A must-see

article | Temps de Lecture3 min

The Saint-Pierre hermitage

Vue de l'Ermitage Saint-Pierre construit dans le rocher.

The Abbey of Montmajour can pride itself on being home to this truly exceptional building. Built before Romanesque art was widely used and partially carved out of the rock, it is one of only a few surviving examples of a particular style of architecture.

A semi-troglodyte chapel

Pre-Romanesque art

Being a big fan of architecture, you’re already familiar with the Mediaeval “classics” and you know all there is to know about Romanesque and Gothic art. As you know, specialists traditionally see the use of Romanesque art as starting in the early 11th century. But have you ever wondered: “What about before the year 1000 though?”. Well, the Abbey of Saint Pierre in Montmajour has got a few answers for you.

There is no doubt that after the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, a number of different architectural styles developed, which were all later to be united in Romanesque art, which tended more towards the universal.

La construction de l'ermitage dans le rocher du Mont Major
L'intérieur de l'ermitage

© Geoffroy Mathieu / CMN

Unusual choices dictated by the site

When it was first founded, in the 10th century, the abbey could not afford to pay for major construction work, so the community opted for a simpler solution: they would excavate into the rock itself. Dating back to the middle of the 11th century (in Provence we like to take our time!), St Peter’s Hermitage has two adjoining chapels that are not Romanesque in style.

You enter via a door in the outer wall, guarded by St Peter holding a key. The older chapel is entirely under the ground. It is simple in design, consisting of a single nave with a stone bench, also carved out of the rock. The second nave was constructed as a lean-to, a common practice in Provence.

L'intérieur de l'Ermitage Saint-Pierre
Intérieur de l'ermitage Saint-Pierre

© Geoffroy Mathieu / CMN

A real little church

This time we have what is really a small church, complete with nave, choir bay and semicircular apse . Note also the area in front of the nave, the narthex , and, behind the choir, the “confessional of St Trophimus”, dedicated to a Bishop of Arles who was persecuted by the Romans – a reference which conferred significant prestige on the abbey. A more prosaic interpretation might be that the room served as a sacristy – or even as a latrine! This southern chapel, roofed with a rubble vault, includes twelve capitals decorated in classical style: acanthus leaves, palmettes, geometrical shapes. The interlaces are particularly typical of this “Pre-Romanesque” art, a style that has sometimes been called Carolingian.

In the 15th and 18th centuries the hermitage’s walls were strengthened with buttresses; it is the abbey’s oldest structure and doubtless the most poignant. The powerful feeling of spirituality emanating from it and the skilful approximation of its Romanesque vaults cannot fail to give you goose-bumps!

intérieur de l'Ermitage Saint Pierre dans le rocher du mont Major
Intérieur de l'Ermitage Saint-Pierre

© Geoffroy Mathieu / CMN

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