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The market town of Cluny in Burgundy has the remains of a once great abbey. However, even in its broken-down state the abbey is still immensely impressive and well worth a tour

Cluny AbbeyCluny Abbey (click for larger image)

The market town of Cluny has the remains of a once great abbey. However, even in its broken-down state the abbey is still immensely impressive and well worth a tour. The name Cluny is synonymous with the spiritualism of the Middle Ages. The Cluny order exercised a considerable influence on the religious, intellectual, political and artistic lives in the whole of the western world at that time. Guillaume d’Aquitaine founded the Benedictine abbey in 910. The abbey’s growth in both size and power was very rapid. In the 12th century there were about 460 monks in the abbey and Cluny controlled 2500 other abbeys throughout the western world.

The first church built on the site of the abbey was constructed in the Carolingian tradition. The second, built over the first in the 11th century was early Romanesque and the final church, Cluny III - built between 1085 and 1130, was a magnificent Romanesque basilica called the St Peter and St Paul Basilica. The church was 177m long, 32m high, it had 5 naves, 2 transepts, 7 towers of which 5 were bell towers and 301 windows. The complex around the church had 4 cloisters and numerous buildings to house the monks and all the other people necessary to maintain the order. St Peter and St Paul Basilica was the largest church is Christendom at that time and has since only be beaten in size by St Peter's Basilica in Rome, at 184m long, which was completed in 1626 some 500 years after Cluny III was finished. The Basilica and abbey buildings were built to impress and dominate. At the time of its building, Pope Urbain II said to the monks in Cluny “You are the light of the world”. Cluny was invincible and in charge.

However, the Cluny order was becoming too dominant, too important and too rich. There were many forces working against Cluny, most critics were after their power and wealth but others such as St Bernard of Clairvaux condemned the lifestyle of the monks. He in particular felt that the monks’ richness and luxurious lifestyle did not suit the spiritual life they were supposed to be living. It was this way of life that prompted him to found the Cistercian order, which promoted a return to an austere life of physical work, self sufficiency and contemplative spirituality. But it was not until the 14th century that Cluny’s influence really started to wane and the wars of Religion in the 16th century were the last blow for the church. Between 1793 and 1823 the abbey was sold off literally piece by piece, the stones that once were the great Basilica were used around town and elsewhere in the area as building materials and today all that remains of the Basilica are two towers and a little chapel. The large cloister and some of the other buildings did survive and are now used by the National Stud and the Grande Ecole ENSAM.

This year 2010, it is the 1100th anniversary of the foundation of this once great and influential abbey and this anniversary is being celebrated throughout Europe at various Clunisien sites and, most importantly of all, in Cluny itself. There are a large number of events throughout the year to mark this momentous occasion, culminating in September with the closure party, when people from around the world have been invited to take part in a weekend of events. During the weekend of 11th/12th September Cluny is expecting to be host to more than 20 thousand visitors and the abbey is to be “reconstructed” in holographic form where it once stood. An event definitely not to be missed.

This information was provided by Sue Nixon one of our property owners who has two gites near Cluny.