The history of the Abbaye de Senanque, Provence

Written by on October 27, 2018 in Provence-Alpes

Discover the history and background of the historic and beautiful Abbey of Senanque Provence. Famous for its lavender fields and tranquillity, it has become a top visit in Provence…

Where is the Abbaye de Senanque

Located near Gordes in Provence, the abbey is occupied by a community of Cistercian monks. The Roman Catholic Cistercian Order grew from a late 11th century reform movement. It was started by monks who wished to return to the pure traditions of monastic life practiced in Saint Benedict’s time.

Following the strictures of Cistercian design, the abbey lacks decorations. There are no frescoes, sculptures, or stained-glass windows with Biblical illustrations as you usually find in abbeys.

According to the early founders, these ornamentations were meant for lay people who had little access to the Bible.

Decoration brought them closer to God. For the devout monks, however, such embellishment was unnecessary and would distract them from prayer. Thus, the decorative elements allowed are those of the architecture itself: vaults, arches, stairways, transepts, capitals and columns.

These were constructed using the finest methods because the Cistercian monks highly valued craftsmanship. Stonecutters were particularly prized, and each initialled the stones they cut as a matter of pride.

The splendid light of the Abbey of Senanque

One might think this austerity creates a rather drab place.  But instead, the austere décor heightens the beauty of the pale grey stone and the purity of line.

Added to this is the welcoming of light: la vrai Lumière—the true light—a symbol of God.

According to an early founder, Saint Bernard: “…shadow and darkness shall disappear, and the splendour of the true Light will invade the whole space…”

At its peak in the 13th and 14th centuries, Sénanque abbey owned extensive properties all over Provence, including four water mills, seven granges, and four or five hospices, in addition to fields, forests and pastures. Troubled times followed when the abbey was partly destroyed during the War of Religions in the 16th century, and later was sold off as state property after the Revolution.

In 1854, it was purchased and restored by a community of monks, who were later expelled. The current community dates back to 1988.

The Abbaye de Senanque today

Today, the monks still follow the precepts of Cistercian monastic life: liturgical prayer sung in church; silent reading, meditation and prayer; and manual and intellectual work.

or the monks, the cloister is a symbol of “Paradise regained.” It stands at the heart of the monastery. Here monks find a natural spot for silent prayer and meditation. Above: The play of light and the simplicity of architectural structure create serene beauty.

The brothers work in agriculture (lavender, honey, and forestry) and tourism (guided tours, bookshop, and building restoration.)

The shop is very much worth a visit, offering the monks’ honey and lavender products, a wide selection of religious and historical books, and many other gifts.

Tours of the abbey are offered year-round, but hours vary – check the website for specific times. Individuals who wish to tour the abbey without a guide are admitted in the morning.

One-hour guided group tours are offered in French throughout the day. When I joined a guided tour, I let the guide know that my French was not great. She kindly spoke more slowly and enunciated clearly, allowing me to understand much of what she said.

If you are lucky enough to visit the Abbaye de Sénanque when the lavender fields bloom – between late June and early-August – the colours of the blue sky, pale grey stone, green leaves, and purple flowers are guaranteed to enchant.

There is no better place to enjoy the lavender fields of Provence.

But do take time to step inside the abbey to view another world—one of silence, monochromatic splendour, and the presence of la vrai Lumière.

Martha McCormick is a writer who first set foot in France at age 17 where she experienced an epiphany perhaps familiar to many people: This is what life is meant to be!

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