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THORONET: a Cistercian Abbey of Wonder Deep in the Var

Written by KeiKwan Kwong Published Jul 16, 2014
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Thoronet – the abbey and the gardens constructed at the late 12th century, represent one of the most beautiful Cistercian architecture. The ensemble, including the monastery, gardens and the abbey, is characterized by simplicity, rigour and strength inspired by Saint Bernard. A place which leaves no one indifferent. 

Thoronet Abbey was founded by the Cistercian monks at the heart of the Provence forest, built between 1160 and 1190 and completed in 1250. The Romanesque architectural ensemble bears the Cistercian features: clean line, simple form and harmonious proportion.

Thronoet: a long history

In the 13th century, there were around thirty monks who resided in the abbey. However in less than two centuries later, it began to deteriorate. In the 17th century, the architecture was in bad conditions: there were cracks, roofs had collapsed, windows and doors were dilapidated.

Abandoned during the French Revolution, it was sold to private owners as a national property, and they then used it for cultivation.

In the 19th century, a keen interest in the abbey grew among scholars such as Prosper Mérimée, who inscribed it on the first list of historical monuments in 1840. From 1854, the State began to buy back the site progressively. Due to significant restorations, the original architectural features were gradually recovered.

Thoronet: yesterday and today

The Thoronet Abbey is exceptional in its spatial arrangement, its lighting and its connection with the nature. It is also a source of inspiration for many modern and contemporary architects (Le Corbusier, Fernand Pouillon, John Pawson….).

The Gardens

After entering the enclosure of the abbey, visitors have to cross the gardens or Hortus, before reaching the church. There we found plants and trees of the Romanesque period. The gardens are oriented to the west in order to receive sunlight for the maximum number of hours.

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Behind the church to the east is an orchard lining with olives trees and other Provençal species.

Beautiful trees around the church, and especially opposite to the main entrance, provide soothing shades in summer.

The Abbey

It consists of several buildings and the abbey is well preserved. Strolling around the interior is the best way to feel the place.

The Abbey Church

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Located at the highest point of the site in the south, its size is modest: about 40 metres long and 20 metres wide. The height of the arms of the transept is shorter than that of the nave.

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The latin cross plan is noticeable from outside because the abbey church is in imposing geometric forms arranged in absolute geometry.

The Monks’ Dormitory

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It occupies the whole floor of the monks’ wing. It is a big room having a day entrance through the oriental gallery of the cloister and a night entrance that links directly to the abbey church. It has a long barrel vault with transverse arches. In the southwestern corner, there are a few steps leading to the abbot’s dormitory, a small room separated from the principal one.

The Cloister

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The cloister is in the middle of the monastery, each side measures 30 metres in average, like most of the Cistercian cloisters. It is in the form of an elongated trapezoid oriented perfectly in line with the cellar and the abbey church. The architecture is in harmony with the surrounding nature. The galleries are constructed in and on the rocks that are present everywhere and traces of the rocks are visible in some parts. The south gallery is shorter than the north gallery and it is marked by the seven steps in the chapter house. The degrees always have a symbolic number: seven, eight (resurrection) or twelve (God’s chosen people). They form clear depictions of the degrees of humility and the degrees of holiness in obedience to the Rule.

The Lavabo

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It is considered one of the examples of pure Cistercian design. It protrudes from the courtyard of the cloister to which it connects. The hexagonal plan of the pavilion has a symbolic signification, which links to the Greco-Roman tradition of the construction of a baptistery. A dome roof in stone having five sides is supported by ogives.

The Thoronet Abbey

It is one of the abbeys that conforms the most to the primary spirit of the Order, including its acoustic properties. A prolonged echo (between 9 and 11 seconds) sets a special style and discipline to the chant: to chant slowly and in unison.

Deeply linked to the site, the abbey is an extraordinary example of the transformation of spirituality and philosophy in architecture, made possible by having taken into account the important role of light.

Practical Information:

National Monuments Centre: Thoronet Abbey

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