The view was unstoppable. The man seemed alone in the face of immensity. Behind him stood more than 1000 years of history. When, on February 19, 2022, Éric Zemmour wanted to relaunch his presidential campaign, the candidate of the radical right chose to deliver a speech in front of this absolute symbol of French identity: Mont-Saint-Michel.
He was not the first to pose thus in front of this testimony of eternal France. From Édouard Balladur to Jacques Chirac, from Nicolas Sarkozy to François Hollande and Manuel Valls, French politicians have never been asked to associate their name with this jewel never conquered by the English even after 30 years of siege during the war of Hundred years.
In this anniversary year which marks the first millennium of the start of the construction of the abbey, Emmanuel Macron will not be outdone. On June 5, he will also pay homage to what Father Hugo called the “Khufu of the West” or the “pyramid of the seas”.
“This place has fascinated men since the dawn of time, because here you never know where the sky, the sea and the land stop”, says François Saint-James, the last full-time guide lecturer at Mont-Saint-Michel. . For more than 30 years, this art history graduate has been exploring every corner of a monument that welcomes three million visitors a year. He even lived on the rock for 20 years with young children. “But today, it’s too complicated,” he said. Towards the end, tourists came to picnic in my backyard. »
A first church
Until 1972, Mont-Saint-Michel still had its school, its bakery and a hairdressing salon. But how to survive such a crowd? Two weeks ago, on Ascension weekend, 33,000 people packed these narrow little streets that wind their way to the top. Since 2012, cars can no longer directly access the foot of the hill. Unless you walk, cycle or horseback, you have to take a bus to cross the footbridge that replaced the old dike and get to the parking lot located three kilometers inland.
There are only 17 permanent residents left on the peninsula, including a dozen monks and nuns from the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem. These perpetuate a tradition dating back more than a thousand years since the arrival of the Benedictines in 966, but interrupted during the Revolution, when the site was used as a prison. It was not until Prime Minister Georges Pompidou, in 1966, that the sanctuary regained its original vocation.
“Tourists replaced pilgrims here a long time ago,” says François Saint-James. Even if the pilgrims were also in a way tourists. »
If Mont Tombe (as this rock was called at the time) seems to have hosted a megalithic monument, it was in 708 that the Archangel Michael would have appeared to the Bishop of Avranches Aubert asking him to erect a sanctuary there. This first church dedicated to the Archangel, and which housed his relics, was intended to be the modest replica of Monte Gargano dedicated to Saint Michael, in Puglia, Italy. But it will quickly become one of the main places of pilgrimage in Europe. Become Notre-Dame-sous-Terre, it is today in the bases of the abbey. François Saint-James is one of the few guides to hold the key. It was on its walls and in the crypts arranged all around the summit that one of the first great Romanesque abbeys in Normandy was erected between 1023 and 1085. These abbeys will also play a crucial role in the transmission of works from Greek antiquity to the Renaissance.
Cartier at Mont-Saint-Michel?
“This building is like Noah’s ark resting on the crypts,” says François Saint-James. It was the time when France covered herself with a white church coat, wrote a monk from Cluny. You have to imagine the gigantic scale of the work. The granite blocks are cut on the Chausey Islands, 34 kilometers from here. Caen stone is also used, a soft and light stone that is easily sculpted. You should know that the masons who lay these stones only work in the summer. When in the middle of the Hundred Years War the Roman heart collapsed, it was rebuilt in flamboyant Gothic. »
At the abbey will be added to the XIIIe century what is nicknamed the Marvel. A construction on three floors and 35 meters high including a chaplaincy and a cellar (on the ground floor), the rooms of the knights and the guests (on the first), as well as a refectory and a cloister (at the top) . Located 80 meters above the sea, this cloister, with its double arcades, is a true Gothic masterpiece suspended between sky and sea. “It is the heart of the monastery, says François Saint-James . It was shown to pilgrims as an image of paradise. »
A nod to the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the neo-Gothic spire desired by the architect Victor Petitgrand has only dominated the bell tower of the abbey since 1897. The choice to surmount it with an archangel, entirely gilded in 1995, would not be exempt from political aims, according to François Saint-James. “At the time, it would not have been well seen by everyone to put a cross there. The one who slayed the dragon is not only the patron saint of Gaul. It is also a symbol of resistance. This patron saint of France would not only have helped Clovis to defeat the Alemanni, he would also have appeared to Joan of Arc to convince her to go and have Charles VII crowned in Reims and to drive the English out of France.
Another controversial subject on Mont-Saint-Michel directly concerns Quebecers. If we are to believe a plaque placed in 1984 near the Saint-Pierre church, in the main street, it was at Mont-Saint-Michel that, on May 8, 1532, Jacques Cartier would have met François Ier before his departure for Canada on the initiative of Cardinal Le Veneur, who was then Abbot of Mont.
But François Saint-James does not believe in this version. “Jacques Cartier was a navigator who did not have easy access to the king. I believe that the meeting took place instead at the Brion manor, where François I lived.er when he came to Mont-Saint-Michel. It is also assumed that this is why there is today Brion Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. »
The skull of Saint Aubert
On the occasion of this millennium, a large exhibition will allow you to discover under the pointed arches some key pieces illustrating the history of the abbey. In particular, there is a magnificent reliquary fashioned under the Concordat to hold the skull of Saint Aubert. The hole that pierces this skull would have been made, says the legend, by the index finger of the Archangel Michael, who would have pressed a little too hard in order to convince Aubert to build an abbey. “We now know that this hole was the result of a trepanation,” explains Brigitte Galbrun, curator of antiquities and works of art in the Manche department.
On this occasion, the curators made an inventory of the precious objects of the abbey. “We had some surprises,” says Mathilde Labatut, from the Directorate General for Cultural Affairs of Normandy. Like discovering in a simple cabinet that was not locked a rock crystal cup cut in Milan and enamelled in Paris that pilgrims passed during processions. It is now locked in a safe at Mont-Saint-Michel.
As bizarre as it may seem, this millennium is not the first to be celebrated. In 1966, we celebrated that of the establishment of the Benedictines. Each era has its own millennium.
What will be next? “I don’t know, but we never stop learning,” says François Saint-James. Four years ago, the German archaeologist Stefan Maeder discovered small cupules engraved on the rock which would prove that the mount was inhabited in the Neolithic era, more than 5000 years ago. “I had seen them for years without knowing what they meant. »
As the day draws to a close, the sea recedes for more than 16 kilometres. “It’s reassuring, says Saint-James, to think that this landscape hasn’t really changed for more than 1,000 years. »