Thursday, June 20, 2013

Chemin d'Abbaye. Part 1: Fontenay

Sooner or later, nearly every traveller finds a particular place that speaks to him or her in a personal way. It can be anywhere: a country, a building, a park. My sister Gail is called by the New Mexican desert. My belle soeur Grace was smitten with Norway’s fiords.  And I found nirvana in an isolated Benedictine abbey in Burgundy.

I've always been drawn to churches, particularly those from the Romanesque and Gothic periods. The combination of structural engineering and artistic expression simply never ceases to astound me. And then there's the ever-varying quality of the light. And the remnants of 11th century painted decoration. And of course I'm always trying to puzzle out exactly how these buildings appeared to the average person during the Middle Ages, what exactly it was that they saw and experienced. 

Until Fontenay, my attachment to these churches was largely intellectual. But in that remote corner of Burgundy, the peaceful setting and utter simplicity of the abbey spoke to me in a way very few buildings ever have. In contrast to the splendid grand cathedrals that keep me at arms' length emotionally, Fontenay was appealing because of its austerity.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Roll out the barrel vaults

The lovely Burgundian town of Tournus is home to the abbey of Saint Philbert, a church that has something for everyone. Do you believe that 'older is better'? Saint Philbert’s was built in the 11th century. Love a peaceful cloister? A gloomy crypt? A breath-taking chapel? They’re all here, waiting to be explored. Looking for painted decoration, mosaic floor tiles, curiously carved column capitals, or a magnificent 18th century organ? Saint Philbert’s has them. Throw in some structural innovations that make the nave a serene and light-filled space and the result is a place where nearly anyone can happily spend an hour or two.

11th century mosaic floor depicting the month of June.