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An island situated at the end of a narrow causeway, flooded at high tide. As with so many locations favored by men or women devoting their lives to their gods, the geographical location provided safety in its isolation – safety from without from those who would attack for material envy as well as safety from inner temptation. The site was removed from the secular world.


This tiny island is home to an abbey dedicated to St. Michael by the Archbishop Aubert of Avranches, in 708. The Archbishop apparently had a vision of St. Michael.

The earliest buildings were in the Romanesque character, followed by Gothic construction - we will point out those features as we move along. There is a rather typical French transition here, from Medieval to Gothic, and the newer advanced Gothic construction very much follows in the manner developed by Bishop Suger at St. Denis. In fact the apse, with its stained glass windows, is most reminiscent of St. Denis.

The island provides a natural defense, and the integrity of the Abbey was intact, except for a period from 1790 until about 1863 when the use as an Abbey was dissolved; the site even became a prison during that time. Finally, restoration of the Abbey began, and the site is now a major tourist attraction - something it had been for centuries, with pilgrims coming to this shrine throughout the medieval years and onward.

A curiosity of the site is the fact that tidal changes of the English Channel are so severe that the causeway leading to the Abbey is often fully underwater during high tide, especially during days just before and after a full or new moon. Interestingly, pollution and/or erosion has cut into this tidal action, and the site is presently undergoing a clean up, which will bring the flooding (and isolation) back. The causeway is a recent addition, having been built in 1879; prior to that time, the island was very clearly just that - an island!

The warning sign states: “Caution, Today this area will be covered by the sea, Please remove your vehicle before the above closing time.” They do mean the closing time listed on the sign, and the warning is intimidating and states truth.

This is a view of the causeway/parking lot, surrounded by the incoming tidal waters.

To further illustrate the situation, visually, these are some views facing the water of the Atlantic Ocean. The tiny dots are people foolish enough to brave an incoming tide and quicksand, the latter referred to locally as “wet sand.”

Medieval churches usually dominated cityscapes, being built on the highest land, and being taller than any other structure within a town. Here the effect is of the entire "rock" being a church, with structures rising to a visual crescendo. There is one twisting, upwardly winding street with shops, hotels, restaurants, and a small museum. However, as we approach from the mainland, we see the sculptural massing as it rises to support the abbey church. We could also view this as a cascade of stone taking loads from above down to the edges of the island. In either interpretation, however, the result is what we can call "organic" architecture. The structures rise as if naturally growing on the site. It is something Frank Lloyd Wright was to speak of and popularize in the 20th century. In-between Medieval and the present, Gothic architecture was a perfect example of such organic development, structurally; additionally, it looks natural, and it appears to be growing. The pyramidal shape is 262 ft. (80 m.) high .

There are a number of fortifications, growing out of the stone base of the island, occasionally with rounded turrets (usually for the housing of guards).

Vertical spires aid the eye in an upward sweep, but practically they serve as vertical weights bearing down on the flying buttresses to which they are attached, sending their forces to the ground.

There are other verticals working here, namely the buttresses needed to contain the rather tall walls. These, too, draw the eye ever upwards. Notice how the buttresses thicken as they approach the ground, gathering forces from above.

Entering the Porte du Roi (Doorway of the King), and proceeding on the twisting, winding street, one is reminded, perhaps in reverse, of a Disney setting - the place does not seem real.

We are in a quaint, tiny, very crowded village, climbing the only street in town, the Grande Rue.

The projecting waterspouts appear almost like gargoyles, soaring out of the upper regions of the church, over the heads of the pilgrims (now tourists) gathering to approach the church.

The Romanesque facade of the entrance to the Abbey is heavy, with minimal openings and semi-circular openings. Basic construction towards the apse occurred between the 11th and 13th centuries.

The church itself.

The present entrance is the left portal, and the exit is through the right portal.

Internally, the semi-circular nave arches support a triforium gallery, with clerestory windows above. A column rises vertically from the ground up to the barrel vault roof (the barrel vault appears a bit further on).

Note that the columns stop at the roof line. The barrel vault, held together with tie rods. Research might reveal their time of insertion.

The semi-circular apse, which is so very bright, was done in the Gothic period, the 15th century. Some additional work continued into the 16th century. Note the absence of wall, the thinness of the columns, and the large amount of window area.

A groin vault out of the Roman tradition here in what can probably be called Norman Romanesque.

The rather odd-looking open circular area above is the intersection of two diagonal ribs, which make up the quadripartite vault. The circle serves as a compression ring, taking forces from the four diagonal segments, and being circular the forces just theoretically spin around. In highly decorative design, such areas were disguised with all sorts of sculptural pieces, sometimes gilded, referred to as "bosses.” In England, particularly the Chapel of Henry VII at Westminster Abbey, stone pendants descend spectacularly from such a spot (see Chapter Ten below). Often a single stone might be slipped into place upon completion of construction, to fill in the hole.

Here we view the barrel vault of the roof. Note that the roof is of wood.

The cloister, built from 1225 to 1228, is relatively small, but features two hundred twenty delicate and graceful granite columns.

Adjacent to the cloister is the refectory (dining room), which could have been used by the monks and by pilgrims. Note another barrel vault ceiling construction.

A detail of the wood barrel vault.

Pilgrims often spent the night in a number of rooms here. The Romanesque and Gothic periods were honest ones, architecturally. What you see is what the building is made of. Highly articulated, exposed, stone ribs interlace, mostly in groin vault configurations.

Pointed arches and a "crease" running down above an aisle are Gothic in nature (the local guides call this "Norman Gothic"), showing the visual continuity achieved in that later period.

Now that we know a little about how things developed from Medieval to Gothic, let’s explore another conceptualization. In the quest for a “fireproof” roof, stone vaulting had become the solution. A number of different approaches appeared throughout France.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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