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Provencal cistercian abbeys

Abbayes cisterciennes

Sénanque, Silvacane, Le Thoronet - More than 900 years of history 1098-2022

The Cîteaux Order celebrates its nine hundredth anniversary in 1998. The original abbey in Burgundy was founded in 1098 by Robert de Molesme. His aim was to recover the ideal of Saint Benoît de Nursie's Rule. Poverty, isolation, uniformity, work and prayer were the main characteristics of the « white monks ». Such obligations were described in the « carta caritatis » written by the third abbot Etienne Harding. In Provence the architecture of the three « sisters » -Sénanque, Silvacane and Le Thoronet- reflects this austerity. In 1153, during Saint Bernard time, there were 343 abbeys all around Europe and 694 in 1300. The three Provençal abbeys appeared during the XIIth century.
        The abbey of Sénanque, close to Gordes, is a good example of Cistercian expansion. It has a very simple architecture with no statues, no coloured stained-glass windows, no paintings and no wonderful church tower, so that nothing would disturb the prayers. After its golden age during the XIIIth century, the abbey declined. The Vaudois insurrection in 1544 was terrible. However curious it may seem, the Revolution was a chance for the abbey of Senanque. Sold as a national property, it was preserved and well kept. In 1854, an ecclesiastic bought the abbey. And in 1989, the monks came back definitively. The original monument has been well preserved except the converts' area which was rebuilt during the XVIIIth century. The monastery is constituted of a church, a cloister, a dormitory and conventual buildings. The nave of the church with no transerve arches has five bays. The semicircular apse is pierced with three windows symbolising the Trinity. The tomb of a Venasque lord is located next to a sculpted wheel with ten rays. In the cloister, galleries have sculpted consoles. Decoration on the capitals - leaf-work, flowers, rope and palm-leaf moulding and entrelacing- is very simple. All around the cloister are located the conventual buildings : chapter house, warming room, refectory and laybrother's range. Close to the warming room is the dormitory.
        Further south, the two other abbeys, state property, have been deserted for a long time. The particularity of Silvacane is due to its foundation during the XIth century by monks of Saint Victor of Marseilles. The settlement surrounded by reeds, « sylvi cana », was attached to the Cîteaux Order. Then, in 1147, it received a donation from Guillaume de la Roque and Raymond des Baux. However, the protection of the lords of Provence did not prevent a violent conflict with Montmajour's abbey in 1289. The lord of Aubignan's pillaging and the severe frost of 1364 were signs of the decline. This period ended in 1443 with the annexion to the chapter of the Saint-Sauveur's cathedrale of Aix. Parish church of La Roque d'Anthéron the following century, it suffered damages during the Wars of Religion. Abandoned since the Revolution, the state bought it in 1949 and has restored it since then.
Between Lorgues and Le Luc Var is located the third « sister », the Thoronet abbey built up during the XIIth century. As Senanque, the church of roman provencal style has no portal but two lateral doors. And the wall outside has an enfeus or « depository » for the dead of the village, a rare charasteristic in this region. Church, cloister and conventual buildings generate the sensation that it is an exceptional place as well as a feeling of universal harmony.
In the last two abbeys you will see photographs of Bogdan Konopka, Anne Favret, Patrick Manez. At the Thoronet you will hear the 25th of Septembre, Jean-Paul Poletti and the Polyphonies of Sartène inspired by franciscan songs. The day after, a group named A Filetta will play. Then, on the 2d of October, Keram, an Armenian group will perform. And on the 3rd of October, Stephan Micus will be playing traditional musics.

Emmanuel Boutinard - June 1998 - Translated by D.Prouteau
Photo E.Boutinard

Abbaye de Sénanque, Gordes, tel. 04 90 72 05 72
Abbaye de Silvacane, La Roque d'Anthéron, tel. 04 42 50 41 69
Abbaye du Thoronet, Le Thoronet, tel. 04 94 60 43 90

Photographies Emmanuel BOUTINARD Octobre 2005 - Abbaye du Thoronet, Var