The town of Cluny in eastern France’s Burgundy region was important because of the Benedictine abbey jointly founded in 910 by Abbot St. Berno of Burgundy and William the Pious, Duke of Aquitaine. The third convent on the site, the great Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul known as Cluny III (mainly 1088–1130), was the largest church, monastic or otherwise, in the world until St. Peter’s, Rome, was completed in the seventeenth century. Cluny III was the high point of Romanesque architecture in France, and, heralding the Gothic, it emphasized the continuity of architecture. Its form and detail repudiate the idea of a succession of discrete styles, each somehow frozen in time.
The reformist Benedictine community that originally occupied a Gallo-Roman villa in Cluny eventually developed an innovative system of centralized ecclesiastical government: by the fourteenth century the abbey controlled over 1,450 Cluniac foundations or priories from England to Poland to Palestine, which together could boast a complement of over 10,000 monks. After the pope himself, Cluny’s abbots were the most powerful clerics in the Roman Catholic Church and were at the epicenter of religious influence in Europe.
Two earlier abbey churches—the first, dedicated in 927, was succeeded by a larger building in 955–981—were replaced at the end of the eleventh century by Cluny III, which commenced soon after the other monastery buildings had been rebuilt (1077– 1085). The new church was over 440 feet (136 meters) long; the narthex and towers added in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries brought the total length to 600 feet (180 meters). The barrel-vaulted ceiling, especially acoustically suited to the Cluniac uninterrupted sung liturgy, soared 98 feet (30 meters) above the floor. There were double transepts and double aisles to both the nave and choir; the chevet end had five chapels. The ceiling of the crossing under a central tower was 119 feet (36 meters) high. Yet Cluny III was remarkable not just for its size.
Its form, emerging over more than a century, demonstrated the perpetual development of Western
religious architecture. Since about 1000, the itinerant mason-architects of Europe had addressed their ecclesiastical clients’ demands for stone-ceiling churches (perhaps prompted by fear of fire), dealing with the major structural problems that entailed. The need to manage the huge loads and thrusts involved had led (although not all at once) to a number of architectural and engineering innovations. Cluny III, a mature expression of the new form, incorporated them all, masterfully blending liturgical and structural necessities—the two towers at the west end to provide longitudinal stiffening; vaulted aisles to brace the walls of the nave against the thrust of the stone vaults; massive side walls reinforced with even thicker buttresses, employed for a similar reason; small windows, creating the appearance of what someone called “the fortresses of God”; and a complex east end, where apsidal chapels with hemidomes completed the lucidly articulated building, which showed exactly how the vast weight of the superstructure was gently coaxed down to the supporting earth.
At the same time, Cluny III had many features that foreshadowed what would be commonplace just a few decades later: piers disguised as clusters of narrow columns, elegantly tall proportions, pointed arches (a lesson from Islam), and sophisticated vault construction. It also had beautifully carved decorations, giving a glimpse of the reemergence of naturalism. Some sources claim that here were to be found some of the first medieval sculptural allegories (dating from 1095) and the prototype for many carved and painted west portals (dating from 1109 to 1115).Cluny III influenced a few great buildings (for example, Paray-le-Monial, La Charité-sur-Loire, and Autun Cathedral). But clergymen are notoriously conservative, and the impact of its avant-garde architecture was therefore limited. Indeed, the design was attacked in a Cistercian polemic even before the work was completed. Pope Urban II, who had been a novice and later prior at Cluny, consecrated the high altar of the unfinished church on 25 October 1095.
He announced that its community had reached “so high a stage of honor and religion that without doubt Cluny surpassed all other monasteries, even the most ancient.”
The abbey and the town both suffered in the religious wars of the sixteenth century. Early in the French Revolution the abbey was suppressed and then closed in 1790. Most of the basilica was demolished a few years later, and only ruins of the main southern transept and bell tower hint at what was once the greatest church in Christendom.