Visit time : half-day.
Nestled in the hollow of a green valley and surrounded by forests, the Abbey of Fontenay is an outstanding example of a Cistercian monastery, one of the major vestiges of the architecture of this monastic order in Europe. The state of conservation of the ensemble is exceptional. Its beautiful Romanesque architecture, harmonious and austere, has smoothly crossed the centuries without major incident. The solemnity and beauty of the place conveys a purity that reflects the lives of the ascetics who inhabited the site for centuries.
Fontenay is neither the oldest foundation of Saint Bernard, or the most famous, and it is not the most perfect creation of Cistercian architecture, nor the most comprehensive. But the Burgundian abbey founded in 1119, built starting from 1130 in the valley of the Egrevies, is undoubtedly the most well-preserved establishment among those that were built in Burgundy during the lifetime of the Saint reformer.
The church, built between 1139 and 1147 by Abbot William through the generosity of the Bishop of Norwich Ebrard (who was buried there), was consecrated by Pope Eugene III, a Cistercian and former disciple of Saint Bernard. It is very simple and extremely austere, with its Latin cross layout, its nave with blind walls and transept devoid of a tower. The perfection of its proportions, the rigor of its openings, the science of its vaulting, and the precision and finesse of the construction all combine to create an ensemble of value through this abstract architecture whose logic and clarity result in a kind of asceticism
More contemporary, the cloister and chapter remained intact and abide by the same aesthetic principles. The abbey still retains other community buildings in its enclosure : monks’ room, dormitory, warming room, refectory, prison, hotel, bakery, ironworks. The latter building, dating back to the late 12th century, recalls the role the Cistercians played in the technological advances of the Middle Ages. This is one of the oldest industrial buildings in France.
Despite the changes undergone in the 13th, 15th and 16th century, and despite the ruins accumulated in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Abbey of Fontenay (restored after 1906) stands today as a largely authentic and well-preserved ensemble.
The Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981, under criterion (iv).
Criterion for selection
Criterion (iv): the austere architecture of the Cistercian monks represents the physical form of the moral and aesthetic ideals which flourished at various times in the history of Western Christian religious communities. The structure of the Cistercian monastery as an operational agricultural and industrial workplace, as well as its role as a place of prayer for small groups living in total self-sufficiency, illustrates a significant historical movement of universal value.
Source : Unesco / ICOMOS
The Cistercian order was created at the same time as the foundation of the Cistercian Abbey of Cîteaux in 1098. The Cîteaux order was created by Bernard de Clarvaux (Saint Bernard) in the early 12th century in this abbey in Burgundy. The Cistercian order promoted asceticism, liturgical discipline and stressed the importance of work. Its success would quickly establish itself throughout Christendom and the foundations of Cistercian monasteries would multiply. This order, known for its great simplicity while living in total self-sufficiency, influenced the austere architectural style that prevails at Fontenay.
The Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay was founded in 1118 by Saint Bernard. Ebrard, the Bishop of Norwich, moved into the cathedral to escape the persecution he suffered in England. Through his generous financial contributions, the work of the Romanesque abbey was quickly completed.
In 1147, it was consecrated by Pope Eugene III, himself a Cistercian, in the presence of Saint Bernard. During its first centuries of existence, the abbey was prosperous and its monks developed iron and steel craftsmanship. At the height of its prosperity, the abbey housed more than 300 monks.
In 1259, Saint Louis, King of France, exempted the abbey of any tax laws. Ten years later, Fontenay became a royal abbey. The successive kings would continue these benefits.
Although damaged and plundered by the armies of the King of England in 1359 and in the following century during the Religious Wars, its influence would continue to grow until the 16th century. It was at this time that the system of Commende was established, meaning that the Abbot was appointed by the king and not by the monks.
Its decline began in the 18th century. The monks could no longer afford to maintain the buildings and were forced to destroy the refectory and kitchens. At the time of the Revolution (1789), there remained a dozen monks who were then expelled from the abbey.
In 1791 it became the property of Claude Hugot who transformed it into a paper factory. Then Elijah de Montgolfier, from the family of the inventors of the hot air balloon, bought the factory in 1820 and developed the paper business. It was classified as a historical monument in 1852 but experienced a revival in 1906 when it was bought by Edward Aynard. He undertook extensive renovations until 1911 to restore its sober medieval beauty, including the destruction of the industrial buildings from the 19th century. Today, the abbey remains the property of the Aynard family.
Montbard Tourist Office
Place Henri Vincenot, 21500 Montbard
Website - tel : 03 80 92 53 81.
Open year round Monday to Saturday : 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. / 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
In July and August, Monday to Saturday : 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. / 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. ; Sunday: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m./ 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Bicycle rental is available at the Tourist Office.
Getting to the Abbey Fontenay
Highway A6 Paris-Marseille, exit Bierre-les-Semur, then route D 980 towards Montbard.
Nearby classified sites
Vézelay : 57 km (35 mi), time : 1 hour, 15 minutes
Saline Royale d'Arc and Senans : 184 km (114 mi), time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Lyon : 250 km (155 mi), time : 2 hours, 35 minutes
Val de Loire (Sully sur Loire) : 197 km (122 mi), time : 3 hours
Place de la gare, 21500 Montbard
Website – tel : 36 35.
Sleeping / Eating
Accommodation and eating
For accommodation : the prices shown are for the off season, on the basis of 2 people.
For restaurants : “Formule” corresponds to a lunch special with a starter and a main course, or a main course and a dessert. The “menus” usually consist of a starter, a main course and a dessert, for lunch or dinner.
Hôtel – Restaurant de l’Ecu ***
7 Rue Auguste Carré, 21500 Montbard (4 km)
Website - tel : 03 80 92 11 66.
Room from €85.
Restaurant : "menu" from €27.
Hostellerie d'Aussois ***
Route de Saulieu, 21140 Semur-en-Auxois (15 km)
Website - Tel: 03 80 97 28 28.
Room from €99.
Restaurant : "menu" from €27.
Hôtel-Relais de la Côte d'Or ***
1 Rue de la Liberté, 21140 Semur-en-Auxois (15 km)
Website - Tel: 03 80 97 24 54.
Le Bistro de Louise – local cuisine
7 Rue Edon, 21150 Venarey-les-Laumes (13 km)
Tel : 03 80 89 69 94.
Week day: "lunch menu" : €15. On weekend and for dinner, "menu" from €21.