Dwellings in Normandy reflect their surroundings. Upper Normandy has more trees, therefore more wooden dwellings. Lower Normandy is rockier, so monuments are made of granite with virtually no sculptural ornamentation. The most massive mound of granite in Lower Normandy, known as MountTombe, looms two hundred and fifty feet off the ground. This huge stone was chosen by Michael the Archangel as the foundation for what has been called “the eighth wonder of the world.”
“The archangel loved heights,” was how one writer explained it. If height can have a spiritual as well as a physical dimension he was certainly right, for what Michael loves above all else is the glory of God. So it was spiritual as well as physical altitude that prompted the Archangel’s visit to Bishop Aubert in 708. Aubert had come to the forest seeking peace and reflection. Instead he found a mountain of granite and an angel who told Aubert to build a church on top of it. Michael’s first appearance happened at night, and Aubert dismissed the encounter as a dream. Several days later Michael appeared again, and sternly repeated his command. Aubert’s lingering doubt prompted a third and final visit from Michael, who “reproved him severely, and for a sign touched the Bishop’s head, leaving a hole in the skull where he touched it.”
A wiser and less idle Aubert traveled to Italy. It was 709 AD, and St. Michael was credited with ending a plague that had devastated Rome. The pope at the time, St. Gregory the Great, led a public procession to beseech heaven for relief. Suddenly Pope Gregory saw an angel on a marble tomb sheathing a bloody sword. He was surrounded by a chorus of angels chanting Regina Coeli: “Pray for us to God, Alleluia!” Michael’s intercession ended the plague. Aubert returned to Normandy with a piece of the marble Michael appeared upon.
In Aubert’s absence “a fierce equinoctial gale” caused a sudden flood of water to permanently swallow up all the land around MountTombe. The great rock was now a granite island, accessible by boat or during low tide. The newly submerged land, an area intruding fifteen miles inland, and measuring fourteen miles wide, became known as St. Michael’s Bay.
You might think the new geography put an end to construction plans. Yet Aubert, evidently not eager for another visit from the Archangel, built a chapel on top of MountTombe. The many miracles of healing associated with the site generated pilgrimages from all over France. Charlemagne visited MountTombe, and St. Louis stayed there too. It was aptly named Mont-St.-Michel-au-peril-de-la-mer (Mount St. Michael, Peril of the Sea). Pilgrims attempting to reach the Mont during low tide had to avoid “treacherous quicksands and the swift inrush of the tide.” Even today the sea swoops in with a rush and a roar:
“It is said that the cockle shell, horn, and staff, which became the recognized insignia of a pilgrim from the thirteenth century onwards, take their origin from Mont St. Michel. The staff was used to test the path across the treacherous quicksand; the horn served to summon aid should tide or fog surprise the pilgrim; while the cockle shell was fixed in the hat as a souvenir to show that the pilgrim had accomplished his journey in safety.”
Over the next two centuries kings, dukes, monks, and peasants erected a church and a monastery on MountTombe. Because the top of the rock was not perfectly flat, there was talk of leveling the rock’s peak. This would have resulted in a loss of thirty feet of height. One of the builders, Abbott Hildebert II, thought Michael would disapprove of this, so he
“took the apex of the rock for his level, and on all sides built out foundations of masonry to support the walls of his church. The apex of the rock is the floor…On this solid foundation the Abbot rested the chief weight of the church, which was the central tower, supported by the four great piers which still stand…”
Hildebert and his colleagues are now hailed as geniuses for their decision to avoid the easy method of leveling down the top of the rock, “and build instead a great system of vaults and walls about it, on which they raised the church with its cloister and adjacent buildings.”
It was a daunting task: transporting large stone by boat during high tide, or through the muck and mire of low tide, and then hoisting it up the granite face of MountTombe without the benefit of modern machinery. The backbreaking work proceeded for five consecutive centuries. The result was an architectural miracle, “a hollow rock built by the hands of men upon the solid rock which nature left as if by accident upon the shore.”
When finished it was a three story edifice capped by the “Merveille” (Marvel), a monastery supported by over two hundred slender stone columns, whose arches “are delicately and crisply carved with rosaces, bas-reliefs, inscriptions, and flowers all of the most masterly execution…all these wonders are carved and worked in the hardest granite.”
In the 1200’s St. Louis subsidized the expense of added fortifications, and Mont-Saint-Michel became a military abbey. Under siege for decades during the Hundred Years War, Mont-St.-Michel was the only stronghold in Normandy not to succumb to siege by Henry V. In 1423 the Mount withstood a particularly determined assault by the English. In 1434 an army of 8,000 English attacked the Mount. They broke through the outer defensive wall and began scaling the town wall. The small garrison came out to make a final stand, and “after a combat of singular ferocity the English were driven off.”
It was obvious to those alive at the time that the Archangel was miraculously protecting the abbey. His protection continued during the Protestant revolt. More than once “the Huguenots attacked the abbey by stratagem, but were massacred by the monks.” During the French Revolution St. Aubert’s skull, a treasured relic of the abbey, was hidden to avoid profanation. It was later given to Aubert’s diocese of Avranches. Today it resides ”in a reliquary at the church of St. Gervais in Avranches, and the hole which distinguishes it is of sufficiently unusual conformation to puzzle the osteologists.” A French historian notes that the “oval perforation” in Aubert’s skull “has been studied scientifically; the conclusion reached from these scientific investigations was that it would be difficult to attribute the mark left on the bone to natural causes.”
Although the Allied invasion of Normandy destroyed numerous historical buildings and churches, Mont St. Michel was unscathed. It remains imposing. As French geographer Elisee Reclus describes it:
“A block of granite two hundred and fifty feet high…crowned by towers, ramparts, houses, a church and a superb abbey. Sombre rock and austere walls…these ramparts, these towers, these precipices, these belfries, this convent, this church, this granite, hollowed into crypts as well as crowned with monuments, all this prodigious amphitheatre that has been citadel, monastery, pilgrimage and prison, that defied the English, the Calvinists, this monastery of Benedictines, a thebaid between sky and sea, this august museum merits a hundred times the name of Marvel given to the most splendid hall of its immense architecture. It is one of France’s glories, a triumph of art and a sublime vision.” Especially at high tide, “from a boat, with the setting sun illuminating it with the strange flames in which the Archangel Michael might have clothed himself; or under the full moon shining on its grey stones and silvering sea and spire.”
Or at those dramatic moments when:
“The waters rushed in, current colliding with current; there was a confused noise, which swelled into a thunderous roar; and the sea, with an irresistible effort, pushed back the river and poured up the street of the Mount, and broke into waves on the greyish walls, and then spread out calmly over the whole bay; and there, in the midst of the bay, was this granite rock, crowned by the imperishable Merveille, which has watched in its impregnable dignity the coming and going of men, and the ebb and flow of the sea, for a period that we whose lives cover a little span of years can scarcely conceive – there it stood above the welter of wars and the wash of the waves.”
It still stands. The unadorned, polished granite of Mont-Saint-Michel rises up almost as an outgrowth of the massive granite of Mount Tombe, capped by an elegant copper spire pointing heavenward like an arrow, or like the very sword of St. Michael, an elegant exclamation point to his incisive, eternal challenge: “Who is like unto God?”
Notes and Sources
Victor Hugo said that Mont St. Michel is to France what the Pyramids are to Egypt. It may have been a compliment. It was Mme. De Sevigne who called the Mount the “eighth wonder of the world.” See Sisley Huddleston, Normandy, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1929 “The archangel loved heights,” is from Henry Adams, Mont-Saint-Michel And Chartres, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1904, seventeenth impression 1927.
The story of Michael and St. Aubert is from Percy Dearmer’s Highways And Byways in Normandy, op. Cit., Chapter 6, and Sisley Huddleston’s Normandy, op. Cit., pp. 291-2. The apparition of Michael to Gregory the Great during the plague of Rome is from Rev. Raphael V. O’Connell, S.J., The Holy Angels, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, New York, 1923, pp. 158-159. Mont St. Michel was not the only church ordered by Michael. He appeared at Monte Gargano in southeastern Italy where, not unlike Mont-St.-Michel, “a mountainous promontory juts out into the Adriatic Sea.” (Ibid., p. 157):
“On Monte Gargano St. Michael appeared with a censer in his hand, on the spot where a church was to be built; hence it is said of him in the office of the Church: ‘The angel stood before the altar of the temple, having a golden censer in his hand’; an unmistakable allusion is here made to the vision of the heavenly altar which St. John saw. (Apoc. *:3-4).” From Rev. N. Gihr, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, B. Herder Bk. Co., St. Louis, 1946, p. 535, as quoted in Andrew A. Bialas, C.S.V., The Patronage of Saint Michael The Archangel, Clerics of St. Viator, Chicago, 1954, p. 117, fn 15. Interestingly, the church was built not to commemorate the Archangel’s apparition, but his intercession in the Italian’s military victory over the Greek Neapolitans in 663.
The paragraph about the pilgrim insignia is from The (“Old”) Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 10, pp. 551-2. The quoted paragraph about the apex of MountTombe is from Adams, op. Cit, p. 6. The quotations in the paragraph immediately following it are from Dearmer, op. Cit., p. 126.So are the quotes in the paragraph about the English assaults. The quotes in the paragraph about the Merveille are from Brodrick, op. Cit., pp. 189-190. The paragraph concerning St. Aubert’s skull is from Dearmer, op. Cit., p. 129. The French historian quoted is Rene Ringot, as quoted in Bialas, op. Cit., p. 16. The block quote of Mr. Reclus is also from Brodrick, op. Cit., p. 186. The quotation immediately following is from Huddleston, op. Cit., p. 290. “Suddenly the waters rushed in “ is also from Huddleston, op. Cit., pp. 288-289.
Michael’s name is from a Hebrew word, the letters of which are phonetically pronounced “mi–ca–el.” In Latin it is “Quis et Deus?”, and in English it translates as “Who is like (unto) God?” Obviously a rhetorical question, it is generally assumed to mean “that no one can do what God, in His Omnipotent Power, can do.” Bialas, however, cites some authority for the interpretation that “Who is like God?” refers to Michael rather than God. Concerning Michael, the exclamation
“expresses the irresistibility of him to whom God gives the power to execute His behests…This name of the prince of the Angels does not imply chiefly a humble acknowledgement on the part of the angel, but is an actual statement concerning the angel himself…Michael has always been the warrior angel par excellence, fighting Lucifer in heaven, fighting the enemies of God’s Chosen People of Old and now the enemies of the Catholic Church.” (Rev. Wm. Heidt, Angelology of the Old Testament, pp. 7-8, as quoted in Bialas, op. Cit., pp. 113-114.)
Also used were Findlay Muirhead and Marcel Monmarche, Editors, North-Western France, London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1926, 107-112; Saint Michael and the Angels, Tan Books and Publishers, Inc.; and The (“Old”) Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. X, pp. 275-277, and 551-552.