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Visiting the 12th century Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque in May before its renowned lavender fields had burst into vibrant bloom, Martha McCormick discovered equal beauty in its austere Romanesque interior. Located near Gordes in Provence, the abbey is occupied by a community of Cistercian monks. The Roman Catholic Cistercian Order grew from a late 11th century reform movement started by monks who wished to return to the pure traditions of monastic life practiced in Saint Benedict’s time. Following the strictures of Cistercian design, the abbey lacks decorations such as frescoes, sculptures, or stained glass windows with Biblical illustrations. According to the early founders, these ornamentations were meant for lay people who had little access to the Bible. Decoration brought them closer to God. For the devout monks, however, such embellishment was unnecessary and would distract them from prayer. Thus, the decorative elements allowed are those of the architecture itself: vaults, arches, stairways, transepts, capitals and columns. These were constructed using the finest methods because the Cistercian monks highly valued craftsmanship. Stonecutters were particularly prized, and each initialed the stones they cut as a matter of pride. One might think this austerity creates a rather drab place. But instead, the austere décor heightens the beauty of the pale gray stone and the purity of line. Added to this is the welcoming of light: la vrai Lumière—the true light—a symbol of God. According to an early founder, Saint Bernard: “…shadow and darkness shall disappear and the splendor of the true Light will invade the whole space…”
Far left: For the monks, the cloister is a symbol of “Paradise regained.” It stands at the heart of the monastery. Here monks find a natural spot for silent prayer and meditation. Above: The play of light and the simplicity of architectural structure create serene beauty. The Abbey of Senanque today At its peak in the 13th and 14th centuries, Sénanque abbey owned extensive properties all over Provence, including four water mills, seven granges, and four or five hospices, in addition to fields, forests and pastures. Troubled times followed when the abbey was partly destroyed during the War of Religions in the 16th century, and later was sold off as state property after the Revolution. In 1854, it was purchased and restored by a community of monks, who were later expelled. The current community dates back to 1988. Today, the monks still follow the precepts of Cistercian monastic life: liturgical prayer sung in church; silent reading, meditation and prayer; and manual and intellectual work. The brothers work in agriculture (lavender, honey, and forestry) and tourism (guided tours, bookshop, and building restoration.) The shop is very much worth a visit, offering the monks’ honey and lavender products, a wide selection of religious and historical books, and many other gifts.
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