chapels in the apse and most importantly stopped the nave walls from leaning any further by means of a reinforced cement beam with attached iron crampons, all hidden behind timber panelling in the roof. In the floor of the nave, visitors will find red markings showing the layout of the buildings prior to the 11th century.

Pascal Biomez - Centre des Monuments nationaux

Section 4: The Founding Saint, relics and pilgrimage

A founder and his legendary relic: St Aubert

According to a document from the beginning of the 9th century, the bishop of Avranches, Aubert, was the legendary founder of the first church of Mont Saint Michel. The archangel appeared to him in a dream, ordering him to build a church in his honour. So began construction of the first church in 709. The document goes on to say that it was to be built like Monte Gargano (Italy), which, at the end of the 5th century, was the first great religious centre dedicated to the archangel.


Relics: proof of miracles 

According to legend, St Michael left traces of his presence in the historic church of Monte Gargano. A place of pilgrimage dedicated to the archangel is, of course, unimaginable without relics attesting to his presence. It was said that, as the first sanctuary was being built, monks went to Monte Gargano to collect two precious relics: a small piece of the archangel’s cloak and a fragment of stone in which the imprint of his foot could be seen. Their treasury was then enriched by the body of the bishop, by now St Aubert, and his famous perforated skull. Over the centuries a treasure-house of relics was accumulated and inventories show that just before the French Revolution there were 240 such relics on the Mont.


Pascal Biomez - Centre des Monuments nationaux

Pilgrimage to Mont Saint Michel: purpose and motivation

The aim of a pilgrim was to reach a place of prayer where the presence of the divine was known. The result of the journey towards this spiritual place was to obtain, by intercession of the saint, forgiveness of a sin, healing for oneself or someone close or perhaps to give thanks for a miracle.


The Itinerarium Bernardi Monachi gives the first account of a pilgrimage to Mont Saint Michel. This was produced by a French monk between 866 and 870. After Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostella, Mont Saint Michel is recognised as Christendom’s fourth greatest place of pilgrimage. St Michael, slayer of the devil but also the saint who weighs and consigns souls, holds a special position in Catholic worship.


From 1025, a dense network of roads converged on the Mont, drawing in the miquelots (followers of St Michael). These pilgrims were identifiable by their clothing and the badges they sported, such as the scallop shell motif which features in the arms of two great pilgrim destinations, Santiago de Compostella and Mont Saint Michel. Its origin is an enigma but one can imagine that these two great religious centres beside the sea watched pilgrims collecting scallop shells as mementoes.

Pascal Biomez - Centre des Monuments nationaux

Section 5: A bishop, the community, an architect and a goldsmith produce an extraordinary panoply of religious objects

In the 19th century St Michael became a figure of strong religious significance, inspiring a resurgence of some of his attributes, some forgotten or reinvented. The archangel knight became a sort of champion of faith in a climate of anti-clericalism in the 1850s and a protector of the nation during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871.

It was in this context that Monseigneur Brayard, bishop of Coutances and of Avranches, was granted papal authorisation to crown a statue of St Michael, the one now to be found in the village church of Saint-Pierre on Mont Saint Michel. To finance this grandiose national celebration, on the 3 July 1877, the public were invited to subscribe. The resulting avalanche of funds allowed the recreation of a sort of religious treasury, the original mediaeval objects having disappeared in the passage of time – the final blow being the melting down of valuables by revolutionaries in 1789.

A crown, a sword, a symbolic collar and a heraldic collar were therefore designed and made by the famous Parisian jewellers, Mellerio dits Meller, official suppliers to the court of Napoleon l, and then of Napoleon lll. In 1878, at the Paris Universal Exhibition, some of these objets d’art were presented as display items, to show off the skills of these exceptional jewellers.

Much tension and in-fighting was involved in the appearance of these religious objects for which Edouard Corroyer, architect and restorer of the abbey of Mont Saint Michel, was also consulted.

Pascal Biomez - Centre des Monuments nationaux

Permanent collection

Christ Crucified – 1644

Pierre Lourdel (1586-1676)
Abbey of Mont Saint Michel
Sculpted oak, later stripped

Pierre Lourdel (1586-1676), son of Michel who was in his time considered a greatly talented Rouen sculptor, married a woman from Saint Malo and settled in this corsaire city. In 1644, in an effort to enrich the decor of the recently built baroque high altar, he was commissioned to produce a large crucifix and statues of St Benedict, St Scholastique and two angels, altogether worth 700 tournois pounds. Only the large crucifix survives, hidden during the French Revolution and placed in primitive style over the altar, replacing the former Christ in vermoulu.


Altarpiece of the Passion – 15th century

Origin: Abbey of La Lucerne d’Outremer (Manche)
Polychrome alabaster

An alabaster altarpiece depicting traditional scenes from the Passion of Christ: his arrest, flagellation, crucifixion, entombment and resurrection.

Closely resembling marble, alabaster is soft and lends itself extremely well to sculpture, its smooth and polished surface easily accepting colour and gilding. Its principal sources are in central Britain, especially around Nottingham and York, with many workshops making use of these geological veins from the middle of the XlVth century until the Anglican Reformation of Henry Vlll in the middle of the XVlth century. At this time statues were threatened with destruction and many left England for France and to Normandy in particular.

In traditional style, the compositions are dense and rich with details revealing golden backgrounds to convey that, like icons, the drama is being played out on a sacred plane.


Bas-relief of the 4 Evangelists – 1546

Abbey of Mont Saint Michel

These bas-reliefs come from the former choir wall. They show the four evangelists, each with his own particular attribute. St Mark is accompanied by a lion, St John by an eagle, St Luke by a bullock and St Matthew by an angel.

The evangelists are thought of as the recognised authors of four books of the New Testament. Their texts are fundamental to the Catholic religion, telling of the life and teachings of Christ.


Pair of bas-reliefs: Adam and Eve Cast Out of Paradise; The Descent into Limbo – 1546

Abbey of Mont Saint Michel
Polychrome limestone

These two bas-reliefs come from the former wall around the choir, which separated the liturgical choir from the processional space around it. The wall was often adopted by monastic communities because it allowed for the use of chapels around the apse, used for example during processions.

The first bas-relief illustrates two episodes in one scene: on one hand the temptation, on the other the expulsion. Over time, the tempter serpent, who offered the apple to Eve, was transformed into a serpent with a woman’s head, and then, during the Renaissance, into a little fawn with horns.

St Michael, armed with a sword, chases the couple who now discover that they are naked, a rare opportunity for artists, particularly in mediaeval times, to tackle the representation of the human body.

The second scene counterbalances the punishment of the original sin by its absolution. After his death, Christ spent three days in the tomb. During this time, before his Resurrection, he descended into Limbo, a sort of frontier space between heaven and hell, searching for the Just who had not been baptised and then searching for the damned couple in Purgatory. Finally, armed with the cross of resurrection, Christ tramples under foot the gates of Hell which then crush Satan whose head can be seen in black and red.

It’s easy to imagine the role played by the still very visible colours in the taste for diabolic representations engendered by Mystery Plays which were often performed in cathedral squares.


Former high altar in the abbey church – 1926

Pierre Paquet (1875-1959), Head of Architecture at the Monuments Historiques, by Henri Bouchard (1875-1960), sculptor.
Abbey of Mont Saint Michel
Pink Burgundy granite; Lost-wax bronze by Sio Decauville

The creation of this high altar, initiated by Abbot Couillard, priest at Mont Saint Michel, was the result of very close cooperation between an architect and a sculptor.

Pierre Paquet, director of the abbey’s restoration from 1923, undertook the design of its new altar. It needed to be a contemporary work which would complement the style of the choir. To this end he was inspired by primitive altars composed of a simple table set on sarcophagi.

The sculpting was given to a renowned artist, Henri Bouchard, whose talents were used in wide ranging fields. After demobilisation at the end of the First World War, he showed a growing interest in bas-relief in architectural contexts, as well as in decorative styles, as can be seen in this high altar.

The chosen theme was that of a heavenly choir of angels singing the praises of the Lord. A large central bas-relief, cast in two parts, with two smaller ones on either side, achieves a symmetrical composition, with alternating vertical and curved lines, all of which lends great elegance to the ensemble.


Statue of St Michael – 15th century

Abbey of Mont Saint Michel
Polychrome oak

The archangel, dressed as a warrior with a red cape over his shoulders, holds a pair of scales in his left hand and a lance in his right hand. This representation is typical of the period when the saint’s military persona is emphasised in memory of the 100 Years War, a period In which Mont Saint Michel itself was victorious. However, his role as a ‘weigher of souls’ on the Day of Judgement is not forgotten which explains the scales. The scales explain the widening of his patronage: not only of swordsmen and soldiers, but also artisans who used scales: confectioners, apothecaries, grocers, etc.

This statue was bought from an antique dealer in 1966 by the Comité du Millénaire Monastique du Mont. It may have come from the Champagne region of France. The halo, lance and scales are re-productions.

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