Monastic since the 5th century, Saint-Honorat Island will defend its “outstanding universal value” at Unesco

So close and at the same time so far from the tumult of the Croisette, will Saint-Honorat Island and its sixteen centuries of monastic life soon become a UNESCO World Heritage Site? The case is now well under way for the smallest of the Lérins Islands: in November, the Minister of Culture announced that the Cannes dossier was included on France’s national indicative list. Proof of its maturity after several major changes and above all a “prior to any pursuit of a candidacy”, recalled Roselyne Bachelot.

While things could still take several years before the United Nations authorities decide, the city of Cannes will still be able to refine its arguments. Waiting for, 20 minutes decided to come back to the project, its evolution since 2015, its contours and above all its strengths.

An increasingly tight record

By announcing the project of a candidacy for Unesco in May 2015, the mayor of Cannes had first bet on a much wider perimeter, around the two islands of Lérins and the Croisette. “They are the two physical incarnations of the duality” of the city, he explained then. The good vein, according to the former president of the Cannes Film Festival. “On the one hand, there is the preservation of nature, meditation, and on the other, light and cinema”, described Gilles Jacob at the time. But the municipality was finally asked to review its copy.

The file, which “did not match the specifications of Unesco”, was tightened up for the first time in 2017. With the help of photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand, the application now only concerns the archipelago where coexist “a military heritage [sur l’île Sainte-Marguerite] and religious heritage [sur l’île Saint-Honorat] “. Still too wide.

“We have had several returns from the Ministry of Culture and the National Commission to see how our property had a chance of being listed as a World Heritage Site, explains today Maud Boissac, the city’s director of cultural affairs, in charge of case. There must be no equivalent in the world. » And after many hours, weeks and months of work and exchanges, it is finally an application of the only « monastic island of Lérins in Cannes » which was retained and validated by the government.

Island monks since the 5th century

“Saint-Honorat Island has an elongated shape and is oriented east-west. It is 1.5 km long and 400 m wide. Its area is 0.39 km2, or 39 ha. It is entirely in the commune of Cannes”. So much for the presentations, as the municipality wrote them on its “summary file” of candidacy. But if this little piece of land deserves, according to her, to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is for its unique history.

“What is exceptional is that we have had continuous monastic life since the 5th century. It’s really unique on an island space, ”points out Maud Boissac. Archaeological discoveries have thus brought to light, on the site of the Saint-Sauveur chapel, an oratory dating from this period and a cell of one of the first ascetics to settle there. Today, twenty-one Cistercian monks still live in Lérins Abbey, built between the 11th and 19th centuries. They share the island, where they operate an 8 ha wine estate, with visitors arriving all year round by boat from the Old Port of Cannes.

Twenty-one monks now live on the island – L. Urman / Sipa

“This registration will allow us to register the protection of the abbey and the island in the long term, supports the mayor LR of Cannes, David Lisnard, at the origin of the candidacy. In this context, it is recommended that we draw up a management plan for the islands, which I had already launched independently of Unesco. It is particularly a question of the anchorage between the islands. » Each summer, the beauty of the archipelago attracts an influx of yachtsmen who could prove to be incompatible with a classification of Saint-Honorat. “The idea is to manage to reconcile the freedom of anchorage with the protection of marine spaces, so we will have to find a solution so that there is a numerus clausus in the tense period and a few anchorage systems that do not ‘don’t damage the funds,’ explains the elected official. A first restricted area was set up in 2020.

The candidacy relies on three assets of the island of Saint-Honorat

To integrate the UNESCO World Heritage List, properties must tick several boxes, “criteria” that prove their “outstanding universal value”. According to the city of Cannes, the island of Saint-Honorat respects three characteristics from a list of ten possibilities.

It would represent “a masterpiece of human creative genius” thanks to its tower-monastery, a fortified building built on shallow waters and connected to the island by an isthmus. “It is unique in the world because it hosts a complete monastic program, where the community lived, further indicates the director of cultural affairs for the city of Cannes. It wasn’t just a refuge they used in case of attacks. It has a double cloister, a dormitory, a chapel, a refectory and monastic cells. Built between the 11th and 15th centuries, it is currently undergoing restoration work which should be delivered in 2023.

There is the material but also the immaterial. The story. And, according to the town hall, the island of Saint-Honorat represents an “eminent example for humanity of the transformations of monasticism over 1,600 years of practice”. Finally, the place would offer “exceptional intellectual influence illustrating the history of monasticism from its origins to the present day”. It now remains to refine its arguments before France officially presents the candidacy. A priori therefore, within a few years.

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