Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 17, 2003
In search of Blessed Robert d'Arbrissel
Fontevraude Abbey at Loire, France honours this charismatic, yet reclusive preacher
Blessed Robert d'Arbrissel -- Feast Day -- February 25
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Robert of Arbrissel cut an impressive swath through 11th century France's Loire region as a charismatic preacher and founder of religious communities. In his wake, he left the monastic complex of Fontevraud, largest surviving abbey in the country. And, although never formally beatified, tradition dictates that he bears the appellation "blessed."
He strove to lead an aesthetic, reclusive life, but his magnetism constantly attracted large numbers of followers who accompanied him wherever he travelled. Finally, in 1101, in an effort to stabilize and accommodate this expanding retinue of men and women, and supported by the bishop of Poitiers, he selected a site for an establishment near the Loire River midway between the cities of Angers and Tours.
The project attracted the attention of wealthy occupants of nearby Loire Valley chateaus and grants of land and money were forthcoming, the beginning of the continual interest and involvement of French royalty.
Supported also by the pope, Fontevraud became a unique multi-purpose religious complex. Its constitution required that the group of five distinct monasteries be governed by an abbess who was a widow. Thus the women's abbey came to dominate the facility and was responsible for the education of much of France's royal house.
Robert left his creation after a few years, frustrated with management problems. Wandering, attracting more followers, and establishing new foundations in Anjou and Poitou, he rarely returned to Fontevraud. His memory is honoured on Feb. 25, the date of his death in 1116.
Fontevraud is a pleasure to explore. The extensive, tastefully landscaped grounds provide a peaceful, relaxed milieu remote from the outside world.
Masterpiece of the complex and main attraction for visitors is the women's abbey with its large chapel, refectory wing and attractive cloister. Restored after years of use as a prison, the church, dedicated to Notre Dame, was originally consecrated in 1119. It's noted for its unusual four-bay nave and multi-domed roof.
The high point of most visits to the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud is the opportunity to view the four tombs that are prominently sited in the church. They repose in a sombre, stark setting in the vast Roman-arched stone building. An aura of royalty permeates the historic place while visitors, respectfully silent, can't help but be awed by the reclining effigies.
They portray the likenesses of Plantagenet Kings Henry II and Richard the Lionheart, Henry's wife Eleanor of Apuitaine, and Isabella of Angouleme, second wife of King John, (Henry, followed by sons Richard and John, ruled England between 1154 and 1216.)
This church has not been used for religious purposes for more than 100 years, but little Saint-Michel, parish church of tiny Fontevraud, the village nestled against the abbey walls, is a real gem to visit. It contains many of the artifacts removed years ago from the chapel of Notre Dame.
At one end of the abbey refectory, there is an unusual, pyramidal kitchen, the only surviving structure of its type. The multi-storey, vaulted creation contains eight radially-arranged hearths, once used separately for cooking depending on the wind direction. Its chimneys, towers and fishscale shingling are a photographer's delight.
There's a Canadian connection to Fontevraud. An area around the nearby town of Loudun in the Poitou district was plagued with religious and civil unrest, causing many to emigrate in 1632, to New France, founded two decades earlier by Samuel de Champlain.
There, in their new homeland of l'Acadie, present day Nova Scotia, they farmed lands recovered from the sea until, 123 years later, thousands of their descendents were abruptly expelled by the British.
Some were repatriated to France via England eight years later and, ironically, "returned" to Poitou as estate sharecroppers.
After the 1,500-person colony failed in 1775, some were able to join 1,600 Acadians who left France to finally found a new homeland in Spanish Louisiana in 1785. And some, never deported, are still part of Canada's Maritime fabric.
Visitors to Fontevraud may dine and stay overnight at restored St. Lazare Priory. Or they can return to enjoy a variety of concerts, exhibitions, lectures and seminars held irregularly in the ancient abbey buildings.