A descriptive experience of the Thoronet
Religious architecture has fascinated people and architects for years and monasteries belong to that category. Often built in a remote area, they serve as a retreat place for communities that decided to live an autarchic life devoted to one’s god. The Thoronet abbey, constructed in the south of France at the end of the 12th century, is one example of such a complex. During several years it has hosted monks and abbeys living according to the Rule of Saint Benedict.
Originally erected by twenty monks, the building meant to be austere with no signs of ornamentation and no other intent than to be a place where to get closer to God. The complex was achieved in the simplest way using local stones stack on top of each other with no intentions whatsoever to be seen neither as an example to be reproduced nor as the quintessence of the Cistercian architecture.
After being acquired by the French state and listed as “Monument historique” in 1840, the abbey has gained interest from people especially architects, for instance Le Corbusier, who were eager to experience and understand it. Following this direction, the French ministry of Culture lately launched “Les Leçons du Thoronet” a yearly event that invites a famous architect to realize a physical intervention within the abbey.
Formerly erected to cut off the monks from the outside environment, the walls of the monastery now receive public seeking to have a sensitive experience of the Cistercian monument, another transgression of the Rule of Saint Benedict. This summer, I have myself been part of that interested crowd and my experience of the Thoronet started with the path leading to the entrance door.
Paved with local stones it is partly covered by dry leaves that crunch and break under my steps. The ones still on the tree branches rustle with the hot wind that blows bringing along with him a smell of figs, a reminiscence of the Portugal countryside. Down the way, perforated steel doors peep out and soon appears the sheer Cistercian abbey built centuries ago.
The orange and porous stones of the entrance wall are still warm. Soon, they will turn grey when the sun will start to fade in the horizon. It is the middle of August, probably the best period to visit the abbey.
I enter through the main gate of the monastery and I observe a quite picturesque scenery. The modest but solid abbey church stands 50 meters in front of me sporting its magnificent stone probably never intended to be seen as such. On the left, a simple building connects what seems to be the storeroom with the church. It has a rather humble height. It combines coarsely cut stones roughly assembled with mortar with freshly painted shutter which gives the impression to be still occupied. One can say that it looks more like a vernacular house from the town nearby. Two imposing trees located in front of the entrance of the church gives a bucolic tone to this landscape. An aisle of those same trees is also present on the extreme right of the plaza indicating that it continues alongside the church. Underneath them and at the foot of the wall that adjoins them, I vaguely distinguish a series of white stripes which arouse my curiosity.
A bright light invades the wall of the storeroom being on the left of the church. It reduces the contrast between the stones, now yellow, their joints and their asperities. Vegetation has grown here and there, sometimes on top of a stone that seems about to fall, sometimes in a hollow part of the wall meant to bring in air or light. The closer I get to the wall the more a I get irradiate by the sun. I am becoming step after step a part of the romantic painting that one painter like Caspar Friedrich could have done. I now can feel the heat coming from the stones as my hand goes over it, I cannot hear any noise anymore apart from the one of the friction between my skin and the rough mineral surface.
Going from one gap to the other, my fingers apprehend the long distance that separates the stones. The whole abbey is made from that material and I picture the long process that must have been to stack each one on top of the other. Monks probably had to sort them by size and shape and then assemble them in the right order and location with just enough mortar to bind them together. Maybe the Cistercian art renowned to be pure and minimalistic is closer to mannerism than what one would think. As my finger reach the third joint, my arm is not long enough to go further to the next one.
I contemplate the arches’ shadow the sun projects on to the facade and I walk back toward the entrance of the church abbey. The dry red earth covering the ground indicates that rain must be a scarce resource around here.
I am going down a few steps into the abbey church and I realize with surprise that it leads to the right aisle and not the nave. At the end of it stands a small chapel. There the stained glass made from pinkish tiles creates a local purple atmosphere. Narrow walls or large columns separate the aisle from the nave, which is also two steps down. I look up and around to contemplate the vaulted space illuminated by the afternoon light. The architecture is frugal, no ornamentation, almost no figurative representation of any kind but just wooden benches to kneel and pray. Rays of light coming through the stained glass covering the oculus in the western facade give a holistic feeling of the space. Across the nave, in the left aisle, an old man is heading towards the stairs that connects the church to the dormitory. One could think that he is going back to its room, the first one the left few steps higher that the main space, the one of the abbey.
The dormitory is a long and narrow space evidently dimensioned according to its capacity to fit a bed on each side separated by a central hallway. Several deep openings are placed on both walls of the room to give a chance to the light to penetrate and reveal the ocher color of the stones. Two of them has different proportions, more rectangle and narrower. Five steps precede them and create a threshold giving access to the roof going around the cloister. From there one has an overview of the buildings and can observe the subtle complexity that governs the relation they have between themselves. More than one architect must have been inspired by such a scenery.
I come back in the dormitory to go down the stair connecting it to the cloister gallery. I end up facing the lavabo which is built in the cloister, out from the straight gallery going around it. Entering the chapter house and looking towards the cloister, through the gallery, is probably the most thrilling experience that one can have there. Here the complexity of the space is endless. Transparency and depth are created between the different rooms, depending on what the openings between them make visible. The shade density also varies revealing detail on some columns or hiding the joints between the stones. One can also hear the water dropping in the basin which sometimes get covered by the echo of a child screaming somewhere in the gallery. The greenery of the cloister gives somehow a picturesque touched to this full mineral atmosphere.
I abandon myself to that scenery for minutes to get the chance to grasp its entire complexity.
I finally have to head back to the entrance since the abbey is soon closing. I go through a passage towards the monk’s garden surrounded by oak trees. Here the place must have been in the shade for some time since it feels cooler. I walk up to the cemetery and I quickly look at the detail as I pass next to the back of the church. The same sobriety, the same robustness denotes the authenticity of that Cistercian monastery. The aisle of trees with the long white stones under it appears on my right as I finish to contemplate to back of the abbey’s choir. Later I learned that it was the contribution of Luigi Snozzi, “le mur oublié” (the forgotten wall) once invited as the resident architect for “Les Leçon du Thoronet”.
I arrive back from where I started my tour, in front of the church abbey. I stand there looking at the abbey as if I was praying, trying to see every detail of it. I would need days, weeks, maybe months but I only have few minutes of intimacy left with the architecture once only reserved to a small community driven by their faith in God.