Cluny Abbey

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Cluny Abbey (2020)
Coat of arms of the abbey

The Abbey of Cluny [ klyˈni ] in Burgundy was one of the most influential religious centers of the Middle Ages as the starting point for important monastery reforms. Her church was at times the largest church in Christianity. Several buildings of the Benedictine abbey and some remains of the abbey church, which was demolished as a quarry during Napoleon's reign, in the center of the French city ​​of Cluny of the same name have been preserved. As the first monument in France, the French state awarded the abbey the European Heritage Label in 2007 . In May 2005 the Council of Europe declared the virtual network of “Cluniac sites” to be a “ cultural path ”.


South arm of the long transept with towers, on the left the side aisle wall of the nave, secured with an emergency roof

Foundation: independence from worldly violence

Cluny was founded as a Benedictine monastery with a document dated September 11, 910 by Wilhelm I, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Mâcon . Duke Wilhelm renounced any power over the monastery and excluded any interference of secular or spiritual power in the internal affairs of the monastery ( exemption and immunity ). In particular, it was not used for economic purposes. The monastery itself was placed under the direct protection of the Pope. This was a novelty for the conditions of the 10th century. Wilhelm only appointed the first abbot Berno and then allowed the convent to freely elect an abbot . These two innovations, exemption and free election of abbot, contributed significantly to Cluny's development. Together with a strict interpretation of the Rule of Benedict , they made Cluny the starting point and focus of the Cluniac reform , in whose heyday around 1,200 monasteries with around 20,000 monks belonged to Cluny. One of the most important priories was in La Charité-sur-Loire . The strict order within the community was remarkable. On behalf of Abbot Hugo , Saint Ulrich von Zell wrote his work Constitutiones Cluniacenses between 1079 and 1086 , an important work in three volumes for the history of the Cluniac reform. Even today there is a lively discussion about the Cluniac movement that originated in the abbey.

Prayer and liturgy as the main task of the monks

The liturgy was in the foreground in Cluny and at its center the memento mori with the warning about the vanitas of the world. Over time, the choir prayer became more and more extensive. Every monk under Abbot Hugo prayed 215 psalms daily , compared to the 37 psalms provided by Benedict in his rule. Because of the extensive liturgical service, the manual labor was neglected by the monks, who brought conversations to the monastery. The monastery economy was not based essentially on the work of the conversers, but on the rent payments and taxes of the farmers who lived on the extensive estates of the monastery.

Remembrance of the dead played a central role in the liturgy . Abbot Odilo introduced All Souls Day as a general day of remembrance for all deceased , which was later introduced throughout the Catholic Church and is still celebrated today.

Relief for the poor

In addition to the liturgy, the idea of ​​caring for the poor was of particular importance for Cluny. From the beginning, the monks set up twelve, later eighteen permanent dwellings for the poor who lived permanently within the monastic community. In addition, the founding charter already states that "if the local possibilities allow, the works of mercy should be performed daily to the poor, needy, strangers who come along the way, and pilgrims with the greatest tension" "( quoted in Wollasch, p. 25; see references). Responsibility for caring for the poor "who came along the way" - according to contemporary sources, is said to have been large in number - was borne by the Elemosinar. The monk who held this office also had the task, together with his assistants, of visiting and helping those in need on a weekly tour of the Cluny settlement that surrounded the monastery. The symbolic high point of poor relief in Cluny was the ritual washing of the feet for the poor on Maundy Thursday : After a special mass, the “Mass of the Foreign Pilgrims”, the feet of the poor who were present were washed, dried and kissed by monks. They were then given food, wine, a kiss on the hand and enough money to get to the nearest monastery.

The liturgical remembrance of the dead, which is so important for Cluny, was also linked to an increasingly extensive relief for the poor: If one of the monks died, the food ration he was entitled to was given for 30 days and - which was much more important in the long term - every time the day of his death returned spent a poor. Since this annual alms-giving was to be unlimited in time and the number of deaths in the monastery was constantly increasing, this regulation led to extensive poor relief, which over time became a great burden for the monastery. In the middle of the 12th century, the names of 18,000 deceased are said to have been entered in the Cluniac books of the dead, for whom this form of commemoration was to be practiced. Since this could no longer be financed, Abbot Petrus Venerabilis reduced the corresponding expenses, but without abolishing them entirely.

Development of the monastery and its religious association


From 927 to 1156, Cluny was ruled by five influential abbots who were advisers to emperors , kings , princes and popes .

The first abbot, Berno von Baume , brought reform ideas with him from his previous monastery. The ideas of Benedict von Aniane (750–821) were thus taken up again. The focus was on returning to the monastic rules of St. Benedict and the struggle against the secularization of monastic life. The Cluniac Association was established under the founding Abbot Berno von Baume (919-27).

His successor Odo expanded the association. Either new priories were founded from Cluny or the community of an already existing abbey joined Cluny. Also, requests were made to Odo by noble monasteries to carry out reforms in their monasteries based on Cluny's example. In return, the nobles renounced their influence on these monasteries.

In the Cluniac Union there were four levels of incorporated monasteries:

  1. In priories the Abbot of Cluny was the direct superior. These priories were headed by a prior who had to swear allegiance to the abbot of Cluny;
  2. The next stage was that of incorporated abbeys. The abbeys of this level differed from priories in that they had their own abbot, who was subordinate to the Abbot of Cluny and had to make a pledge of allegiance to him;
  3. The third tier was that of the dependent, Cluny-controlled abbeys. As a rule, these were large abbeys with intact economic operations, which were previously subordinate to the Pope and which he handed over to Cluny for reforms, each defining the legal status of an abbey in Cluny. The abbot of Cluny, for example, appointed the abbot of such an abbey or played a major role in his appointment;
  4. The fourth level was that of the abbeys, which adopted the Cluny way of life but remained independent. The monastic discipline in the association was maintained by the control of the incorporated monasteries by the Abbot of Cluny.
The monastery of Cluny: entrance to the abbey (drawing probably 18th century)

Due to its splendor, Cluny was also very attractive to nobles , such as B. Margrave Hermann von Baden , so that the monastery received rich gifts from the wealthy. The abbey had enormous financial assets at that time. Despite the external splendor, emphasis was placed on strict asceticism in the heyday of the monastery . The abbot, for example, did not have his own apartment in the monastery area, as Benedict allowed in his Rule and was otherwise practiced, but lived with the monks.

After Abbot Petrus Venerabilis , during whose time the dispute with Bernhard von Clairvaux and the Cistercians also fell, Cluny's decline began in the middle of the 12th century. A phase of stagnation began in the expansion of the cluniac union. In addition, some of the association's monasteries showed tendencies towards independence. Cluny himself was increasingly struggling with economic problems.

From the middle of the 13th century, the abbey came under the influence of the French crown, and from 1515 the abbots were appointed by the French king, with which the abbey had lost its independence. The monastery association lost its international influence.

The abbey was devastated in the French Wars of Religion in 1562 and 1574. In the 17th century, the cardinals and French ministers Richelieu and Mazarin held the title of Abbot of Cluny (1635–1642 and 1642–1661, respectively). Cluny, like many other French monasteries, was ruled by so-called Commendatabbots , i.e. abbots who had received their dignity from the King of France as a reward without any real official duties , who used the income of the abbey for themselves and did not necessarily live in Cluny permanently. It is reported that Richelieu of all people tried - in vain - to unite the Order of Cluny with the Congregation of Saint-Maur , which opposed the Commendatarsystem.

In the same century, large parts of the Romanesque and Gothic convent buildings were demolished and replaced by new Baroque buildings.

Closure and extensive destruction

During the French Revolution the abbey was closed in 1790 and its archives burned in 1793. In 1798 the abbey church was sold to a trader and in 1801 it was used as a quarry, first for road construction and then for houses in the city. A state stud, the Haras national, was set up on parts of the abbey grounds under Napoleon in 1806 .

In 1862 the monastery buildings and the rest of the church were placed under monument protection.

Since 1862, the monastery buildings have housed a vocational college, which is now part of the elite Arts et Métiers ParisTech .

Abbey churches

South arm of the long transept

In the course of its history, Cluny had four abbey churches, with the successor being built next to its predecessor.

Cluny A.

When the monastery was founded, a small oratory was built in 910 , which was later converted into a Lady Chapel. Remains were found during excavations and suggest that it had similarities with the Carolingian church of St. Benedict in Mals in the South Tyrolean Vinschgau .

Cluny I.

No traces have been found of the first real abbey church, which was probably still small, as other monastery buildings were later built in its place. What is known is that it was consecrated in 926. However, during excavations north of the remains of Cluny II, an unusually large sacristy and an adjacent, unusually positioned tailoring workshop totaling 31 m in length were found, which together can be interpreted as the remains of this church.

Cluny II

The second real abbey church was built under Abbot Maiolus (French Mayeul) in the years 955 to 980 and stood south of its predecessor and successor in the area where the large cloister is today.

It was a three-aisled basilica with a crossing tower. As an innovation in western church architecture, a three-aisled choir with a basilical cross-section was inserted between the transept and the apse , the side aisles of which ended in chapels with an externally rectangular but internally rounded end. This choir was flanked by two further rooms. The three-church basilicas from the 6th to 10th centuries in distant Georgia are being considered as a model for this complex .

Cluny III

Planning and construction

The last abbey church was the world's largest Romanesque basilica and the largest church in Christendom until today 's St. Peter's Basilica was built in Rome . The builders and monks worked with an accuracy that was unusual for that time; the deviations of the individual components from the assumed plan amounted to a maximum of 10 cm. The decision to build it was made by Abbot Hugues de Semur (* 1024, Abbot since 1049, † 1109). The economic prosperity of the abbey was reinforced by the papal coinage privilege granted in 1058. The first stone was set in 1088, the main altar was consecrated in 1095. At that point in time, the apse and short transept should already have been completed, according to Kenneth John Conant , the most important researcher of the abbey church. As the work continued, the nave was as good as completed in 1120, but collapsed in 1125. During the reconstruction, the construction was reinforced with flying buttresses - until 1130, i.e. 10 years before flying buttresses became the typical building element of basilicas with the development of the Gothic style . In 1130 the choir, long transept and central nave were completed and Pope Innocent II consecrated the church.

In 1135 the construction of the spacious entrance hall ( narthex ) began. In the second half of the century, economic difficulties delayed the construction work, so that the church was not completed until 1230. Two Gothic chapels were added later, both of which have been preserved, one on the south arm of the long transept as a replacement for a Romanesque chapel and a late Gothic one added to the outside of the south arm of the short transept.

Floor plan and architectural features

The floor plan of the 187 meter long five-aisled basilica was in the form of a bishop's cross with two crossbars. The extraordinary length of the building was used for processions . Two transepts later received several Gothic cathedrals in England ( Exeter , Lincoln , Salisbury , Wells ). There the longer transept is located approximately in the middle of the building. The pointed arched barrel vaults of the central nave and transept were and are significant for the history of architecture . They became a model for several churches in a wide area, such as the Sacré-Cœur in Paray-le-Monial and the Cathedral of Autun . The main nave was 12.20 m wide and 30.48 m high, both slightly less than the Speyer Cathedral, which was built at the same time (14 m wide and 33 m high).


The church had seven towers (like the much smaller Limburg Cathedral today ):

  • a low square tower over the crossing of the short transept.
  • the largest square tower of the church over the main crossing.
  • two almost equally high octagonal towers over the middle yokes of the long transept arms. As preserved in the southern arm of the transept, its ceiling was a pointed barrel over the inner and outer yoke, but a dome with a central opening under the tower. The two-bay-long chapel extending from the central bay to the east is now Gothic in shape. The vault ribs typical of the Gothic are largely lost and can only be recognized as services that suddenly break off above the warriors . The octagonal towers crowned side four, so to speak.
  • a single flank tower on the southern arm of the transept.
  • a pair of square towers in the sense of a classic two-tower facade at the west end of the narthex.

Current condition

The following parts have been preserved above ground today:

  • The southern arm of the western, longer transept is closed off from the lost main crossing by a modern wall with two currently clad window openings. In addition to the central tower and flank tower (see below), it is equipped with three chapel extensions, two to the east and one to the west.
  • The southern arm of the eastern, shorter transept is incomplete and is open in the direction of the lost eastern crossing. A Romanesque apse and a Gothic chapel have been preserved on it.
  • Four pillar bases have been preserved from the nave , two of the south nave arcade and two between the aisles, plus the easternmost yoke of the outer south aisle. Part of the outer wall of the aisle has been preserved, the top of the wall is protected with an "emergency" roof.
  • The pillar bases of the southern arcade and parts of the southern outer wall have been preserved from the three-aisled narthex.
  • Remnants of the basement floors of the west towers were included in houses.

See also


  • Kenneth John Conant : Cluny. Les églises et la maison du chef d'ordre (= The Mediaeval Academy of America. Publication. Vol. 77, ISSN  0076-583X ). The Mediaeval Academy of America, Cambridge MA 1968.
  • Bonaventura Egger: History of the Cluniac monasteries in western Switzerland up to the appearance of the Cistercians (= Freiburg historical studies. Bd. 3, ZDB -ID 521894-9 ). University bookstore, Friborg (Switzerland) 1907 (also: Friborg (Switzerland), university, dissertation, 1905).
  • Kassius Hallinger: Gorze-Kluny. Studies on the monastic forms of life and opposites in the High Middle Ages (= Studia anselmiana. Vol. 22-25, ISSN  2036-8437 ). 2 volumes. Herder, Rome 1950–1951 (also: Würzburg, University, dissertation, 1948; new edition, reprinting increased by a foreword by Heinrich Schmidinger . Akademische Druck- und Verlags-Anstalt, Graz 1971).
  • Ernst Sackur: The Cluniacens in their ecclesiastical and general historical effectiveness until the middle of the 11th century. 2 volumes. Niemeyer, Halle / Saale 1892–1894.
  • Ernst Werner : The social foundations of the monastery reform in the 11th century. Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, Berlin 1953 (also: Leipzig, university, dissertation, 1952).
  • Joachim Wollasch : Cluny - "Light of the World". The rise and fall of the monastic community . Artemis and Winkler, Zurich et al. 1996, ISBN 3-7608-1129-9 .

Web links

Commons : Abbaye de Cluny  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  2. Le réseau des sites clunisiens, Grand itinéraire culturel du Conseil de l'Europe ( Memento of November 5, 2014 in the Internet Archive )
  3. Congregation de Saint-Maur

Coordinates: 46 ° 26 ′ 2.6 ″  N , 4 ° 39 ′ 33 ″  E