Tucked into a narrow valley just outside the mediaeval village of Gordes, is L’Abbaye de Senanque. The thick rows of purple lavender in the foreground, the faded stone walls and slate roof silhouetted against a background of deep blue provençale sky, make the abbey one of the most photogenic and one of the most photographed, buildings in France.
The abbey dates back to 1148, when, under the patronage of the Bishop of Cavaillon, the Count of Barcelona and the Count of Provence, a small group of Cistercian monks from the Ardèche arrived in the valley and established their community in a cluster of rough huts. By 1152, their numbers had outgrown the huts and the monks had gained the support of the wealthy seigneurs, or nobles, of the neighbouring region of Simiane.
With the seigneurs’ financial backing, l’Abbaye de Senanque began to take shape, in the Romanesque style of the Cistercian mother house at Citeaux. The church was completed first and consecrated in 1178. Shaped like a cross, with a projecting apse on either side, it points to the north, as the narrow valley did not allow for the traditional eastward orientation. The church was soon followed by the cloister, the dormitory, the chapter house and the calefactory, which, being the only heated room in the complex, the monks used as a scriptorium or writing room. The last addition, in the 17th century, was the refectory. Remarkably, all these buildings survive still, with their simple, austere beauty but still intact.
During the 13th and 14th centuries, Sénanque flourished, possessing large estates and operating numerous enterprises, including mills and granges in the region.
By 1509, however, Sénanque began to decline; only about a dozen monks remained, then, during the Wars of Religion, Huguenots ransacked the building.
With the French Revolution, Sénanque’s estates were nationalised, the last monk was expelled and the abbey was sold to a private individual.
In 1854, the Order of the Immaculate Conception bought Sénanque but their community was expelled in 1903. Again, in 1988, another small community returned. They remain there today, running spiritual retreats, making honey and growing lavender as their livelihood.
It was autumn when I visited Sénaque, the purple glory of the lavender had been cut to stark grey stalks and the plain, austere abbey had faded into its narrow valley like some ancient stone landmark that had always been there and always would.