“Matters Greater in Themselves”

Partial view of the clerestory, former Cistercian abbey of Fossanova, twelfth century, Proverno

Partial view of the clerestory, former Cistercian abbey of Fossanova, twelfth century, Priverno

“But in the cloister under the eyes of the Brethren who read there, what profit is there in those ridiculous monsters, in that marvelous and deformed comeliness, in that comely deformity?” (Bernard of Clairvaux, Letter to William of St. Thierry)

In 1098 a group of Benedictine monks led by Robert, abbot of Molesmes, founded an abbey at Cîteaux, near Dijon, with the aim of living in greater monastic austerity. Fourteen years later, these monks were joined by Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and thirty-two of his companions, five of whom were his brothers. In 1115, Bernard left Cîteaux to establish a house at Clairvaux, where he instituted an even stricter interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict.

Bernard railed against the prevailing taste for extravagance in monastic architecture, as typified by houses of the Cluniac Order. He outlined his chief objections to ornament and imagery in the Apologia he wrote to his friend, William, abbot of St.-Thierry, around 1127. Questioning the true motives of those who clothe their monasteries in so much gold and precious stone, he maintains that monks, committed to living in isolation from the world, have no need of worldly things.

Bernard allows that bishops have an excuse for their immoderately large and lavish churches, as they are “unable to excite the devotion of carnal folk” solely through spiritual means. But for cloistered monks “who have left all the precious and beautiful things of the world for Christ’s sake” there can be no such justification. Already zealous of faith and learned in doctrine, they have no need for such worldly enticement. And so Bernard demands, “Whose devotion…do we monks intend to excite by these things? What profit, I say, do we expect therefrom?”

At the time that Bernard wrote, monastic establishments (Cluny, in particular) were often preoccupied with their feudal rights and the management of their vast estates and accumulated wealth. This was the involvement in temporal affairs that Bernard and the Cistercians rejected when they went out into the wilderness to build their monasteries. “To speak plainly,” Bernard asks, “doth the root of all this lie in covetousness, which is idolatry, and do we seek not profit, but a gift?” He alleges that it is the desire for riches that drives monks to embellish their monasteries, “for at the very sight of these costly yet marvelous vanities, men are more kindled to offer gifts than pray.” In the meantime, the Church neglects its poor: “the church clothes her stones in gold, and leaves her sons naked; the rich man’s eye is fed at the expense of the indigent.”

And for the brothers in the cloister who are desirous only of study and prayer, such follies have no benefit. On the contrary, there they offer only distraction: “In short so many and so marvelous are the divers shapes on every hand, that we are more tempted to read in the marble, than in our books, and to spend the whole day wondering at these things rather than in meditating the law of God.”

The excerpt of Bernard’s Apologia to William of St.-Thierry quoted above appears in Caecilia Davis Weyer, Early Medieval Art 300-1150 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003) pp. 169-171.

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