The fashion in art installations is to wrap up gigantic structures (l’Arc de Triomphe currently) or to use them as the background for a work (the city walls of Carcassonne, below). L’Abbaye de Beaulieu, several kilometres from us, is a Centre for Contemporary Art, but the tent-like structure above is not an ambitious avant-garde sculpture. It’s part of the restoration work currently taking place there.
At present, the place is a gigantic building site, with the difference that this former Cistercian abbey is a Monument Historique, and qualified and experienced artisans must carry out the work. For the Journées du Patrimoine last weekend, guided tours of the restoration work were on offer. We were even going to have to wear a hard hat!
I booked two of the limited places, and we went along despite the appalling weather. Portacabins take up the car park, so we all had to park along the busy road outside.
This really is a beau lieu, a lovely spot. The abbey nestles at the bottom of the wooded Seye Valley, with the river – more a large brook – flowing past. In early spring, snowdrops carpet the banks.
We took our places in the stunningly beautiful abbey church, suitably masked and distanced.
A bit of history
First up was a talk by the curator of the abbey, which is now the property of le Centre des monuments nationaux, and a historian who had researched its history.
I have written about the abbey before, but we learned more about it this time. I didn’t know, for example, that the pillars of the church were originally painted in bright yellow and red. I had always assumed that Cistercian churches were devoid of ornament.
Some of the history is lost in the mists of time, but the abbey was founded in the 12th century, and the church was built in the 13th century. The abbey became one of the largest landowners in the area. The château de Pervinquière, now partially in ruins, was one of its properties (see link in Related Posts at the end).
After the Revolution, it became a bien national (property of the state) and was sold to someone who turned it into a château-farm.
The state of the place deteriorated as time went on, and the church became a barn. There was even a plan in the 19th century to move the church stone by stone to Saint-Antonin. Happily, this didn’t occur, and the abbey retained its integrity. You can see an aerial photo of it here (scroll down a bit on that page).
Saved for posterity
Enter Geneviève Bonnefoi and Pierre Brache, modern art collectors, who bought the abbey in 1960, restored it and turned it into the art centre it is today.
Bonnefoi and Brache donated the place to the state in 1973, but she retained the right to live there until her death in 2017. She also left her (and Brache’s) collection of 1,076 works of art (paintings, drawings, sculptures, tapestries and non-European art).
I remember Mme Bonnefoi, a formidable lady who brooked no nonsense. You can imagine that her relations with the authorities might have been “interesting.”
The curator explained that the current restoration work aims to repair and bring the abbey back to an authentic state. The plan is also to turn it into the most important centre of contemporary art in France after le Centre Pompidou in Paris. Parts of the abbey, such as the monks’ cells, which were previously closed to the public, will become a modernised museum space for the Bonnefoi collection and for temporary exhibitions.
There is also a plan to plant a rose garden in the grounds, which will have a makeover. You can even adopt a rose.
Next up was the architect in charge of the work. With his round glasses, tweeds and umbrella, which he used to emphasise his points, he looked like a mad professor. He explained that the difficulty was maintaining the abbey’s integrity while also retaining elements of its history that have occurred since its founding.
At one point, the Mad Professor wandered away from the microphone and turned his back on the audience, thus becoming inaudible. A chorus of protests from the audience brought him back in line.
We were introduced to some of the artisans, who described their work. The masonry needs cleaning and restoration, using new techniques to preserve the original stonework as far as possible. Restoring the woodwork is also a painstaking and sometimes hazardous job, since old paint and other components can contain lead.
In the event, we didn’t get to wear a hard hat. Apart from the church, we saw the cloister and the salle capitulaire (chapter house), where the monks met and took collective decisions. The restoration had uncovered wall paintings, dating from different periods in the abbey’s history.
I was interested to note that the abstract squiggles below were a feature of wall paintings in the region. They also appear in the Château de Bioule, which by coincidence I visited only recently.
The work is costing €10 million, which seemed to us quite a reasonable sum for the extensive works involved. The scaffolding alone must cost a bit.
The abbey is scheduled to reopen in late spring/summer 2022.
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Fascinating stuff. I love the French commitment to art. Although having been in Carcassonne and seen that yellow tape plastered all over that beautiful building, there are times when you wonder what on earth they are doing!
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They have staged some amazing exhibitions over the years at Beaulieu. The simplicity of the church lends itself well to that. Fortunately, the yellow tape was temporary, as is the wrapping around l’Arc de Triomphe. Sometimes these installations are clever and creative, but I’d rather let the buildings speak for themselves.