The Chalaisians

the Order of Chalais
the Abbey of Valbonne
the village of Valbonne

In the year 1199, Guillaume, of the monastic order of Chalais, made his way to an isolated valley between the Riou Merlet and the Brague rivers where he founded the Abbey of Sainte Marie de Valbonne, to which a new township was added 320 years later: the village of Valbonne.


The Abbey of Valbonne is a good example of Chalaisian Romanesque construction, very close to the simplified Cistercian primitive style with a flat chancel, a sole nave, and a single chapel in each arm of the transept. The austerity of the Order was demonstrated by the communal life of the monks and the lay brothers. The latter entered the church for services by a door leading directly from the cloister to the front of the nave of the church, they took their meals with the monks and a shared exterior staircase reached their respective dormitories. Of modest dimensions because of the relatively small size of the community - from 15 to 30 members at the most - the abbey church is remarkable for the quality of the materials used and the careful workmanship of its construction. Fine-grained stone quarried from a nearby site was cut and precisely shaped with hammer and chisel so that it could be mounted almost without the use of mortar. The monastery buildings, which are joined to the south transept of the church, were of a ruder construction in roughly hewn blocks of stone and lime mortar. Narrow windows of carved stone traverse the facade of their upper floor.

Set on the bank of the River Brague, in an isolated and wooded valley, the abbey fitted nicely with the Chalaisian rules of solitude and silence while being well placed for the monks' activities of sheep farming and forestry. The monastery buildings have been well preserved. Restoration work started in 1970 is continuing. The rebuilding of the ruined vaulting of the monks' dormitory has been completed.

The buildings are located around a rectangular courtyard, once cloistered, measuring 18 metres 30 wide and 21 metres 50 long. The south transept of the church communicates on the ground floor with a sacristy, beyond which is the abbey's chapter house. From the monks' passage leading to the gardens, there is access to a workroom.

The monks' dormitory occupies the whole length of the upper floor. The abbot's room, which is next to the transept, had a door opening to a wooden staircase leading directly into the church, convenient for nighttime worship and early morning service. The dormitory accommodation is in the spirit of the Cistercian practice, as opposed to the Cartesians who used individual cells.

The wing of the monastery opposite the nave of the church had, on the ground floor, the common room, kitchen and dining hall, and the lay brothers' dormitory on the upper floor.

On the upper floor at the south-east corner of the cloister, two doors, one to the monks' dormitory and the other to the laymen's, opened onto an external staircase, probably built of wood, a construction material which was common to the Chalaisian abbeys of the mountains. The third side of the cloister was occupied by a gallery, or, more probably, by a simple wall.

The outside wall of the church's nave forms the fourth side of the courtyard. Between the lay brothers' door and the corner of the transept, where the monks' entrance is situated, there is to be admired a beautifully formed alcove with a vaulted arch and a double rectangular entrance under a straight lintel and two recessed tympana. Opening on to the formerly cloistered area, it was probably used for the storage of books.

No vestiges of the cloisters remain, though corbels projecting from the walls testify to their existence in the past.

Inside the Church.

The main entrance is through a Romanesque doorway of original stonework with three arches surmounted by a recessed tympanum supported on either side by three columns bearing monolithic capitals decorated with primitive carved human heads and shapes that could be goats' horns. Unfortunately, in the wall above this doorway, twin windows were added during the 20th century in place of the round Romanesque oculus window that was there previously.

Once inside, there is an atmosphere of profound serenity which is created by the handsome bonding of the finely jointed stonework of the church, which takes the form of a Latin cross facing the east, the flat chapter and the two side chapels in the transepts, all on the same level as the nave, and the arched barrel vaulting, resting on stone cordons, separating the four bays of the roof..
Level with the fourth bay, the laymen's door opens into the nave, the floor of which slopes gently towards the chapter as a sign of humility. It is simple and austere. No sculpture distracts the eye. Twelve crosses of consecration, cut in relief along the walls, add to the spirituality of the abbey church.

The chapter, with its two Romanesque windows surmounted by an opening in the form of a Greek cross, measures 5 metres 60 by 6 metres 50. Viewed from the nave, it is striking. The stone altar, the same one used by the Chalaisians, holds a sacred relic, sealed into a cavity in its table. It was found under the Baroque altar that was moved after the Vatican II council. In the southern wall, there is the seat of the officiating priest and the door of the dead, which provided access to the abbey's cemetery. In the opposite wall is set a cupboard for the consecrated elements of the Eucharist.

At the back of the nave can be seen the holes through the vaulting through which passed the ropes to ring the bell the little Chalaisian belfry, which was demolished and replaced by the present tower in 1854.

In the northern arm of the transept can be admired a Baroque altar with its baldachin canopy (classed as a Historic Monument) and in the southern arm a magnificent altar dating from 1643 which is backed by a painting of Notre Dame du Rosaire (also classified) that hides the door leading to the old sacristy. To the left of the altar, high in the wall, can be seen the shape of the doorway that led to the abbot's room and the monks' dormitory. By means of this door, and a wooden staircase, they were able to reach the church for services during the night. During the day, they entered the church from the cloister through the monks' doorway, now hidden on the inside by the confessional, but visible from the outside.

Unhappily, the Romanesque windows on the south side of the nave were enlarged during the 19th century. The windows on the north side were walled up in the 17th century when a chapel for the White Penitents was added to that side of the abbey church.

(c) Abbyvalb - Les Amis de l'Abbaye et du Patrimoine Valbonnais - 2006