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History of the Abbey of Cluny

Grand cloître de l'abbaye de Cluny

Discover the vestiges of a spiritual center, seat of the greatest medieval monastic order of the West!


Through the influence of its order, Cluny Abbey can be considered the greatest monastery of its time. Founded in the 10th century, the order of Cluny restored the rule of Saint Benedict, benefited from the protection of the papacy and extended its influence across Europe to the point that nearly a thousand establishments were attributed to it at the end of the 13th century. . The Cluny site, greatly destroyed in the 18th century, is now a fascinating site for visits and archaeological research.

The origins of Cluny

The Carolingian villa

More than 1000 years ago and in a context of decline and invasions of the kingdom of the Franks, Guillaume known as "the Pious", duke of Aquitaine and count of Mâcon, donated a Carolingian villa   to build an abbey under the protection of saint Peter and saint Paul.

Undoubtedly wishing to ensure eternal salvation for himself and his family, he founded a monastery there, by charter of September 11, 910, which was supposed to return to the rigorous values of the Carolingian era.

Indeed, the text specifies that the monks will live under the rule of saint Benedict. It is presented in the form of a small book divided into 73 chapters which gives rhythm to the monastic life, allowing the good functioning of the community.

Originally, this villa installed near the river Grosne, was ordered like a villa of Antiquity. It included a small chapel, vineyards, orchards, meadows, woods, mills, and even a pond.

The Cluny estate is therefore much older than one might think, since it existed long before the abbey was even founded!

Villa carolingienne
La villa carolingienne

© On Situ / Centre des monuments nationaux

The foundation of the monastery

William the Pious chose the first abbot for the abbey of Cluny: the abbot was Bernon (910-926). He thus placed the abbey directly under the authority of the pope and thanks to the many resources linked to this donation, he promised the Cluniac monks a bright future!

The monks will have the power and freedom to choose as abbot a religious of their order according to the will of God without any opposition being able to prevent this election. 

The choice of Abbot Bernon to lead Cluny was not insignificant. Indeed, his past experience was to contribute to the success of the project of a monastic ideal. A former Benedictine monk, Bernon was already at the head of the abbeys of Gigny and Baume-les-Messieurs, in the Jura.

The gamble paid off because the Cluniac network quickly spread beyond the domain. We witnessed a development of the dependencies and priories. 

Abbaye de Cluny vers 1100
L'abbaye de Cluny, vers 1100

© On Situ / Centre des monuments nationaux

The great Abbey of Cluny

The apogee of the greatest monastic order in the West (12th century)

Later, the abbot Odon (878-942), thanks to his friendly relations with the royal house of Burgundy and with the empire, made Cluny a pole of diffusion of this ideal. The privileges continue because in 931, Pope John XI grants Cluny the privilege of taking charge of any other monastery.

From then on, the rise of Cluny begins. The abbots of Cluny are called to reform monasteries all over Europe and the abbey receives more than 80 donations in its surroundings!

Abbot Odilon (994-1048) continued the policy of expansion and reform of the previous abbots. Cluny became a model for many monasteries. He marked the history of Cluny by establishing the date of November 2 as the day when all priests celebrate masses in private for the repose of all souls. This feast of the dead is still part of the calendar and has made Cluny a significant place for the cult of the dead!

Croquis de la nef de l'abbaye
Croquis de la nef de la Maior ecclesia

© Centre des monuments nationaux

The construction of the Maior ecclesia

In 1049, Abbot Hugues de Semur succeeded Abbot Odilon for sixty-year term. Like his charismatic predecessors, the abbot put all his energy and determination into promoting the great Burgundian church.

In 1088, he planned the construction of a new and ever larger abbey church that would represent the power of God on earth, but also the power of Cluny. The pope's church, St. Peter's in Rome, was the model to imitate and even surpass! This will be done because until the 16th century, that is to say during nearly 400 years, this Maior ecclesia whose vaults   The vaults of the Maior ecclesia, with their 30-meter high ceilings, were the largest church in Western Christendom.

Nothing is too good for Cluny, the abbot will gather the best teams of workers, sculptors and painters to work on this masterpiece of Romanesque art  .

Did you know that?

The first Romanesque style appeared around the beginning of the 10th century and the second around the 11th century.

Romanesque buildings are marked on the inside by massive and very austere architectural elements, by small openings and closed arcades. The Romanesque sculptures evoke numerous biblical scenes, most often on the capitals of the pillars and the tympanums of the church portals.

Dessin de l'abbaye de Cluny au XIIe siècle d'après une hypothèse de restitution de K.J Conant
Dessin de l'abbaye de Cluny au XIIe siècle d'après une hypothèse de restitution de K.J Conant

© Centre des monuments nationaux

How was this gigantic project born?

The project of the Maioro ecclesia would have been revealed by saint Peter to a monk named Gunzo. The holy apostle appeared in a dream to the monk, who was old and ill, and asked him to go to Abbot Hugh and ask him to rebuild a larger church to "give a worthy welcome to the ever-growing community".

Saint Peter would have specified that he would provide everything necessary for this work and that Gunzo would gain seven years of life to accomplish his task. However, if the abbot delayed in obeying, he would be afflicted with the same evils as his messenger. St. Peter also showed him how to build the church, and Gunzo saw himself in a dream stretching ropes and marking out the space in length and width.

Consécration de l’autel majeur de Cluny III par le pape Urbain II le 25 octobre 1095
Consécration de l’autel majeur de Cluny III par le pape Urbain II le 25 octobre 1095

© BNF, Mss, ms. Lat 17716 fol.91

The last great moments

Jean de Bourbon, the last great abbot!

After a troubled period, the abbatiate of Jean de Bourbon (1456-1485), bishop of Puy-en-Velay, corresponds to the last great moments of the history of the abbey of Cluny.

Indeed, history retains his name in particular because of the excellence of his management and the restoration of discipline during his abbatiate. Noting a deterioration in "the wearing of the regular habit, the food, the observance of youth, the honesty of morals and the celebration of divine service", the abbot remedied this with a severe reform advocating obedience, communal life in the cloister and individual poverty.

He will also have the great soul of a builder since he builds a large palace for prestigious guests. This palace, bearing his name, today houses the Cluny art and archeology museum.

He will also have his funeral chapel built, in place of one of the chapels in the small transept of the abbey. This small chapel in flamboyant Gothic style includes a rich sculpted program of which 15 consoles have come down to us. The stained glass and contemporary altar creations of the artist Sarkis now adorn this chapel since the end of its restoration in 2023.

In 1485, he resigned in favor of Jacques d'Amboise, who tried to continue the reforms and built an abbot's palace in his turn.

Façade du Palais Jean de Bourbon (actuel musée d'art et d'archéologie de Cluny )
Façade du Palais Jean de Bourbon (actuel musée d'art et d'archéologie de Cluny)

© Patrick Tourneboeuf / Centre des monuments nationaux

The Revolution and the destruction of the abbey...

Illustrious abbots succeeded each other at the head of the abbey during the following centuries, such as Richelieu and Mazarin, but nothing could stop the progressive decline of the powerful abbey. Nevertheless, around 1750, the conventual buildings were rebuilt and the abbey was thus endowed with a vast complex of classical style based on three pillars: quality, elegance and balance.

In reality, the buildings of the Middle Ages were almost completely replaced by a new architectural concept.

The monks did not have much time to occupy the place because the Revolution broke out shortly after the work. Indeed, it put an end to monastic life in Cluny. On October 25, 1791, a last mass was celebrated in the abbey church in the presence of twelve monks. The monks were then expelled and dispersed to the surrounding parishes.

After the expulsion of the monks, the city witnessed the systematic degradation of the abandoned monastery and looting contributed to its destruction. In 1798, the buildings were seized as national property and put up for sale.

The abbey was then divided into four lots by two perpendicular streets. The lots were sold for the sum of 60 000 francs to merchants from the Mâcon region. The immense church is then bought by merchants of materials who will use it as stone quarry and will dismantle little by little this masterpiece of the Romanesque art!

Croquis de l'abbaye de Cluny au XIXe siècle
Croquis de l'abbaye de Cluny au XIXe siècle

© Centre des monuments nationaux

On the steps of Kenneth John Conant (XIXth century)

An American in Cluny

It was in 1928 that the first investigations on the site of the abbey of Cluny really began, led by a brilliant American specialist in medieval architecture, Kenneth John Conant (1894-1984), and financed by the Medieval Academy of America.

Almost every year until 1938, the young archaeologist carried out soundings and trenches in order to verify the plan of the great church of Cluny and the buildings that preceded it.

A good draughtsman, he documented his discoveries every day with drawings and photographs that enabled him to propose plans by period and very detailed reconstructions in a synthesis published in 1968 in Mâcon.

Abbaye de Cluny depuis l'avant nef
Avant-nef de l'abbaye de Cluny (aujourd'hui)

© David Bordes / Centre des monuments nationaux

Conquering the XXIst century

The new digital tools of the course

The Centre des Monuments Nationaux brought together engineers, art historians, archaeologists and geographers around a multidisciplinary project to virtually revive the abbey church of Cluny as it was in the 12th century. 

Combining virtual reality and augmented reality, these mediation tools scattered along the tour route are also research tools to verify and validate hypotheses on the construction methods, the original colors ...

Did you know?

Digital reconstructions , augmented reality terminals and a 3D film make it possible to present on the same image the vestiges still visible and the disappeared elements. The aim is to facilitate the immediate understanding of the site, deeply amputated by history. The screens act as windows revealing the past in the present!

The monument today

Today, the remains that have come down to us, such as the large transept and the small transept, give us an idea of the immensity of this building. Many other elements have survived : the surrounding wall and its towers, the 18th century conventual buildings, the Farinier, a 13th century building which today houses the capitals of the choir traffic circle of the Maior ecclesia.

The Museum of Art and Archaeology presents numerous sculpted remains of the church and the monastic village.

The abbey has been classified as a historical monument since 1862.

Salle capitulaire et ses outils numériques
Salle capitulaire et ses outils numériques

© Patrick Tourneboeuf- Centre des monuments nationaux

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