In the year 1023, the Benedictine monks of Mont-Saint-Michel, in Normandy, began to build their new abbey church. To celebrate this millennium, the Center des Monuments Nationaux is offering, in the church itself, the exhibition “The Archangel’s Residence” on the major stages of religious life. A thousand years ago, this majestic edifice was already an architectural feat: four crypts were used as a base to “place” the vast Romanesque building on this windswept rock.
Passing the gate of the abbey, the visitor enjoys an animated film which restores the architectural transformations of the place. The foundation of a first sanctuary was undertaken in 709: that year, Aubert, bishop of Avranches, a town at the bottom of the bay, had a small round church built on the still uninhabited mountain, dedicated to the holy archangel Michel who, according to Tradition, appeared to him three times in a dream.
Of this building, no trace remains. But the curious who choose the lecture tours are introduced into a double Carolingian church which succeeded it at the end of the 10th century: Notre-Dame-sous-Terre, which became one of the crypts. “Faced with the influx of pilgrims coming to venerate the relics of Saint Michael – and those of Saint Aubert – the Benedictines wanted to build bigger,” explains François Saint-James, guide-lecturer. Then, in 1421, the choir collapsed; the monks rebuilt it in flamboyant Gothic, the style of their time.
Relics and goldsmithing
In addition to the model of the Mont, a copy of that made by a monk around 1691, the “highlight” of the exhibition is undoubtedly the presentation of the treasure of the abbey. “In the turmoil of the Revolution, the treasures of the churches had disappeared. But at the beginning of the 19th century, a great Catholic momentum stimulated vocations and donors, says Brigitte Galbrun, one of the curators of the exhibition. There is a desire to re-establish devotions to the saints, to “dress up” the churches with works of art and to reconstitute their reliquaries. »
Thus the archangel knight slaying the dragon, an important saint for the kings of France, resumed his role as protector of the country, this time against impiety, in the eyes of the legitimist royalists. The pilgrims returned, the descendants of the Norman nobility – who had repelled the English during the Hundred Years’ War – obtained from Pope Pius IX that a statue of the archangel be crowned in 1877.
In the south transept, we can admire one of the two statues covered in silver leaf. Around, the copy of the famous golden crown, a sword, a shield, two precious stone necklaces… shine brightly. Witnesses to the piety of the men and women of the 19th century, these objects, crafted by renowned goldsmiths from the Mellerio house, are usually kept under lock and key by the local clergy. “They hadn’t been presented for over a century!” insists the curator. However world-famous it may be, Mont-Saint-Michel always has treasures to reveal to us.