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The Abbey of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes

The Augustinian abbey of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes was an important site in the medieval landscape. Founded in c. 1076 on the site of a parish church, Saint-Jean was one of the first houses for which there is explicit evidence for a community living according to the Rule of Saint Augustinian. This community was a leader in the ecclesiastical reform of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Its canons were not cloistered, but maintained active links with the secular community through charity and parish service.

The Romanesque abbey of the late eleventh and twelfth centuries was one of the earliest architectural expressions of reform monasticism in northern France. Though now destroyed, the plan of many of the claustral buildings have been revealed by excavation. During this period, the abbey also amassed a significant domain consisting of parishes, farms rights.

The abbey was extensively rebuilt in the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. See animated plan. The church and claustral buildings were expanded, a new water management system was introduced, and a fortified precinct wall was erected to protect the abbey both physically and symbolically. During this period, the abbey community numbered 90 resident canons, (with perhaps another 60 in the outlying priories and parishes) and an unknown number of conversi (lay brothers), servants and other personnel. Significant portions of the Gothic abbey remain standing, while other parts have been revealed by excavation.

At the end of the Middle Ages, a period of decline set in, culminating in the occupation and sack of the abbey by Huguenot soldiers in 1567. During the hundred years following the sack, the community undertook a massive renovation program that restored the church and claustral buildings, but also made changes to the shape, decoration and circulation levels of several buildings. Individual cells were introduced into the dormitory. Plaster decoration with classicizing motifs was added to its interior spaces. Fireplaces were added for comfort, and an arcaded gallery on its east side increased the interior space of the dormitory. Finally, the fourteenth-century gatehouse was transformed into a ceremonial entryway, and the abbey’s medieval gardens became contemplative spaces with decorative fountains. A perspective view made in 1673 by Louis Barbaran was commissioned by the community to commemorate the completion of this extensive renovation program.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, commendatory abbots often replaced abbots elected by the community in French monasteries. These men were appointed by the king to administer the temporal holdings of a religious house. While they were often members of the clergy, commendatory abbots were seldom members of the religious communities they ruled, and were only rarely in residence there. A commendatory abbot usually had a separate, elaborate residence with garden. At Saint-Jean-des-Vignes, commendatory abbots ruled from 1566 to until the French Revolution. A medieval grange, which may have included the steward’s lodge, was refurbished to serve as the abbot’s residence, with private garden to the west.

At the dawn of the French Revolution, the abbey population was reduced, but the canons continued to play an important role in parish service and education. The townspeople of Soissons petitioned successfully to maintain the abbey and its service, but the reprieve was short-lived. In 1792, the abbey was closed, and many of its buildings were subsequently dismantled for building stone. The French army used the site as a military base from 1796 until just after the Second World War. It maintained the property until 1976 when the abbey was given to the city as a tourist attraction.

Since 1982, the site has been the focus for archaeological, historical and architectural research by MonArch, the Wesleyan-Brown Monastic Archaeology Project at Saint-Jean-des-Vignes, directed by Sheila Bonde and Clark Maines.

Pre-1076: pre-monastic phase

The first church on the site of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes was a modest parish church erected before 1076. The nave of this church was reused in the first Romanesque abbey church of c.1100

c. 1100-1150 First Monastic Phase

The Romanesque abbey of the late eleventh and twelfth centuries was one of the earliest architectural expressions of reform monasticism in northern France. Though now destroyed, the plan of many of the claustral buildings has been revealed by excavation. The nave of the pre-monastic church present on the site at the abbey's foundation was reused in the first Romanesque abbey church of c.1100. The complete dismantling of the Romanesque monastery during the Gothic period, as well as the reuse of much of its masonry as foundation material for Gothic buildings, hinders our comprehension of a first monastic phase of the abbey's monumental history. The task of reconstructing the Romanesque church and conventual buildings is made still more difficult by their location. Unlike the successor churches at Cluny, Prémontré or Ourscamp, which seem to have shifted location, Gothic Saint-Jean-des-Vignes enveloped the surface area occupied by its Romanesque predecessor. As a result, the two churches at Saint-Jean --Romanesque and Gothic-- share some foundations in common. The critical juncture, as it would be on many monastic sites, is the angle between the nave and the transept that also served as the northeast corner of both cloisters. The other significant surviving section of intact Romanesque church masonry are the apse and the south transept foundations that were blocked solid and re-used as a foundations for the southeast crossing pier of the Gothic church, and the terminal wall of the Gothic south transept arm.

Of the Romanesque claustral complex, parts of two walls of the sacristy, and a robbed wall belonging to the chapter room, as well as a series of burials have been discovered in excavation. Segments of walls belonging to two separate buildings have also been revealed in the southern range where they were reused as foundations for later Gothic construction. A number of capitals and bases from the Romanesque cloister were re-used in its Gothic successor, and others have been uncovered during excavation within the cloister garden.

The first abbey church was evidently a cruciform structure organized around a towered crossing bay. Its three-vesseled nave, preserved from the earlier church, probably extended about 25 meters westward from the crossing. To the east, the crossing opened directly onto a semicircular apse, articulated on the exterior by four projecting buttresses. Two rather broad, single-bay transept arms extended north and south about 8.5 meters from the crossing.

Seen against the backdrop of eleventh-century church architecture in the diocese and the larger Ile-de-France, Romanesque Saint-Jean-des-Vignes must have seemed a significant new construction. It was closely comparable in length and width to buildings like Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Notre-Dame de Melun, both in some sense royal. Its interior spatial experience would have been similar in plan and proportion to important royal and noble buildings constructed during the century of its foundation. At the same time however, Saint-Jean would have appeared modest in scale compared to Saint-Médard in Soissons and other giant, eleventh-century, monastic churches north of the Loire. Moreover, Romanesque Saint-Jean-des-Vignes would have appeared markedly different on the exterior from the traditional monastic architecture known to contemporaries in the diocese of Soissons and the Ile-de-France. The exterior experience of Romanesque Saint-Jean, determined by its crossing tower, broad transept and single apse, had no close parallels in Soissons or in the greater Ile-de-France where the apse-en-echelon and towers flanking the choir were common features of church building in the eleventh century.

In a sense, Romanesque Saint-Jean-des-Vignes combined elements from more elite architecture of its time with elements typical of parish architecture in its own region. With its prominent crossing tower and simple apse, the new building must have appeared more typically Soissonnais and more modest from the exterior. On the interior, the church would have seemed more monastic and imposing, a suitable architectural expression for a new Augustinian community which could number the count of Champagne, the king of France and the bishops of Soissons, as well as important regional nobles, among its patrons.

c. 1215-1230 Foundation Phase for Gothic Construction and the First Gothic Phase

The abbey of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes was extensively rebuilt in the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The church and claustral buildings were expanded, a new water management system was introduced, and a fortified precinct wall was erected to protect the abbey both physically and symbolically. During this period, the abbey community numbered at least 90 resident canons, with additional conversi (lay brothers), servants and other personnel. Significant portions of the Gothic abbey remain standing, while other parts have been revealed by excavation.

In 1215-1230, massive and relatively deep foundation trenches were dug at the east to support the choir, and at the west for the substructure of the facade block and refectory. Narrower trenches were also dug for the ingress conduits and egress sewers necessary for the establishment of the abbey's water management system.

c.1220-40: Second Gothic Phase

In this phase of construction, the southern extent of the eastern claustral range was begun, including the chevet, sacristy, armarium and chapter room, as well as the dormitory found on the second storey. The sewer emptying from the cloister lavabo was probably also constructed at this time as well.

c. 1220-1250: Third Gothic Phase

During this phase, the southern extent of the eastern claustral range was completed, including the passage and day stairs, the canons' room, latrines and latrine sewer, as well as the remainder of the second-storey dormitory. The conversi building was probably also largely constructed at this time.

c. 1230-1250: Fourth Gothic Phase

The southern claustral range, comprising the kitchen, abbot's parlor and abbot's small house were built between c.1230 and 1275.

c.1275-1300: Fifth Gothic Phase

Between 1275 and 1300, the ground storey of the facade block was carried to completion and the parish church of Saint-Jacques au Parvis was also built. The steward's lodge and grange was also probably built at this time.

c.1350-1400: Sixth Gothic Phase

The nave, linking the already standing chevet and facade block, was constructed between c.1350 and 1400. The adjoining cloister was built, replacing the Romanesque cloister which had probably been maintained until this time. The abbey was also surrounded with fortification walls, and a medieval gatehouse formed the sole entrance. Grange buildings, whose remains still mark the interior of the fortification walls were built with the fortification walls.

16th century: First Early Modern Phase

At the end of the Middle Ages, a period of decline set in, culminating in the occupation and sack of the abbey by Huguenot soldiers in 1567. During the hundred years following the sack, the community undertook a massive renovation program that restored the church and claustral buildings, but also made changes to the shape, decoration and circulation levels of several buildings. Individual cells were introduced into the dormitory. Plaster decoration with classicizing motifs was added to its interior spaces. Fireplaces were added for comfort, and an arcaded gallery on its east side increased the interior space of the dormitory. At the death of the last regular abbot in 1566, the abbey entered into commende, and the steward's lodge and grange was transformed into an abbatial palace.

17th century and after

During the seventeenth century, the fourteenth-century gatehouse was transformed into a ceremonial entryway, and medieval gardens became contemplative spaces with decorative fountains. Large basins with jets d'eau were added in the eastern garden and the great cloister. A large grange was added at the southwest corner of the fortification walls.

At the dawn of the French Revolution, the abbey population was reduced, but the canons continued to play an important role in parish service and education. The townspeople of Soissons petitioned successfully to maintain the abbey and its service, but the reprieve was short-lived. In 1792, the abbey was closed, and many of its buildings were subsequently dismantled for building stone. The French army used the site as a military base from 1796 until just after the Second World War. It maintained the property until 1976 when the abbey was given to the city as a tourist attraction.