Mont-St-Michel island abbey connected with natural land bridge
Visitors must climb 900 steps to visit abbey
Mont-St-Michel, also written Mont Saint Michel) is a small island from the north coast of France at the mouth of the Couesnon River in Normandy. The abbey is best known for the medieval Benedictine Abbey and steepled church. Connected to the mainland by a thin natural land bridge, which before modernization was covered at high tide and revealed at low tide, gave the mount a mystical quality.
Connected to the mainland by a thin natural land bridge, which before modernization was covered at high tide and revealed at low tide, gave the mount a mystical quality.
The mount poses challenges for visitors who avoid the causeway and attempt the dangerous walk across the sands from the neighboring coast. Many continue to lose their lives on account of this dangerous practice.
Visitors have their work cut out for them with many areas of arduous climbing. By the time pilgrims have mounted the celebrated Escalier de Dentelle or Lace Staircase to the abbey church, you will have climbed no fewer than 900 steps. The climb is highly worthwhile as halfway up Grande-Rue is the medieval parish church of St-Pierre, which features a richly carved side chapel with its dramatic statue of St. Michael slaying the dragon.
The Grand Degré, a steep, narrow staircase, leads to the abbey entrance, from which a wider flight of stone steps climbs to the Saut Gautier Terrace outside the sober, dignified church.
The cloisters offer vertiginous views of the bay. Visitors can wander at leisure and probably get lost among the maze of rooms, staircases and vaulted halls that make up the abbey.
Le Mont-St-Michel was used in the 6th and 7th centuries as a stronghold of Romano-British culture and power until it was sacked by the Franks; thus ending the trans-channel culture that had stood since the departure of the Romans in 459 AD.
The island was originally called Mont Tombe. According to legend, the archangel Michael appeared to St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches, in 708 and told him to build a church on the rocky islet.
Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel's instruction until Michael burned a hole in the bishop's skull with his finger. With haste, the dedication to St Michael occurred on October 16, 708.
The mount gained strategic significance in 933 when the Normans annexed the Cotentin Peninsula. This put the mount on the new frontier with Brittany.
An Italian architect, William de Volpiano designed the Romanesque church of the abbey in the 11th century. The architect daringly placed the transept crossing at the top of the mount. Many underground crypts and chapels had to be built to compensate for this weight. These formed the basis for the supportive upward structure that can be seen today.
The wealth and influence of the abbey extended to many daughter foundations such St Michael's Mount in Cornwall, England. However, its popularity and prestige as a center of pilgrimage waned with the Reformation and by the time of the French Revolution there were scarcely any monks in residence.
During the Revolution the abbey was closed and converted into a prison, initially to hold clerical opponents of the republican régime.
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