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Le Thoronet: This 12th century-monastery is one of the “Three Sisters of Provence”

Le Thoronet

Photo Courtesy of Centre des Monuments Nationaux

Alice Alech - published on 11/03/21

The acoustics in the church are extraordinary -- the stone walls of Le Thoronet create an echo that can last for up to 13 seconds anywhere in the church.

The first impression of Thoronet abbey is one of strength and solemnity. The oldest of the three wonders of Cistercian architecture, Thoronet, was built with order and efficiency in mind; the heavy stone walls, transverse arches, and pillars were strictly and precisely put together.

Thoronet is a sublime example of a 12th-century Cistercian abbey.

According to St. Benedict’s rule of work and prayer, the monastery should be built, if possible, to contain everything within its walls so that the monks don’t go outside.  The group of buildings is tucked away in rural Provence, nestled among the oak forests, olive trees, and vines. 

Today, Thoronet Abbey is classed as a French historical monument. One of the abbey’s highlights is the church, noted for the exceptional acoustics, an impressive experience for music lovers and visitors. 

History

Construction of Notre Dame de Thoronet began in 1160 and was completed in 1175. Builders used the same kind of stone for all the buildings, thus achieving a distinct sense of uniformity.

The new abbey was home to 20 monks and a few dozen lay brothers. Funds came in from donations and proceeds from what the monks cultivated in the fields and the sheep they reared. 

By the end of the 14th century, however, the abbey’s influence began to dwindle. The Black Plague in 1348 and the French Revolution devastated Provence.  Life at the monastery suffered enormously. 

“Cracks and collapses in the roof, broken doors, and windows,” reported the abbot at the time. The community became deeply in debt, and in 1785 the abbot signed a declaration of bankruptcy. Part of the abbey had to be sold, and the last seven monks moved to other Catholic institutions.

A new chapter of Le Thoronet began in 1840 when the abbey was classed as a historic French monument. Serious renovation work started the following year, giving new life to Le Thoronet.

The church

The church with a traditional Latin cross design was built on the site’s highest point in an east-west direction, allowing the monks to capture sunshine for their morning and evening prayers.  

As the church served only the resident monks, a central doorway was unnecessary — just two simple doors used only by the monks. The quality of the stonework and simplicity predominates the church – no organ, no sculptures, no décor, nothing extra, just lots of space. 

What’s extraordinary, though, is the acoustics in the church– the stone walls of Le Thoronet create an echo that can last for up to 13 seconds anywhere in the church. That long echo forced the monks to concentrate if they wanted to sing slowly and perfectly together, yet another exercise in discipline. 

Other notable buildings include:

The dormitory 

The monks slept on an upper level on mattresses divided by stone pavements.

The lavabo

Cistercian monasteries built separate pavilions containing water fountains usually situated in front of the door leading to the refectory. At Le Thoronet, the lavabo is a small hexagonal structure covered by a dome. 

The cellar

The monks pressed olives to make olive oil and made wine from the grapes they cultivated.

The screw-operated olive oil press and some 18th-century wine vats that the laymen used to make wines are still housed in the cellar.

Le Thoronet today

The abbey is open to visitors most of the year. 

The summer months are hectic at Le Thoronet.  The long reverberation times make the church an ideal venue for concerts featuring medieval and classical music concerts. 

Every year the abbey houses two festivals: in July, the Medieval Music Festival of Le Thoronet, and in August, the Music and Spirit Festival, a festival of vocal music and chamber music.

Monks, architects, lay brothers, and artisans have all worked hard with genius and faith over the centuries to create and maintain this Cistercian masterpiece. The Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who visited Le Thoronet in 1953, observed: “In these days of raw concrete, however fêted, welcome and blessed it may be, this was such a marvelous encounter along the way.”

Tags:
Catholic historyFranceTravel
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