Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

“Poor men, why is there gold in your sanctuary?”

August 4th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie

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.

(Click on pictures to view larger images)


Monastery Church of SS Peter & Paul (Cluny III). View of Abbey from East.
Detail from a 1773 drawing by J.B. Lallemand, 1089-1132, Cluny, France

335-183 2

Monastery Church of SS Peter & Paul (Cluny III). Interior View of the Great Nave,
drawing by T.C. Bannister

img_2045 3

Nothing much remains of Cluny III but the priory church of Paray-le-Monial (Saone-et-Loire), first half of the 12th century is a good copy. We can see a painting in the vault of the apse and an abundance of architectural detailing.

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

dsc04864 2

Fontenay Abbey Church, begun in 1139, is probably the most characteristic of Cistercian churches to survive. It incorporates all of Saint Bernard’s ideas.The building does not have great height and the only tower allowed is a small bell tower. Photo by Amy Lou:

dsc_2530 2

The interior of Fontenay Abbey Church looking toward the chancel. Unlike most Cluniac churches the vault of the chancel is lower than the rest of the church and there is no imagery or decoration. Photo by Becky Dave:

640px-Eberbach_Abteikirche_nach_Westen 2

While austerity is the first visual impression of a typical Cistercian church there is also a profound beauty conveyed in the rhythmic pattern established by transverse arches over the nave and pilasters on the walls and the pattern of arcades separating the nave from the side aisles. The groin vaults in this particular church introduces a decorative element that results from the use of a purely structural form. Light and shadow create a sense of purity and seriousness. Eberbach (Hesse) Abbey Church, ca. 1170-86 By Moguntiner Created: 2005:04:03 13:31:11

Worldly things such as beautiful or imaginary art and elaborate decoration were viewed as distractions, impediments to union with God

lo15 2

Fantastic Animals, capital sculpture in the narthex. Loches Church of Saint Ours, 12th Century, Romanesque Period, (Indre et Loire), Touraine, France.
William J. Smither

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.

mb church 6 2

Grant Mennonite Brethren Church, Paxton, Nebraska.

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

IMG_6684 2

Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd, Henrietta, NY

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.

protestantorcatholic 2

St. Paul Catholic Church, Webster, NY. From the parish’s website: “We chose the image of ‘a people of God on a journey,’ and constructed a church which in its simplicity, reflected our desire to spend our money on those with greater needs.”

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.

Tags: , ,


9 Responses to ““Poor men, why is there gold in your sanctuary?””

  1. JLo says:

    The beautiful, graceful, regal and elegant do not necessarily have to cost a fortune… there are works of art NOT rendered by the Masters that are beautiful and make your mind and heart soar.

    We can get poor, plain and shabby in many places; but in the place where we attend The Sacrifice, we should have our humanly limited minds and hearts elevated. Beauty assists in that; at least it does for me.

    As to using such funds instead for the needy, I believe worship is our primary reason for going to our churches and all else, all the good we do as community, are outgrowths of our worship and devotion to God. First things first…. make our church interiors beautiful, firstly for The Lord, but also to help ourselves to place ourselves in His presence.


  2. Ben Anderson says:

    good post, Bernie. I tend to think the lack of beauty in our local churches has more to do with a distaste for tradition and an allegiance to the revolution. The distaste for tradition isn’t merely in regards to art, but all across the board – doctrine, music, liturgy, morals, etc.

    Just take a look at new stained glass at SJR in Perinton:
    That isn’t beautiful and I’m sure that wasn’t cheap.

    This is also confirmed by seeing pictures of churches before they were wreckovated. The investment to make it beautiful was already made. Sure, there’s some upkeep to keep things beautiful, but I doubt it cost more than wreckovating and putting in all the sound systems, etc, that we have now.

    This topic reminds me of John Zmirak’s excellent essay from a few years back:
    All Your Church Are Belong to Us

    Here’s what we Trads have realized, that the merely orthodox haven’t: Inessential things have power, which is why we bother with them in the first place. In every revolution, the first thing you change is the flag. Once that has been replaced, in the public mind all bets are off — which is why the Commies and Nazis filled every available space with their Satanic banners. Imagine, for a moment, that a newly elected president replaced the Stars and Stripes with the Confederate battle flag. Or that he replaced our 50 stars with the flag of Mexico. Let’s say he got away with doing this, and wasn’t carried off by the Secret Service to an “undisclosed location.” What would that signify for his administration? If people accepted the change, what else would they be likely to accept?

  3. gaudium says:

    A couple of comments:

    I went to a funeral at St. Paul’s. Everyone was walking around like they were in a gymnasium. The new widower was just standing by himself in a bit of a daze.

    The comments in the picture, “and constructed a church which in its simplicity, reflected our desire to spend our money on those with greater needs,” is so sickening. How horribly dishonest. If they wanted to spend their money on those with greater needs, then why did they renovate? Why not just patch any broken plaster and paint the walls? I’m sure that the renovation cost quite a bit more than not renovating would have.

  4. emmagrays says:

    Ben, I thought I was the only one who disliked the new stained glass at SJR. I’ve not heard many comments. Perhaps ascribing to the “If-you-can’t-say-something-nice…” school of thought.

    If the aim of the renovations is to make the Sanctuary seem more Protestant, they have succeeded.

    The only church I’ve been in since I moved here last December that really felt “Catholic” is St. Stan’s. The Latin Mass there brings forth warm memories from my childhood.

  5. Bernie says:

    🙂 Much money has been spent on wreckovating in order to look ‘poor’.

  6. Bernie says:

    Can new Catholic churches be both “poor” and beautiful? How might such new churches look? Are there at least minimum requirements for beauty that even a “poor” new Catholic church should meet? Or, is Beauty irrelevant?

  7. christian says:

    There is beauty in structure as well as in paintings, stained glass windows, sculptures, flourishes, etc. One thing I have seen in some churches around Rochester is the wreckovation of the sanctuary of older churches, which I consider a travesty. There are ways to make a sanctuary more handicap accessible without taking out the high altar and canopy or obstructing a high altar and canopy. To me, the sanctuary should be a focal point to the celebration of the Holy Mass and our hearts and minds should be elevated to God by prayer and also by artistic structure to signify the Divine which is taking place at the altar in the sanctuary.
    I was taken up with one example of due reverence of the altar area of a newer church in Oneida County. The altar area was elevated in the sanctuary.There was large rustic, yet artistic wooden canopy with pillars over the altar facing the people. The thick wooden pillars had appropriate carving and there was a thick wooden roof with appropriate trim. The large wooden canopy directly over the altar had a rich hue of darker wood. I thought the canopy was with keeping with old and new testament traditions. It certainly helped with my worship.
    I wondered why newer churches in the Rochester area couldn’t come up with a design like that. If I pass and attend that church again, I will take photos and send them to the staff of Cleansing Fire.

  8. christian says:

    What I failed to mention about the altar area in the sanctuary of this newer church in Oneida County was – The altar facing the people was permanent and made of a rustic, yet artistic style with appropriate wood carving, and had a rich hue of darker wood. The altar and canopy matched and flowed together on the elevated platform of the sanctuary. It was one artistic and reverent statement of liturgical beauty and appropriateness.

  9. snowshoes says:


    I vote for the Fontenay Abbey style. High altar which can be used for either Form. Simple and beautiful and most importantly, acoustically correct. Stone, masonry and glass are the best materials for good acoustics. So with appropriate stained glass windows, and frescoes, and statues, of course.

    Can’t skimp on the organ, so the money saved by NOT putting in a “sound system” can be put toward hiring a world-class organ builder to build the organ. Only the priest can have a mike for saying Mass and the lector for proclaiming the readings. The cantor, if there ever is a need for one, doesn’t need a mike, and more precisely, is forbidden to use a mike. And he will sing from the choir loft in the back of the church. No amplified instruments or recorded music either. The people sing. What a concept… The idea of building “poor” comes from Judas, let’s drop that concept, okay? No more Cathars! Deus providebat. St. Dominic, pray for us.

Leave a Reply

Log in | Register

You must be logged in to post a comment.

-Return to main page-