Thoronet: Hidden away from civilisation
You drive on the A8 motorway in Southern France, then veer into the rolling hills of the Provence Verte region, covered with forests of oaks, olive trees and vines.
Without much fuss, after climbing up a hill beyond tiny village of Le Thoronet, you reach the abbey. A signpost indicates: Abbaye dy Thoronet. Another one soon tells you to leave your car in the parking lot under trees.
All appears quiet, peaceful, understated.
Yet opposite the parking lot, one of the finest Cistercian abbeys in Provence awaits. Built between 1160 and 1230, Le Thoronet is the oldest of the three sisters among the Cistercian abbeys of Provence, the others being Silvacane and Sénanque.
Tucked far away from civilisation, the Thoronet abbey strikes by its sober form. True to its Cistercian roots, the abbey keeps to the essentials. The complex consists of a traditional cluster: a church propped up on the highest point and facing East, an adjoining cloister squaring away a garden, a lavatory with running water spouting from the fountain in the center of the cloister, dormitory upstairs, a chapter house and walls to wrap around the grounds.There are no sculptures, no paintings, no color other than the greys and browns of barren polished rock and shades greens in the enclosed garden.
Thoronet: Ora et Labora
The monks at Le Thoronet were Cistercians, faithful to St Benedict's rule of "ora et labora" or "prayer and work." Termed from the town of Cistercium (modern-times Cîteaux in France), original home of the order, the Cistercians order longed to return to an original evangelical simplicity, stripped of any sign of luxury and of supperfluous.
Cistercian monks lived autonomously by the fruit of their labor, and that of the lay brothers or conversi. They cultivated the fields within the abbey grounds, pressed olives for oil and grapes for wine in the presses still visible today, kneaded dough on stone slates, baked bread. Life on the Cistercian monastery was devoted to manual work, prayer, devotion and singing.
Everything about the Thoronet abbey centers around a focus on this all-encompassing simple spiritual devotion.
The Thoronet abbey church is proportioned around the golden ratio, with center of the church forming a golden rectangle. Applied to buildings, this golden ratio conveys to the pattern-seeking human mind a sense of harmony and of balanced proportions. Even within the core of its structure, the abbey's solid harmony focuses the mind on inner prayer, keeping ornamental distractions at bay.
The Thoronet abbey's architecture influenced many renowned modern architects such as Swiss architect Le Corbusier, and English minimalist John Pawson. Pawson even wrote a now hard-to-find book Leçons du Thoronet, that looks at how the Thoronet Abbey affected his approaches to architecture.
By the 14th century the Thoronet Abbey's influence began to decline, as did the influence of the Cistercians in Western Europe.
The compounds soon fell in a state of disrepair: roofs were collapsing, doors breaking, walls greying with moss and decaying. An entire section of the abbey crumbled under a landslide. The kitchens, scriptorium and refectory did not survive to the present.
The French Revolution of 1789 mostly extinguished Cistercian life in France. The buildings were bought back by the French state in 1854 and slowly brought back to life.
Today and after some remarquable restoration work, the church, cloister, chapter house, lavatory, dormitory, and cellar are in beautiful shape.
Le Thoronet's abbey impresses on another level. The church can hold an echo and reverberate it for up to 13 seconds. And it can do so anywhere within the church. Even in modern times, these acoustics are of celestial proportions. Given the Thoronet acoustics, monks here had to carefully harness the power of their singing voices to render harmonious and pleasing chants.
Today, Gregorian chants often echo within the walls of the Thoronet church, filling the space with awe much as they must have done in the 12th and 13th century. If you have a chance, come and experience it. Or live it vicariously through our video at the bottom of the page.
Imagining the monks living here, entirely confined within the walls of the abbey grounds, you can't help but think of the role of the ever-present environment on its inhabitants. Life must have been extremely rigorous here, especially during the barren and humid winters. But the very structure of the abbey must have infused its inhabitants with a sense of balance and harmony, and helped focus and deepen their meditations. The Thoronet abbey fosters contemplation. Even in modern times, its spirit resonates.
If you visit, drop us a line and let us know how it resonates with you.
The abbey is open for guided or open visits year-round, outside of major holidays. Far more visitors come by in the summertime when schools are off and the weather warm. In the winter, you may have the place almost to yourself. Note that more concerts take place during the summer. Check out the Thoronet's official web site below for current planned events.
What to do:
A singing mass is held most every sunday from noon until about 1:30PM, with Gregorian chants currently by the "Chantres du Thoronet" filling the abbey. Although you cannot freely visit the premises during or after mass, the church is open during mass to the respectful public.
Singing concerts are regularly held in the Thoronet Abbey church, especially during the summer. Check the Thoronet's official web site for the current program, or call them.
Great villages to visit in the area: Tourtour,
For other activities in the vicinity, check out our selection of articles on AzurAlive.com under the category "Provence Verte."