Friday, April 27, 2012

Abbaye Notre Dame de Senanque

You may have seen photos of this beautiful Cistercian abbey, Abbaye Notre Dame de Senanque. It's famously photographed with its long rows of lavender in full bloom. It's not lavender time quite yet, but when I visited this past weekend, the abbey setting was lovely with new spring growth, blue skies and fluffy, floating clouds. The abbey is nestled in a remote, difficult to reach valley not far from Gordes. Established in 1148, the Abbey's fortunes have waxed and waned over the years, being at times abandoned and even used as a farmstead storage facility for livestock and crops. In 1988 monks again moved into Senanque, and it has been a working monastery since that time. Tours are given, but because Cistercians are a silent, cloistered order, visitors are not allowed to wander on their own throughout the facility as the monks live, work, worship and pray.
Today's monks have a modern residence, but in the Middle Ages, this is where as many as 30 monks slept. The dormitory was partitioned so each monk's bed had a bit of privacy. The door at the far end led to stone steps down into the church. Since the monks gathered 7 times during the day and night to sing the hours, it was important for them to have easy access to the church. The stairway in the foreground leads to the cloister.
When not working or worshiping, the monks spent time here in the cloister in meditation and prayer. The 'warming room' and the chapter house open into the cloister.
This is one of two fireplaces located in the warming room.... the only sources of heat in the entire monastery during the Middle Ages! I can't imagine how cold these monks must have been. This room was also the scriptorium where the monks copied and illustrated Biblical manuscripts. Logs/tree trunks were place vertically in the opening and burned.
This is the chapter house where monks still today gather to hear lessons taught by the Abbot and to pray lectio divina. Today's monks sit on the chairs; in previous centuries, they sat on the stone steps that circle the room. And outside this room, carved high on an arch is where yesterday's Devil is found. This carving is the only one of a person or animal in the entire monastery. Perhaps it's there to remind the praying monks that as they leave this room, the Devil and worldly temptation are always waiting.
Cistercian architecture and art are typically simple and elegant. These leaf and nature motifs are the only decoration permitted in the monastery. No carved tympanums here; no stained glass windows of Biblical scenes or saints. Hear the words of St Bernard of Claivaux, founder of the order:
"What is the use of placing these ridiculous monsters, beautiful horrors, and horrible beauties under the eyes of the monk when he must read and meditate?...It then becomes more pleasant to read the marble than the manuscripts and one spends days contemplating these sculptures one after the other instead of meditating on the law of God."


  1. Dear Evelyn, thank you for this post! I saw a lot of photos of this place taken during lavender time, always was curious who lives there! What to go there too!

  2. Great photos, as always, Evelyn. I have indeed seen the pictures of the Abbey with the lavender in full flower but it's nice to see a different view of it. It sounds as if it had a similar history to the Abbaye de Beaulieu, also a Cistercian Abbey, not far from us (you must visit it if you come down our way), which was used as a barn/cowshed for many years,