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L'Abbaye de Pontigny

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Pontigny is the largest Cistercian abbey still standing in Europe. It has been a place of pilgrimage over the last 900 years, and still welcomes travellers today. 

Cistercian Abbey at Pontigny France Pontigny Abbey Burgundy France Son et lumiere, Pontigny Abbey August 2014

Pontigny may be a small village in the north of Burgundy near Auxerre and Chablis but for 900 years it has had a dominant effect on the culture and economy of Burgundy due to the great Cistercian abbey at its heart. Such was the success of this order, that monasteries were opened all across Europe under its wing, making Pontigny powerful and prosperous.

The monks at Pontigny not only provided the local population with spiritual nourishment but also introduced new farming methods and most importantly wine production to the area. It is thought that the famous Chablis vineyards were first planted with Chardonnay vines by the monks and with the success of the wine, in the 12thC, the abbey was able to expand.

The History of Pontigny

Cîteaux Abbey in the Côte d'Or was already an established Cisterician monastery and in the summer of 1114 a friend of St Bernard, Hugues de Mâcon, brought some of the monks to northern Burgundy to establish a 'daughter' of Cîteaux in the area. The expansion of the Cistercian order had begun and with Pontigny's fine reputation for sanctity, the order spread, eventually adding a further twenty-two monasteries across Europe, under its wing.

Simplicity and grandeur sum up Pontigny Abbey. Building the abbey in the 12thC was daunting by any standards and the design of the church marks the transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture with its nave boasting the first high, ribbed vault in Burgundy. The clean lines of the white limestone columns led the way in medieval architecture.

Pontigny Abbey Burgundy France Pontigny Abbey Burgundy France

Fifty years after conception, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury sought refuge here from King Henry II of England before going to Sens and eventually to his death back in the cathedral in Canterbury. In 1206 the mother of King Philippe Auguste, The Queen Adele de Champagne was buried here. Another Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmond Abingdon who, when cannonized, became known in Burgundy as St Edme, was interred at Pontigny. Pilgrims coming to visit his shrine bought a lot of wealth to the abbey which was spent on gold grills, the grand organ, the classic style cloisters and the magnificent choir stalls. Pilgrims still come to his shrine today.

From the 16th to 19th centuries the pillaging and burning by the Huguenots followed by the French Revolution destroyed all but the church at Pontigny. During the first half of the 20thC a philosopher, Paul Desjardins organized conferences for the intellectual elite of Europe such as Jean-Paul Sartre and T.S.Eliot entitled 'Decades of Pontigny'. The abbey changed ownership several times until in 2003 the regional council in Burgundy bought the site, now run by an association Les Amis de Pontigny, who preserve the heritage. It is open to the public daily and concerts and conferences are organized.