How France's Cluny abbey shone before its downfall

Do you know the story behind this majestic abbey's decadence and subsequent demise?

Cluny Abbey in France
The octagonal tower of l’Eau-Bénite at the abbey of Cluny

For around 400 years the abbey and monastery of Cluny in Saône-et-Loire was a city, and power hub of the Christian church with riches to match. 

This ecclesiastical powerhouse was almost razed to the ground during the Revolutionary period, but visitors today can still enjoy a glimpse of its former glory. 

Storied beginnings

The Benedictine abbey was founded in 910 by Guillaume d’Aquitaine and quickly grew into a large and influential monastic centre. 

Even from its earliest days the abbey was a hotbed for ambitious career clerics; its prior Odo of Châtillon went on to become Pope Urban II in 1088. 

The monastery flourished partly due to the support of the papacy, and as a result extended its influence across the continent. 

The first nuns were admitted to the Order in the eleventh century, and by the end of the thirteenth century, there were nearly a thousand Cluniac monasteries across Europe. 

During this period, the abbots of Cluny were leaders on the international stage and the mother church was considered the grandest, most prestigious, and best-endowed monastery in Christendom. 

The mother church not only produced influential leaders, but was a centre for innovation. Cluny abbey was, for example, the first place where abbots were elected via secret ballots. 

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Innovation all around

The abbey possessed one of the richest libraries in Europe, with many precious works, including one of the earliest translations into Latin of the Quran, by the twelfth-century English astronomer and priest, Robert of Ketton. 

Abbot Odilon (994-1048), for example, was the first to establish the practice of saying masses for the eternal rest of all souls at Toussaint. 

All Soul’s Day is still part of the Christian calendar and of contemporary culture in France, where countless chrysanthemums placed in cemeteries across the country at Toussaint act as a visual reminder to commemorate the dead. 

After Odilon came the equally energetic Hugues de Semur, abbot from 1049. Hugues was responsible for building the Maior ecclesia, a new and larger church than the founding edifice. 

He wanted to build high enough to reach God, and in eleventh-century terms, he came close. 

The 30m-high vaults made the Maior ecclesia the largest church in Christendom right up until the sixteenth century. 

But behind every ambitious medieval building project there has to be an enticing origin story. 

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A dream before decadence

The vast abbey in this case came about because of an old and infirm monk called Gunzo who dreamed that Saint Peter himself instructed him to go to Abbot Hugh and rebuild the church larger than the old one “to give a worthy welcome to the ever-growing community.” 

Saint Peter told Gunzo that he would supply everything needed for the project, and that Gunzo would live for a further seven years if the church was built. 

If, however, the abbot delayed plans, he would be afflicted with the same decrepitude as Gunzo. 

In the dream the saint showed Gunzo how to build the church, and Gunzo saw himself marking out the space of the church with ropes. 

The magnificence of the new church and its growing empire did not go unnoticed. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the dynamic reformer of the Benedictine Order and fervent ascetic, was quick to point out the material wealth and luxury living standards of the monks who passed through its doors. 

He denounced its leaders, whom he said “cannot go four leagues from their house without bringing sixty horses with them” and for whom “light only shines in a gold or silver candelabra”. 

Decadence would be the abbey’s downfall, but not until the ravages of the Wars of Religion in the sixteenth century. 

During this period the abbey was pillaged and many of its most precious objects were destroyed. 

In 1791 the abbey closed and its contents were plundered. 

The order was given in September 1793 to demolish the tombs and sell the stone. 

The buildings were then sold in 1798 to a property dealer from Mâcon who systematically dismantled the nave. 

By 1823, only the elements still visible today remained standing. 

Although a shadow of its former glory, the abbaye de Cluny still has much to offer visitors. 

The extant parts, including the transept and octagonal bell tower, give a clear indication of the church’s original scale and magnificence, and there is plenty of sculpture to admire in its chapels.