The Cloister

Cloister of the Mont Saint Michel

The Cloister commenced by Thomas des Chambres was finished by Raoul de Villedieu, in 1228. The general form is an irregular quadrilateral figure composed of four galleries that surround the discovered yard or area of the Cloister.

The south gallery communicates with the Church and the old abbatial buildings of the XIth century, on the southwest restored and modified in the XIIth century, by Roger II. The east one is joined to the Dormitory; the north one looks on the main sea, by small and low windows, let into the wall looking to the north, between the buttresses. Lastly, the west one probably led to the Chapter, projected by Richard Tustin. 

Plan of the Cloister of The Mont Saint Michel
He wakes up in a cold sweat, not knowing where he is. He looks out the window and sees the cloister of Mont Saint Michel. It’s been years since he was here but it feels like yesterday. He remembers sneaking into the Cloister as a child and exploring for hours on end. He starts to shake uncontrollably with fear; his mother always told him not to go beyond what she could see from her bedroom window overlooking the Cloister grounds because there were stories about how dark things happened down there that no one knew about or wanted to know about…

Of this Chapter, Richard only made the door, which opens on the west gallery and calls to mind, by its general composition, the entrance to the capitulary room of Saint-Georges de Boscherville. 

At the angle of this last gallery, towards the north, — the north-west angle of the Merveille, — the small door made in one of the lateral series of small arcades leads to one of the Halls of the Charterhouse, joined with the Knights’ hall by an interior staircase. 

Cloister of the Mont Saint Michel
The monk at the Mont Saint Michel Cloister was reading his bible. He had been sitting in the same spot for hours, without even looking up from his book. It was as if he was in a trance of some kind, or deep into prayer- contemplation? The other monks and nuns that passed him by said nothing to him; they intuitively knew not to bother this man who seemed so lost in thought and prayer. Some people may have looked at them with envy and curiosity, but all of this just made the monk’s position more interesting than anything else: so much mystery surrounded what could be going on inside that head of his!

The Cloister of the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel on the sea, is one of the most curious and most complete of those we possess The series of arches is formed by two rows of small and narrow intermingling columns the archivolts with tierce points rest on the small columns from A to B, from B to C on the exterior, from D to F and from E to F in the interior, etc.; the triangles between the archivolts and the diagonal arches are filled like ordinary vault triangles. 

It is clear that this style of small columns forming a herse resists more easily to the pressure and to the movement of timber works than the style of twin columns, in as much as the diagonal arches AD, AE, EB, etc., offer a double resistance to that pressure, prop the construction and make the two rows of columns of mutual support. Besides, we need not say that a weight resting on three feet is firmer than a weight resting on two or on four.

Now, the gallery of the Cloister of the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel is nothing but a suite of trivets The profiles of the ornamentation call to mind the real norman architecture of the XIIIth century. 

The capitals according to the anglo-norman fashion, are simply designed without foliage nor crockets round the corbeil. The capitals only of the series of arches placed against the wall are adorned by bastard crockets. The angle ties between the archivolts of the interior of the galleries offer beautifully sculptured fleurons in caissons, figures, a lamb overspread by a canopy; and, over the arches, a scrolled frieze or small roses finely worked. Between the bases of the diagonal arches of small vaults, crockets are sculptured. This cloister was entirely painted, at least internally and in the two rows of small columns, The galleries were primitively covered by timberwork with wainscots. In the south gallery, on the side parallel to the transept, the front of which was built by Raoul de Villedieu at the same time as the Cloister, is the Lavatory. 

It was at the Lavatory that the monks used to wash their feet at the time of ceremonies. It was also used to wash the bodies of the friars when they died; during this operation, all the monks placed themselves round (or before) the Lavatory, in the same order as in the chancel, in order to pray.

As a rule, the Lavatory was near the Refectory this last joining the Cloister; but at Mont-Saint-Michel where the steepness of the mountain did not allow the extension of the buildings by making them communicate together at the same level, it was necessary to put the halls one over the other and to change the ordinary arrangements of the regular bénédictine monasteries. 

Instead of being placed according to custom, either in one of the angles of the yard, or in of the fronts of the Cloister, the Lavatory was, on Mont Saint-Michel, established as near as possible to the Refectory, in the south gallery of the Cloister, on the exterior front of the north transept of the church ; the base of this front forms two arcades joined to the striking buttresses by series of arches with rounded pendentives. 

The Lavatory is composed of a double bench in each transverse compartment, the most elevated of which was used as a seat. Every double bench contains six places, i. e. in the two benches, twelve seats, without doubt arranged in remembrance of the twelve apostles. 

Cutlers, apparent on the elevated part of the higher benches, conducted water to the fountain which was provided with a small basin, built in the bottom of every lower bench. 

The arrangements of the Lavatory permitted the monks to make their obligatory ablutions and to accomplish mutually the washing of the feet, which, according to the bénédictine rules, had to be done in the Cloister, not only on holy Thursday, but also on every Thursday.

When it was very cold, in winter, and the water from the fountain placed in the Cloister was frozen, they went to the Dormitory to wash their feet and hands with hot water, which was brought there for that purpose.

In the interior of the galleries, the sculptured sketches adorning the angle ties are all different; the friezes too, although included in a known profile, are very rich, very varied, and all this sculpture, composed with the greatest cleverness, in executed with the highest perfection. 

In front of the doors, the Christ is figurated, according to the monastic fashion; on the east, opposite the principal door of the Dormitory, and on the west opposite the entrance to the Chapter the door of which has alone been built. On the south, rather on the right of the door, the Christ is on a throne, formed by a small and very thin column with its capital adorned with flowers, and accompanied by two figures. 

The higher part of the angle tie is adorned with three gable’s, very nicely sculptured, forming a canopy above the Christ and the lateral figures; the state of mutilation of this last basso-reliefo prevents you from discerning clearly (except the figure of the Christ blessing)the subject of the composition, but that which renders it particularly interesting are the names engraven on each side of the heads, or, more accurately the places which they occupied. They are without doubt the names of the architects or sculptors of the Cloister : Maître Roger, Don Gain and Maître Jehan. 

The exterior arcades, on the Area of the Cloister, internally sculptured are in Caen stone; it is the only place in the Abbey were calcarious stone has been used. In spite of its weakness and the mouldings of its arches very much excavated, this stone rather soft, resisted the saUnous wind, except however in one part of the east and north faces, where the south-west winds, from the open sea, have deeply altered it. 

The Area of the Cloister forms, in a large part of its extent, the covering of the Knights’ Hall, the declivities, transversely made, send the rain-water outside by canals which cross the north galleries of the Cloister and end in gargoyles, placed on the exterior buttress of the north front. From the XVth century, the water was collected and sent into the cistern of the north aisle of the chancel rebuilt after its destruction in 1421 and commenced about 1450, by the cardinal Guillaume d’Estouteville. 

The thin columns of the exterior series of arches as well as the capitals and the bases are of granitel turned and polished, like the rare specimens which have been fortunately preserved and which have been faithfully reproduced in all their details. 

The granitel is found in the neighbourhood oi Luzerne d Outre-Mer (Manche) ; the quarries were worked from the XIIth century, and the Abbots of the old and celebrated Abbey of Luzerne often used them to make presents, especially to the Benedictine monks of Mont-Saint-Michel, with whom they were in very cordial relations in the XIIth century at the time of the construction of the Cloister. 

It was very interesting to find available for the restoration the same materials which had been used for the primitive construction; and after our numerous searches in order to find the old quarries the layers of which had been indicated to us by historical records about Mont-Saint-Michel, this result has been attained thanks to the good will of the proprietor, the count Henry de Canisy who wished to follow the good example formerly given by the old landlords of the Abbey of Luzerne. 

The timber-roof of the galleries has been restored according to the most certain data furnished by pieces of the ancient timber work found in the roofs which have been very often modified especially by the Directors of the Prison ; these records have permitted giving to the vaults which cover the galleries their primitive form which is very beautifully and very beautifully designed so as not to overcharge the light and graceful series of arches on the exterior. 

In the east gallery, a fine and large door in connexion with the interior arcades which run at the back of the exterior walls of the Cloister leads into the Dormitory, the apartments belonging to which communicated by a small door with the south gallery. 

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