The Benedictine abbey of Cluny was founded 1,100 years ago this year: it was perhaps the most important center of monastic life in the Middle Ages, the mother house from which radiated a far-reaching reform of the Benedictine order. At its height the community had the largest church in the western world, 187 meters long, with five naves, a multiple choir, large and small transepts, three hundred chapels, seven bell towers, a building eventually surpassed only by the new St. Peter’s in Rome. In 1791, the abbey’s community had dwindled from the 400 monks living there in the Middle Ages to only twelve monks, who were expelled by order of the French Revolution. The abbey’s precious objects were sold, and most of the buildings were reduced to rubble: the vast, fortress-like church had to be detonated with a mine, and the demolition lasted some twenty-five years. The French government has spent three years restoring the convent building to its 18th-century state and laying out a way for visitors to envision that grand church.


Charles T. Downey