Sénanque Abbey

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Sénanque Cistercian Abbey
The Sénanque Abbey
The Sénanque Abbey
location France
Region Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur,
Vaucluse department
Lies in the diocese Avignon
Coordinates: 43 ° 55 '42 "  N , 5 ° 11' 13"  E Coordinates: 43 ° 55 '42 "  N , 5 ° 11' 13"  E
Serial number
according to Janauschek
Patronage Immaculate Conception of Mary
founding year 1148
Year of dissolution /
Year of repopulation 1854
Mother monastery Mazan Monastery
Primary Abbey Citeaux monastery
Congregation Congregation of the
Immaculate Conception

Daughter monasteries

Les Chambons
Monastery Avignon Monastery (1365)

Notre-Dame de Sénanque is a monastery of the Cistercian order on the territory of the municipality of Gordes in the Vaucluse , France . What is remarkable about the abbey, which was founded in 1148, is the ascetic severity typical of Cistercians . This was not only implemented consistently in their monastery rules , but also in the unadorned, simple architecture.

Sénanque Abbey


The monastery was founded in 1148 by Cistercian monks from Mazan Abbey in Vivarais through filiation .

Just four years after it was founded, the monastery had grown to such an extent that a subsidiary monastery ( Les Chambons monastery ) could be founded from here in Vivarais (the dependence on Sénanque is however questioned). Through donations and a. of the Simiane family and the lords of Venasque , the territory belonging to the abbey grew rapidly, and grangia (“barns”) were built on the lands, some of which were far away, around which farms were soon grouped by lay brothers.

In the 13th century the abbey was in its prime, which was associated with prosperity and - as a result - deviation from the Benedictine vow of poverty. An energetic abbot enforced more respect for the monastic rules at the end of the 15th century. During the French Wars of Religion, the monastery was burned down by Waldensians in 1544 . Some monks were hanged. After that, the abbey was only a shadow of earlier days. Towards the end of the 17th century the community consisted of just two monks. Nevertheless, the southern wing of the monastery was restored at the beginning of the 18th century.

In the French Revolution in 1791 it was sold as state property (" bien national "), which saved it from destruction. In 1854, on the initiative of Marie-Bernard Barnouin, the population was resettled. Sénanque was used again as a monastery by 72 monks at times. In the period from 1870 to 1940 and from 1969 to 1988 Sénanque was closed again. In the meantime, monastic life is taking place again in the former abbey. The current monastery is a dependent priory of Lérins Abbey . In the summer of 2009 a prior and 5 monks lived there.

Lavender field in front of the monastery
Abbey of the monastery

Construction of the monastery

To understand how the Cistercians were built, one has to put oneself into the situation of the time. In the Middle Ages, the church and faith were the center towards which society was oriented. For people of deep faith, as a rule, the bond with God meant an elevation, the bond with earthly goods, however, an alienation from God. In France and beyond, in this religious climate, countless monasteries were founded. Everywhere the monasteries tried to develop their influence and their independence from the feudal lords , often also from the bishops .

Most of the monasteries initially belonged to the Benedictine order . Radical poverty was one of the main demands of the founder of the order, Benedict of Nursia . However, the Benedictine monasteries had become very wealthy in the course of time through donations and gifts, with the result that the monastery churches became increasingly splendid. The climax of this development was the construction of Cluny in Burgundy (from 1088), the largest and most magnificent church in the world at the time, which even exceeded the size of the old St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Some monks protested against this softening of the rules of Benedict. The Cistercians founded by Robert von Molesme wanted to go back to their roots and simply live. For her, the architecture was important as a consistent implementation of her idea of ​​monastic life. Aesthetic subtleties and decorations were insignificant. In comparison to the architecture of the Benedictine monasteries, Cistercian monasteries are therefore rather simple and small. Bernhard von Clairvaux , the outstanding figure in the founding phase of the new order, was a passionate advocate of this simplicity: “What is the purpose of the monk who is supposed to read and meditate with all these ridiculous monsters, these beautiful horrors and terrible beauties in mind to keep? Soon he will find it more pleasant to study the marble than the scriptures, and he will spend his days pondering over all these sculptures instead of researching the divine law. "

Bernhard von Clairvaux did not reject pictures as a matter of principle (so he recognized their importance in supporting the sermon for the laity), but pointed out the dangers for the monks of being distracted from the real thing. The order of forms should be reflected in the order of the human mind. For almost a century, all the monasteries of the order followed this radical attitude.

The Cistercian monasteries were therefore kept unadorned inside and out. Frescoes , sculptures or glass windows with figurative representations were not permitted. Ornaments were only allowed as part of the building structure. However, the technical execution of the buildings was particularly careful.

When designing the churches, the incidence of light in the simple buildings played a particularly important role. Since Jesus Christ is the “light of the world” according to the Christian faith, the churches were usually “oriented” (that is, built towards the east). So during morning mass the sun - a symbol of Christ from ancient times - rose behind the altar where the Eucharist was celebrated.

Capitals in the form of water leaves

In Sénanque, the severity and sobriety are broken at two important points:

  • In the cloister there are 48 arcades with small columns , the capitals of which are decorated in a very varied way.
  • The monastery church is dominated by an elaborate, eight-axis vault . Vault construction and pointed arches existed as early as the end of the 11th century, but it was only because of the large number of new foundations that these techniques became widespread in Europe.

In general, the plan of the monastery corresponds to that of other Cistercian monasteries. Due to the location of the monastery in the narrow valley of the Sénancole, there are some special features in Sénanque:

  • The writing room ( scriptorium ), warming room and brothers' room were combined in one room, the calefactorium.
  • The location of the sacristy on the other side of the main facade is also unusual .
  • The church of Sénanque is built to the north.

The rectangle as a design principle is clearly recognizable at various points in the building, especially in the cloister . Together with the golden ratio, it served the builders as a means of structuring and dividing the rooms.

Tour of the monastery

A tour of the monastery is only possible as part of a guided tour.


The dormitory was the original dormitory. It was divided into sections for each monk. The outlines of the cells can still be seen on the floor. The room was not heated. So it was very uncomfortable in the cold season. The monks used simple straw mats as beds. The almost 30 meter long dormitory has a single continuous pointed barrel vault (created after 1170). The walls are 1.30 meters thick.

There is a large round window on the western gable wall . There is also a door on this wall, behind which one suspects the abbot's former chamber. However, this cannot be proven, as no traces of this space have been preserved. Like the entire floor plan of the monastery, the dormitory is also adapted to the daily routine of the monks. At its head end, a staircase leads directly into the transept of the abbey church. Thus the monks could go straight to church at around two in the morning to celebrate the first service of the day. In the evening they went back to the dormitory after the last hour of prayer .

Abbey church

The abbey church of the Notre-Dame de Sénanque monastery

A staircase, which was originally made of stone, leads from the dormitory down to the church area, directly in front of the altar under the crossing . The choir behind the altar is flanked on the right and left by two side apses , in which there were also altars in the past to give the numerous priests among the monks the opportunity to celebrate Holy Mass every day - often for the salvation of the founder. These side chapels have their own small barrel vaults and slightly retracted apses.

The church windows were only created in 1994 by the glass painter Louis-René Petit . With these windows the aim was to achieve lighting conditions that on the one hand emphasize the effect of the stone building and its architecture, on the other hand the spirituality of this room.

The nave forms the second large part of the church. It consists of a central nave , flanked left and right by a side aisle each . This area is a few steps lower than the choir and was built in 1180. Since the architecture of the two parts is different, they were probably built by different builders. The Steinmetz symbols are also different. In addition, according to the taste of the time, the building was built less in width and more in height. The central nave was a good four meters higher than originally planned.

In contrast to the choir vaults , the vault is a pure pointed barrel vault without straps . Compared to the choir, the nave is simple and unadorned. The only eye-catcher is the round window in the south side, decorated with a twelve-pass and the lancet windows below . The wall below the window is a so-called blind wall, i.e. H. without means portal . To the west, in the extension of the wall, there is a portal that once served as an entrance for the lay brothers ("conversations"), and to the east in the extension there is another entrance for pilgrims and visitors. This arrangement is rarely found otherwise.


Inner courtyard with a view of the cloister and the bell tower

The cloister is the central place of every monastery. As in the church, the refectory and the chapter house, silence was an obligation here. It was a place of prayer, meditation, reading, but also work. This part is still used today by the monks as it was then. The cloister is, comparable to the Roman atrium , the central part of a building complex that connects the various rooms. Under the open sky in the middle of nature, it also has a religious symbolism. It is the “paradise found again”, “the locked garden of the bride” (from the Song of Songs of Love ) and the “heavenly Jerusalem” (from the Revelation of John ).

The cloister has four large arches in each wing, which in turn consist of three smaller arcades separated by double columns . The total number of twelve arches achieved in this way has the symbolic meaning of abundance (cf. Twelve Tribes of Israel , the twelve apostles ). Since, according to the Revelation of John, the " heavenly Jerusalem " has twelve gates, the monk is said to be a resident of this new Jerusalem during his lifetime. The symbolism of the number is complemented by the play of light and shadow, brought about by the architectural components of the cloister: the coupled column arches, the capitals with plant ornaments and the stone floor slabs.

The armarium is located in a niche in the wall next to the portal of the church . Books were kept in it.

During the attack by the Waldensians from the Lubéron (1544), the fountain house in the southwest corner of the cloister and the south wing were destroyed. The latter was rebuilt in the 17th century. From the fountain house, however, only the beginnings of the vault can be seen. From the south-western stretch of the cloister you can see the bell tower and the roof, which is covered with flat stone slabs ("Lauzes") that lie on the vault without a roof.

Calefactorium - the brother hall

This room, also known as the “warming room”, was the only place besides the kitchen that was heated with two chimneys on cold days, one of which has still been preserved. The semicircular chimney was led past the dormitory above it in the north wall, which was slightly warmed up as a result.

The monks carried out handicrafts or copied manuscripts here. Therefore this room also served as a scriptorium . It was later separated by a wall. A column in the middle carries the four groin vaults . The capital was restored in the 19th century.

Refectory - the dining room

The dining room and kitchen were next to the brothers' hall. The refectory collapsed in the 18th century and was rebuilt in the 19th century. Today this room is the chapel where the monks pray their hours of worship. It is only open to the monks and not for sightseeing.

Chapter House

Demon opposite the chapter house

This was and is the daily meeting place for the monks. Every morning a chapter from the Benedictine Rule was read here under the chairmanship of the abbot . This was followed by the martyrology (listing of the saints of the day) and the necrology , a list of those Cistercian monks who were particularly honored on the day of their death because they had led a life like saints.

In the chapter house , the monks asked their confreres for forgiveness or accused those who had violated the rules of the order. It was here that the abbot was elected, the monastery property was administered and novices were accepted . Furthermore, deceased monks were laid out here, who were guarded by confreres in the so-called wake without a coffin until they were buried in the cemetery.

During the reports, the monks sat on the appropriate steps depending on the length of their membership in the monastery. Due to the ribbed vault with two powerful pillars, the acoustics in the chapter house are very good.

Exactly opposite the entrance to the chapter house, aligned with the abbot's seat, there is a demon or devil's head with bared teeth on a console level with the column capitals in the northern arcades of the cloister.

See also


  • Carsten Fleischhauer: The architecture of the Cistercians in Provence. Sénanque - Le Thoronet - Silvacane . 2nd, revised edition. Cologne 2006, ISSN  0940-7812 (= Cologne Architecture Studies , Volume 77)
  • Hélène Morin Sauvade, Carsten Fleischhauer: Sénanque. Éditions Zodiaque, Paris 2002, ISBN 2-7369-0280-7 .

Web links

Commons : Abbaye de Sénanque  - album with pictures, videos and audio files
Wikivoyage: Sénanque Abbey  - Tourist guide

Individual evidence

  1. Hélène Morin Sauvade, Carsten Fleischhauer: Sénanque. Éditions Zodiaque, Paris 2002, ISBN 2-7369-0280-7 , p. 22.
  2. Marilyn Zermatten (ed.): Abbey Notre Dame de Sénanque , Editions Ouest-France, Rennes 2003, ISBN 978-2-7373-5785-5 , p. 52