The anti-Cluniac movement

The anti-Cluniac movement

Interior of church, west front and choir from exterior

The anti-Cluniac movement under Bernard of Clairvaux

In the course of over two centuries the monastery community in Cluny had achieved great wealth and, with their third church, had clearly demonstrated their power to all the world. Inevitably this drew the attention of the critics. The most telling of them was Bernard of Clairvaux. He severely criticized Cluny for its opulence, the distractions caused by the numerous pictures, and the continual masses which kept the monks from their physical work.

Fontenay, ground plan of whole

Fontenay, ground plan of whole

Just as the Abbot of Cluny had once sought reform, so Bernard wanted to return to the original rules of St. Benedict. Ora et labora, prayer and physical work, and abstinence from all luxury, indeed from any decoration even of the church, were his credo. In Burgundy he founded four new monasteries, the first of which, CTteaux, gave the name to the new order of St. Benedict, the Cistercians. Only one of these four monasteries has retained its original appearance, Fontenay. Construction of this monastery church began after 1139. Decoration was entirely dispensed with. In deliberate contrast to Cluny, Bernard of Clairvaux returned to simplicity and work. However, that such simplicity need not deprive an interior of its impact is amply demonstrated by the church at Fontenay. Following the typical Cistercian ground plan, it consists of a nave and two aisles with eight bays, a projecting transept with two square chapels on the eastern wall of each arm and a somewhat deeper angular choir. Square piers with attached columns support the arcades of pointed arches. The wall above is smooth and undecorated and is separated from the pointed barrel vaulting by a simple cornice. The powerful transverse arches sit on semi-circular responds. Each arch of the aisle has barrel vaulting which is perpendicular to the axis of the nave. Each bay of the aisle opens out to the next through a low connecting arch. High windows on the exterior walls as well as the west wall are the only sources of light. The stone of the interior space truly embodies the Cistercian rules: a reduction of the building to its absolute essentials by rejecting vanity and striving for clarity, dignity and sobriety. It is only in the choir area that there is an altar with a few decorative items, including the graceful and charming Madonna of Fontenay.
The peaceful and equally empty cloister also belongs to the Romanesque style. Here also the impact rests exclusively on the use of few forms and a single material.

Interior of church, views of cloisters

Interior of church, views of cloisters