Liberal Arts Blog — Monasteries (II): France — Mont St. Michel (1523), Saint Denis (1137), Cluny (909)

John Muresianu
3 min readJan 16, 2021

Liberal Arts Blog — Friday is the Joy of Art, Architecture, Design, Film, and All Things Visual Day

Today’s Topic: Monasteries (II): France — Mont St. Michel (1523), Saint Denis (1137), Cluny (909)

Last time, a scattered tour of cliff-hanging monasteries from Bhutan to Greece to Catalonia. Today, a more focused look at three of the great monasteries of France. All were originally Benedictine. Two were destroyed during the French Revolution. The other was turned into a prison. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.

MONT ST. MICHEL — off the coast of Normandy, 1.3 million tourists per year, worth the trip

1. The top of the tidal island belonged to God (the abbey, the church).

2. The middle to the town to shops and housing for the upper classes.

3. The bottom to the homes of fishermen and farmers.

NB: Turned into a prison in 1792, and then into an “historical monument” in 1874. Christian worship resumed in 1922. A few monks still hang out there.

ST. DENIS — the birth of Gothic architecture, the burial ground for French Kings

1. Abbot Suger (1081–1151) is considered to be one of the fathers of gothic architecture. For centuries thought to be the inventor of the style, he is now classified a great patron and popularizer of it.

2. This was the burial ground for French Kings from the 10th century to 1789. (The Kings were coronated in the Cathedral of Rheims. Queens sometimes coronated at St. Denis.)

3. In 1792, all the monastic buildings were destroyed during the French Revolution. The church was left standing but in 1846 the North Tower was dismantled for safety reasons. A reconstruction project is scheduled to begin soon.

CLUNY — once the hub of western monasticism

1. In 910, William “The Pious,” Duke of Aquitaine, donated his hunting preserve to the Benedictine order.

2. The Cluny abbey became the hub of an international network of monasteries dedicated to a stricter discipline of prayer and hospitality to the poor, to travelers, and pilgrims.

3. By the end of the 13th century there were over one thousand “daughter houses” across Europe!

NB: Sacked during the Wars of Religion by the Huguenots (1562) and then during the French Revolution (1790)


1. The author of the “Rule St. Benedict” — the most influential text of western monasticism.

2. In a nutshell: Ora et Labora (pray and work).

3. The math: 8 hours of prayer, 8 hours of sleep, 8 hours of manual labor (plus sacred reading and acts of charity).

NB: Born the son of a nobleman of Nursia, a town in the province of Perugia in Umbria in central Italy, Benedict founded several monastic communities in Subiaco, near Rome before moving to Monte Cassino, where he set up the first official monastery of the Benedictine order in 529. It was sacked by the Lombards in 570 and then bombed by the Allies during the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. It was rebuilt after the war.

Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey


Basilica of Saint-Denis


Suger | French abbot

Saint-Denis Basilica spire

Cluny Abbey

Cluniac Reforms

Benedict of Nursia


Monte Cassino



PDF with headlines — Google Drive


Please share the coolest thing you learned recently or ever related to art, sculpture, design, architecture, film, or anything visual.

This is your chance to make some one else’s day. And to cement in your own memory something cool or important you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than you otherwise would about something that is close to your heart.



John Muresianu

Passionate about education, thinking citizenship, art, and passing bits on of wisdom of a long lifetime.