Saint Benoit-sur-Loire (Dennis Aubrey)


The Abbaye de Fleury is one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in France, and one of the most important. It is reputed to contain the relics of Saint Benoit (Saint Benedict) of Nursia, the founder of the rule of Saint Benedict – a book of 73 chapters detailing the spiritual and administrative rules for the management of a monastery – that was the basis for the flowering of medieval Western monasticism.

West narthex, Basilique Saint Benoît, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire (Loiret) Photo by PJ McKey

In the sixth century, Benedict established the rule for his monastery of Monte Cassino about 100 miles southeast of Rome. A few miles away was the convent that sheltered his beloved sister Scholastica, who some believe was his twin. She certainly was his twin in spirit as they were both fervently religious. There is a wonderful story that during a visit with her shortly before she died, Benedict said that he had to leave to return to Monte Cassino. Scholastica pleaded that they continue their discussions but Benedict refused. She began praying and a storm arose that prevented her brother from leaving. When he protested, she replied “I asked you and you would not listen; so I asked my God and he did listen. So now go off, if you can, leave me and return to your monastery.” He could not fight the storm and remained.

Crypt, Basilique Saint Benoît, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire (Loiret) Photo by PJ McKey

When Scholastica died, Benedict had her body placed in a grave “… covered with a horizontal slab so that the grave could be opened for the body of Benedict.” Benedict died in 543 AD. and they remained together peacefully for a few years.

Shortly after, however, the Lombards invaded northern Italy and the monastery was occupied by the Lombard king Zoto, who evicted the monks. Monte Cassino fell in disuse and ruin. About 130 years later, Mommolus, the second Abbot of Fleury sent some of his monks on a long thousand mile journey to the deserted Monte Cassino abbey to find and claim the remains of Benedict and Scholastica, which they removed to France. As the Benedictine rule spread throughout the monastic world, the relics at Fleury became very well known and attracted pilgrims from all over Christian Europe.

Crypt, Basilique Saint Benoît, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire (Loiret) Photo by PJ McKey

In 718, Popes Gregory II and Zachary restored Monte Cassino and demanded the return of the bodies, but the monks of Fleury refused. The bones of Scholastica were subsequently given to Le Mans and later destroyed in a fire in September 1134. The bones of Benedict remain at Fleury to this day.

Entrance to crypt, Basilique Saint Benoît, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire (Loiret) Photo by PJ McKey

The core of the Benedictine rule were the services associated with the eight canonical hours – Matins at midnight, Lauds at 3am, Prime at 6am, Terce at 9am, Sext at noon, None at 3pm, Vespers at 6pm, and Compline at 9pm. The life was ruled by the motto Ora et labora meaning “pray and work.”

North side aisle, Basilique Saint Benoît, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire (Loiret) Photo by PJ McKey

This strict philosophy of prayer and work achieved wonders in a Europe decimated by the ravages of the tenth century. Vikings, Magyars and Arabs invaded and pillaged. War, famine, poverty, and lawlessness had left the fertile and cultivated land of France empty and in ruins.

Led by the monastic communities, with papal approval and encouragement, the monks shouldered the huge task of reconstructing France. They rebuilt their own monasteries, the roads, and the bridges. Villages and towns grew up around them to take advantage of the improved infrastructure. Trade resumed, if only at a small local or regional level. Protection was given to travelers and to traders. Arable land was cleared and put to cultivation.

North tympanum, Basilique Saint Benoît, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire (Loiret) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The secular world saw this enormous effort put forth and the people must have felt that God was speaking to them through these monks and these nuns. Witnessing these great works renewed man’s faith in God and his intermediaries and there developed a massive revival of Christianity throughout Europe. Churches were built across the land in every city, town and village. The monk Raoul Glaber from Saint Benigne in Dijon stated, “So it was as though the very world had shaken herself and cast off her old age, and were clothing herself everywhere in a white mantle of churches.”

Basilique Saint Benoît, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire (Loiret) Photo by PJ McKey

The black-robed Benedictines eventually became the most numerous and most powerful monastic organization in Europe. The Cluniac order accumulated an estimated 1450 dependencies and had to be reformed in their turn by the Cistercians and other orders. But they continue to thrive, and their black robes are still present among us. Today the Abbaye de Fleury maintains a flourishing community of forty monks, carrying on the legacy of their beloved Saint Benoit.

24 responses to “Saint Benoit-sur-Loire (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Pingback: Saint Benoit-sur-Loire (Dennis Aubrey) | Home Far Away From Home

  2. This was really interesting. You go to a lot of trouble for your blog, Dennis, providing useful information and history that many of us never knew. You’re confirming, slowly, what I’ve suspected, that the monasteries are behind our current civilisation. Monks are often subject to suspicion, and novelists love to use them as characters (‘The Name of the Rose’, among many), but you’re showing us what was good about them. Quiet achievers. Thanks.

    • In the rebuilding of Europe, the only widespread organizations that were capable of taking action were the monastic orders. It’s fair to say that the entire medieval civilization was made possible by their efforts.

  3. This explains why I heard bells ringing at 3:00 am at my in-laws the other night…the house is down the road from a Benedictine Monastery. Does this mean monks never sleep more than 3 hours at a time? You & PJ are doing magnificent work, Dennis.

    • Katie, if the monks do live by the strict rule, they do not sleep for more than a couple of hours. The matins alone could last an hour or more. And since the monks did not use much candlelight, the services were conducted by memory. And don’t forget the labora part of the equation: they began work after prime and didn’t finish until vespers.

  4. What a lovely, staggeringly beautiful place. Once I finish this sailing trip, my next journey to France is going to be a long driving holiday visiting these amazing churches and abbeys. Another triumph Denis. Thank you so much for showing us and informing us all.

    • Arran, I am going to do another post just on the sculpture. The capitals are extraordinary, the north tympanum worth a study of its own, and the west narthex is absolutely unique for both its structure and decoration. Make sure to keep me posted on your sailing trip to Brittany.

  5. I would absolutely love to see those carved capitals Denis, and look forward to this new post. Curiously I am just editing and picture- researching a piece today on my own humble blog, also on a carved capital, in an Irish Cathedral. (the capital with sculptures of on the sailor-monks) It’s nothing compared to the marvels of the great French abbeys and cathedrals, (and as you know we lost so much during the Reformation) but I think its a worthy study nonetheless. I hope to publish this little piece in the next day or so. I look forward to your post, each one seems more splendid than the last.

    • I subscribe to your site, so I’ll see the capital that you are talking about. Looking forward to it. We will be slowing down our posts in September and October because of our trip to France, but we’ll make up for that with another 15,000 photos!

  6. I am consistently amazed with the interior photos that you show of these beautiful and old churches. How do you manage it? Do you sneak in a tripod or monopod? Curious also of your camera settings. Thanks if you’re willing to share your secrets!

    • No secrets, Bella, we actually document this in various places in the blog. First of all, tripods are a must since we shoot with small apertures and very long exposures. We spend hours shooting each church so there is no question of sneaking in. If there are limitations to our access, we generally get permission to shoot, even if it means contacting the church in advance. But 95% of the time there is no problem. We use a variety of lenses, but tilt-shift lenses primarily. PJ and I shoot in approximately the same way but we have different visual styles and different post-production styles. But I think our work meshes well together. I hope this helps.

  7. I hasten to extend my sincere appreciation for your post as I am on the road again. Thank you for the beautiful photographs and very informative essay on St.-Benoit-sur-Loire! I remember the sturdy, yet elegant Romanesque arches complementing the quadripartite Gothic vaults of the airy nave. Jong-Soung

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