Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 18 July 2013


From Paray we travelled back in the direction of Ars to visit Cluny and the remains of the abbey. When we were planning this pilgrimage I put in a plea that we should visit Cluny, and I think that was fully justified, and appreciated by the other members of the group.

I have long wanted to visit Cluny, as the medieval priory in my home town of Pontefract was a Cluniac foundation and I was also fascinated by the thought of the great church at Cluny - Cluny III as historians refer to it - built in the late eleventh and early twelfth century, and until St Peter's in Rome was rebuilt in the sixteenth century, the largest church in Christendom. A seminal building in terms of Cluniac art and of the art of the western church nine tenths of it was destroyed in the years from the 1790s until 1821, and only in the twentieth century was it been excavated and conserved. Rebuilding it might be an act of reparation by the French for the impieties (to put it mildly) and vandalism of the revolution.

This then was a particular treat for me, but no amount of anticipation or reading prepared for the scale of what Cluny once was, or indeed of the scale of systematic destruction of so great a building. You realise the scale when you stand in the remians of the narthex and look at the jambs of the west door.


The west end of the abbey 
The stone buildings on either side are the bases of the western towers of the narthex
The lefy jamb of the west door can be seen, and in the middle distance the surviving south transept

Image: panoramio


The fourteenth century rebuilding of the palace of Pope Gelasius II, who died at Cluny in 1119
This is the entrance to the site. The remains of the south wall of the narthex are on the left.

Today it is administered and cared for by the state and done so very well, with an excellent guide book shop ( not as common in France as England), an excellent 3D introductory film, displays of surviving sculpture, the actual remains - essentially the south transept - and the eighteenth century rebuilding of the conventual buildings, and the remains of the medieval Chapter House, plus more sculpture and the slab of the high altar in one of the former granaries of the abbey. modern tecnology is skillfully used to evoke the vanished building.

Cluny itself has streets of fine medieval houses, but we did not have time to explore these, or the medieval parish church. The last museum display we visited concentrates on the sculpture recovered from the excavations and is housed in lodgings built by one of the later medieval abbots. 


The interior of the south transept

The  scale of what survives is an indicator not only of the sheer size of the building, but also of its beauty and the skills involved in creating it, and the marvellous inventiveness of the design and the delight in God's creation which the monks celebrated in prayer and liturgy, in art and music.

Cluny Abbey, Burgundy Region France

The transept from the south east 


I think we all felt we needed longer to appreciate the place, and I would certainly hope to return on another occasion, and allow more time. Whilst raiding the bookshop - the euros were finally burning their way out of my pocket - I was delighted to find in a book on Cluniac houses across Europe ( a theme that is emphasised at Cluny and through associations and websites ) a page, and indeed a photograph, on the site of the priory at Pontefract, complete with the a contact address of a friend there.


A card model of Cluny you can buy to make up at the abbey - or via the Internet.
I did not get one, although I was tempted, but maybe a way of whiling away the winter evenings....

Unfortuntely we did not have time to stop to look at the abbey's Chapelle des Moines at Berzé-la-Ville, a few miles away - I did spot the building from the road as we drove past - which has wonderful examples of wall paintings from the time of St Hugh the Great, for whom it was a retreat from the life of the abbey. Another reason for returning to the area another year. There are expandable pictures of the Berzé paintings here.

Back at Ars we were entertained after dinner by some of our fellow guests at La Providence. They are from Tahiti and arrived yesterday; with their French priest they are on an extended pilgrimage that includes Rome, Fatima and Lourdes as well as Ars. They are easily distinguished by their  tee-shirts in flourescent orange or green. The young men and boys gave us a haka, being in the same tradition as the New Zealand Maoris, and one of the women, complete with a wreath of flowers in her hair, performed a traditional dance. This was followed by two of the sisters from La providence performing a traditional Vietnamese dance. Fortunaely we were not called upon to give a traditional English dance - our Morris dancing is simply not up to it.

Afterwards we walked down towards to watch a Rosary procession of Roma gipsies from the Monument de la Rencentre to the Basilica. With them were the sisters and assistants from the shrine, carrying loud speakers on the shoulder holders usually reserved for statues, and also the Bishop of Bellay-Ars. Afterwards we walked up to the monument for a final visit.

So here we were with Tahitians and Roma, not to mention Vietnamese, Germans and Americans in the heart of France - a very real reminder of the universality of the Church and of the appeal of St Jaen-Marie.

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