In the 11th century, the monks of the Abbaye Saint-Victor in Marseille established the Abbaye de la Celle, composed of two Benedictine priories, one for the monks and the other for nuns. Two centuries later, Garsende de Sabran, who had just lost her husband, King Alfonso II of Aragon, came to La Celle in order to take the veil and was elected abbess of the convent, which thereby became “royal”. She abandoned Aix-en-Provence and public life, reserving her considerable beauty for God.
But beginning in the 17th century, a certain decline in moral standards set in: although still bound by their vows of chastity, some sisters obtained “exemptions” and the abbey soon came to resemble a bawdy house. Its boudoirs and padded leather cells attracted more and more gentlemen and it’s said that come evening, there could be heard more rustling of silk than prayers! As one chronicler reported, “These nuns could only be distinguished by the colour of their skirts and the first name of their lover…”
Once brought to light, the scandal caused the convent to be closed. The abbey was sold as national property during the Revolution and turned into a farm before being bought in 1938 by Sylvia Fournier, owner of the island of Porquerolles. Since 1990, the priory has belonged to the Conseil General du Var which is continuing restoration of the monument. It is possible to visit the magnificent ambulatory, the chapter and the cellar, and in the garden of the cloister, some ancient mulberry trees have been saved by treatment of their hollow trunks and sap now flows within the bark.
The Sainte-Perpetue church, which was one of the convent chapels, shelters the marble sarcophagus said to be that of Garsende de Sabran, For a long time it was used as a drinking trough for animals in the village before it was sold by its purported owner. Several years later an antique dealer in Draguignan spotted it at an auction and informed the Louvre, which blocked the sale. The sarcophagus was secured and it was returned to the abbey.
In the church, there is a 14th century crucifix which represents a Christ of corpse-like thinness. Today visitors are told that a local saying, “As thin as the Good Lord of La Celle”, is used to speak of a slender person. In fact, the more frequent expression used in the region is even crueller: “As ugly as the Good Lord of La Celle”!
So next time you are in Provence take a visit to the Abbaye Royale de la Celle – the abbey of the ‘naughty nuns’!