Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres

Part 2 of 2

Mont-Saint-Michel

What was there about the Normans? That they covered the countryside in forts, castles, abbeys, churches, all with heavy, heavy stone architecture that says, in no uncertain terms, “I’m not here for fun. I mean business.”

The architecture feels almost Protestant in its brutal directness and lack of ornament. Like the dragon in its determination not to move, but squat on a hill, glowering.

Is there something about this rainy, gray countryside that made the Normans that way? Is it a residue of their Nordic blood? Is it a response to the brutality of the Dark Ages, when every duke or king had to defend his kingdom at every season?

Surely, Mont-St.-Michel is an interesting case: Part monastery, part fortress.

Who but a Norman, it seems, would build a monastery on the top of a giant rock out in the middle of a bay whose feature is killer tides?

You can see Mont-St.-Michel from the other side of the bay, 20 miles or so off. It hovers over the water like a mountain in the distance, with a needle spire pointing up at God.

The island — it was once an island, even if now it is connected to the mainland by a causeway, and the bay has so silted up that scientists say that soon, there will be no way for water to surround the place, even at high tide — the island is a rock.

In 708, Aubert, bishop of Avranches, had a vision of the sword-bearing St. Michael and built a sanctuary on the rock. It later became an abbey. The monastery grew, burned down, grew some more, caught the interest of a king, grew even bigger, and the monastery became surrounded by a fortress wall. Was the king interested in protecting the monks, or was he more interested in co-opting the island as a coastal defense under the disguise of peaceful religious orders?

At any rate, the result is a merveille — a marvel.

In England and Normandy, they call this stony style of building “Norman.” Elsewhere it is Romanesque, with arches like the Romans built.

The Romanesque is a heavy style, with thick walls and tiny windows. It can be claustrophobic, unlike the open Gothic style that followed it.

The Gothic cathedrals are famous for height: As you walk through them, your eye is drawn toward heaven.

The older Mont-St.-Michel is also vertical, but it is an external verticality: something you see from a distance, and becomes more imposing the closer you come, until, after you reach the island, the stonework rises over you in ways that make you feel not just small, but powerless. Is there any way you can climb to the peak, where God is, or where religious dispensation is? The monastery towers over you, ever upward, reaching its finish in the spire of the topmost church and the golden statue of St. Michael on top of that.

This is a Sisyphean hill that you clamber up and slide back down over and over. It is an impossible thing to master. It is Lurch the Butler looking down at you. It is the model for Citizen Kane’s Xanadu and King Kong’s Skull Island.

Around the base of the island, running higher or lower as the rock underneath decrees, is a rampart, with towers and loopholes. At its highest point, it intersects with the stone stairways that lead even higher, into the lamasery of the abbey. For the pilgrim, or for the tourist, the stairs seem endless. Each time you reach a landing, you look up and the buildings seem higher, and looking down, the earth seems farther away. The stairs actually exaggerate the verticality of the place.

The engineering was state-of-the-art for the time: They managed to build a functioning monastery on top of and around a pinnacle of rock, so that all you see from the outside is human stonework. The core of rock is concealed inside.

But the rock shapes the rooms, chambers, dungeons, refectories, chapels, meeting halls and workrooms that had to be built not simply on the stone, but around it.

The result is a warren of buildings, a hodgepodge, so split-level that you never can tell where you are in the compound. You move from one side of the rock to the other, while traveling up staircases and down staircases, through vaulted rooms and up more staircases, so that when you reach the other side, you cannot tell if you are on the same level, have gone down one or two levels, or a level and a half. Blueprints are no help. They seem to regularize what on the ground is chaos. The confusion is increased by the mess of architectural styles.

Take the abbey church at the very top. Its nave is Romanesque, with a barrel vaulted ceiling lined with wood, spread out like the wooden bars of a Japanese suit of armor. It is the oldest part remaining from the original construction.

The middle of the church — the transept — is Gothic, but of an early sort, with coarse vaulting and dirt-plain stone walls.

The apse at the far end, however, is later Gothic, with all the lightness that implies: complex stone tracery, windows piled on windows.

One end, dead weight — although the sternness of it also reflects a basic majesty — at the other end, all filigree and sunlight. The halves cannot mesh, but somehow they do: It is the magic of the Gothic style that it can accept any number of stylistic additions and just wear them like a great patchwork.

When you leave the church and head down a staircase and up another, and around a passageway, you come to a Romanesque room, dark and somber, in the bowels of the complex.

Pass through that and you eventually find your way to the three-story section called “La Merveille,” the marvel, an astonishing piece of engineering and construction. There, primitive fan vaulting spreads out from graceful piers, and you see the obvious aesthetic superiority of the Gothic. This is what the Middle Ages mean to most people.

 

Up and down stairs, through dark corridors, through stone doors, past arched windows, beyond a cloister with a double-columned colonnade.

The towering mass of stone and glass is like nothing else in Christendom.

Certainly, Notre Dame de Chartres has an imposing exterior, but it is the interior that carries its essential message. At Mont-Saint-Michel, it is the opposite: While the interiors are certainly interesting, it is the exterior that carries the central message of the warrior Christian saint.

 

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