Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ruins at the Abbaye royale de Chaalis, France

In the Ermenonville Forest of the Oise Department (about 40 kms NE of Paris) stands what remains of one of France's finest abbeys, the Abbaye royale de Chaalis.

In its day, this church was one of the largest in the Cistercian order (82 m long and 40 m tall).  Consecrated in 1218, the choir (in the apse) served as the burial site for 17 of the monastery's abbots.  During the 100 Years War, a fortifying wall was built for the abbey's protection.  But the Cistercians experienced a marked decline in their conversi recruitment, celibate men who toiled in the fields in order to support the many monks.  By 1541, the monarchy decreed that henceforth it would appoint the abbots (not the monks), and the abbey's spiritual decline became inevitable.  By the time of the French Revolution, records showed that there were only 12 monks left, and of those, only the 3 who were infirm remained in the abbey itself.  In 1793, all the lands, the forests and abbey grounds were sold off 'for the good of the nation' to Pierre Étienne Joseph Paris, who lived with his family in the nave of the church while tearing down the other buildings, essentially treating them as quarries for stones which could be transported elsewhere to be used in new building projects.  He finally tore down most of the grand church (again, for stones), saving only the one transept and the beautiful private chapel. 

In 1902, the grounds and ruins were purchased by a man whose Protestant family had made its fortune in banking.  He and his successors undertook the long process of restoring that which could be restored and cleaning up the rest.  Today one can visit not only the beautiful jewel of a chapel, but also the expansive ruins of the church, the hunting lodge (now a museum) and other restored buildings.

I enjoyed walking through the ruins of this grand church, seeing how its walls were built of stone rubble and cement and then covered with finely chiseled stone, imagining how the restorers must have worked to piece things together again from stone bits scattered all over, and sometimes specially creating a new stone to complete an archway.

Seeing the abbot's well-preserved private chapel through the breached wall.

Looking toward the northern transept.

Cross section of an outer wall.

Swallow nests nestled in the ribbed vaulting.