We are lucky to live a short drive from an absolute gem of a historic monument, l’Abbaye de Beaulieu. This former Cistercian monastery reopened last week after a major renovation programme. It’s now also an important centre of modern art – and if you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you’ll know I’m an art lover. The abbey’s survival is something of a miracle.
Geneviève Bonnefoi and Pierre Brache were avid collectors of contemporary art after World War II. They stumbled across l’Abbaye de Beaulieu in the 1950s and were smitten, despite the fact that it was in a terrible state. They finally acquired it in 1961, having sold a Brancusi sculpture to fund the purchase.
Rise and decline
Beaulieu (lit. lovely place) is a beautiful and peaceful spot, and the monks who founded the abbey in c. 1144 clearly thought so. The abbey nestles in a green valley with the River Seye flowing behind the buildings. It was originally named Belloc (also meaning lovely place).
The abbey enjoyed a golden age from the 13th century, thanks to donations of land from local worthies. This prosperity enabled the monks to enlarge the buildings to form a square around a cloister.
Damaged during the Hundred Years War, part of the abbey burnt down during the Wars of Religion. The church remained undamaged, but the monks abandoned the place until the 17th century.
After the French Revolution, the state evicted the monks and confiscated Beaulieu, selling it as a bien national in 1791. The purchaser then bequeathed it to the commune of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, which didn’t have the funds to maintain it.
In the 1840s, an ill-conceived scheme by the architect Viollet-le-Duc to relocate the abbey church stone by stone to Saint-Antonin was, fortunately, abandoned. By this time, though, the roofing materials and timbers had been removed. The place became a barn and was used as a cow byre.
Saved from oblivion
Despite work to secure the buildings in the 1930s, Bonnefoi and Brache found it in a dilapidated state with decades of cow manure and rubbish piled up in the church. They could see its potential and carried out extensive restoration work, selling another Brancusi sculpture to raise the funds. They inauguration Beaulieu as a centre of contemporary art in 1970. It was an unlikely but inspired marriage of Cistercian purity with abstract works of modern art.
Bonnefoi and Brache divorced in the 1970s but remained close, and Geneviève Bonnefoi stayed at the abbey. They donated the site to the French state on condition that she could continue to live there. On her death in 2018, le Centre de Monuments Nationaux acquired the totality of the Brache-Bonnefoi collection: some 1,363 works by 151 different artists.
Former glory restored
We visited last Friday, two days after the abbey’s official reopening. The interior is mostly finished, but some work continued externally, notably on extending and surfacing the car park, previously a field.
Part of the abbey’s gardens has been landscaped to include a rose garden, where one could sponsor a rose in someone’s name. Sadly, I found out too late to do that.
The former monastic living quarters are now light and airy galleries on two floors. Previously, you couldn’t visit them. The walls are painted a simple white, in keeping with the Cistercian ethic, which offsets the art. To avoid glare from the outside and minimise UV rays, the windows are covered with light-filtering blinds. Original features such as fireplaces and cornicing have been retained.
Geneviève Bonnefoi’s private study and library remain pretty much as they were. The latter contains a selection of her collection of African art.
The galleries now house a selection of works from the Brache-Bonnefoi collection, including sculptures and paintings by Jean Dubuffet (1901-85).
We were very interested to see displayed a number of works by Ida Karskaya (1905-90), who emigrated from Bessarabia (now part of Moldova and Ukraine) in 1922. She was the mother of a friend.
From the galleries you now have direct access to the abbey church. For me, this is Beaulieu’s pièce de résistance. I love the purity and elegance of the soaring columns and the vaulted ceiling. Here, Bonnefoi and Brache had to have tonnes of rubbish and fossilised cow manure removed in the early 1960s. The church will continue to house temporary exhibitions.
There is now even a salon de thé at the abbey, which was previously lacking in a monument of this importance.
L’Abbaye de Beaulieu is open all year round, except in January, but the opening hours vary by season. If you like modern art or historic monuments, or both, this is a must see if you are ever in this area.
To celebrate the reopening, the abbey administration have organised a series of concerts and other events throughout the summer. One of these is a special guided visit with the curator/administrator of the abbey, for which they ran a competition for a number of limited places. Yours truly was one of those pulled from the hat today, so I shall be dragging the SF along for our second visit in the space of a week. However, we will learn all kinds of inside info that you may not get from a standard tour.
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