Abbey of Fontenay - Visit time : half-day.
Nestled in the hollow of a green valley and surrounded by forests, the Abbey of Fontenay is an outstanding example of a Cistercian monastery, one of the major vestiges of the architecture of this monastic order in Europe.
The state of conservation of the ensemble is exceptional. Its beautiful Romanesque architecture, harmonious and austere, has smoothly crossed the centuries without major incident. The solemnity and beauty of the place conveys a purity that reflects the lives of the ascetics who inhabited the site for centuries.
Fontenay is neither the oldest foundation of Saint Bernard, or the most famous, and it is not the most perfect creation of Cistercian architecture, nor the most comprehensive. But the Burgundian abbey founded in 1119, built starting from 1130 in the valley of the Egrevies, is undoubtedly the most well-preserved establishment among those that were built in Burgundy during the lifetime of the Saint reformer.
The church, built between 1139 and 1147 by Abbot William through the generosity of the Bishop of Norwich Ebrard (who was buried there), was consecrated by Pope Eugene III, a Cistercian and former disciple of Saint Bernard. It is very simple and extremely austere, with its Latin cross layout, its nave with blind walls and transept devoid of a tower. The perfection of its proportions, the rigor of its openings, the science of its vaulting, and the precision and finesse of the construction all combine to create an ensemble of value through this abstract architecture whose logic and clarity result in a kind of asceticism
More contemporary, the cloister and chapter remained intact and abide by the same aesthetic principles. The abbey still retains other community buildings in its enclosure : monks’ room, dormitory, warming room, refectory, prison, hotel, bakery, ironworks. The latter building, dating back to the late 12th century, recalls the role the Cistercians played in the technological advances of the Middle Ages. This is one of the oldest industrial buildings in France.
Despite the changes undergone in the 13th, 15th and 16th century, and despite the ruins accumulated in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Abbey of Fontenay (restored after 1906) stands today as a largely authentic and well-preserved ensemble.
The Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981, under criterion (iv).
Criterion for selection
Criterion (iv): the austere architecture of the Cistercian monks represents the physical form of the moral and aesthetic ideals which flourished at various times in the history of Western Christian religious communities. The structure of the Cistercian monastery as an operational agricultural and industrial workplace, as well as its role as a place of prayer for small groups living in total self-sufficiency, illustrates a significant historical movement of universal value.
Source : Unesco / ICOMOS