Once a year les Clunisois are invited to see how the restoration work is getting on at Cluny Abbey. I’m never one to miss an opportunity of free entry to see the areas not yet open to the public. Each time I go a little bit more of the jigsaw of the history of Cluny Abbey falls into place.
The tower at Cluny Abbey
Cluny Abbey was founded in 910 by a handful of monks. As it grew in importance a larger abbey, Cluny II, was built alongside the first. In 1088 St Hugues de Semur initiated Cluny III, the Maior Eclesia, which took 40 years to build. The small town of Cluny grew up around the Abbey to accommodate the builders, artisans and their suppliers, whose medieval shops and houses can still be seen today.
The Maior Eclesia had five altars, four steeples, two towers and was the largest and most important building in Christendom until the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome. Under its control were 1,200 monasteries and 10,000 monks. Its organization included priories in Germany, England, Scotland and Spain.
Richlieu's doorway reinstalled.
Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII’s first minister, was one of the abbots. A legacy is the magnicent doorway which has just been reinstalled after lying in pieces for a hundred years.
Eventually the Catholic Church became so rich and influential that the King of France tried to erode its powers and the Revolution finally put an end to Cluny in 1791. The Abbey was sold to a building contractor who rapidly pulled it down to sell off the stone in the early 1800s. Many houses in Cluny are built of this stone, not least the Haras, built by Napoleon in 1850. Recently the wall between the Abbey and the Haras was taken down and bases of the pillars have been built on the original foundations to show where the Abbey used to stand.
Pillars built on the original foundations
Even the 5% of the building still standing gives an idea of the sheer scale of Cluny Abbey before its destruction more than two hundred years ago. The remains of the monastic buildings are now the college of Arts and Metiers.
Millions of euros were poured into restoration before the celebrations of Cluny 2010, the 1100th anniversary of the Abbey. Work continues and the change from year to year is astonishing. To be honest I’m not too keen on the modern stuff, bar the introduction of the virtual reality screens which are absolutely fascinating.
The five arches of the cloisters
This year attention has been on the small cloisters which are the remains of Cluny II. Excavations at one end have revealed a stone slab with supports under which the reliquary would have been kept. The original pillars and capitals of the cloisters have been revealed within the wall built later which cut the cloisters in half.
The pillars of the cloisters revealed
There is evidence of two tiers of seating for 180 monks. The old decorated floor tiles have also been revealed.
We skipped the visit to the grenier as time was getting on. The restoration of its impressive boat roof had been completed before last year’s tour and everyone was keen to get to see the monks’ bathroom. This had been used for many years as a storage cellar. The question is, how many monks could get washed in the two sinks? I am awaiting the transcript from the talk and I will let you know what was said. Unfortunately with loitering behind I missed it.
The bathroom before restoration
Restoration in progress
A visit to Cluny Abbey gives a glimpse of the incredible power and wealth of the medieval Christian church and the influence of the medieval church over the people of the area. It’s one of the most important historical sites in Burgundy, if not in France.