The repose of sleep refreshes only the body. It rarely sets the soul at rest. The repose of the night does not belong to us. It is not the possession of our being. Sleep opens within us an inn for phantoms. In the morning we must sweep out the shadows. ― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie
If there is any church in France today where the shadows remain unswept, it is the remnants of a powerful 12th century Benedictine monastery in Montmajour, just outside of Arles in the Provence. Of the many ruined churches we have seen, Montmajour evokes in me echoes of phantoms still swirling among the fallen stones.
In these stones we hear echoes of the history of France itself, not just the abbey. We hear the echo of the early saints of Gaul, the depredations of Vikings and Saracens, Benedictine monks laboring to reclaim the land from the surrounding marshes, the Hundred Years War, the Wars of Religion, a monumental scandal in the French court, the Revolution, a commoner buying and selling the abbey, one of the greatest painters of the 19th century, and even the German Army in WWII.
Until the late Middle Ages, Montmajour was an island, 120 feet above the the surrounding terrain, protected by marshes and accessible only by boat. We know from the sarcophagi carved into the rocks that the site was used as a cemetery as early as the third millennium BC.
Legend speaks of the site as the sanctuary of Saint Trophimus, one of the seven original bishops that Pope Fabian sent to convert the Gauls. After coming to Arles in 46 AD, Trophimus took shelter in one of the caves on the island and received disciples there. Inside the existing church a passage leads to what appears to be a natural cave, with a small window, which according to tradition was the home of Trophimus and his first disciples.
In the 9th and 10th centuries the island – belonging at that time to the Church of Saint Trophime in Arles – also served as a sanctuary for the local residents during invasions of the Saracens and the Normans.
In 1357, during the Hundred Years War, the Free Company, the army of French mercenaries left unpaid after the Battle of Poitiers, ravaged the countryside and pillaged the abbey.
Between 1386 and 1398 the rapacious Raimond de Turenne descended from his eyrie at Les Baux to wage war against Arles. The presiding abbot of Montmajour, Pons de L’Orme, added the massive tower to protect his monastery from Turenne.
During the 16th century Wars of Religion, the abbey was occupied by soldiers of the Catholic League and the monks forced to relocate in Arles. When they returned two years later, the monastery was in ruins. Throughout the subsequent century, the monks engaged in an extensive rebuilding project, but the rule of Commendatory abbots ended this program.
Louis René Édouard de Rohan, known as the Cardinal de Rohan, was the last abbot of Montmajour. As the Cardinal of Strasbourg, he was famous for his courtly activities and he had little use for the monastery at the far reaches of France. He refused to pay for the upkeep of the abbey and finally lost control of it when it was confiscated by the Crown in 1786 after the infamous “Affair of the Diamond Necklace“.
Like Dionysos, dismembered by the Titans, the abbey was torn apart in a frenzy of sparagmos, only to be laboriously reassembled later. The abbey was sold during the Revolution to a commoner, Elizabeth Roux-Châtelard. The abbey was re-valued after she bought it, at almost twice the price. In order to pay for the property, Mme Roux-Châtelard stripped the buildings and and sold everything that she could – all the metalwork, the wooden doors, panels and roof timbers and ultimately the stone itself. Finally, she was forced to sell the land; she divided the property and sold it to twenty different people.
The corpse was painfully resurrected piece by piece for the next hundred years. The Arlésien painter Jacques Réattu purchased the Pons de l’Orme tower in 1797, saving it from destruction. In 1822, the City of Arles purchased the Chapelle Sainte-Croix. In 1840, Prosper Mérimée, the first inspector-general of historical monuments, designated the site as a historical monument, beginning a long program of restoration.
But even the restoration was threatened in the 20th century. During the Second World War, German troops used the monastery to store munitions. In 1944 during their retreat after Operation Dragoon, the allied invasion of southern France, the Germans set the munitions on fire. The damage to the church caused by the fire was serious, but not fatal.
But Montmajor evokes more than the spectre of war and destruction – we also sense the phantom of Vincent Van Gogh who painted here in 1888. He too responded to the echoes in this marshy land and returned over 50 times to sketch. He could only paint this one picture of the abbey, however, because the powerful mistral winds prevented him from setting up his easel.
Today we are left with a moody relic of medieval greatness. It sits on the small hill above what used to be the marshes outside of Arles, baking in the Provençal sun and bending into the winds of the Mistral. In the sleep of ages, Montmajour’s phantoms hold sway and its soul contends with the night.
Location: 43.705495° 4.663919°