Birds & Art: The Monastery of Fontenay, by Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright

In 2016, Rick Wright will lead five “Birds & Art” tours for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. Here, he gives us a preview of “France: Birds & Art in Burgundy,” May 29-June 4, 2016.

Rick will also lead Birds & Art tours to Provence, Catalonia, Berlin & Brandenburg, and Venice & the Po Delta.

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The monastery of Fontenay, in northern Burgundy, owes its fame to the reforming zeal of its twelfth-century founder, Saint Bernard, and to the sublime starkness of the abbey church’s Romanesque architecture.

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What few visitors notice, though, is how the medieval monks’ landscaping efforts contribute to the birdiness of the place today.

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The forests the monks so carefully maintained to provide fuel for their forge, and the canals and reedy ponds they dug to supply the kitchens with fish, are home to a full suite of central France’s migrant and breeding songbirds.

Hawfinch by AlekseyKarpenko-shutterstock 257236675

But the birds aren’t just outside. One of the few ornamental elements of the church is a thirteenth-century statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, of the type known – fittingly enough in this case – as “beautiful Madonnas.”

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Some visitors might walk right past it, pausing perhaps to admire the sweetness of the Virgin’s girlish face and the elegant curve of her torso, but a closer look reveals that the Christ Child in her arms holds a live bird.

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Stylized in form, and with no colorful plumage visible, the little bird is nevertheless identifiable: the Child’s pet can only be a European Goldfinch. As the Smithsonian ornithologist Herbert Friedmann showed, that species served artists throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance as a symbol of suffering and death to come.

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The stone goldfinch is just like the feathered ones the twelfth-century monks would have seen flitting around the borders of the cloister garden, and it is just like the goldfinches we can watch today on the woodland edges and flower-strewn lawns of Fontenay.

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Here in Burgundy, and in so many other ancient places around the world, birds, art, and history come together to form a landscape that is far more than the sum of its separate parts. All it takes is the eye to see it.

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Photos: Hawfinch by AlekseyKarpenko/shutterstock. All other photos by Rick Wright.

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