Our Lady of the Dark Pool (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

Side aisle, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruère-Allichamps (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisle, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruère-Allichamps (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Nave, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruere-Allychamps (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruère-Allichamps (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Nave elevation, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruere-Allychamps (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave elevation, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruère-Allichamps (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is a large cloister at Noirlac. The eastern section dates to the first half of the fourteenth century.

Cloister, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruere-Allychamps (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cloister, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruère-Allichamps (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Cloister, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruere-Allychamps (Cher) Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruère-Allichamps (Cher) Photo by PJ McKey

Even though the cloister contains far more complexity and decoration, it is in keeping with the earlier church.

Entrance to chapter house, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruere-Allychamps (Cher) Photo by PJ McKey

Entrance to chapter house, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruère-Allichamps (Cher) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

PJ at the Église Abbatiale de Noirlac, Bruere-Allychamps (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ at the Église Abbatiale de Noirlac, Bruère-Allichamps (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Location: 46.745398° 2.461575°

15 responses to “Our Lady of the Dark Pool (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Thank you, Dennis and PJ for an inspiring post on Sunday morning. The nave of Noirlac has a spatial quality all of its own, presumably due to more light from larger clerestory windows. Your photo of the nave elevation captures the essence of the clarity of logic present in this Cistercian space. Jong-Soung

    • Thanks, Jong-Soung. I love your phrase about the “clarity of logic” in Cistercian space. It seems that having denied themselves sculpture, painting, and poetry, the monks put all of their passion into the architecture.

  2. Calm photos and a delightful story, as always informative and pleasant. The highlight, however, is a chance to see a photo of PJ. Nice to get an idea of what a dear friend of mine looks like.

  3. One thing I regret from my trip so far is that I missed Noirlac. I wasn’t too far from it either–I passed right through Saint Amand Montrond, but I had a long day ahead of me and I didn’t take the detour. St Bernard’s philosophy certainly does live on in the stone though. I especially like your photos of the cloisters, great work as usual!

    • Nathan, you were right in the area, just two miles from Noirlac and close to passing through the forest of Troncais – The source of the best oak for wine barrels in the world. We miss France so much in reading your adventures – keep it up.

  4. What lovely evocations of the Cistercian ideal in church architecture! The images of the side aisle and the nave elevation recall the simplicity of early Cistercian churches in Ireland. There is a noble dignity to the design that, regrettably, was not invoked in nineteenth century gothic revival building. In Ireland it seems likely that only parts of the Cistercian churches were vaulted in stone – the nave, and perhaps the aisles and transepts, were usually roofed in wood (with or without a wooden vault/ceiling, the latter probably whitewashed). But the simple clarity would have seemed familiar to a Continental Cistercian visiting Ireland. And the use of these simple clear designs was reflected in the Cistercian style of architecture used in St Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick. I wonder if the Cistercian preference for a square east end is the source of Ireland’s square east ends too – although I suspect English influence was important later on.

    • Tony, we’ve seen several Cisterican churches in France that also have wooden vaults as you describe in Ireland … notably last year Notre Dame de Boquen. I’m not sure if this was because they were built at a time of relative peace or if there was a plenitude of wood that made it cheaper. As far as the square east end, most Cistercian churches seem to have had them, although Pontigny has a more conventional chevet. I don’t know enough about the Irish churches to know how many were influenced by Cistercian practice and ideals, though. But if Ireland was not part of the conventional pilgrimage culture (especially Santiago de Compostela), then there would have been no need for the apse with ambulatory and radiating chapels.

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