Included at the Abbey is a delightful little museum which has items from throughout the abbey's history. There is a short video that can be viewed and several artifacts and photos of the abbey. Definitely worth a visit.
The abbey was very self-sufficient. The monks would craft items to sell or trade for the supplies they needed. In the forge building, you can see the original forge tools including the water mill that powered the hydraulic hammers used to pound out the iron that was forged.
South of the church and upstairs you'll find the monk's dormitory. All of the monks would sleep together in this one large room on simple pallets laid on the floor. For a touch of privacy, there were low screens to separate them.
Downstairs from the dormitory you'll walk out into the cloisters. Along the way you'll see some other smaller rooms and the manicured lawn. Very tranquil. If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine the monks shuffling through performing their duties or reading.
In 1139, construction began on the church of Fontenay and it was consecrated by Pope Eugene III in 1147. It's design is that of a roman cross and is 66 meters long and about 17 meters high.
At one point in its history (circa 1820) the abbaye and the church was transformed into a paper-mill. The subsequent restoration in the early 1900's has brought the abbaye and, in particular, the church back to it's simple splendor. Unfortunately not everything survived through the years such as the altar piece, but it s still delightful to see.
Compactness enhances the spirit of confinement and isloation, so building upward was undertaken with the dormitory (dortoir), in spite of the large amount of ground available. This addition was made in the 15C. The room is reached by stairs originating in the corner of the south transept. It has a remarkable wooden ship-keel ceiling. The monks slept on pallets on the floor separated by small vertical partitions (no longer visible). The ceiling is a 15C replacement after a severe fire. Fires were the bane of monastic and church life. Such incendiary risks as could be avoided were accomplished by placing ovens at the furthest distance from the other buildings. At Fontenay it has been found that the bakery was placed at the end of the entrance building.
The church furnishings are few but are noteworthy. It should be remembered that there would have been a choir screen walling off the worship area (no longer present). By far the most impressive element is the end of the 13C statue of the Virgin and Child as realistic as one could desire. Nearby is a 12C tomb slab in the floor. On the apse wall is a 13C carved stone retable looking like an antique sarcophagus. It is damaged but finely done. And there is more...
The interior has eight bays covered by broken arches rather than rounded Romanesque ones. The arches are supported on columns with minimally decorated capitals. Light enters the church only through the east and west end windows. The aisles have barrel vaulting. The chancel is flat; some of the original glazed paving is still present here.
The Iron Foundry was always a money maker. The ore came from nearby. Although originally it lived under a severe Rule, the corruption of Commendatory Abbots brought changes. Initially there was a dovecoat (colombier or pigeon house) which was an emblem landownership, hence the right to raise pigeons. But if one looks further theere are the kennels attached to the dovecoat and the side-gate posts each displaying a statue of a hunting dog (certainly not monkish pursuits). Then there is the emblematic shield on the entrance gate displaying two fat trout (besides, the trout pond could not feed 300 monks!). Finally situated in the center of the grounds is a fine Abbatial Residence of the 18C. These were not in line with St. Bernard's teachings.
The Abbey of Fontenay is an essentially intact monastery. It is also a rare example of a severe Cistercian institution. Its church was consecrated in 1147 and the Abbey was one of the first daughter houses of Citeaux led by St. Bernard's uncle. The severity of line makes it all the more attractive. It is situated 6 km beyond Montbard. The church is the most prominent structure in the Abbey, more like a large barn with an unpaved floor, looking longer than its 217 feet. The facade is decorated by 7 rounded windows and two buttresses. The doorway has undecorated recessed arches and columns.
It is said that the name Fontenay is derived froma word for fountains. As one leaves the forge building and heads for the gate house which is the entry, on the left is a cascade pouring into a large pool. The source of the cascade is the mill-run which powered the forge. The pool is filled with fish, said to be trout. In olden times this was a source of fish for the monastery. As the gate house (entry) is approached a modest fountain graces the green. We saw a larger non-functional one in the cloister. The water for all of these is derived from an entry stream conduit at the rear of the monastery behind the herb gardens.
The Cistercians believed in the sanctity of work and they developed and here practiced a useful trade in metal working. The forge building is almost as long as the church. It stands to the South of the monastic complex next to a channeled water-run, from a diverted stream, that circles the compound and at other points provides water for the several fountains (from which the abbey name may derive). The forge building is also vaulted but is not as polished an affair. There are no mouldings on the thick ribs which connect to a central line of five thick cylindrical piers. The flooring consists of large rectanguar stone slabs. Near one end is a high wooden platform accessed by ladder. This was the upper level of the water-powered drop-hammer which produced thin sheets of steel and other metals. Also on exhibit are a few ancient tools: a giant bellows, a large whetstone and various supports and smaller tools. The forge was functional until the monks were dispersed by the Revolution. It subsequently became a paper mill and then fell into decay. In 1906 the entire property was bought by a financier from Lyon and he and his family continue to restore Fontenay. The first thing they did was remove all vestiges of the paper mill.
One emerges into the monastery grounds once more. Ahead is a long factory building that is visited last. To the right attached to the Scriptorium, is the prison. Up on a rise near the monastery back wall near the herb garden, is a cottage (not visited) which was the Infirmary. The outer wall of the prison is not intact and it reveals itself to have a stark interior with an admonitory inscription (I think) on its inner wall. These buildings are isolated from the general confines.
The same vaulting is to be seen in the scriptorium, where the ribs are received centrally by a row of five columns. The scriptorium is in line with and connected to the chapter house to the north and to the warming-room (chauffoir) to its east. There are two fireplaces in the chauffoir, the only ones in the Abbey except for those in the cooking area. They were only used for warming of hands by the writers and for softening of parchment or greases to make shoes more limber. Reconsider the vaulting and columns. Note how they are simpler than the Chapter House. The ribs are unadorned, they have no central decoration and they are received on sturdy thick columns with no capitals.
The Chapter House is entered through a fine portal off the east walk of the Cloister. This is the typical location for the structure. This room is the"fanciest" room in the monastery. Its vaulting is supported by two central columns with simple flat leaf capitals. The vaulting is tetrapartite and the ribs are plain but moulded. They meet at small floral medallions. The ribs are received at wall brackets and at the two octagonal capitals where the eight ribs continue down to the floor as a cluster of colonettes. (This is the most elaborate detail in the monastery).
The cloister is connected to the church by a dooway in the South church wall. This is the usual location for this structure in most monasteries. It is four sided and square. The central ground or garth contains at it center a fountain(also typical). The lateralwalkways are covered by vaulting. This cloister was built by the Cistercians in the 12C and is severe Romanesque without decoration or even mouldings in the vaulting. There are eight double arches on each side, but the central entry doorways are irregularly placed, destroying the symmetry. Each arch constitutes a bay and each arch is divided into two by a pair of delicate colonnades from which secondary arches connect laterally. The austerity emphasizes the utility of the unit, but it also makes a beautiful manifestation of the Romanesque style.