Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Mont Saint Michel For Earth Day: Where Nature and Man's Most Ingenious Architecture Meet & Spirits Live

In the television adaptation of this blog, there would be a lovely fade from the illustration in this book page to the real thing, just like the opening of Moonlighting's "Atomic Shakespeare."

The drawing is from an essay by Christopher Morely called  "A Sea Shell in Normandy" in the collection of his essays, The Romany Stain, which I have had since high school because my father picked it up in a used book store for me.

The photo is from my iPhone last month.

Although Morely's essay on Mont Saint Michel from 1926 has quietly been a part of my literary life for decades—looking up at me every time I dipped into the collection because it is the first page of the first essay—I had no particular desire to go see it.  Being there in person was a series of random events: I met singers in Assisi last summer, who have been meeting up in Brittany for years for a privately organized workshop that they invited me to join. I said yes without looking into many details, including where the small villages of La Fontenelle (the birthplace of composer Jean Langlais) and Antrain actually are.  Turns out Antrain is a 1/2 hour drive from Mont Saint Michel, which is technically in Normandy, et voila. It was a lovely small emotional connection back to my father, who died a few years after he gave me the book, made more poignant because it was unexpected.

Happy Earth Day: No Man Is an Island, But Mont Saint Michel Is

I visited the Mount driving from Portorson, which brings you to the large car park and from there walked the two miles on the new causeway to the entrance. The tide was extremely low, so I did not experience the "island"-ness, but the relentless, driving rain for two miles gave me the sense of achieving some kind of pilgrimage, and it kept the crowds way down, which astonished the friends I traveled with who had visited when there were wall-to-wall tourists.

Earth Day is a lovely time to consider other pilgrims, new and old, who approach from the small village of Genet, walking across an enormous expanse of mud flats that disappear under high tide.  To do that walk you need to go with a certified guide.  Pilgrims of yore were killed when the high tide came in quickly and swept them away, or they wondered into a quicksand patch, which Morely notes in his essay. This photo beautifully captures the expanse of those plains, and the small humans trekking across to the abbey, seen in shadow.

There is a lot of discussion going on in France now about how/if the tides should be controlled/damned or not. One faction fears that if the they aren't controlled, the amount of silt build-up will actually connect the island to the mainland by 2040, and the Mount will lose its distinctive character. (Photos from this Smithsonian article.)

An American on the Mount

"With the genuine thrill and and tingle of the pilgrim you climb, cricking your neck at the noble sheer of those walls and struts that lean upward and inward to carry to the needle of the spire. You can almost feel the whole roundness of earth poise and spin, socketed upon this stoney boss of peace.

You think of the Woolworth Building. "  Christopher Morely

The Mount's origins are in AD 708 when the Bishop of nearby Avranches saw the Archangel Michael in a dream who told him to built a sanctuary on an existing Mont Tombe, and it was renamed "Mount Saint Michael at the peril of the sea." The Archangel Michael is the head of the heavenly militia. (John Travolta made an interesting Michael in Nora Ephron's 1996 film, although it was odd for the great warrior to be playing Cupid.)

The Benedictines moved into the Mount in the 10th century and it became a great pilgrimage site as the the village grew outside its walls. The abbey continued with various eras of construction over hundreds of years under several patrons.

And it is the construction of the enormous abbey that astounds. From the Mount's info pamphlet:
"Constrained by the pyramidal shape of the Mount, the medieval  builders wrapped the buildings around the granite rock."

From an excellent Smithsonian article:
"But only about half of the church sits solidly on rock; the other half, called the choir, is perched somewhat perilously on top of the two levels of buildings below."

As the builders built up, they had to continue to build down,  creating huge crypts that would offset the upward weight.

Morely: "You saw, I hope, those great columns in the crypt, where the veins of stone rise to their task as smoothly, as alive with living strength, as the cords of a horse's haunch."

I did indeed.  This picture does not do justice to the enormity of these columns.

The cloister is stunning, the Knight's Hall is an amazing expanse, the view from the town below, looking straight up, gives a good sense of the perch, the rock the abbey is sitting on . . .

And Then There Are the Spirits

The Mount has been a very holy place, and then a very unholy place. It was an impregnable stronghold during the Hundred Years War, its ramparts and fortifications able to resist all of England's assaults, which they say lead to the abbey being a symbol of national identity.

During the French Revolution—with the dissolution of the religious communities—and through to 1863, the abbey was used as a prison.

Between the lives of the monks, the killing of English, and the torture of the prisoners, a lot of souls have passed through those towering walls.

Now, the north-south stairs run below the west terrace, which is the main circulation axis of the Romanesque monastery. The stairs are very steep, and for some reason as I was walking up them I stopped to take a picture, and was amazed at what I saw through the iphone:

An optical illusion, surely. If I took one step more, it went away. If I went back a step, it disappeared. It only materialized from one, specific, space.

It was a wonderful interplay of Nature with the genius of human engineering. Or was it . . .