This is the oldest Cistercian abbey in Rouergue. At first look it looks like a square of stones laying in the countryside. However there's something magical about Loc-Dieu—Loc-Dieu means 'God's place'. First off, it's sort of a miracle as such an harmony has survived through centuries. We are at Martiel, close-by the village of Elbes, barely ten kilometres away from Villefranche de Rouergue.
The Loc-Dieu park extends over sixty hectares—roughly 150 acres. Gently rolling greens, a quiet pond in which reflects the silhouette of the castle and high foliages, that's quite a surprise after one knows the stunted trees to be found on the plateau—causse in Rouergue— surrounding... this is an oasis! One can imagine the density of the primitive forest. The people during the prehistoric times had established their sacred burials around this natural sanctuary. There was an impressive dolmen standing. It was once said—is it truly a legend? Not for sure—the druids practiced human sacrifices.
Unimpressed by the mystery surrounding the place, brigands settled there during the 8th century, right after the devastating invasion—booted out though by Charles Martel at Poitiers's battle in 732—by the Moors in Rouergue. Bandits helped giving a bad reputation to the location, now inspiring more fear and horror than anything else, more so that the name of 'Locus Diaboli'—Devil's Place—got given to it.
Medieval monks were, in their way, conquerors. They drew, in accordance with 'The Rule', the energy to deliver the mission they were assigned to; push back the Evil and build on Earth the City of God.
Sometimes their adventure required physical courage and endurance. On March 21, 1123, Roger, abbot of the monastery of Dalon, in Limousin region, picked up twelve enthusiast monks to found a new abbey. On their way along the Roman road from Cahors, they stopped at Puech d'Elves. After planting the cross on the ancient dolmen, these sons of Saint-Benoit built their cenobite huts. The nearby brigands did not like their new neighbourhood, thus tried to scare the monks, to deprive them from their meagre belongings. However, Adhémar III, bishop of Rodez, and local nobles likewise Ardouin de Parisot, proved themselves quite generous and the building of the abbey was on its way. Monks had to remain silent when working and stop every hour to sing a psalm. Eventually, the new abbey was done in November, 1154. However they still needed to build the abbatiale—the abbey's church.
Building the church seemed to be out of financial reach, so much that several abbots quit on it, after considering the magnitude of the task. However, a simple monk whose name was Albert, who got elected abbot father in despair case, succeeded. He found support and financial help from the rich abbey of Bonneval. Albert's successor, Pierre I, was able to get the church finished and consecrated on July 30, 1189, after more than thirty years of ups and downs. Thus 'Locus Diaboli' became then 'Locus Dei', nowadays known as Loc-Dieu.
For centuries, men prayed, worked in silence, practiced charity too at Loc-Dieu. Monks cleared and organized a beautiful agricultural space. They fish from the pond as they abstain from meat. They helped out the disabled Crusaders back from distant crusades. They welcomed pilgrims on the road to Santiagio de Compostella.
However, the Saint-Benoit Order fine balance got disturbed by History's turmoils. The Hundred-Years War devastated Loc-Dieu. During the XVIth century, the disaster got of a different nature; revenues of the abbey were to be awarded to an outside recipient, the commendatory abbot. Many abbeys got ruined by these shameless privileges and the monastic spirit became scarce.
In 1789—year of the French Revolution—Loc-Dieu was home to only three monks. On July 21, 1793, land and buildings were to be sold as national property to Jean-Pierre Savignac, a local businessman, seduced by the farmland's quality rather than by the monastic buildings. That rang the end of the abbey.
In 1812, Louis Cibiel, a rich Villefranche de Rouergue entrepreneur bought the estate and monastery, all in quite bad shape. His son brought it back to life running the farm business himself, eventually settling in. He built his apartments above the chapter room, where the monks got their dormitory. Then, his brother Alfred took over the estate and monastery. Alfred was an MP—Member of Parliament—representing Aveyron, owner of a newspaper, and successful entrepreneur. He lived by his social and artistic ideals and used his wealth to do so. He sponsored hospices, schools, bought the (in-ruins) Château de Najac to save it from its fate, and so on. At this point in time the historical novel was the trend. The Romantics, lead by Victor Hugo, François-René de Chateaubriand, or Prosper Mérimée were inspired by the Middle Ages. One can say the renovation of Loc-Dieu at this time would embody this trend, in stone.
From 1855 on to now, the restoration of two other wings of the monastery and the church have been on-going. Task was enormous though. Different styles have been brought in to different parts of the estate; from the Renaissance flamboyant style to the more medieval castle for the family residence. Fine furniture and tapestries have been added.
Nowadays, Camille de Montalivet and his wife Marie-Hélène are the ones taking over the lead. Camille is continuing the work his mother Marguerite d'Ussel did; restoring and maintaining the estate and abbey. Marguerite was a Cibiel family niece, and owner of Loc-Dieu since 1952.
The country house of Mona Lisa yes, the famous painting...
In May 1940, André Chamson curator of the Musée du Louvre in Paris, feared about the looting of the masterpieces. Hence, he organized their (temporary) exodus. Over 3000 paintings got loaded in trucks, making their difficult way south through the flood of refugees fleeing the nazis. The paintings reached their destination, Loc-Dieu, at the beginning of June 1940. In July 1940, an exhibition allowed local leaders to discover the wonders warehoused in Loc-Dieu. However in September 1940, Mona Lisa along with the other paintings had to be moved to the Musée Ingres in Montauban. The ambient humidity did not bode well with Mona Lisa.