The Cistercian Sisters of Provence
In 1144, monks from the Morimond Abbey invested the Silvacane Abbey as soon as it joined the Cistercian Order, with the agreement of the Baux family. Thanks to their knowledge of agriculture and drainage, the monks carried out land reclamation work on the land called Silva Cana, which means “reed forest”, located between the Luberon and the Côtes mountain range. Donations and the protection granted by the Lords of Provence enabled the abbey to develop rapidly. In 1175, Bertrand des Baux had the abbey church built. He was finally buried there with his wife in the south aisle (the tomb is still visible). It was also during this period that the abbey was built. It was one of the first major monuments to use the technique of the pointed vault, which would then be integrated in other religious buildings in the region. The interior of the abbey is devoid of figurative representation, and the light underlines the simplicity of Cistercian architecture, the pure lines, and volumes. The colonnades of the cloister are soberly decorated with water leaves, typical of the Romanesque style. In 1188, the community of the Silvacane Abbey created a branch in Valsaintes which is the Abbey of Simiane, not far from Apt.
Unfortunately, from the end of the 13th century, an irreversible decline began for the Silvacane Abbey. Following a conflict, the place was invaded by the Benedictine monks of Montmajour, then came the great plague, the great frosts and the Hundred Years’ War. The advent of printing also affected the abbey, taking away the monks’ work as copyists.
The abbey was attached to the chapter of the cathedral of Aix-en-Provence in 1455 and became the parish church of La Roque-d’Anthéron. Degraded during the religious wars that broke out in the Kingdom of France and abandoned, it was then a declared national property during the Revolution. At that time, the monastery was divided into lots and became a farm.
In 1845, the State bought the church from Silvacane, and Revoil and Formigé the architects of the Historical Monuments, worked to save the monument. It was not until 1945 that the entire site was listed and acquired by the State. Between 1952 and 1988, excavations were carried out to determine the exact location of the monastic buildings, the enclosure wall and the monks’ hostelry. The Silvacane Abbey was finally restored and opened to the public.
The Silvacane Abbey, the Thoronet Abbey and the Sénanque Abbey were nicknamed “the three Cistercian sisters of Provence”. They all follow the rule of the Cistercian Order of Cîteaux, which advocates Christian poverty and a simple life of prayer and hard work. The Romanesque architecture of these monuments is bare and austere so as not to distract the monks during their meditation and work. Of these three abbeys, the Silvacane Abbey is the most recent, but also the only one not to have returned to a conventional activity.