Sunday, October 18, 2009

Abbaye de la Lucerne


The new camera is shaping up fine, but I still have plenty of pictures from the Mont St Michel holiday in September I want to post, including these, from a trip that we made up to the Abbaye de la Lucerne (the link is to the Wiki page; they have their own site, to which there is a further link from there, but it's mainly in French, and perhaps still in its rather early stages).


The place is the perfect antidote to the drama and hectic business of the Mont. You reach it by driving up the Contentin peninsular, if you like on the coast road, so you can marvel at the Marvel across even greater, more luminous wastes of sand and water, then branch off inland, and find the abbey tucked away in a green and peaceful cleft in land.



You enter by a gatehouse, and buy your entry ticket from a gentle young man who has the air of a religious, though he may not be, in a little shop which also sells the kind of tasteful and wholesome souvenirs that religious foundations specialise in, and which I could be rather a sucker for: things made with honey and lavender, leather purses made to look like pilgrim scrips, pilgrim foot balm, books of mediaeval manuscripts and recipes...





The foundation is 12th century, and was the home of a community of Premonstratensian canons. Now the trouble with 'Premonstratensian' as a word is I can't help thinking it sounds like 'pre-menstrual tension', which led me to remark to Tom that that was probably why they had to get away from it all and go and live somewhere quiet and secluded, because no one else could stand to live with them. In fact, as it's a bit of a handful to type, I think I shall henceforward refer to them as the PMTs, and beg forgiveness from any of them who might be reading for my irreverence, because, upon enquiry, it seems to me they are, and perhaps were, an interesting and admirable group of people.




They were part of that movement towards austerity and purity of the 12th century, of which Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians, with whom the PMTs had strong links, are perhaps the better known exponents; one of those spasms of puritanism, of rejection of worldly vanity and decadence that have happened over and again through history. There's a strong case that we might be due for one now, or perhaps we are having it already, but like much else, it has gone global, is being enacted on a larger stage, is wider and more important, and maybe more frightening, in its scope and its implications... But such speculations may be facile and specious, a kind of pseudo-history, history's lesson being history has no lessons, and I am not a historian anyway.






Like most puritans, the reforming religious movements of this time, the Cistercians, and Bernard of Clairvaux in particular, were oppressive killjoys, attempting to crush the creative impulse in humanity, in favour of allowing only the contemplation of God's creation, denying anyone the fun of decoration, of playing with shape and colour, insisting on a dour self-mortification. If you like, and mostly I do. Or you could say it was a question of seeking to clean and simplify things, question our real needs, the nature of our aesthetic, rather than always to be wanting more and more stimulus, more artifice, more cleverness, to see the beauty in functional form, both man-made and natural, in what needs to be there without contrivance.



Bernard harried poor Peter Abelard and made him burn his books, just for his daring to keep on asking the wrong kind of questions; he preached the Second Crusade with all its bloodshed and terrible consequences. Dominic, who arguably started out as a PMT, practically in person tormented and burned and murdered the gentle and peaceable Cathars, simply for seeing things a different way, until the last of them jumped off a big high rock.




The reformers railed against the worldly and the powerful but were more than happy to grasp worldly power as soon as they got the chance. Don't they always?




Yet the Cistercian and PMT monasteries were, and still are, places of an imposing grace and peaceful presence, they pioneered good and wholesome methods of husbandry and ways of doing things, and the Dominican foundations sheltered the sublimities of Rhineland mysticism, of Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen, where men's and women's thoughts and visions reached to places rarely attained, way above and beyond religious dogma...



So where was I? La Lucerne. It was, as one might expect, suppressed in the French Revolution, plundered for stone and used for something degrading, I forget what. But a lot of it survived. The PMTs dwindled in number everywhere over the 19th century. Then they experienced a gradual resurgence; now there are many foundations worldwide, mostly male but with some female communities, working in some quite difficult places, in Africa and South America for example. They are not, and never were, actual monks, but another kind of beast: canons regular. One could doubtless make a bodily joke about that one too. As far as I can gather it means they are ordinary Catholic priests, except the women I suppose, I don't know what they are, living subject to a Rule, the Augustinian one in this case. The houses are autonomous, may give permission for their members to set up dependent houses, and though they all get together for a synod every year, there isn't any real central monitoring authority. Some of them are contemplative, but many are active in the world, and have ordinary day jobs, and just come home to their religious life. There are teachers, and doctors, there have been inventors and scientists and writers, one long-standing US congressman was also a PMT canon.



In the 1950s, a PMT canon, the Abbé Marcel Lelégard, took on the task of restoring the abbey. This work seemed to us to typify the kind of heroism that quite simply persists, that takes the long view and labours and works with love even when it can't, and won't live to, see an end. He's buried in the abbey church, and over his memorial stone, an odd touch, a suspended model boat. I don't know why, perhaps he made it, or it was someone else's tribute.




The ultimate wish for the abbey is that it will house a religious community once again, and the work goes on. There is an association of Friends of la Lucerne, and there are concerts and exhibitions held there.




It seems to me, as an outsider passing through, that what was good about the puritan desire to strip things back, the focus on simplicity and on creation, is being reworked here, and the picturesque ruination of the place feeds into this. So the architectural forms stand out clear and bold, and time and again arches and windows form frames for the natural world rather than presenting images and colours of their own.





The occasional piece of ornament or design, either a vestigial or modern, is isolated and achieves a gestalt weight and interest. Natural forms are favoured,



and there are many spirals.



The woody greenness is allowed to come close and colour the inward life of the building, and the only staining of the glass is a very subtle pale green which serves to enhance the leafy light as it passes through.


Streams and ponds are channelled through the site, reflections and ripples bringing it to life.







And then an odd thing: an exhibition of very nice, large blow-up, black-and-white photographs of aspects of the abbey itself, exhibited between the arches of the ruined aqueduct.




The through-the-looking-glass, post-modern irony of this confounded me. Following the sens de la visite, we had just seen these things ourselves. The aesthetic which governed the place, of the rejection of unnecessary artifice, was being turned upside down; its most functional elements were being made objects of such artifice. In one way they were encouraging me to look again, to wonder if I'd seen as well as I might have (or if my camera was good enough to create the same record), but that in turn then made me feel somewhat belittled...


I shrugged and moved on, back through the gatehouse. A mere half hour's drive from the heaving crowds on Mont St Michel, perhaps half a dozen more people were making their way in. We thanked the young man in the shop, and went on our way through the green and gold countryside of the Cotentin, our heads, and our memory cards, full of satisfying images.


13 comments:

A Write Blog said...

What a simply beautiful place. Perfect.

And your photos bring it all out too.

Plutarch said...

The stones and leaf through water are particularly haunting.

christopher said...

Thank you so much for the trouble you take. You give me peace.

Lucy said...

Thanks all three, for taking the trouble to read at such length.

Rouchswalwe said...

Reading your beautiful prose has made me realize that I haven't had a proper holiday since 1989. I yearn for such a peaceful place. Since work has been so hectic of late, I was only able to read your words (the limited memory of my mobile blanked out the photos), except for one photo that made it through ~ the one of the windows through which can be seen the green of nature. How full of marvel!
Merci, sweet Lucy!

Barrett Bonden said...

Emerging as I am (was?) from the Valley of the Shadow of Death (I exaggerate) I was looking for comfort in secular form and was prepared to sneer. But you snuck up on me with your admission of being quietly overwhelmed by the contents of gifte-shoppes attached to religious institutions (You would fall in obeisance in front of the emporium at Hereford Cathedral). You have uncovered a secret secret vice in me. In fact I must now break off and find the book marker bought at the church in Much Marcle which Simon Jenkins rhapsodises about. You have not done me any favours...

Lucy said...

RW - thanks dear one, you are a very conscientious reader and commenter, and I wish I could welcome you here for a holiday; you could sleep in my blue room under the prints of the paintings of Hildegard of Bingen... one day. Meanwhile, hang loose, and your work burdens will surely pass.

BB - I'd heard you'd been poorly, you poor old sausage; all the more noble of you to wade through this. Yes, I want that Mappa Mundi t-shirt!

Fantastic Forrest said...

Wonderful, wonderful, WONDERFUL!

Thanks for taking me there, and giving such a splendid tour.

I have high hopes of visiting the Abbaye in the next few years to enjoy the peace and beauty.

Rouchswalwe said...

Lucy, I was just able to revel in these wonderful images. Green, green everywhere ... definitely, we are in Hildegard's world. You have some of her prints in your blue room?! Neato. I promise to write you should I be able to someday visit my uncle in Frankfurt. Brittany is sort of on the way and we could meet up then.

apprentice said...

Sorry your camera croaked, but the new one is working well. I love the spirals and the glass reflections, but all are lovely.

Nimble said...

Really lovely to get to see a little of the abbaye with your photos and descriptions. Your description of the PMTs and the canons regular is intriguing. I'll have to look them up and learn more.

Granny J said...

Thank you so very much, Lucy -- that was a wonderful visit. The arches were especially serene, though apparently the founders were not!

Michelle said...

I've missed your photo essays. These are incredible.