For lovers of history
It was on the site of a priory built in 1100 by the Lord of Mello that King Louis VI the Fat decided in 1137 to found an abbey attached to the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny in the Yonne department. The French king founded the abbey in honour of the memory of his cousin, Charles the Good, Count of Flanders, killed during a revolt by his lords.
Richly endowed with numerous lands, barns and mills, the Chaalis Abbey had the means to rapidly construct a large church. The vast edifice, the ruins of which visitors can admire today, was consecrated in 1219. Boasting a transept with rounded latticework reminiscent of the Noyon Cathedral, the abbey church measured no less than 90 metres long and 46 metres wide at the transept. During the 13th century, Sainte-Marie Chapel – modelled after the Sainte-Chapelle of the Palais de la Cité in Paris – was built, the perfect expression of High Gothic art, emphasizing space and light. King Louis IX, or "Saint Louis", stayed several times at Chaalis, sharing the life of the monks.
During the Renaissance, the abbey was entrusted in commendam to the custody of a patron. In 1541, it was granted by King Francis I to Hippolyte d'Este, who invited to Chaalis various Italian artists, including Francesco Primaticcio, who adorned the interior of the façade and the vaulted ceiling of the Sainte-Marie Chapel with frescoes.
The early 18th century saw the reconstruction of France's greater abbeys. Louis de Bourbon-Condé, Count of Clermont and commendatory abbot of Chaalis, launched a vast project for the reconstruction of the monastic buildings. However, the plans designed by Jean Aubert, architect of Chantilly's Grand Stables, ultimately only led to the construction of the abbey's northern residence.
Chaalis was sold as a state-owned property in 1793, and the old cloister and abbey church were dismantled. In 1850, the property was purchased by Madame de Vatry, then in 1902 by Nélie Jacquemart, widow of the rich banker Edouard André. She renovated the abbey residence to house the art collections she had long assembled. Upon her death, she bequeathed the site and its collections to the Institut de France.
Did you know?
A favourite of King Francis I and a keen admirer of Italian art, Hyppolite d’Este would leave his mark on Chaalis. He notably commissioned the Italian architect Serlio to design the crenelated wall enclosing the abbey's magnificent rose garden to the east.
The memory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau is also honoured at Chaalis. In 1924, the Institut de France purchased the "Rousseau collection" from the descendant of Marquis René-Louis de Girardin. A fascinating "Rousseau Space" has recently been created to introduce visitors to this great Enlightenment thinker.
Occupying the old abbey residence, the Jacquemart-André Museum is home to an eclectic yet top-quality collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture and decorative objects, including a painting attributed to Jean-Baptiste Greuze: The Marquis de Girardin, bearing the French cockade, poses before a bust of Jean-Jacques Rousseau sculpted by Jean-Antoine Houdon; this oeuvre perfectly illustrates the marquis' familiarity with and fondness for Rousseau's philosophy and the ideals marking the early days of the French Revolution of 1789.