Le Mont Saint Michel

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Le Mont Saint Michel


Le Mont Saint Michel is a rocky cone shaped island or islet located just off the North West coast of France in the gulf of Saint Malo. It is home to one of France’s greatest tourist attractions named Le Mereille, this brilliant eleventh century gothic style church is often simply called Mont St Michel. What transforms this fairly typical gothic church into one of the most striking buildings of the world, and the destination of so many visitors over the course of the past twelve centuries, is its magnificent, almost arrogant location.

The Church of Mont Saint Michel was constructed in the eleventh century as a gothic masterpiece. It was constructed using Granite stone; however some of the cloisters are made of lime stone. The island upon which it sits is separated by approximately one kilometer of waves from the mainland at high tide. At low tide, however, it is separated from the mainland by approximately one kilometer of sand. Before a causeway was built in 1879, the only approach to the Mont was by foot over this causeway. However this crossing was no easy task and a poorly timed crossing could easily end in drowning by the sudden changing tides. The island is about one kilometer in diameter and about 80 meters high, jutting defiantly above the ocean. The steep cliffs that ascended from the crashing surf and the treacherous tides that whipped around the island, combined with the legend that it was the island where the souls of the dead congregated; make the site an unlikely place to build.

Neither legends nor danger were a match for the overwhelming curiosity of a forbidden place. In the early eighth century a bishop from the near by town of Avranges named Aubert made the crossing. After finding it safe enough he started frequenting the island which seemed to be an escape from civilization for him, and a place where he could meditate un-intruded. During meditation one day on the island the archangel Michel visited Aubert and convinced him to build a church on the island. In 708 the modest chapel began construction on the island, many buildings have come to rise and fall on the island since then.

The first major construction on the island started in the year 1020 and was completed in 1135. In time structural problems arose with the building, therefore in 1170 Abbot Robert de Toringy started building a new facade on the side of the church.

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In 1203, some unfortunate events took place and the Duke of Brittany set fire to the church to make a statement to Phillip Augustus for expelling the British from Normandy. Phillip Augustus was not too happy about Archangel Michael's building being damaged, so used his influence with the King of France to allocate funds to repair the buildings. They received their funds; and in 1210 the architect Abbot Jordan started building Le Merveille. The Merveille is a magnificent Granite gothic church, abundant with numerous grand halls, kitchens, cloisters, and a dormitory. One of the more interesting notes about the construction techniques are the way in which they build the foundation. Instead of removing rock to make a level base for the church, a masonry foundation was added to make a level base, and built from there. Unfortunately, the original masonry was not adequate for supporting the weight of the granite that was placed upon it, because in 1300, one of de Torigny's towers collapsed, and in 1421 the nave collapsed. Due to the war with the English going on at that time, reconstruction was postponed until 1450 and was not completed until 1521.

Gothic church architecture developed from Norman architecture. Norman architecture can be seen as being 'dumpy' due to their very limited understanding of structures and engineering. The Gothic era was far more impressive due to the dramatic increase in there engineering knowledge. The increase in knowledge and skills acquired over the years meant that stone was specifically cut and shaped to fit next to other stone blocks with precision. Walls and pillars were solid and this allowed them to cope with much greater stresses. The Pointed arch was an important innovation of the gothic era. This shape allowed a much greater weight to be carried compared to a Norman rounded arch. The ability to handle greater weights also allowed Gothic architects to use larger windows. The Normans had been limited to using small slit windows. Yet another important invention of the gothic era was the buttress and flying buttress. These were additions to the main part of the cathedral that allowed the weight of the roof to be transferred away from the walls that ran alongside the nave and into the buttresses and then down into the foundations. The 'Flying buttresses' allowed the outward pressure of the massive roofs to be resisted.

Though Mont St Michel was subject to uncalculated structural error through out its history it did prove itself to be both strong and tough. During the wars with England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it provided strong fortifications against the enemy. So impregnable that even frequent attacks by superior forces, never resulted in its capture. Though it is unlikely that Mont St Michel will be subject to attack from the British any time soon, it is not tough to see, even today, just how impressive this structure is, and how tough it might be to capture.

Work cited

1.) Mathew McCann Feton, “Time: Great Buildings of the World” © 2004, New York, NY.

2.) http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10551a.htm, Wednesday, October 6.

3.) http://images.google.com/images?q=mont%20st%20michel&hl=en&lr=&sa=N&tab=wi,
Wednesday, October 6.

4.) http://addlaseyne.free.fr/etoiles/ImgChp1/Grand/8_Mont_St_Michel.jpg, Wednesday,
October 6.

5.) http://www.pitt.edu/~medart/menufrance/msmmain.html, Wednesday, October 6.


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