Synopsis of a Heritage

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Mont Saint Michel is an island commune in Normandy in France. The island is about a kilometre away from the country’s north-western coast, at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches. Its area is 100 hectares (247 acres), and its population is 32 (2017). It is one of Europe’s most memorable sights set in the mesmerizing bay where Brittany and Normandy meet, drawing the eye from afar. 

An architectural review of Mont Saint-Michel, Commune in France - Sheet1
Le Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France_©4 maksym / Getty Images

Historically, the island has served as a fortification since ancient times and is home to the monastery it takes its name from. According to the town’s structural composition, the feudal society that built it consisted of: On top, God, the Abbey and monastery; below, the great halls; then stores and housing; outside the walls were fishermen and farmers’ houses.

The island’s unique location – just 600 meters from the mainland – made it accessible at low tide to pilgrims to the Abbey, but defensible during an incoming tide, which trapped, driven away or drowned any would-be attackers. Mont remained unconquered during the Hundred Years’ War despite a full-scale English attack in 1433. Because of its natural defence, Mont was converted into prison under Louis XI. During the Ancient Régime, the Abbey began to be used more often as a jail.

The Mont-Saint-Michel constitutes a remarkable aesthetic achievement in his unique combination of natural beauty and architecture. It is a unique ensemble, both because of the coexistence of the Abbey and its fortified village within the bounds of a small island and the originality of the placement of the buildings, which complement the structure’s unforgettable silhouette.

An architectural review of Mont Saint-Michel, Commune in France - Sheet2
Formation with variation at Le Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France_© Neirfy/Shutter stock

Formation

Mont now occupies a tidal island, but it was an island on dry land during prehistoric times. As sea levels rose, erosion reshaped the coastline, and numerous outcrops of granite appeared in the bay, which had resisted mainly the wear and tear of the ocean. Mont-Saint-Michel consists of leucogranite, formed by molten magma intrusion during the Cambrian period about 525 million years ago. Early studies of Mont Saint-Michel by French geologists referred to the leucogranite as “granulite,” but the granitic sense of the word is now obsolete. Mont has a circumference of approximately 960 meters (3,150 feet), and its highest point is 92 meters (302 feet) above sea level. 

An architectural review of Mont Saint-Michel, Commune in France - Sheet3
Architectural Tradition since Past_© Gaspar Janos/Shutter stock

Shift with Architectural Code of Conduct

In the Middle Ages, Mont Saint-Michel became one of the most important pilgrimage sites. There are several main reasons to visit the Mount and village, beginning with the architecture of the stone and timber-framed houses, many of which are classified as historic landmarks. A significant part of the charm comes from the original names of some of the places. In the South and East sides of the Mount, houses are stacked in tiers surrounded by steep, rocky embankments. 

Built in 966, this Benedictine abbey was built on top of a sanctuary dedicated to Archangel Michel since 708 and has some Romanesque remnants. The oldest part of the Abbey is Notre-Dame-sous-Terre, a small pre-Romanesque church with a double nave built-in granite masonry and flat brick. Romanesque architecture can still be seen in the nave of the abbey church, whose crossing is supported by the rock peak, and in a group of contextual buildings (the chaplaincy or gallery of Aquilon, the covered gallery of the monks whose vault was built after 1103, one of the earliest examples of ribbed vaulting).

However, the masters of the Gothic period took advantage of the restricted area to create the high walls, the high masses, the forthcoming volumes, the pinnacles, and the sharp silhouettes of the rock. Due to the elegance of the design, the new contextual buildings built-in 1204 bear the name “Merveille” (Marvel).

An architectural review of Mont Saint-Michel, Commune in France - Sheet4
Abbey, the big highlight of Mont Saint Michel_© Takashi Images / Shutterstock.com

Integration of the Surroundings

Building on such treacherous ground-on a small rock in a bay with some of Europe’s strongest currents and tides-must have required a lot of faith. The pilgrims’ journey to reach this holy precinct was a test of faith. Despite the turbulent history of Mont and the destruction of the earlier part of the church, the ensemble of the site and the Abbey remains intact. Through restorations in the 19th century, the buildings regained their dignity and emblematic aspect, especially with the construction of the spire in 1897. Historically, the village has retained its ancient structures.

Mont-Saint-Michel at Dusk_© Philippe Berthé / Centre Des Monuments Nationaux

Being Authentic

For centuries, the Mont and the surrounding landscape of the bay have been inseparable. Buildings of the Abbey and its surrounding village, carefully maintained, restored or renewed according to their substance, history or layout, are a striking example of authentic architecture. Since being abolished in 1789 and used as a prison until 1863, the Abbey stands today as a monument to the Christian past, where the presence of monastics is maintained by a small community. The site’s history, shared by three million visitors annually, recalls its essential role.

Considering the topographic characteristics of Mont and its status as a famous landmark, its visual characteristics are incredibly vulnerable to modifications to the landscape that may alter the views to and from the property. Furthermore, the high tourist frequency threatens to destroy the atmosphere of the place. The concept is incorporated into planning tools such as the patterns of territorial coherence. Thus it receives regular restoration work from the centre. Considering the geological nature of the site, consolidation work on the rocks is carried out periodically.

Thus, the old roots of the monastery, the eclectic architecture, or the religious significance of this medieval masterpiece have undoubtedly enchanted visitors for centuries and will continue to do so.

References:

  1. Centre des monuments nationaux. (n.d.). History of the monument. [Online] Available at: http://www.abbaye-mont-saint-michel.fr/en/Explore/L-histoire-de-l-abbaye-du-Mont-Saint-Michel#.
  2. Les portes du Mont-Saint-Michel. (n.d.). Discover and visit Mont Saint-Michel. [Online] Available at: https://www.le-mont-saint-michel.com/en/discover/the-mount/ 
  3. Wikipedia. (2021). Mont-Saint-Michel. [Online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mont-Saint-Michel.
  4. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2017). Mont-Saint-Michel | History, Geography, & Points of Interest. In: Encyclopædia Britannica. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Mont-Saint-Michel.
  5. Ago, J.-A. #photography • 4 Y. (2018). Mont St Michel, France. [Online] Steemit. Available at: https://steemit.com/photography/@jeffery-awesome/mont-st-michel-france
Author

Neha Lad, an Architect soon to be, adds a taste of design and creativity to the world of Architecture enhancing Nature as an added sweet dish, bringing unique flavor to the norms of Biology. She aspires to become an architect who depicts life in harmony with nature, where writing is her predominant mode of expression.

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