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The Abbey of Noirlac

Perfect Cistercian Architecture

and a 900 year story


French Cistercian Abbey Pages


Back to North & Centre France



The Cistercian Abbey of Niorlac was established in 1136, in a place called Maison Dieu deep in the thick woods south of Bourges, by a group of twelve monks from Clairvaux led by Robert (one of the many relatives of S Bernard who had helped set up Clairvaux with him in 1113).  Building in limestone did not get underway until 1150 when the monks from Clairvaux were formally granted lands and dues by the local lord, Ebbe de Charenton, who had noticed how the Capetian King Louis VII dropped in on the monks and gave them gifts, and probably thought it politically astute to change his hitherto complete disinterest in their presence.  The early Abbey was called Notre Dame de la Maison-Dieu-sur-Cher.


Two hundred years later ..... link to the rest of the abbey's history .......


Top right - the lay brothers' dormitory and store room

Above - The transept and apse of the abbey church, and the monks' dormitory

Above - The north face of the abbey church in the morning sun

Above - The "WOW" nave looking west (above) and east  (set up for the annual concert festival in June and July)

Above - Stairs from the south transept to the monks' dormitory and the restored roof of the lay brothers' dormitory

Below - NE corner of the cloisters

East cloister, chapter house entrance and (below) the chapter house itself
The light and delicate architecture of the monks' refectory - twice the height of the usual Cistercian refectory
Vaulted storeroom under the lay brothers' dormitory


Two hundred years later, the mercenary bands set up by Edward III to pursue his claim to France (which in retrospct is seen as the start of what we now call the Hundred Years' War) were out of control and pillaging and looting everything they could find.  Noirlac (as it was now called) was occupied by an English Captain (Robert Knolles) and his men from 1359 - 1360.


As with other Cistercian abbeys, Noirlac progressively succumbed to the pleasures of the material world, though luckily for posterity this took the form of seignorial tombs, tapestries, other artefacts and lots of lolly, rather than a ground up rebuild of the sort which destroyed old buildings in many other abbeys.  By the mid 1400s the abbey was also fully fortified with its own garrison, in part to protect the wealth inside. 


Further degeneration and  "moral crises" provoked a formal enquiry by the Cistercian order, but things were short circuited when the King appointed a Commendatory Abbot  in 1530. 


Then in 1650 the abbey suffered what could have been terminal damage when it was taken and retaken several times during the siege of the fortress of Montrond.  But everyone got together and reached agreement on the appointment of an architect and the contract for a rebuild, which was finished by 1730.  Also finished were the forests of the Cher valley, whose timber was cleared and sold to pay for the work, and the millstream and fisheries, which were filled in.


The six monks who moved back in 1730 after the rebuild were living in something more closely resembling a chateau than an abbey - each had his own small apartment (the presently visitable "monks dormitory") and there was no shortage of "jam, sugared almonds and champagne".


Come the revolution, the renovated abbey was sold in 1791 to a Parisian lawyer as a country house. 


In 1820 the buildings changed hands and functionality again, this time to become a porcelain factory.  This continued till 1894, when they were sold to a local parish priest and cleared of industrial equipment.  Subsequently the buildings housed an orphanage which failed, a schismatic religious congregation of the sisters of the Sacre-Coeur de Jesus-Penitant - commonly known (sic) as the Voyantes de Loingny (Seine-et-Oise), which also failed, and a children's holiday camp ("petit chanteurs a la croix de bois"), which lasted but two holiday seasons.


Finally, the Department of Cher bought the lot in 1908, but only stopgap work was done, interspersed with uses as an American military camp in 1918, refugee centre in 1919 - 1920, Spanish republican refugee camp in 1936, and an old peoples home in the second world war.


Finally, in 1950, the latest restorations got underway and, from their appearance, it would seem that they were well funded and architected.  The result has been, since 1980, a stunning abbey church, chapter house and associated rooms, cloister, a two story high refectory (the first we have seen) and other equally well restored buildings - in the words of the booklet "one of the most beautiful monastic ensembles that exists in France".  We agree completely!  


And a couple of Kms back down the road is Le Noirlac Hotel (nothing to do with the abbey) where you can have a swim and enjoy dinner and view.


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All original material Adrian Fletcher  2000-2015 - The contents may not be hotlinked, or reproduced without permission.