The Mountain Abbey on Canigou (Dennis Aubrey)

Christian monastic churches were often found in the most remote and inaccessible areas, partly because of the early Christian hermits and their monasteries. One only has to look at the Cenobic monasteries in Egypt and Cappadocia, Greek churches in Meteora, or the Syrian churches in Maalula to see that this is a long-standing tradition. These monks originated the monastic practices that came to dominate medieval Europe.

In Europe, this practice continued into the Middle Ages. The monks chose remote and lonely sites – the wilderness – with great care in order to encourage contemplation and obedience to the monastic rule. Many times the sites were gifted by local nobility. In the Pyrénéean region of Catalonia, the practice of noble gifting was formalized – those on their deathbeds gave a third of the coming harvest to a church or a monastery. Often a plot of land was left “to God and his saints.” These gifts of alms funded the upkeep of the clergy, but also the construction of many churches and abbeys.

One of those, the Abbey of Saint Martin-du-Canigou, is perched like an aerie halfway up the sacred Mount Canigou in the Pyrénées mountains near the town of Prades. I have known of Prades almost my entire life because my parents had a record album of Pablo Casals performing at his beloved music festival in the town. But it is also central to a great collection of medieval abbey churches that PJ and I wanted to explore, so in 2008 we made the trek to the region.

Abbaye Saint Martin du Canigou : vue générale, Photo by LeZibou (2006)  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons license.
Abbaye Saint Martin du Canigou : vue générale, Photo by LeZibou (2006) This file is licensed under the Creative Commons license.

To get up to the monastery, most people ascend the 3,500 feet from the town of Casteil on a narrow steep path that snakes through the wooded slopes above. Visitors are obliged to climb with the humility of the monks who toiled here for a millennium. Count Guifred of Cerdagne, who endowed the monastery, climbed this same path to dig his own grave at the monastery. To try to follow in his footsteps was, for me, a daunting prospect. A combination of bad knees, my weight, and heavy equipment all conspired against this ascent.

We learned that a jeep service that would take us up a steep one-lane service “road” with 180 degree switchbacks over cliffs that plunge hundreds of feet down. While the approach was easier than climbing, the rather fearsome turns as we skirted the narrow edge of the roadway tempted me to think that crawling up the mountain path on my belly might have been a safer mode of travel.

On arrival, all the perils of the “montade” were banished with the first view of the monastery. The structure was clearly early Romanesque with the apse of the church resting against a great sturdy campanile, approached by a narrow stepped walkway. The site is as extraordinary as the ascent was difficult.

Abbaye Saint Martin du Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Abbaye Saint Martin du Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We had written to the monastery in advance to get permission to shoot freely at the church and were met by the kind and helpful Sister Anne de Jésus, who was our chaperone. There are occasional visitors and the monastery conducts a tour periodically for those who are interested in seeing the church and the spectacular setting, but it is clear that this is a working religious community. The business of tourism is secondary to the work associated with the religious commitment of the monks and nuns who live there.

The monastery was originally endowed by Guifred, Count of Cerdagne and consecrated to the most venerated saint in France. It was the creation of the Abbot Oliba from the nearby abbey at Saint Michel-du-Cuxa, a powerful Benedictine monastic community at nearby Codalet. Its form is very early Romanesque; construction started in 997 and completed early in the 11th century.

Cloister, Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey
Cloister, Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Because of the steepness of the slope on which the abbey was built, the church has two levels. The upper church has tall and narrow nave with round barrel vaults. The slender columns support round arches that divide the nave from the aisles. The nave itself has no windows and is indirectly lit by small windows in the south aisle, and windows at each end of the church. As might be expected, it is relatively dark. The church marks the period characterized by the rediscovery of barrel vaulting in the Roussillon. This early use of the barrel vault explains both the extreme narrowness of the nave – it is only ten feet wide – and the lack of light.

Nave, Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey
Nave, Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Ten round piers were built to support the arches that carried the vault. In later churches, these round columns became cruciform in order to support the springing of the transverse arches and ribs but on Canigou they retain their primitive form. The small columns are topped with bulky capitals to support the masonry of the arches and vaults. These capitals feature a series of naive but original carvings.

Nave, Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey
Nave, Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The side aisles are half the height of the nave and are lit by small windows in the chapels at the east end.

North side aisle,  Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
North side aisle, Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The crypt or lower church, built to support the upper church, is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, long venerated here. A famous statue of the Virgin was stolen in 1976. This subterranean church also has a nave and two side aisles featuring low, rounded vaulting. The east end of the crypt is the oldest part of the church as a whole and may date back to the Carolingian era.

Crypt, Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Crypt, Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The cloister is one of the marvels of the abbey and was originally on two levels, but below the level of the main church.

Cloister, Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Cloister, Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The upper level and the south wing of the cloister fell into ruin. When rebuilt, the south side was built to face outside to the mountains.

South wing of cloister, Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
South wing of cloister, Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The original capitals from the upper cloister had been scattered through the neighboring villages. When the restoration was being done, these capitals were recovered and used here in the south wing. There are lovely and stylized monsters and human figures carved on these capitals.

Cloister capital, Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey
Cloister capital, Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

We spent the entire day photographing this marvelous structure and would have stayed longer if possible. We hadn’t thought of meals and were surprised when Sister Anne invited us to join the community for lunch. The food was simple, as one would expect from a religious order, but delicious, as one would expect in France. We enjoyed the food, the company, and the mild curiosity they showed about our work.

As we reluctantly prepared to leave, I remembered that this vibrant monastery had been abandoned for the entire 19th century and the process of reclamation and restoration was only begun in 1902. It is again vital and active and, most remarkable, serving its original purpose. We had a deadline to leave the abbey – the “taxi” was scheduled to pick us up before we lost light and the driver showed up just about right on time.

As bad as the drive up the mountain had been, the drive down was worse because we could clearly see where we were going and how close to the edge of the cliffs we were. If you ever desire to experience a five point turn to negotiate a 180 degree switchback over a sheer precipice, I can recommend the ride down from the Abbaye Saint Martin.

Descent from Canigou, Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Descent from Canigou, Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Most unusually, even PJ was a bit flustered by the perilous descent, but I was in a state of near-terror. As we finally leveled out toward the town, the driver stopped his vehicle suddenly, looked at me in panic, and hurriedly put on his seatbelt. Then he smiled broadly, having once again had his fun with a white-knuckled passenger on the slopes of Canigou.

Our driver of the Canigou "taxi", Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Our driver of the Canigou “taxi”, Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Of all the churches that we have photographed, PJ and I both hold the abbey church of Saint Martin-du-Canigou as a favorite. It is not only the spectacular setting and the perfection of the architecture, but also the community that we saw during our visit, in particular Sister Anne de Jésus. We correspond with her and recently she was kind enough to light a candle for our friend Patrick who lies gravely ill in a hospital in the Czech Republic. Even in the world of internet, cell phones and computers, there is a small group of people who look for their answers in other places. We were privileged to be part of that world, even if it was only for a day.

Location: Click this link to see the location on our custom Google Map.

40 thoughts on “The Mountain Abbey on Canigou (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Very beautiful Dennis! I have had a similar Jeep ride as you describe here in our Rocky Mountains. It is frightful! I really admired the driver’s skill in getting us to the top.

    1. Thanks, Susan. This was a narrow wheel-base jeep, not the normal size, and the road was just a meter or so wider than the vehicle. I have been on lots of roads that made me nervous, but this one was completely out of my league. I don’t think I would even attempt to drive it on my own.

  2. St. Martin-du-Canigou is an amazing work of architecture! It is intriguing to see that the relatively short and slender columns for the nave have entasis, although the curves are more abruptly turned at the top when they connect with the outsized capitals. A trace of Greece as well as Rome, perhaps?
    Thank you for posting the rare photographs. Jong-Soung

  3. So is this community…religious of both sexes…a return to the ideas of the original community of Fontevraud – where an abbess ruled two communities.

    Wonderful photographs…though I’m not at all sure I could have done that climb even by jeep!

    I was often at Prades…but never had – or made – the time to go to Canigou and its church. More fool me…

    1. Helen, am not sure that it is ruled by an abbess like Fontrevault, and it is certainly not filled with noble young ladies. PJ and I are very fond of Prades – we have wonderful memories of our visit and some meals in the square, and learning to use the porrón for our wine!

  4. The blogger Covetotop gave me a list of French monasteries near the Spanish border, with Canigou at the top of the list. Your post has led me to put it at the bottom of the list. He added the list of French and Spanish monasteries to his recent post about this region (see comments to his post and replies). But nevertheless, this post of yours, Dennis, was fascinating and inspiring.

    1. Oh, no, Trish, you should go if you can. I have bad acrophobia, which is pretty pathetic for someone who spends time in cathedrals! The abbey is extraordinary. Meanwhile, I’ll check his post.

      1. I had previously read the post, but not the comments that ensued. I love the site, by the way. Very interesting to see comments from you, Emily (from Toulouse), Arran Henderson, and Poitou-Charentes – names often seen here as well. His two lists are excellent; in the actual area around Canigou there are a couple of additions that I might suggest – the priory at Serrabone has a remarkable feature, a free-standing tribune made of pink Conflent marble as well as a lovely church and cloister. You might also see Dorres with its extraordinary vierge romane. Have a great trip and let us know how it goes?

  5. Apparently, sensitive bloggers gather in Via Lucis … Getting to St. Martin du Canigou (Sant Martí del Canigó in Catalan) is worth every bit of effort (or panic!) . I liked your post very much.

  6. We passed by very close to here – saw Mount Canigou -had we known of the Abbaye we might have been game for the jeep ride – rubber-legged when finally on safe ground, but, apparently with a story to tell. Enjoyable read and, as always, great photos.

  7. Beautiful photographs again Dennis. I tried to get to St Martin’s 2 years ago but was foiled by being too late for the jeep. Is it a standard foible of jeep drivers on these kind of raosd to terrify their passangers – I have had the same experience elsewhere, maybe you take your fun where you find it.

  8. Beautiful photographs, and an interesting read. On a trip to this area a few years ago, for some reason we didn’t make it here. But Serrabone – beautiful marble carving.

  9. I went to l’Abbaye St Martin du Canigou today. I walked up and back. It’s a very beautiful place. There were a lot of visitors like us and the monks and nuns spend their days entertaining them, which is funny because it was originally built in such an isolated position to get away from people and the world! One disappointing part was when we eventually were allowed into the church for the visit, a monk was praying and we couldn’t go further in than the entrance. I stood next to the music book on the stand. We all wanted to see the church closeup, but that’s life. On the bright side, I spoke to the monk who was praying when I found him in the garden later, and he told me he was praying for all of us standing behind him… That’s touching and encouraging! A couple of your photos show the place looking different from how it looked today – the garden with yellow flowers is now a botanical/herbal garden. And the green grass in the cloister is now dug up soil surrounded by rose bushes. I have to thank you for the recommendation – I would never have been bold enough to take this on except that I had read your post!

    1. Trish, I wish that we had known that you were going because we would have made arrangements for Sister Anne de Jésus to meet you and act as your guide. She is a wonderful woman and we have such fond memories of her personally. You actually might have met her on your visit. Am so glad you went there. I am envious that you could walk up!

      We were so fortunate when we were there. We were able to spend the entire day photographing with unlimited access to the monastery. We even had the opportunity to have a delicious lunch with the community.

      1. I went in a minibus with a guy who runs tours to places around the region. There were six of us altogether. I had to go on the organised visit of the church at 2pm with all the other tourists at the Abbaye. I couldn’t get any photos that didn’t have people in them. And there was no photography allowed in the church. I’ve since thought about the one monk who was praying in the back pew while we were visiting the church, and am wondering if he was there intentionally – not just to pray for us – but to stop us going up the aisle. Perhaps it’s to protect the structure itself and also their solitude, to limit the negative effects of tourism. Next time (!) I’ll go alone; in fact, they mentioned the possibility of going on a retreat (there’s accommodation) and then I’d be able to sit in the pews myself.

      2. It is a very real religious community and they allow visitors somewhat reluctantly, especially if the visitors are perceived as tourists. But it is wonderful that you were able to visit. We can’t wait to go back on our next visit.

  10. It is posts like these, Dennis, which bring me back to your site again and again. The grandeur of the architecture, yes…the rich photography, yes ..but, most of all, the sense of place, the feel for what these buildings must once have been and, without the tourists, what remains today.

    1. Thanks so much, Judy. We can’t wait to go back in May. The fact that there is a living community there makes it even more special.

      BTW, loved your story of the one-legged pigeon!

      1. My pigeons may be rooted in this century, but my heart sure feels extraordinarily at home in monasteries of the past. Thanks so much, Dennis, for helping me do my homework!!

      2. You make me think, sir, and for that again I thank you!

        Last night I looked again at “The Monastic World” by Christopher Brooke, remembering that must have been where I first saw this unusually narrow nave. And that kept me reading more about the monks I’m coming to love.

        Regarding tourists: I keep going back to the phrase “sense of place” because I sense that many of the visitors I talk to at Grace Cathedral, whatever their belief system, are drawn to a “holy place.” I encourage talk about things we have in common and always ask where they’re from, saying that even if they only climbed the Powell Street hill, they made a pilgrimage to get there (at which point they usually sigh loudly and say yes, it was a hard climb!) From France, Germany, the Netherlands, India and Indiana…I had good talks with several people yesterday.

        Middle school students are often on my agenda as well and their first words walking in the door are always the same. “Wow!” For that alone, I can excuse a few indulgences….!

      3. Judy, Grace Cathedral is as close as we get to this kind of presence in the USA, this sense of place. One thing that we miss in our travels is this pilgrimage, like our friend Nathan Mizrachi experiences when he travels. Because of our equipment, we usually drive right up to the church, and that spoils it a bit. Thanks for your commentary, Judy. Always appreciated.

  11. We’re all familiar with the lifelike depiction of the human eye in sculpture discovered by the Frenchman, Houdon, but when I saw the technique of using the deep round hole in place of the iris shown on the capital carvings in this ancient place, I marveled that these stone carvers were 600 years before Houdon, in the most remote place imaginable. Very interesting.

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