Our friends Paula and Jerry, while house sitting for us, visited Fontfroide Abbey and wholeheartedly recommended that we visit. We chose a sunny cool March day for our outing. Because we were so early in the season, we were almost the only people there. I had expected a diminutive stone church, perhaps with a small court, mostly in ruins. The Abbey is instead grand, beautifully restored and maintained. We intend to go back as the seasons progress to enjoy the aromatic gardens that fill the site.
The photos tell most of the story.
The cloister: the heart of the spiritual life of the abbey:
The Lay Brothers’ refectory:
The abbey church, which was much grander and more austere than we expected:
The windows in the Lay Brothers’ dormitory come with a poignant history. By the early twentieth century, these window openings had no glazing. After the First World War, from fragments of much older stained glass windows in northern France that had been destroyed in the bombings, new windows were fabricated for this space. At first glance, they seem to be pleasant modern interpretations of traditional windows. As you get closer, you can see bits and pieces from many designs. The compositions are very pleasing, almost traditionally symmetrical, with deep colors. Then the beauty and sadness of these little disembodied quotes, tiny remnants of horrible destruction, flows over you.
Lots of beautiful contemporary metal and glass work:
For more detailed history, I’m quoting the following from the abbey’s materials:
The founding of the Fontfroide Abbey
The abbey of Fontfroide was founded in 1093, on land given to some Benedictine monks by the Vicomte de Narbonne. The abbey takes its name from the nearby spring, the Fons Frigidus, the Cold Fountain. Besides the water, the monks found in this hilly area the wood and stone for the construction of the monastery. But Fontfroide did not really develop until after 1145 with its attachment to the Order of Cîteaux. The Cistercian monks, under the direction of St Bernard of Clairvaux, wished to return to the purity of the rule of St. Benedict, advocating poverty, austerity and architectural sobriety.
An abbey in the land of the Cathars
In the 12th century, a Christian religion different from Catholicism developed in the south of France: Catharism. This new belief spread rapidly throughout Occitania [the southern part of what is now France], demanding a return to the Church model of early Christianity. This ‘heresy of good men’ was condemned by Pope Innocent III and became the target of Catholics, first and foremost Cistercians. Since the monks of Fontfroide could not convince the Cathars to abandon their beliefs by preaching alone, the papacy decided in 1209 to set off against the Cathars of the South the first crusade organized in Christian land against heretics and those who support them. The assassination of Pierre de Castelnau, a monk of Fontfroide who became a legate of the Pope, was the triggering act of the Crusade against the Albigensians.
Benoît XII, The Pope of Fontfroide
In 1311, Jacques Fournier succeeded his uncle Arnaud Novel on the abbey seat of Fontfroide. He was appointed bishop of Pamiers in 1317 and directed the tribunal of inquisition against the last Cathars. Transferred in 1326 to the bishopric of Mirepoix, he was promoted cardinal in 1327. He was elected pope in December 1334, succeeding John XXII under the name of Benedict XII. Barely elected, he revoked all the commands and undertook the reform of the monastic orders, beginning in 1335 by his own Cistercian family of Fontfroide Abbey. He built the Palais des Papes in Avignon where he died in 1342 and was buried in the cathedral of Avignon. With this disappearance, the abbey lost its last great protector. Then came the times of change.
Castle life in an abbey
From the 15th century onwards, the King of France put in his own abbots, mostly noblemen who were little concerned about monastic considerations. New buildings were erected, giving a castle look to Fontfroide: Cour d’Honneur, pediments, terraced gardens … The monks, few in number, forgot in their turn the rigor of the rule and ate meat and chocolate, some even played billiards ! The French Revolution put an end to all monastic life, and Fontfroide was given to the Hospices de Narbonne in 1791.
The renaissance with Gustave Fayet
Twelve monks of the abbey of Senanque (Gordes) came to reoccupy Fontfroide in 1848. But the laws of separation of the Church and the State provoked their departure in 1901. In 1908, Gustave and Madeleine Fayet bought the abbey at auction . Artist and curator of the Museum, Gustave Fayet is best known for his talent as a visionary collector and his commissions for symbolist works: Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cézanne, and especially Odilon Redon, whose Day and Night decorates Fontfroide’s library. He also undertook a vast campaign of restoration and redecoration of the abbey. Today, the descendants of Gustave Fayet still maintain the Abbey of Fontfroide with the same passion.