The origins of the Mont-Saint-Michel abbey, between history and legends

Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel.

“Fairy castle planted in the sea. Gray shadow erected on the misty sky. The steep abbey, pushed yonder, far from the earth like a fantastic mansion, remained almost black in the purples of the dying day…”wrote Guy de Maupassant (The Legend of Mont-Saint-Michel, 1882). A thousand years after the laying of the first stone of the current abbey, the “Fairy castle planted in the sea”aka Mont-Saint-Michel, France’s leading tourist destination outside of Paris, still fascinates.

On the occasion of the visit of Emmanuel Macron, scheduled for Monday June 5 on the occasion of the celebrations of this millennium, The world of religions goes back to the origins of this architectural prodigy, between history and legends.

The Three Apparitions of Archangel Michael

According to tradition, during the reign of King Childebert, probably Childebert III (695-711), the Archangel Michael appeared in a dream to Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, to order him to build a church in his honor. The designated place is Mont Tombe, the original name of Mont-Saint-Michel, meaning both tumulus and tomb.

A text from the beginning of the 9th century written by a local canon, Revelation concerning the Church of the Archangel Saint Michael, asserts that it took the archangel three visits to overcome the bishop’s incredulity; on the third visit, he allegedly punctured her skull with his finger. Thus assured of the divine origin of his dreams, the bishop had a church built, to the west of the point of the rock, which was a replica of the Italian sanctuary of Mount Gargan, in Puglia, where Saint Michael is said to have appeared from the end of the fifth century.

Read also: Is Mont Saint-Michel Breton or Norman?

To guard the new sanctuary, Saint Aubert called on a community of twelve monks, probably regular canons – both monks and priests. Mont Tombe very quickly became a place of pilgrimage for the faithful wishing to place themselves under the protection of Saint Michael, privileged intercessor between men and God. In the Christian tradition, the archangel’s mission is indeed to defeat the dragon, symbol of evil, but he will also weigh the souls during the Last Judgment, and will lead the chosen ones to paradise.

Chapel of Notre-Dame-sous-Terre, at Mont-Saint-Michel.

In the 10th century, Abbé Odon de Cluny (died 942) designated for the first time Mont Tombe under the name of Mont-Saint-Michel. In 965 or 966, the canons were replaced by a community of twelve Benedictine monks who built a new monastery. But of this pre-Romanesque abbey only the Notre-Dame-sous-Terre church remains today, a venerable sanctuary built on the site of the one consecrated by Saint Aubert.

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