Fontfroide Abbey

A centre of inspiration

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Fontfroide is one of the largest Cistercian abbeys in France. Standing alone and magnificent in the silent heath, light dances on its beautiful ochre and pink stone walls. The interior has provided a constant source of inspiration for art and music.


Founded in 1093, Fontfroide Abbey became affiliated with the Cistercian Order in 1145, and quickly acquired a strong influence reaching Catalonia, where Poblet Abbey was founded in 1151. In 1203, Pope Innocent III ordered two monks from Fontfroide to preach against heretical Catharism. However, one of these papal representatives, Pierre de Castelnau, was killed, which led to the Albigensian Crusade in 1209. Another monk and abbot from Fontfroide distinguished himself at the end of the 13th century: Jacques Fournier, elected the Pope of Avignon under the name Benedict XII, built the Papal Palace in Avignon. In 1348, the Black Death reached the monastic community. The Abbey fell into disrepair from the 15th century, losing its title as "abbey" in 1764. It was stripped bare at the start of the 19th century, before the cloister, chapter house and church were classed as historic monuments in 1843. In 1908, Madeleine and Gustave Fayet bought the Abbey from an American buyer. They moved in, restoring and decorating the building, and built an artistic and bustling reception area.

The cloister

Its simplicity inspires silence. During the Middle Ages, the monks would read, meditate and do their washing here. In silence. The arcades resting on their gleaming marble columns open up the space. The roof was originally mono-pitched. The Cistercian monks, whose links with the crusaders had made them rich, replaced it with stone vaults. The sunlight dances on the finely-sculpted greenery on the capitals. Peace reigns here.

The chapter house

The abbot sits on his bench opposite the entrance. Under the nine rib vaults covering the room, higher-ranking officials and monks are spread out on the tiered seats behind him. The Chapter, meaning the community of monks, would convene here after the First Hour, making it a room of great importance. The seminary monk would read a chapter from a commented copy of the Rule of St Benedict. The day begins...

The Abbey Church

In this enormous twelfth-century church, the Roman nave contrasts with the fourteenth-century Gothic chapels. The "Matins" staircase goes down into the Fathers' sleeping quarters, thus allowing them to come directly to the church for the Night Office. The transept contains 20th century designs in its quatrefoil stained-glass windows, signed by Richard Burgsthal. In the adjoining chapel of Saint-Bernard, light filters through abstract art (stained-glass windows by Father Kim En Joong).

The lay brothers' building

The lay brothers worked in the courtyard, or in the fields. As un-ordained members of the Abbey, they had a separate dining hall and sleeping quarters, and would convene in the Abbey church via the "Lay brothers' passage". This is an unusual and outstanding example of a semi-barrel-vaulted passage. A real gateway between two worlds, memories of silent and solitary footsteps of the indispensable companions to the Cistercian monks have remained intact since the 12th century.

The gardens

On the hillside, the terrace garden has replaced the monks' design. It's an Italian-style garden, created in the 16th century by Constance de Frégose, the mother of one of the Italian abbots that led Fontfroide during this period. The sweet scents from the rose garden waft towards the Abbey's former cemetery.

Things to explore

As you walk

Par Noel Feans
Experience in Fontfroide Abbey


Narbonne's town

Gustave Fayet et Madeleine Fayet-d’Andoque came to Fontfroide with their family in 1908. This was a period where various artists were creating a new style of art, far from Paris, and were leaving to work in the Midi of France. Gustave Fayet, the inheritor of a wine fortune, collected modern art: Gaughin, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse… he had good taste. He didn't hesitate in inviting artists and musicians to Fontfroide, who nicknamed themselves the 'Fontfroidiens' Odilon Redon created many paintings and pastels, and a monumental masterpiece: the panels of 'Jour' and 'Nuit' that adorn the library. Ricardo Vines, the piano virtuoso admired immensely by Debussy, would play Ravel on the library's piano... In Bièvres, not far from the house of Odilon Redon in Paris, the artist Burghstal created the stained-glass windows of the abbey in Verrerie des Sablons, that the Fayet couple had specially built.

The 'Fontfroidiens'