The Unclean Apes (Dennis Aubrey)


The great Bernard of Clairvaux was a reformer and a strict adherent to the austere monastic life. Not for him an appreciation of the wonderful, playful, imaginative capitals that decorated the tops of columns in Romanesque churches throughout Europe. In his “Apologia” to William, Abbot of Saint Thierry in 1125, the Abbot of Clairvaux wrote, “But in cloisters, where the brothers are reading, what is the point of this ridiculous monstrosity, this shapely misshapenness, this misshapen shapeliness? What is the point of those unclean apes, fierce lions, monstrous centaurs, half-men, striped tigers, fighting soldiers and hunters blowing their horns? In one place you see many bodies under a single head, in another several heads on a single body. Here on a quadruped we see the tail of a serpent … In short, so many and so marvelous are the various shapes surrounding us that it is more pleasant to read the marble than the books, and to spend the whole day marveling over these things rather than meditating on the law of God. Good Lord! If we aren’t embarrassed by the silliness of it all, shouldn’t we at least be disgusted by the expense?”

Philippe Quantin (c. 1600 -.1636) Saint Bernard écrivant (Oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon)

Fortunately for us, Bernard was in the minority, for one of the glories of Romanesque sculpture are these “unclean apes, those fierce lions” and the rest of the comely deformed.

One of the great ironies of medieval life is the relationship between Bernard of Clairvaux and his great friend, Abbot Suger. Suger is the single figure most responsible for the transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture, the guiding force behind the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, outside of Paris. Not only is Saint Denis the birthplace of the Gothic, but it is the final resting place of French Kings from Dagobert through Louis XVI. Abbot Suger was the patron of the Gothic architecture, inviting all the great prelates in Europe to the unveiling of his splendid new church that featured soaring arches, huge jeweled stained glass windows penetrating the walls, and a beauty and perfection that stands to this day as a monument to the inspiration of man. He filled the church with golden vessels and luxurious ornaments, honoring his Lord with the most rare and precious materials. Peter the Veneble, the Abbot of Cluny, viewed the marvels of the Church and announced, “This man condemns us all. He builds, not for himself, but for God alone.”

Basilique Saint Denis (Copyright 2001 Ben Johnson)

As the creator and sponsor of such beauty, one would never expect Suger’s great friendship and abiding love for the ascetic Bernard who decried the expense and distraction of these churches. But it was Bernard himself who suspected in the worldly Suger a deeper calling for the church. Bernard had seen Suger riding with his entourage of sixty horsemen and admonished him, “One would think it was a governor of a province, not of souls.” The words inspired Suger to a deeper, more profound religious commitment. He reformed himself, then his abbey, and then he rebuilt Saint Denis.

Cistercian Abbaye de Fontenay, Fontenay (Côte-d’Or)

Both of these men glorified their God, but they took different roads, roads that symbolized precisely the path chosen by the medieval church. For both, the goal was the glory of God. For Abbot Suger it was to honor and praise Him, to inspire others to honor and praise Him. For Bernard, it was to serve, and to inspire others to serve. They met at the grounds of devotion and inspiration, true inspiration and love. They recognized this in each other and it was the basis of a relationship that lasted throughout their lives. Upon hearing of Suger’s death, Bernard wrote to Eugenius III, “If there is any precious vase adorning the palace of the King of Kings it is the soul of the venerable Suger”.

When the Abbot of Saint Denis lay dying, he wrote to Bernard, “Could I but see your angelic face before I die, I should go with more confidence.” Bernard wrote back, asking that when he arrived in Heaven, Suger “think of him before God”. I would like to think that when Suger contemplated doing so, he imagined heaven to be like his glorious abbey church, with soaring walls, vaults and jeweled light, not the sheltering, earthbound walls of Bernard’s Clairvaux and Fontenay. For in this, he knew better than Bernard, and the knowledge must have made him smile. And Bernard, standing in Saint Denis with the brilliant light playing on his white robes, probably knew so as well.

If you are interested in seeing more of these Cistercian monastery churches, please see the Via Lucis website. And if you are interested in learning about Bernard of Clairvaux as a man, what better way than to read his eulogy for his brother Gerard. It may be long, but it is a full glimpse into the heart of Bernard (Text starts at II3.)

One response to “The Unclean Apes (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Pingback: The Romanesque Tympanum (Dennis Aubrey) «

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s