When we photograph in France, we often are given access to the various churches and cathedrals from the DRAC, Direction régionale des Affaires culturelles (the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs). This allows us access to churches that might otherwise not be available (although for the most part, this is not an issue).
When we arrived at the Abbaye de Thoronet, however, we received a bit of a shock. We were allowed to photograph, but we couldn’t use our tripods. Since we normally photograph with small apertures for long exposures this was a problem. We showed our recommendations from the authorities, but after about an hour, we were informed that the Abbey at Thoronet was not a church, but a national monument under the direction of Centre des monuments nationaux. The Centre is a public administration run by the Ministry for Culture and Communication. It conserves, restores, and manages nearly 100 national monuments belonging to the State, staffing their sites and opening them to the public. Photography at one of these sites requires additional permissions and even fees.
PJ was a little disturbed by the statement that the abbey was a park and not a church. Disgruntled, she said, “Well, let’s just have a picnic since it’s just a park.” But we decided to try to photograph anyway in the large, dark structure. We set the ISO’s up to 1000 and entered the church. The abbey church is, quite simply, perfection. It is the finest example of pure Cistercian architecture that we’ve seen and we were enthralled.
But the photography was a challenge, primarily in a few specific areas. First, trying to capture this perfection with tilt-shift lenses and no tripod was a challenge. It is a difficult feat in dark churches anyway, and it was pretty much a matter of guesswork without a tripod. Second, focus was difficult because we had to handhold fairly long exposures, and third, there was increased noise because of the high iso’s.
This image is a typical example of a shot that proved successful. It was a 1/30 second exposure at ISO 1250 and f/4.0. Normally this would have been 30 seconds at ISO 100 and f/16. You can see that the vertical alignments are not wholly successful.
Another version of this view was taken at 1/25 second, ISO 800 and f/4.0. The horizontal framing was extremely challenging for the tilt-shift function. But this was at the end of the shoot and I was more comfortable with the attempts and the verticals are better aligned in this photo.
But as you can see from these images and with technical challenges aside, the abbey church is simply perfection in its architecture. The simple lines reflect the elegance of its design and construction. The apse demonstrates this – the three centered windows with round arches and the oven vault perfectly framed by the ogive chancel arch.
The side aisles are raised three steps above the nave and feature a small retaining wall between the two features.
The view from the transept looking west emphasizes the simplicity of the architectural lines, from the ogive arches to the round windows. The side aisles are covered with demi-lune vaults, half-barrels that support the central walls carrying the weight of the nave vault.
The abbey features an extraordinary multi-level cloister, with a garden in the center. Since the church is sited on a hillside, the main passages of the cloister are on several levels and there is an upper walk as well.
Overall, we were as successful as we might have hoped in capturing this abbey. On close inspection of the original high-resolution images we can see the flaws – excessive luminance noise, slight focus problems, and tilt-shift aberrations. We are also not able to get tack-sharp images across all planes because we could not do the long exposures that we prefer. Next time we go to this far reach of the Provence, we will return with the proper permissions and – tripods in hand – get the images that we had planned in the first place. I suppose that is not a bad thing – we always have a great excuse to revisit this magnificent church.
Location: 43.460280° 6.264135°