Saturday, November 24, 2012

From France to NYC

View of the village of St.-Guilhem-le-Désert
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is an area called The Cloisters. Built in the 1930s, it incorporated elements of several medieval abbeys. Part of the Cloisters comes from the abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, whose founder is the subject of today's post.

William of Gellone (755-814) was a cousin of Charlemagne's and the second count of Toulouse. When Hisham I of Cordoba declared a holy war against the Christians in southern France in 793, William was asked to respond to the threat. William met Hisham's army; he was unable to defeat them, but resisted so strongly that he wore down the invading Moors by attrition and they gave up their attempt to conquer southern France. Some years later, William was part of a large force that re-captured Barcelona. His military exploits are celebrated in literature and legend.

Piece of the True Cross
In 804 he founded a monastery in the valley of Gellone. Later named Saint-Guilhem after him, a village of the same name developed around it. He donated to the abbey a piece of the True Cross that had been a gift to him from Charlemagne. The location of the abbey and its possession of such an important relic made it a popular stopping place on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

Two years later, William himself became a monk there. He became well-known as the abbey's benefactor and a pious man; supposedly, upon his death the church bells rang without anyone touching them. His will left even more to the monastery. His legend grew so much that his body was eventually transferred to a spot in the abbey church where it could be seen better.

It was during the French Revolution that the abbey started to suffer; much of it was dismantled. Thanks to the interest and financing of John D. Rockefeller, part of the structures found a new home overlooking the Hudson River in New York.

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