However, the Mont Saint Michel monastery also exhibited many of the pre-Romanesque characteristics that were seen in the other grand Benedictine structures, such as the one in de Volpaino's native Italy (Adams 125). Before the grand cathedral and monastery could be realized, the Notre Dame sous-Terre was its predecessor. Among its pre-Romanesque features include a polygonal dome structure forming a central core as well as decorations or spoils that were copied from Roman structures.
Like many orders, the Benedictine monks had strong hierarchies, and these were reinforced in the construction of the new monastery. The Benedictine abbey therefore incorporated Romanesque elements, such as multistory entrances to reflect the differing social status of the monks and pilgrims. The Romanesque elements of the Benedictine Abbey were also seen in the dome structure. Unlike the pre-Romanesque domes, the Romanesque vaults utilized masonry vaulting, to replace the flammable wooden structures of previous churches. Barrel vaults began to be used, extremely heavy elements which threatened to collapse the church. To compensate, the contractor then had to be made thicker. A complex network of underground crypts and chapels also had to be built, in order to provide support for the monastery (Adams 148).
Today, a few of the original Romanesque elements could still be seen. In the abbey, for example, the nave on the south side of the cloisters was constructed in the Romanesque style. The massive stone features of the monastery meant that the nave was located higher and was also narrower, compared to previous monastery structures.
In the Benedictine abbey at Mont Saint Michel, the nave sits on a three-level arcade, and was given a framework that was clad in paneled barrel vaulting (Decenaux 211). The doors and windows in this nave also are capped by round arches, another Romanesque element. The window openings were small and also decorated with the typical rich Romanesque sculptures and moldings.
Romanesque elements can also be seen in the design of the crypts, located at the crypts in the south side and the transepts of the church. The fine jointing and regular patterns of the masonry facings in this area are typical of the Romanesque style. Traditional Romanesque design elements are also evident in the use of flat brick in the construction of archways (Decenaux 171).
Gothic architecture, however, began to be in vogue during the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, and these designed were also strongly incorporated into the construction of the Benedictine Abbey at Mont Saint Michel. This impetus was spurred by the French annexation of Normandy in 1204, prompting the King of France to offer the then Benedictine abbot assistance and financing in the construction of Gothic-style structures. The abbey's refectory and cloisters were therefore largely constructed with Gothic elements. Furthermore, when the original Romanesque chancel fell down in 1421, it was rebuilt in the more flamboyant Gothic styles (Adams 133).
The imposing Salle des Chevaliers or Knight's Room and the Salle des Hotes, for example, were constructed using new Gothic-style vaults. The use of narrow buttresses, a Gothic innovation, meant that the thrusts of the vaults -- previously concentrated in an outward direction -- could now be deflected downward via pointed arches. The walls of the Gothic structures no longer had to be as thick as their Romanesque predecessors. The imposing salles, meant for dignitaries and important pilgrims, thus had thinner walls with larger glass windows, allowing in more light. The vaults could also be constructed to much greater heights (Adams 151). The two salles therefore represent a thrilling architectural innovation, one that would have awed the visitors of the twelfth century.
The Mont Saint Michel's Benedictine Abbey still exhibits those soaring and height-related characteristics that defined Gothic architecture. The Escalier de Dentelle, for example, is an imposing staircase supported by a buttress. This support allows people to ascend the magnificent staircase to a gallery almost 400 feet above sea level (Decenaux 187). From this point, pilgrims could have extensive views of the island as well as the sea.
The use of Gothic elements in construction continued well into the seventeenth century. Numerous fires destroyed parts of the abbey throughout the centuries, and these parts were often rebuilt in Gothic styles. The 1204 fire, for example, practically devastated the entire abbey. The massive rebuilding effort therefore allowed for the incorporation of more Gothic elements in design. This allowed builders to construct larger spaces, with loftier ceilings and great rooms that were bathed with light (DEcenaux 171). The pillars were thinner, as much of the vaulting were now supported by majestic flying buttresses.
The monastery underwent several unwelcome alterations during its years spent as a dungeon during the French Revolution. Vast spaces were divided into small, dungeon rooms. Holes were cut into the walls for ventilation. This architecture remained, until the restoration efforts commenced after the revolution.
During this restoration, the architectural additions reflected a mixture of design influences.
The facade was rebuilt in the neoclassical style. The addition of a spire at the bell tower in 1897 was typical of neo-Gothic architecture, as was the embossed of the copper- and gold-leaf statue of the archangel Michael (Decenaux 168).
Present day architectural concerns
The Mont Saint Michel was withstood over ten centuries of conquest, bombardment and fire. It has continued to stand, and has been rebuilt after suffering the ravages of time and nature. Today, however, the latest threats could spell the end of this magnificent structure in as little as 40 years. Scientists have sounded the alarm over the progressive siltation and sinking of the Mont Saint Michel. Already, silt and salt marshes are taking over the sea bed. The culprit, say the scientists, are not centuries of war, but the construction of a causeway in 1879, linking the island to the mainland. Since then, the Mont Saint Michel ceased to be a tidal island. A dam built 40 years ago at the mouth of the Couesnon River also contributes to the problem (Samway 446).
Engineers are now working on a new dam, one that would reduce the strength of the Couesnon River and thereby decelerate the build-up of silt. The new dam will also allow the accumulation of seawater and river water, which could then be released at regular intervals in the day. This "flushing action" would then allow for the silt to be gradually cleared away. Furthermore, the causeway will be replaced with a low bridge. A railway would ferry visitors to the island, eliminating the need for vehicles. When the bridge is built in 2012, high tides would once again flow over the natural bridges. Thus, for the first time in over a century, the Mont Saint Michel will once again be a tidal island.
In summary, the Mont Saint Michel reflects both the political and cultural history of France. The splendor of the monastery structure indicates the overreaching influence of the Catholic Church from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries. Historians argue that the construction of such an imposing structure was an attempt to exert Church control over the Crusades. The ties between royal, political and religious institutions, as seen in the ducal and royal patronage of the monastery, further illustrates the collusion between these two institutions in medieval times.
The architecture of the abbey also illustrates how medieval society was arranged in a hierarchy. There were three levels in the monastery -- "the poor pilgrims worshipped at the first level, dignitaries at the grander salles of the second level, while the clergy were at the top. The centuries-long construction of the Mont Saint Michel also allowed for the incorporation of pre-Romanesque, Romanesque and various Gothic elements into its grand design. For these historical, cultural and aesthetic reasons, the Mont Saint Michel must therefore be safeguarded, before it sinks into the…