Toward the end of the 11th century the monastery of Cluny in France had grown to become the most powerful and influential of all monastic houses or monasteries in Europe. Numerous Cluniac monastic houses had spread in every direction across the continent. There were perhaps 815 by 1109. However, originally dedicated to the ascetic life of poverty, prayer and work under the Rule of Saint Benedict, Cluny had gradually become entangled in secular affairs and had grown wealthy.1 Churches that the Cluniacs built for their newly established houses had become large with nave vaults reaching impressive heights. Tall towers graced the exterior of the churches while the interiors were elaborately decorated. The Liturgy (the Office or Liturgy of the Hours2), too, had gradually developed into a rich ceremonial, lengthened to the point where the monks were in church hours on end with little time to do much of anything else.
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Cluny III represented one type of monastic thinking, the idea that the worship of God required the most beautiful and magnificent building and liturgy that men could create.
In 1098 a group of about 20 monks left the Cluniac abbey of Molesme in order to found a monastery in which monastic life would be lived according to the original, stricter observance of the Rule of Saint Benedict.
The Cistercians3, as the successors of the original twenty monks came to be called, sought a life of real poverty, manual work, private prayer, reading and the study of scripture, simple communal worship, and the development of the personal virtues of humility and simplicity. They established their monasteries away from populated centers –“far from the commerce of men”.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux is the best known of the Cistercians and while most of the reforming ideas did not originate with him, the power of his personality and his clear articulation and implementation of the reforms stimulated the phenomenal growth of the Cistercians in the 12th century.
Bernard preached an observance of the Rule that minimized worldly distractions and stressed poverty. (“Men of poverty [monks], why is there gold in your sanctuary?”) All artistic imagery and decoration were strictly forbidden. Vestments were unadorned and made of simple material. The Liturgy of the Hours was pruned to its essentials. A simple wooden table served as the altar. Only simple chant was allowed.
Tall churches with towers were forbidden. Architectural expression was reduced to mere functionality and there were to be no colorful windows, only clear glass.4
Worldly things such as beautiful or imaginary art and elaborate decoration were viewed as distractions, impediments to union with God
However, it is important to note that Bernard made an important distinction between what monks should not have in a church and what the rest of Christians perhaps should have in their churches. The monastic restrictions on decoration and art were necessary, according to Bernard, for those who had chosen a life of letting go of worldly things. He noted that such deprivations were not for those whose vocations were lived out in the secular Church, in the world. Regular Christians needed art, decoration and rich ceremonies as an aid to getting closer to God. The monk must let go of the world entirely while other Christians must find their way engaged with the world. They are both valid ways but the monastic one, to Bernard, was ‘more perfect’. The more perfect way could not be for everyone, of course.
…what good are such things to poor men, to monks, to spiritual men? Perhaps the poet’s question could be answered with words from the prophet: “Lord, I have loved the beauty of your house, and the place where your glory dwells” (Ps. 26:8). I agree. Let us allow this to be done in churches because, even if it is harmful to the vain and greedy, it is not such to the simple and devout. But in cloisters, where the brothers are reading, what is the point of this ridiculous monstrosity, this shapely misshapenness, this misshapen shapeliness? What is the point of those unclean apes, fierce lions, monstrous centaurs, half-men, striped tigers, fighting soldiers and hunters blowing their horns? In one place you see many bodies under a single head, in another several heads on a single body. Here on a quadruped we see the tail of a serpent. Over there on a fish we see the head of a quadruped. There we find a beast that is horse up front and goat behind, here another that is horned animal in front and horse behind. In short, so many and so marvelous are the various shapes surrounding us that it is more pleasant to read the marble than the books, and to spend the whole day marveling over these things rather than meditating on the law of God. Good Lord! If we aren’t embarrassed by the silliness of it all, shouldn’t we at least be disgusted by the expense? —“Apology”
Protestants, later, would build churches that seemed to have been influenced by Bernard. Indeed, John Calvin much quoted Bernard on the subject of justification and sola fide, the central tenet of Martin Luther’s theology. Like Bernard, Protestants would place a considerable amount of emphasis on the private study of scripture and a more personal faith, less dependent on ritual and other intermediate practices.
The Protestant Reformers’ views of the physical and material world as totally corrupt and without merit in helping man achieve union with God eventually led to sterile and bare churches in some branches of Protestantism. Bernard had viewed the material world –for monks, anyway—in somewhat a similar way, as a distraction and impediment to the spiritual life and so his churches had also been bare and sterile.
Many Catholic liturgical specialists since the Second Vatican Council have also exhibited, at least to some extent, Bernard’s and the Protestant Reformers’ approach to church architecture and decoration. Renovations and new churches since Vatican II have practically banned imagery and decoration, both iconic and non-iconic, reducing the visual effect to a reliance on light and functionality alone. Even the ever present Catholic crucifix was, for a time, absent from chancels. Imagery, if it was allowed, was disguised as nearly unrecognizable abstractions. Many Catholic churches have come to look more like the stereotypical Protestant church than a traditional Catholic church
Bernard wrote that money spent on tall beautifully adorned churches should have been spent on the poor. That also became a theme of later Protestants who emphasized social justice. Initially, the debasement of churches was a reaction to the wealth displayed in Catholic churches brimming with large paintings and rich liturgical furnishings. The initial stripping of the churches, however, was more an indication of the disgust the Protestants had with the extravagant living style of the Church in Rome. We find a sense of similar disgust of traditional Catholic art and liturgy in the contemporary Catholic liturgists’ desire to impoverish the liturgy through the use of common earthly materials cheaply made, such as ceramic ‘chalices’ or cheap glass goblets. Homemade and non-professional art like felt banners have come to adorn Catholic churches in place of noble –and expensive– professional works of art.
Even Pope Francis seems on board with his expressed desire for a poor church.
So, there is some Catholic tradition behind the iconoclastic or impoverished approach to church architecture of the past 50 years. The tradition is mostly marginal, relegated to the monastic environment, but it is there.
1 Wealth accumulated at Cluny because of its entanglements with feudal rights and commerce in estates. Much of the entanglement was actually the result of the recruitment successes of houses like Cluny. Patrons donated money and land to successful houses, and wealth flowed-in with new recruits from the noble class.
2 The Liturgy of the Mass was controlled, in essentials, by the local bishop. The liturgy the Cistercians reformed was the Office (the Liturgy of the Hours) the seven times a day monastic ritual of praying the psalms and listening to scripture readings and excerpts from the writings of the Church Fathers and saints.
3 The name Citeaux comes from the name of the order’s first monastic house, Citeaux, and from the language spoken near the town where the monastery was located.
4 At the same time, just outside Paris, Abbot Suger was renovating the apse of his abbey church with a new style of architecture (Gothic) that stressed impressive heights and curtain walls of beautiful stained glass windows. Suger considered Bernard something of a threat to his vision of constructing churches in which the experience of beauty became an approach to God.