Benedictine Buildings: Some Contrasts

A two-week pilgrimage into Benedictine sites in three countries is a remarkable and rather overwhelming experience, and one is left with enough richness and variety of impressions and ideas to last a lifetime. However, the literary, spiritual, musical and liturgical, and delightfully human aspects of such a pilgrimage are best left to those who can describe them better than I can; so this article will concentrate on the beautiful and varied places where the Benedictine life is lived.

The pilgrimage started in Canterbury, that great centre of devotion, spending three days in and around the cathedral. The weight of history and worship is everywhere, the association with Chaucer in everybody’s mind, the soaring Gothic nave, the wealth of effigies, the empty space for the shrine of Thomas Becket, the medieval glass, the Great Cloister – these have been known and loved by western Christendom for centuries and need no introduction.

Rather less well known is Minster, a 20 minute train journey from Canterbury, where there was once a Saxon grange belonging to the monks of St Augustine. The Saxon tower, once used as a beacon when the Isle of Thanet was still an island, is still here, square and flinty, dominating the pretty buildings and charming garden that surround it. The vault at the bottom of the tower, its original Saxon floor exposed, is used as a small oratory by the international community of Benedictine nuns, devoted to prayer and hospitality.

In Normandy the Abbey of Bec Hellouin was probably the most important and influential foundation of its time, and produced three Archbishops of Canterbury and three Bishops of Rochester. Here the fifteenth-century St Nicholas Tower in its pale stony beauty is all that remains of the monastery before the French Revolution. The original layout of the splendid mediaeval church is marked with stones, and the high altar and apse by carefully trimmed hedges. Some impression of its beauty and size can be gleaned from the immense length from the west door to the high altar, and a remaining wall of exquisitely carved arches and roundels.

The cradle-vaulted refectory is now the Abbey Church, a beautiful long simple building in cream-coloured stone. Hellouin, the soldier-turned-monk, who founded the Abbey in 1035, lies in his sarcophagus under a grille in front of the high altar. Many people come to hear the monastic services and attend the Eucharist. The services are sung by the monks, and sometimes the nuns of a sister foundation up the road join in singing the services on special feast days.

The careful restoration of the mainly seventeenth-century Abbey has produced a beautiful formal complex of buildings, a glorious cloister and staircases, and a facade of great elegance overlooking a clipped French parterre. The whole is set in a quiet river valley, with its own small village of colourful gabled cottages. The old walls, parts of ancient buildings, a wonderful gothic gate-house, all give the idea of the extent of the original abbey buildings.

The Abbey of St Benoît-sur-Loire at Fleury houses the relics of St Benedict and has a remarkable Romanesque church and an extraordinary eleventh-century porch/tower.

In the crypt the relics of St Benedict are in a casket enshrined in a huge central pillar encircled by heavy solid Romanesque arches, which support the sanctuary above. The apses that open off the ambulatory are like small caves. Lights and candles burn in the dim light.

The church itself was built in the Orthodox tradition of a central dome and a square with apses. The tiers of Romanesque round-headed arches, almost undecorated on their solid pillars, are simple and majestic. The cream-coloured arch of the dome high above is complemented by the highly carved mediaeval choir stalls and the elaborately paved chancel which probably dates back to the eleventh century. The nave, built later to bring the worship nearer to the Western Rite, progresses from the Romanesque round arch through to the gothic pointed arch, one following the other with a harmony of light and line. Throughout, the Church and the capitals are well preserved and show a great sense of artistry and ingenuity in adapting and interpreting scripture and saintly legends into the format of Corinthian columns.

The nave was eventually extended to join up with the very unusual tower/porch. This is older than the nave and was originally a free-standing two-storey construction, not intended as a porch at all. Its builder, the Abbot of Fleury in 1020, intended it to be ‘une oeuvre qui serve d’example à toute la Gaulle’. Built to the glory of God, it represents the Holy City of the Apocalypse. Laid out on a square it has three arches on each of its four sides, their capitals vivid portrayals of scenes from the Apocalypse. They too are based on the profile of a Corinthian column, but wonderfully and ingeniously adapted to show lions, angels, serpents and dragons. The vision of Saint John on Patmos is on one capital, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on another, the Last Judgment, the Flight into Egypt, the Battle between Good and Evil for a Soul, the Stoning of St Stephen – the faithful can truly enter into and contemplate this extraordinary Bible in stone.

A beautifully restored North Door on the church shows Christ in Glory with the four Evangelists, surrounded by angels and supported by Prophets.

Very close to Fleury lies the tiny ninth-century church of Germingy des Prés. It is the oldest church in France and was dedicated in 806. It was built with a dome over a square church with apses. One of the apses has a well-restored original mosaic over the altar – no figure of Christ, but the hand of God indicating the Ark of the Covenant surrounded by four golden dancing angels. The arches are pre-Romanesque, curving in towards the capitals like Moorish arches – the architect, building 1,200 years ago, came from Armenia.

In Belgium, tucked away in the wooded hills, lies the monastery of Chevetogne. The monks have been here since 1939, and are committed to pray for the unity of all Christians. The house is a tall brick and stone nineteenth-century Belgian chateau, which has been extended, and includes a church at one end and a Russian Orthodox basilica at the other; rites are celebrated in both. The two churches present strong contrasts. The Byzantine church is built with a dome, frescoes and icons, and an iconostasis, full of Orthodox symbolism, and the Latin church is tall and light, with the fresco over the altar showing the risen Christ and a statue of Our Lady carved by Sister Constancia from Minster (who also carved one in the Crypt in Canterbury) in the narthex.

The monastery is a centre for ecumenical studies, has an entire room devoted to international religious periodicals, and a very large and well organized theological library available for scholars.

The Rule of St Benedict has found homes all over the world, and these four places are part of its history and witness to its continuing relevance in the world today.

Anne Gardom is Art Correspondent of New Directions