Fontevraud, the ideal city

How might a thousand-year-old religious institution be given a new lease of life within today’s very secular society? The solution for revitalising such historic monuments generally consists of organising contemporary art exhibitions on-site. While the Abbaye de Fontevraud is no exception to the rule, its project is far more ambitious and multidisciplinary, with an eye to reviving the original, utopian vision of the ‘ideal city’.

The ‘ideal city’, a laboratory of ideas as well as of society

Founded by Robert d’Arbrissel, France’s Fontevraud Abbey has always been atypical (to say the least), as was its creator. A monk and hermit who was asked by Pope Urban II to become an itinerant preacher, Arbrissel attracted great crowds of the devout. In 1101 he settled down in a peaceable valley situated at the meeting point of three regions: Anjou, Touraine and Poitou. There he laid the foundations of an order open to both male and female disciples of very different social backgrounds, including reformed prostitutes, the wealthy, the poor, lepers, aristocrats and peasants. His ‘ideal city’ was a laboratory of ideas as well as of society. Allowing men and women to live together violated the monastic rules of the time and was considered quite scandalous. To add fuel to the flames, our cenobite practised syneisaktism, a ‘therapeutic’ form of trial-by-fire asceticism wherein lust is battled through physical contact. It seems that Arbrissel would (chastely) sleep amidst naked nuns in order to overcome any temptations of the flesh. 

The necropolis of the Plantagenets

Another singular feature bears witness to Robert d’Arbrissel’s progressive ideals: the monastic city was run by women, and the status of the monks who lived there was rather inferior. The abbesses who ran the monastic city were of noble lineage and many were exceptional women. Indeed, from the beginning Robert d’Arbrissel was under the protection of the Plantagenets who would make Fontevraud their necropolis; it holds the recumbent statues of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart, among others. Thirty-six women, often of royal blood, were appointed Abbess, with Bourbons following the Plantagenets until the Revolution. Under their authority, Fontevraud developed into a veritable spiritual and cultural nexus.

 Fontevraud, an ideal city open to the 21st century

 Utopia turned into a nightmare during the Revolution, when the abbey was transformed into a prison. But Xavier Kawa-Topor, Fontevraud’s current director, is intent on reviving the concept of the ‘ideal city’ as imagined by Robert d’Arbrissel, and adapting it to the 21st century. Indeed, Fontevraud has always been destined to be a city (and not just an abbey) covering fourteen hectares divided into several distinct sections. Xavier Kawa-Topor believes that creating a cultural hub is just the beginning; at Fontevraud, a genuine living environment is in the making. Concerts, debates, festivals and exhibitions may fill its calendar, but the abbey is also a place where film directors, artists and musicians – and even students – from the world over come every year for artists’ residencies.  The city is also expected to support economic and social projects and has set aside space for landscaped and kitchen gardens and innovative businesses. A hotel and a gourmet restaurant whose decor was created by designer Patrick Jouin will open in the St. Lazarus Quarter.  

The Abbaye de Fontevraud has risen again and is ready to take on the new millennium! 

Useful information 

Abbaye de Fontevraud -  BP 2449 590 Fontevraud-l’Abbaye