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Van Gogh's inspirational medieval abbey

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Valeria Carullo

The Abbey of St Peter in Montmajour at Arles was a tourist attraction long before Van Gogh featured it in his painting The Harvest

Abbey of St Peter in Montmajour, Arles, France; 11th-18th century

This extraordinary complex of buildings, dating from the 11th to the 18th centuries, constitutes the Abbey of St Peter in Montmajour, a fortified Benedictine monastery built on an elevated position on what had once been a rocky island in the marshes north of Arles. The massive abbey church, in the centre of the image, was erected in the 12th century but left unfinished; to its left, the Pons de l’Orme tower was built from 1369 to protect the abbey during the Hundred Years War, while the building just visible on the right hand side, now in ruins, is the Saint-Maur monastery, added in the 17th century. In 1840 the abbey was put on the first list of French historical monuments which should be preserved; by the 1880s, when the photograph was taken, it had become a tourist attraction and was discovered by Vincent Van Gogh soon after his arrival in Arles. It became the subject of several of his drawings, and the background of his famous painting The Harvest. Today the complex is a Unesco World Heritage Site.