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The Monastic Church Of Cluny . . . Building On An Epic Scale For The Glory Of God

May 25, 2023 Frontpage No Comments


When Our Lord was transfigured on Mount Tabor, St. Peter was so enraptured by the divine glory of Christ that he was filled with a desire to build for his Master a fitting habitation: “Lord, it is good for us to be here: If thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles, one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias” (Matt. 17:4 — Vulgate/Douay-Rheims trans.).
Across the centuries, it has been the burning desire of the human heart enraptured with the love of God to raise up for the Creator a house of glory, a dwelling place for the Almighty to set His throne on Earth, a fitting temple with which to fill His praises from the lips of His grateful creatures. This desire to build on an epic scale for God got underway in earnest with the construction of the Constantinian basilicas in the fourth century.
By the early twelfth century, this longing to aim high architecturally for the greater glory of God had wrought the completion of what was to be for over four centuries the largest church in all Christendom, the third monastic church of Cluny, known as “Cluny III.”
In the French town of Cluny, a bell tower atop a short section of a transept and the lower stonework of two western towers are about all that remains of what was in its day one of the great architectural wonders of medieval Europe. The story of the vast abbey church that once stood there begins in AD 910 with the founding of the monastic community of Cluny by the French nobleman Duke William of Aquitaine, who donated his hunting grounds for the monastic site and entrusted the direction of the new Benedictine community to St. Berno, who served as Cluny’s first abbot. It was Berno who built the monks’ first church of their own, “Cluny I,” begun in 915 and completed in 927. The monastery of Cluny became the motherhouse of a network of monasteries that by the end of the eleventh century had spread across Europe to as far west as Spain and England.
Around 955, St. Maiolus (Mayeul), who became abbot of Cluny in 954, undertook to replace the monastery’s fairly small original church with one on a larger scale, one better suited to the liturgical functions of a growing monastic community, “Cluny II” (955- ca. 1040), with a total length of over 140 feet.
It was in 1088 that St. Hugh I of Cluny, the monastery’s sixth abbot, undertook the greatest building project in monastic history, the construction of “Cluny III,” an abbey church that when completed would attain a length of over 614 feet, with vaults rising 97 feet within a high nave of eleven bays and 121 feet within the central crossing, and seven towers, the tallest of which reached a height of 175 feet.
So what was it that motivated Hugh and his brother monks to raise up a monastic church that was four times the size of their previous church? It began with a dream, a dream that one of the monks in the infirmary, named Gunzo, recounted to the abbot, in which the Apostles Saints Peter and Paul and the deacon St. Stephen all appeared, instructing the infirm monk that they wanted a new and larger church to be built for Cluny according to the specific measurements and proportions that they showed to him in the dream. Gunzo was told to memorize what they were showing him and to convey their message to the abbot Hugh; as a proof of the dream’s supernatural origin, Gunzo was instantaneously cured of his illness.
Acting upon what Gunzo told him, Hugh envisioned having a church large enough to accommodate within its walls all the monks of every Cluniac house then in existence across Europe. This however was only a symbolic motivation, as there was no plan to put all these monastic communities under one roof. What Hugh was really seeking was to give the utmost glory to God both by the sheer grandeur of the church itself and by the greater splendor and decorum of the sacred liturgical rites that could be celebrated in this decidedly more cosmic setting. Hugh was aiming high, reaching for the stars, as it were, pursuing the seemingly “impossible dream” of raising up a house of God truly worthy of its Divine Occupant.
Five centuries after its completion, Cluny III was still able to awe its visitors, as attested by the seventeenth-century Benedictine historian Dom Jean Mabillon (1632-1707): “If you see its grandeur a hundred times, every time you are astounded” (quoted in Carolyn Carty, “The Role of Gunzo’s Dream in the Building of Cluny III,” Gesta, volume 27, nn. 1-2, 1988, p. 113).
Moreover, this house of God was to be a house of prayer to rival any other in Christendom, with an almost continuous cascade of sacred offices prayed by the monks throughout the day and night. A detailed picture of Cluny’s rich liturgical life can be drawn from two eleventh century customaries of Cluny, the Liber Tramitis, dating from about 1043, and the Ordo Cluniacensis of the monk Bernard, dating from about 1075. The latter tells of a huge triangular lamp stand fitted with 120 lamps that was lit for the greater solemnities, including Easter. The virtually ceaseless oblation of divine praises offered by the Cluniac monks constituted the very essence of their vocation in the Church, as the Benedictine writer on Cluny Dom Joseph Warrilow explains:
“. . . for the monks of Cluny the choral Office, the daily round of prayer and praise, was the core of their life. It was the most important though by no means the only occupation of their busy days. It was carried out seven times a day and once at night. It was not only the basis of their spiritual life and the source of their strength, but the raison d’etre and the inspiration… of their wide artistic achievement in many media” (Joseph Warrilow, “Cluny: Silentia Claustri,” in David Hugh Farmer, ed., Benedict’s Disciples, Leominster, England, Gracewing, 2002, pp. 128-129).
Cluny’s “artistic achievement” found expression not only in the vast enterprise of building Cluny III but also in the music with which the monks of Cluny offered their almost ceaseless supplications, as the writer Edwin Mullins observes:
“From the earliest days under Abbot Odo music was always considered at Cluny to be something sacred, a projection of a divine spirituality capable of reaching the souls of those who practiced it as well as those who listened – hence its importance in the daily liturgy” (Edwin Mullin, Cluny: In Search of God’s Lost Empire, New York, Blue Bridge, 2006, p. 125).
The stones of Cluny III were built upon the foundation of a traditional monastic spirituality most perfectly articulated by their second abbot, Saint Odo of Cluny (ca. 878-942). He saw the Cluniac way of life as a spiritual return to the innocence of the Garden of Eden and as an anticipation of life in Heaven, of the blessed peace and quiet of Heaven, a sharing in the life of the angels. Expanding upon what Saint Odo had to say about monastic silence as a foretaste of the silence of Heaven, the Benedictine monastic scholar Dom Kassius Hallinger observes:
“To keep silence is to remain in the presence of the Son of Man… In the Apocalypse the opening of the seventh seal ushers in a permanent state. A great silence reigns, the silence of every creature before the Son of Man” (Dom Kassius Hallinger, OSB, “The Spiritual Life of Cluny in the Early Days,” in Noreen Hunt, ed., Cluniac Monasticism in the Central Middle Ages, Hamden, CT, Archon Books, 1971, pp. 39-40).
It is worth noting here that this perception of the purpose and value of silence can be applied to the question of silence in the sacred liturgy. The times of sacred silence, found in both the Novus Ordo and the Traditional Latin forms of the Roman Rite, albeit to a considerably greater extent in the latter, summon the worshipper to keep himself spiritually and mentally “in the presence of the Son of Man.”
The very intense liturgical life of Cluny has often been criticized as excessively demanding, seemingly giving the monks little time for private prayer or anything else. But the monastic scholar Dom Jean Leclercq, OSB clarified this issue by noting that the only way to interpret the liturgical directions of Cluny in a logical and realistic manner is to see the monks as having taken turns in this continual daily rhythm of liturgical prayer (“Prayer at Cluny,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, volume 51, n. 4, December 1983, pp. 651-665).

The French Revolution

The French monastic historian Dom Mabillon whom we cited earlier could have scarcely imagined that little more than a century after he gazed with rapt wonder upon the majestic beauty of Cluny III, some of his own countrymen would undertake the hate-driven destruction of this awesome house of God. In October 1793 troops of the French Revolution’s rabidly anti-Catholic Jacobin regime were sent to Cluny to destroy whatever they could of the monastery and its church by means of fire and gun powder. The church edifice, however, was so massive and well-built that much of it withstood this initial assault.
But in 1798, the monastic grounds of Cluny, having been confiscated by the government, were sold to three rapacious opportunists, who spent the next two decades dismantling the church stone by stone to make a huge profit by selling the stones as building supplies. It was only after ninety percent of the great monastic church had been eviscerated in this manner that the French government acceded to protests against this criminal destruction and ordered the preservation of what was left — just one wing of Cluny III’s great transept with its southern tower, plus the bases of the church’s two western towers.
This physical annihilation of Cluny III did not succeed in annihilating the spiritual and cultural legacy of the abbey church. No enemy of the faith could destroy the many centuries of Masses and prayers that had been offered within its hallowed walls, nor the salutary influence it had exerted upon the architecture of other churches built in imitation of its beauty and grandeur.
Abbot Hugh’s “impossible dream” of building as glorious a house of God as he could and filling it with continual praises to the Almighty can serve to inspire us to do the same in our own everyday lives, to aim high by striving as best we can to direct all our daily words, thoughts, and actions to the greater glory of God.

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