The Abbey of Fontenay is a former Cistercian abbey located in the commune of Marmagne, near Montbard, in the département of Côte-d'Or in France. It was founded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in 1118, and built in the Romanesque style. It is one of the oldest and most complete Cistercian abbeys in Europe, and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. Of the original complex comprising church, dormitory, cloister, chapter house, caldarium, refectory, dovecote and forge, all remain intact except the refectory. are well maintained. The Abbey of Fontenay, along with other Cistercian abbeys, forms a connecting link between Romanesque and Gothic architectures.
Saint Robert of Molesme
In the late 11th century during the heyday of the great church of Cluny III (a magnificent Benedictine monastery in Cluny, France), although Cluny had numerous followers, Saint Robert of Molesme, the subsequent founder of Cîteaux Abbey, led a strong reaction against it. Saint Robert thought that Cluny was against the actual Rule of Saint Benedict: “to work is to pray”. As a result, Saint Robert, along with a group of monks who shared this belief, detached from Cluny.
The Order of Cistercians in Citeaux
Saint Robert established the Order of Cistercians in Citeaux, France. The new order strictly observed the Rule of Saint Benedict. As part of this rule, monks had to be poor and live a simple life. In order not to be distracted from the religious life, Cistercians built self-sufficient monasteries in isolated areas and refused to use servants. Cistercian monasteries were independent. They differed from Cluny in that all houses were under the direct control of the abbot, and each Cistercian monastery needed to take care of its own. Each of them was most likely an independent individual society.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
Bernard of Clairvaux, an abbot and the primary builder of the reformed Cistercian order, shared the same faith with Saint Robert of Molesme. However, Bernard felt that Cîteaux Abbey was not austere enough and did not completely reflect the Rule of Saint Benedict. Thus, in 1118 he founded the Abbey of Fontenay in a Burgundy valley with strictly implemented austerity.
The Abbey was primarily constructed using stones from local areas. The church of the abbey is of typical Cistercian architecture, built in the Romanesque style. It is in a Latin cross shape, with a nave 66 metres long and 8 metres wide, two side-aisles, and a transept measuring 19 metres. In contrast to earlier churches, the church of the abbey has a flattened apse and two rectangular (instead of semicircle) chapels of each side of the transept. The cloister measures 36 by 38 metres. The chapter house is vaulted, with heavy ribs. There is a large dormitory which was re-roofed in the fifteenth century with an arched braced roof of chestnut timber.
Cistercians followed Virgin Mary, believing that she saved the world and human beings from judgment day on Year 1000. All Cistercians churches have the same model and are extremely similar to one another; for example, Graiguenamanagh Abbey built in Ireland in 1204 has a very similar floor plan as the Abbey of Fontenay. The spirit of Cistercian architecture is simple, conservative, utilitarian and self-sufficient. The Abbey of Fontenay is a typical Cistercian monastery built on these fundamental characteristics.
Cistercian monasteries including the Abbey of Fontenay are identified as an offshoot of Romanesque art and a germination of Gothic art. The churches of the monasteries consist of prominent Romanesque architecture features, including symmetrical plan, massive quality, thick walls, sturdy piers, groin vaults, round arches and tall central nave. On the other hand, Gothic architectures evolving from Romanesque architectures was promoted by Cistercians and influenced by Cistercian monasteries.