Thoronet Abbey a Cistercian Treasure in Provence
This article was previously published on Ginger and Nutmeg.
Classified as a French historic monument in 1840 L’Abbaye du Thoronet restoration work started the following year and continues today. The Cistercian Thoronet Abbey is the third “sister” to abbeys Silvacane and Sénanque in Provence. These religious structures are stark and sombre, yet at the same time refreshing. Inside the church, there is no marble, no gold, no organ pipes, only natural light and acoustics.
The abbey is located on a remote property in Provence’s Var, at the base of a densely, treed valley. This place was ideally suited for the Cistercian monks who practiced a pious existence with limited external distractions.
Raymond and his wife Étiennette (Stephanie) des Baux donated the land to the monks in 1140. Raymond-Raimbaud des Baux was a direct descendant of the House of Baux, a noble French family. During medieval times, his family was hugely influential in Provence with extensive landholdings from Berry and Vienne in central France, to Marseille and beyond along the coast.
Robert de Molesme at Cîteaux near Dijon, in Burgundy, founded the Cistercian order in 1098. Here is some detail from Wikipedia:
“In 1098 Robert de Molesme founded a “new monastery” at Cîteaux in Burgundy, as a reaction to what he saw as the excessive luxury and decoration of Benedictine monasteries, under the direction of Cluny. He called for a stricter observance of the Rule of St Benedict, written in the 6th century, and a sober aesthetic which emphasized volume, light, and fine masonry, eliminating the distraction of details.”
His philosophy quickly gained in popularity. When he passed away in 1154, there were 280 monasteries in France, and by the end of the 12th century, some 500 existed.
Architecturally the abbey is an embodiment of those underlying Cistercian principals. The stone church is austere with little adornment – no decorative distractions. The traditional Latin cross design with a tall nave and three bays give volume to a structure that otherwise might be oppressive. Monks and lay brothers were the ones to use the church; there were two modest entrances, one for each group.
The location of the Abbey of Thoronet offered remote privacy for the monks. The property was ideal, with a small river and a reliable spring, water sources necessary for cooking, washing and milling. Also, the region provided access to fertile land for agriculture and animal husbandry. The church, belltower, cloister and mill were all constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries. The abbey construction occurred within a tight timeline, and as a result, the buildings flow architecturally.
Financing an Abbey
The abbey’s finances relied upon donations and proceeds from the sale of agricultural products. Sheep meat, honey, and handcrafted cheeses were sold at local markets to sustain the abbey’s operations.
At the peak of activity, there were about 25 monks who lived and practiced their faith at the abbey. It was the lay brothers, minor monks from lower classes, who did all the “heavy lifting” around the property. Early in the 14th century, the decline had begun, the Black Plague of 1348 devastated the population of Provence and impacted the abbey. Unfortunately, even with the apparent agricultural resources, the finances were not sustainable. By 1433, the number of monks had plummeted to only four. Largely abandoned during the Wars of Religion, by 1785 L’Abbaye du Thoronet was bankrupt.
Visiting L’Abbaye du Thoronet
As a result of the ongoing restoration work, the abbey church, cloister, dormitory and cellar are all in good condition. The site is worth a visit.
Abbaye du Thoronet (Website)
Open daily, however, there are seasonal changes in hours. Please check the website for details.
Telephone: +33 (0)4 94 60 43 90