Art and Architecture in Medieval France: Medieval Architecture, Sculpture, Stained Glass, Manuscripts, the Art of the Church Treasuries

By Whitney S. Stoddard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
The Monastic Site

MONASTIC SITES were selected for their isolated character. Private prayer and corporate worship seemed to demand physical withdrawal from secular life. The quest for the salvation of souls and the search beyond the human for the divine presence seemed to transpire best in a self-contained and self-sustained community. Yet the nature of the Romanesque site varied according to the historical circumstance surrounding its construction and according to the geography, climate, and topography of the land. The variety of sites reflects the extraordinary vitality of Romanesque times.

The Abbey of Saint-Martin-du-Canigou (fig. 1) is dramatically situated on a jagged spur of the range of mountains called Canigou on the French side of the Pyrenees above Prades. The approach is a forty-minute climb on foot; in the course of this climb one is first confronted with the massive tower attached to the northeast corner of the church. A further tortuous walk reveals the entire monastic complex nestled into the live rock and, at the same time, extending out over the gorge on a terrace supported by man-made buttresses. The dramatic mountainscape forms a magnificent frame for the irregularly placed buildings.

In spite of damage from an earthquake in 1428 and extensive restoration in the early nineteenth century following its abandonment after the French Revolution, Saint-Martin-du-Canigou still epitomizes the ingenuity of Romanesque builders. The shape of the site necessitated the trapezoidal arrangement of the cloister, while lack of room to the south resulted in an unusual placement of structures opening off the cloister. One cannot help but wonder at the logistic problems involved in the procurement of materials and in construction on such a remote and uneven site.

Saint-Martin-du-Canigou (fig. 1) was built between 1001 and 1026 in two campaigns. Guilfred, Count of Cerdagne, wishing to atone for his worldly sins, subsidized both campaigns by a series of donations. A monk named Sclua supervised the construction. In 1009 Oliba, Bishop of Elne and Guilfred's brother, consecrated the abbey in honor of Saint Martin (upper church), the Virgin Mary (crypt or lower church), and the Archangel Saint Michael. Two years later the pope delimited the role played by the donor and insisted that abbots be freely elected according to the Benedictine Rule; and in 1014 the monk Sclua was elected as Saint-Martin's first abbot. More gifts from the count, plus the arrival of the bones of Saint Gaudérique, stolen from the Duchy of Toulouse with the count's help, resulted in a new building campaign and a final consecration in 1026. Count Guilfred, fearful of approaching death, abandoned his second wife and seven children and entered the monastery in 1035. Fourteen years later he died and was buried in a tomb which he had carved with his own hands in the live rock of the mountain.

The church itself was constructed on two levels. The lower church, or crypt, had three squat barrel vaults covering the nave and two aisles in the western half and six groin vaults over the eastern section. The upper church (see fig. 66) consisted of three small, narrow barrel vaults supported by eight squat columns. The continuity of the spaces of the nave is, however,

-13-

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