Imagine a place the locals dreaded so much that they named it locus diaboli, the devil’s place. A lonely, remote spot near the major trade route between Rodez and Cahors, with dark woods bristling with bandits lying in wait. And yet this was where a group of Cistercian monks founded an abbey in the 12th century, and the name of the place was transformed to locus dei, or Loc-Dieu, God’s place. I revisited the abbey, which is now privately owned, last week, after a gap of 12 years or so.
The Cistercian order branched off from the Benedictines in the late 11th century in search of a purer, simpler and more austere life. This quest for purity is reflected in the architecture of their abbeys. They rejected colour and decoration in favour of minimalism and plainness: worshippers should not be distracted by ornamentation. In doing so, they created, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful buildings in France.
The Cistercians built their abbeys in isolated, tranquil places, away from the materialism of towns and villages. Access to water and the ability to be self-sufficient were important criteria. The Abbaye de Beaulieu, not far from us, was also a Cistercian foundation and its site lives up to its name – beautiful place.
Monastery to fortress
Today, the church at Loc-Dieu, whose construction began in 1159, is the only part of the original abbey that remains. The place was burnt down during the Hundred Years War by the “English” – possibly not English at all, but bands of mercenaries who roamed about terrorising the natives when they weren’t being paid.
The monks rebuilt the abbey as a fortress, complete with a tower and machicolations, in the hope of deterring further attacks. They were not trained in combat, but their ruse seemed to work, since the place was left alone after that. They reconstructed the peaceful cloister at the same time.
Decline and renaissance
On the eve of the Revolution, only three monks remained in residence. The abbey, by now in a state of disrepair, was sold as a bien national in 1793, as happened to many such buildings. During the early 19th century, the church was used as a cow byre, reflecting the fate of the Abbaye de Beaulieu in the 20th century.
Happily, Loc-Dieu was restored twice during the 19th century and became a private residence. The restorations introduced neo-Gothic elements that were never part of the original Cistercian architecture. The chapter house was turned into an orangery and a moat was constructed to drain damp from the walls that rose from the clay soil. The park was also landscaped during the 19th century, with groups of trees forming eye-catching vistas.
You can take a guided tour of the abbey (in French). Since it’s still owned and occupied by the same family, you don’t get to see much of the interior: the entrance hall, the chapter house, the cloister and the stunningly beautiful church.
You can also stroll around the extensive grounds.
Saving La Joconde
Where does the Mona Lisa (known as la Joconde in France) come in? Leonardo’s painting was evacuated from Paris in 1940, along with many other works of art, in a logistically complex operation. They were lodged at Chambord first, but this was too close to Paris, so the paintings were moved again and some 3,000 of them ended up in the more remote Loc-Dieu in June 1940. However, this was only a temporary stay, since it was clear that the damp site could damage the fragile paintings. The much-travelled Mona Lisa went on the move again to the Musée Ingres in Montauban.
In addition to guided tours, the owners organise occasional concerts in the church during the summer. It’s also open during les Journées du Patrimoine in late September each year. More details on the website.
This post is taking part in the #AllAboutFrance linky, where you’ll find interesting posts about travel in France and French culture generally.
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