The Royal Monastery of Brou

The Royal Monastery of Brou

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From afar, we spotted the glitter of the Royal Monastery of Brou’s glazed patterned roof tiles. Its burgundy, terracotta and emerald mosaic gleaming in the July sunshine.

 

I pulled over at the next intersection and found an empty spot under a sycamore. – Here we are! Mei shot me a smile, then grabbed her mask and climbed out of the car. We crossed a huge lawn towards the transept, then walked down to the apse to circle the church, marveling at the building’s sumptuous details. Only now did I notice the vastness of the nave. And only now did we realize the extent of the monastery.

 

 

A sign replete with Covid-19 recommendations lead us to the entrance of the monastic buildings, adjacent to the portal of the church. Wow! This is really a flamboyant Gothic masterpieceMei stepped back a few meters to catch a better view of the whole façade.

 

When we entered the church, it was empty. Not a soul lingered in the aisles nor in the choir. The rhythmic succession of pointed arches led us past fluted pilasters and profusely decorated stained glass windows. I suddenly stopped in my tracks. The iconography I was looking at seemed familiar and a bit void of religious essence. A couple was kneeling and facing each other. On the inscription on the banderol, I read: “Fortune infortune fort une”. “Both fortune and misfortune make a woman stronger”.

 

Fortune infortune fort une. The Monastery of Brou in Bourg-en-Bresse, France: where lovers reunited in death © Travelwithmk.com
The Monastery of Brou in Bourg-en-Bresse, France © Travelwithmk.com

 

Now my interest was sparked, for this was not a typical monastery! Clearly, a story was lurking behind these stones; and a woman played a role in it. I walked to the choir and couldn’t find a display of an Ecce homo nor of a sculpture of Christ bleeding on the cross. But there were three tombs.

 

Protected in a niche, a recumbent statue of Margaret of Bourbon was tilting her head to the right, towards the center. I found this quite intriguing. Who was the subject of her eternal adoration? I moved closer to the central tomb, where I found two recumbent statues, one above the other. The upper one seemed almost alive, dressed in ceremonial attire with a sword, a feathered helmet and a discreet crown delicately placed on his head. I read the inscription: Philibert II, Duke of Savoy, also known as Philibert le Beau.

 

 

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The name unlocked a treasure hidden deep inside my brain. I searched and searched… and history lessons from the past slowly unfolded in my mind: the siècle d’or – the Golden Age, the rivalry between Spain and France… I looked at the lower statue of the central tomb. There, the duke was clearly dead, stripped of all its glory and almost naked. Just like on the upper statue, Philibert’s eyes were turning towards the third tomb. There were also two recumbent statues displayed on two levels. However, those were female effigies.

 

Mei whispered in my ear: – That is Margaret of Austria, Philibert le Beau’s wife. – So, wait! Then who was Margaret of Bourbon, the one who’s looking at Philibert? His mother! So, the mother is looking at her son, who has been contemplating his wife for five hundred years!? This representation of conjugal love moved me. Mei gifted me with a smile, her way of showing me her bemusement of my lurking but secret romanticism.

 

 

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Suddenly, the foggy curtain of my academic studies lifted. It all came back at once. Of course! How could I have forgotten about this? I ignored the anger that was stirring up inside me and turned to the last tomb, where Margaret of Austria was locking eyes with her lost love. She was a young widow and could not forget the three years of marriage she shared with Philibert. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she did not choose to share a tomb with her husband, but instead opted for this display of eternal longing. I could not help but admire her subtlety.

 

She had wanted all effigies to be depicted as life-size statues. And surrounded by lovers’ knots binding Margaret and Philibert’s monograms together. She herself was portraited as a regal duchess on the upper level. But very simple on the lower one, with her hair untied and loosely draped around her shoulders. Her head was gently inclined toward Philibert’s tomb.

 

 

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In the first part of the monastery, we learned more about the fascinating project of this monument. The Royal Monastery of Brou was in fact commissioned by Margaret of Austria. Born in 1480, she was the only daughter of Maximilian of Austria, also known as the Holy Roman Emperor. Margaret was first engaged to Charles, the son of King Louis XI of France, when she was only three years old (!). Her whole education was refined, polished and oriented to prepare her for her future role as Queen of France. But her fiancé chose a different wife eleven years after the engagement. So, Margaret was left hurt and mocked.

 

Her father then started negotiating with Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. Their only son John should be wed to Margaret. She embarked on a ship to reach Spain in 1496, but it went all wrong. During the crossing, the ship hit a storm. In a hurry, facing death, Margaret drafted her own epitaph:

 

“Here lies Margaret, the willing bride,
Twice married – but a virgin when she died.”

 

Margaret of Austria survived the storm and married prince John a year later. The marriage however lasted only about six months, as her husband suddenly died of fever. She was pregnant but gave birth to a stillborn daughter shortly afterwards. Without a husband and an heir, her role was once again threatened.

 

 

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In 1501, she finally married Philibert II, Duke of Savoy. This time, everything seemed to work well: the newly wedded couple immediately fell in love with each other. And it was the happiest time of Margaret’s life, as she would point out in her later correspondence with the great minds of the European courts. But Philibert died of pleurisy in 1504, only three years after their wedding. At that time, Margaret of Austria was only 24 years old. Widowed and heartbroken, she tried to commit suicide by jumping out of a window but was saved. She then considered taking religious vows for a while, but finally ended up with another – much better idea. She decided to build a monastery on the outskirts of Bourg-en-Bresse as the final resting place for Philibert and herself. The construction project of the Royal Monastery of Brou was thus launched in 1505.

 

During the construction works of the monastery, Margaret kept working. She became regent of the Netherlands in 1506. And took care of the education of her nephew Charles, who later became the great emperor Charles V. Margaret was known as a patron of the arts and appointed the best architects and artists of her time to build the Royal Monastery of Brou. She also possessed an impressive library with books ranging from ethical treaties to poetry. Her court was visited by many renowned humanists such as Erasmus, Adrian of Utrecht and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa.

 

 

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When we crossed the second cloister of the monastery towards the first floor, which now hosts a museum of fine and decorative art of Bourg-en-Bresse, we both had to agree that Margaret of Austria’s reign was one that was marked by love. Love for her family, love for her nephew and nieces which she helped raise. And above all, love for her husband Philibert. She dressed as a widow for half of her life and categorically refused to remarry after Philibert’s death. In the end, the lovers reunited in death inside the sumptuous Royal Monastery of Brou. More than a simple monastery, it’s a temple of eternal love.

 

I guess, no quote is better fitted than Henry Van Dyke’s: “Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity.”

 

 

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The Monastery of Brou in Bourg-en-Bresse, France: where lovers reunited in death © Travelwithmk.com

The Monastery of Brou in Bourg-en-Bresse, France: where lovers reunited in death © Travelwithmk.com

The Monastery of Brou in Bourg-en-Bresse, France: where lovers reunited in death © Travelwithmk.com

 

Follow Kerstin:

Traveler - Storyteller

Kerstin is a 30-something French teacher, born and raised in a tiny Luxembourgish village, but who used to live in Bordeaux, Paris, Athens and San Francisco with her wife Mei. Fluent in 5 languages, she's above all a huge book enthusiast, a fervent writer and storyteller, and could never refuse a good old single malt whiskey. Oh, and she also loves coffee and chocolate (not sure in which order though).

17 Responses

  1. Ketki Gadre
    | Reply

    I love all the Gothic architecture in France- it is literally is everywhere and all of it so charming! I love how the Royal Monastery of Brou is so tastefully maintained making it so flamboyant.

  2. Smita
    | Reply

    What a beautiful monastery! And the history is fascinating. Led me to researching more about Margaret of Austria!

  3. Looks amazing! Love finding beautiful pieces of history. Thanks for sharing!

  4. WOW, that monastery has gorgeous architecture and detail. I love finding places like this whilst traveling. There’s so much history and character to these kind of places. The story behind this place had me so intrigued. I learned a lot through your post. I would love to check this place out some day whenever travel abroad is possible again.

  5. Emma Riggs
    | Reply

    Wow, what a fascinating piece of history. I was wondering where the story was going when I first started reading, then found myself getting sucked in, wanting to know what happened to Margaret. It’s always so nice to hear that love stories did exist back in the dark and middle ages, even through times of woman being used for business dealings.

  6. Indrani
    | Reply

    Wow Interesting history there! Very inspiring life story of Margaret of Austria. Twice widowed yet she spread so much positivism. Loved the last quote. Great post.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you, Indrani. That’s exactly what we thought too: despite everything, Margaret of Austria stayed positive!

  7. Laura Pedlar
    | Reply

    It’s good to explore new places and it’s ideal that it was so quiet. The roof tiles are exquisite and I liked reading about the history behind this monastery.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, it was quiet. That is also why we chose to visit the monastery. Now during the pandemic, we wouldn’t have wanted to go to crowded places.

  8. The Holidaymaker/Renee
    | Reply

    You had me at the inscription as you enter. Not many points in our history where women are at the centre of the story. Did you receive a tour to learn the entire story or did you learn about it on your own before or after you visited? It would be fascinating to visit now knowing the history as you shared it.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Exactly! History is usually written by men, so unfortunately women don’t play a big role in history lessons, wherever it is in the world. This monastery is therefore so interesting. And no, there was no guided tour. We visited the monastery on our own and learned about its history bit by bit as we explored it, thanks to the very informative panels set up inside the building.

  9. How great that you are able to get out to see sites like this during the pandemic. How interesting to be drawn in by that first stained glass window. Definitely not a traditional topic. It was good that you know your history enough to be able to recall the tale and recognize that one of the statues was Margaret of Austria. Fascinating that she commissioned the building of this monastery to be a temple of eternal love.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, we can’t – and don’t want to – travel far during the pandemic. That’s why we drove to France to visit some lesser known and not so touristy destinations in our neighboring country. We tend to forget our history lessons, so it’s good to visit historical places to revive our memories.

  10. Rick Rodriguez
    | Reply

    Wow, awesome place! I agree that this is a Flamboyant Gothic masterpiece.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Hope you’ll get to visit the Royal Monastery of Brou someday. 😉

  11. Samantha Hinterbrandner
    | Reply

    There is nothing better to discover while travelling than monasteries and churches! They are always full of so much history and are always preserved beautifully. I love the ornate detailing! So stunning!

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