Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 18, 2006
Various monasteries cover rocky island
Pilgrims flock to shrine dedicated to Archangel Michael
St. Michael – September 29
- WCR photo by Ted Fitzgerald
Archangel Michael, standing firmly on the dragon's tail, prepares to slay Satan.
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Said to be the world's most popular shrine dedicated to the Archangel Michael, the image of the rocky, monastery-covered island of Mont-Saint-Michel is familiar to all. It floats like a medieval castle in its great bay and claims to welcome more visitors each year than any other French site except Paris.
It was established in 709 as a special place on the former Rocher-de-Tombe by saintly Avranches Bishop Aubert. Michael has traditionally been associated with high places because of his reputation as an intervener between earth and heaven.
Decreed by Michael
It is said that the archangel personally directed that the site be dedicated to himself. Since then, it has been progressively developed with the building of monastic structures as a series of religious orders established themselves on the rocky hill.
The island is in the Manche Department of Normandy, 20 km from the town of Avranches, and is now permanently attached to the mainland by a causeway - La Digue (the dyke).
Once on the island, visitors extricate themselves from the large, tour-bus filled parking lot and pass through gates in the defensive wall to be immediately swallowed up in the crowds that ebb and flow along the High Street.
The little village here is dedicated to the tourist trade and almost any imaginable souvenir that relates to St. Michael, religion, Normandy or the Mont can be acquired on this street which also fortunately features many tempting eating places, inside and out.
The approach to the abbey complex itself is by way of the broad Great Inner Staircase that seems interminably long. Frequent pauses however offer the opportunity for climbers to admire changing views of the great tidal sand flats surrounding the Mont and perhaps see some of the famous sheep that subsist on the surrounding marshes.
First time tours of the complex can be confusing since three levels of monastery construction are moulded around a central rock core. Rooms with bare stone walls, lacking decoration and furnishings, all seem alike but fortunately are labelled as to their original function, for example, abbot's apartments, cloister, refractory.
The Romanesque Abbey Church is the topmost level and the first to completely cover the rock. Although replete with sculpted columns and arches, an ambulatory and transepts, it seems cold and bare for a church, even when crowded with tourists. High point of the abbey is a golden statue of the complex's patron topping a slender, decorated spire.
The signed tour ends in the lowest level at the large, well-stocked gift and book shop in the former almonry. A number of portrayals of the saint decorate the walls and are a brief biography of the angel that led the celestial hosts to defeat the forces of Satan in the distant past.
He is also shown weighing souls to determine their destination, heavenward or otherwise, at the Last Judgment, while two evil smirking demons wait expectantly on the results.
One of the most famous images of the patron is also one of the best-hidden. It's a duplicate of the statue on the abbey spire, but not gilded, and allows visitors a close-up view of the saint slaying the dragon (Satan). This Undercroft, which contains the sculpture, is on a secondary exit route that is the beginning of a quiet, less-frequented garden/stairway complex that, by way of a number of spectacular viewpoints, leads back to the lower town.
Once there, if their timing is right, tourists have the opportunity to attend mid-day Mass in the little parish church of Saint-Pierre, a quiet, contemplative way to conclude a busy tour of famed Mont-Saint-Michel.