It can never be said of Bernard of Clairvaux that he did not practice what he preached. He called out against ostentation and excess and the monasteries built by his Cistercian order were spare and functional, built in the “wilderness” far from worldly temptation. His well-known devotion to the Virgin resulted in most of the Cistercian abbey churches being dedicated to “Notre Dame”.
For Bernard’s Cistercians, curative waters were an important component of an abbey site. “Plant where the waters flow, this is where grace abounds,” said Bernard, and this maxim was reflected in the names the monks gave their abbeys. Fountains Abbey in England had six springs rising from the property. In France we find Fontenay, Abbaye de l’Eau, Fontfroide, Clairefontaine, Belleaux, and the Abbaye Notre Dame de Noirlac, the “Black Lake” or “Dark Pool”.
The founder of the abbey of Noirlac was Robert de Châtillon, Bernard’s cousin and a duke, and later for the five years before his death in 1210, Bishop of Langres. The monastic community of fourteen monks experienced a difficult start and owed its survival to Bernard’s intervention with Abbot Suger of Saint Denis.
The abbey church built by Robert clearly reflects the asceticism advocated by his cousin. This architecture of renunciation reflects the purity of soul that was the goal of the Cistercian reform movement, much as the New England Congregational churches were built in a simple, unadorned manner that reflected their own reform goals.
The nave is prototypical Cistercian – elegant and unadorned with superb proportions. The nave arcade has eight bays with ogive arches and is flanked by two side aisles. It is interesting to note that the width of the nave between the piers of the transept is 8 meters, while the distance between the piers at the entrance is only 7.35 meters. This means that the nave plan forms a trapezoid instead of a rectangle.
The windows at the east end are modern, Jean-Pierre Raynaud was given the design commission in 1975 and produced 55 windows and 7 roses. Raynaud stated that he “defeated the monotony of the spaces.” He must be so proud.
The structure of the nave is a perfect example of how the rib vaulting allows for more window space in the walls. In this case, the clerestory windows are nestled directly above the nave arcades without the intervention of a tribune or triforium. The windows fit perfectly into the open space of the quadripartite vault.
There is a large cloister at Noirlac. The eastern section dates to the first half of the fourteenth century.
The structure of the cloister is complex and features some decoration, evidence that the influence of Bernard had diminished by this time. Each bay contains a double-arched opening with an oculus above. The arches are supported by double columns with small capitals. Each pair of bays is supported by piers with engaged columns and covered with a square sexpartite vault overhead.
Even though the cloister contains far more complexity and decoration, it is in keeping with the earlier church.
Today the restored abbey complex is complete with a chapter house, monks’ room, refectory, cellar, and dormitories, but we find no monks in reside in the defeated spaces. Robert de Châtillon’s monastery is now forced to earn its keep as a cultural center and one is more likely to hear classical music at the annual music festival than hear the chanting of monks. But Bernard’s austere spirit lives on in the stones and my imagination fills in the rest.
Location: 46.745398° 2.461575°