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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The side aisles are half the height of the nave and are lit by small windows in the chapels at the east end.
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.
The cloister is one of the marvels of the abbey and was originally on two levels, but below the level of the main church.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.