Thursday, 15 August 2013

Nuns in ruins

The impermanence of beliefs! Religion is politics. The more abbeys I visit, the more churches, the more history I study the more cynical I become. But from time to time I do visit ancient religious sites simply to try to understand why some things happen. Of course, there's no good answer but it gets me out in the countryside and provides new info and experience.

Recently I visited the Musee National de Port-Royal des Champs. It was the site of a church and extensive abbey complex founded in 1204 under the cistercien spiritual direction of Vaux de Cernay (refer to a previous blogpost in May 2013). It's abbess was Mother Angelique Arnauld, from a well-off family,  in the 17th century who was a key player in ther Reformist movement in France (well after King Henry XVIII in England).

The activities were transferred to Paris in 1625.  But at the original site solitary persons started up little 'schools' in the complex to educate thirty boys a year, among them Jean Racine, the future playwright for King Louis XIV. Thus at one point there were two sites.

In 1634  Abbé de Saint-Cyran, became spiritual director of the abbey; he was a companion of Jansenius and the implementer of Jansenism in France. From that point forward, the abbeys and schools of Port-Royal became intimately associated with that school of theology. However, there was, as always another religious set wanting power and influence, the Jesuits, Cardinal Richlieu to name some.

As a result of the Jesuit attacks on Jansenism, the schools of Port-Royal were regarded as tainted with heresy. Louis XIV wanting peace in the church, the elementary schools were forcibly closed by papal bull in 1660. In 1661, the monastery was forbidden to accept novices heralding its eventual dissolution. 

The abbey itself was abolished by a bull from Pope Clement XI in 1708, the remaining nuns forcibly removed in 1709, most of the buildings themselves razed in 1710. The chapel, containing Mère Angélique's tomb, as well as some buildings, still exist in the vast grounds of what eventually became Paris' leading maternity hospital, known as Port-Royal Hospital. 
So what is there to see? Very little after all that destruction and such a shame because it must have been quite magnificent. There's the little church still standing but only open on Sundays. 

There's the 'petits ecoles' building which makes up most of the museum now; a house built adjacent which dates from the 18th century; the orchard which is maintained by volunteers and contains many interesting varieties of old plums, apples, pears, grapes, currants. The medicinal garden is virtually non-existent but an old well with an ancient mechanism is still on the grounds, surrounded by an old farm complex.

Inside the museum are many original paintings, ancient prayer books and other writings. The wood panelling and library are all original so it gives a very atmospheric feel to this very old building.

Open to the public under Napoleon III, the abbey site became a museum in 1890 and the State  Les Granges part in 1953, the farm in 1983 and then received, via donation, the rest of the abbey in 2004.

Photos include Mother Angelique, Sister Agnes, the little church, the ecoles building where young boys received an education by solitary men (Note: the nuns lived in different areas from the solitary men), the well etc.

Here's what the complex looked like in its heyday (from a painting).


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