The only well preserved remnants of the abbey church of Cluny III ( Cluny, Saône-et-Loire, France): a transept and its tower, called “of the Holy Water”. This is all that remains from the Cluny abbey, at its time the biggest abbey complex in all the West, later destroyed during the French Revolution.

The reform of the Order of Saint Benedict carried out by the French monks of the Abbey of Cluny had important artistic consequences. Until then all the existing Benedictine abbeys had no more in common than the precepts of their founder; there was no general common authority for the whole Order. Over time the Benedictine monasteries, reformed by Charlemagne’s initiative, had relapsed in disorder and immoralities; as a consequence, within the Order itself slowly developed a sentiment aimed to restored the ancient Benedictine spirit and piety long lost. The final reform started in Cluny, a Benedictine monastery in Burgundy (France) founded in the early tenth century. Its initial idea was to end the disintegration and independence of the different Benedictine abbeys. Initially, this reform was not meant to be universal, since only wanted to group the Order’s monasteries under a minimum hierarchy in order to maintain discipline. But it was only through the work of St. Odo and St. Majolus, the second abbots of Cluny, that the Order of St. Benedict acquired new splendor.

Under these circumstances, Cluny can be considered as a new Montecassino because it can be said that under its rule the Benedictine Order was reborn. Cluny was fortunate to have had a series of truly eminent abbots. The second abbot, Odo (927-942) promoted the aggregation of the Benedictine monasteries around a principal one. The Cluniac organization quickly spread as Cluny also founded subsidiary abbeys (which were in turn new religious centers around which smaller Benedictine houses were aggregated), and as kings and nobles greatly facilitated the implementation of the new reform by offering the Benedictine houses of their own states.

Remains of the nave of the once vast monastery church of the Cluny Abbey.
Reconstruction of the abbey church of Cluny III.

So it is not surprising that the rebuilding of the church of the abbey of Cluny, thanks to the unlimited resources available for the Order, resulted in the construction of what became the greatest Western church of all Christendom, even greater than the basilicas of the Apostles in Rome. The early small church of Duke William, built under Abbot Berno, had already been replaced by the so-called Cluny II (built between 955 and 1000), which was in turn destroyed to build Cluny III following a colossal design begun in 1088. This temple had a long narthex with three naves so vast inside that could hold a great church; after passing a door decorated with countless sculptures there were the five naves of the basilica also with two transepts, each with several apses or chapels, and a large choir at the far end including apsidioles and ambulatory. Over the posterior transept was a fine octagonal lantern tower, and on the anterior transept close to the sanctuary, was the so called Tower of the Lamps. On each side of the narthex’ door were two large square bell towers with their arrows, one for the archives and the other for the Abbey’s prison or confinement place. The immense central nave was covered with a barrel vault, while the lateral naves were so with groin vaults. Little is known about the sculptures adorning the main door and that represented the Lord in Majesty in the act of blessing within an almond-shape halo and accompanied by angels and the four Evangelists. It seems that this gigantic temple was completely finished when it was consecrated on December 15, 1097, nine years after the first stone was laid. Beside the church was the cloister surrounded by the refectory*, kitchen, warehouses, libraries, and two houses for the abbots located outside the core of the monastery.

Reconstruction of the complex of the Cluny Abbey.

All of the monastery’s buildings, as well as its orchards and gardens, were enclosed inside a big wall, and another fortified wall also surrounded the small town of Cluny stretching on a slope of a nearby hill. Cluny remained intact until the French Revolution, but today nothing remains from the great church and the monastery, except for a portion of one of the transepts and one tower. In these few preserved remains there are already pointed or ogival arches*, and the capitals of the apse show a style saturated with an aesthetic intellectualism characteristic of the Cluniac monks.

The Vézelay Abbey church, (Vézelay, Yonne department, northern Burgundy, France). The Benedictine abbey church is now known as the Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine (Saint Mary Magdalene) and includes a complicated cycle of imagery in its sculpted capitals and portals in a whole considered as one of the outstanding masterpieces of Burgundian Romanesque art and architecture.

If from this colossal cluster of buildings belonging to Cluny abbey there are no more than ruined relics, the contrary can be said about the almost intact remains of one of its subsidiary abbeys: Vézelay, also in Burgundy, with its great church provided with a spacious atrium and an apse with ambulatory, which represented in a smaller scale a reduced copy of what should have been the great mother church of the Cluny abbey.

The abbey of Vézelay was famous because housed the remains of St. Magdalene and as a consequence was an important place of international pilgrimage. This church only has three naves, but the decorative richness of capitals and imposts is the same exhibited in all other Cluniac constructions. The starts of the vaults are decorated with beautiful strips of intertwined vine stems, and the capitals show multiple biblical or symbolic scenes between whimsical spirals of vine or ivy stems all stylized. The monuments of the Order of Cluny have this fantastic multitude of tiny animals: birds, centaurs and lions, prophets and singers, all tangled between spirals of plant decoration. The decorative style of ornamental friezes, with tiny sculptures, full of birds, men and animals between curled vine leaves, was applied not only to architecture but also to small luxury items, furniture and pieces of jewelry. This decorative style spread from France throughout Europe in such profusion that it was not surprising that soon began a strong reaction against it and in favor of the traditional humility initially associated with the Benedictine Order.

A view of the main nave, Vézelay Abbey.
Central panel of one of the nave’s historiated capitals of Vezélay abbey representing Lust and Despair: here, the Despair is portrayed as an open-mouthed demon with burning hair, while plunging a sword into his own stomach.
Right side panel of one of the nave’s historiated capitals of Vezélay abbey representing Lust and Despair: here is portrayed the punishment of lust, a nude woman being bitten by serpents.











One of the nave’s historiated capitals of Vezélay abbey: a basilisk, at left, faces two grotesque creatures on the other side of the capital. The basilisk is a fabulous creature with the head and wings of a rooster and the body of a serpent. At right, a humanoid figure stands behind a grasshopper-like creature. The human-like figure has a round head and holds a vase-like object with both hands. The creature below him has scales like a fish, wings, lion-like feet, a mustache and horns.

The Cluniac reform was aimed with the major desire to achieve greater discipline, establishing a hierarchy among formerly independent monasteries, but this centralized regime triggered the excessive enrichment of the Order which led to another sin: pride, and another immorality: the abuse of power. This was a second relapse forcing a new reform. This reform took place in the monastery of Cîteaux (Latin: Cistercium), also in Burgundy, on the initiative of St. Bernard, the spiritual brother of Peter the Hermit preacher of the First Crusade. The Cistercian Order was not, like Cluny, a completely new type of religious doctrine: in early eleventh century three monks from the monastery of Molesme led by the Abbot Robert of Molesme, who vainly had tried to reform their own abbey, left for Lyon and once there, with four other monks, asked the bishop to grant them a secluded place where they could practice the rule of St. Benedict in all its rigor. The permission was granted and joined by another 21 monks, they settled in the desert wilderness of Cîteaux, in the diocese of Châlons. The Cistercian monks were to live solely on manual labor and to avoid reaching the excessive richness of Cluniac monasteries, they refused on every occasion the few donations they were offered.


Refectory: (from the Latin reficere or refectorium meaning “a place one goes to be restored”). A space destined as a dining room in a monastery.



Pointed or Ogival Arch: An arch with a narrow and pointed apex like the head of a spear. It is the arch characteristic of Gothic architecture and one of the defining characteristics of the Gothic style. Pointed arches were used in the Near East in pre-Islamic as well as Islamic architecture before they were employed structurally in medieval architecture.



Ogive(s): In Gothic architecture, ogives are the intersecting transverse ribs of arches that establish the surface of a Gothic vault.