Worldly Grandeur and Presumption (Dennis Aubrey)


“Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. “ Genesis 11 (King James Version)

The priory Church of Notre Dame de La Charité-sur-Loire was founded in 1059 by the powerful Benedictine order of Cluny. It was one of the five “eldest daughters” of Cluny, a description of the most important daughter houses of the Benedictine order.

Chevet, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chevet, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The builder of La Charité was same builder of the Abbey Church of Cluny known as Cluny II. At the time, La Charité was actually the largest church in Christendom, but three decades after construction began, the monks of Cluny started work on their own new church, Cluny III. This superseded La Charité and became the largest church in Europe at the time.

Ambulatory, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The eastern end of the Prieuré Notre-Dame was originally built with seven apses in echelon, but by the end of the construction in the 12th century, the example of Cluny III resulted in a change. A new apse was constructed with an ambulatory and radiating chapels.

Prieuré Notre-Dame,  La Charité-sur-Loire  (Nièvre)

Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre)

At its height in the 12th century, La Charité was the second largest church in the Christian world (after Cluny), housed 200 monks, and possessed 45 dependencies of its own. The church was a inspiration to the builders of the great Romanesque pilgrimage churches throughout Europe. Notre Dame de La Charité-sur-Loire was 120 meters long, had ten bays in the nave with a vault 27 meters high.

Side aisle, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

Romanesque architecture was fully capable of worldly grandeur and presumption; why else would Bernard of Clairvaux move his Cistercian brethren to the wilderness and build communities where worldly simplicity was the path to spiritual salvation? Why would he rail against the pomp and ornament of Cluny? The great abbeys of Cluny and La Charité were the spiritual predecessors to the Gothic. Their purpose was to demonstrate the power and glory of Cluny as much as the power and glory of God. In the same way, the great Gothic cathedrals soared to greater and more daring heights, until even those structures could not stand.

Nave, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In some ways, medieval architecture reminds me of the story of the Tower of Babel. For awhile in the 11th and 12th centuries in western Europe, it was as if the world was of one language – Benedictine Christianity. The Romanesque world reflected that homogeneous outlook. And then the Benedictines started building their churches larger and higher, more imposing than ever and with more adornment. And those imposing churches created a sense of distance among believers to whom modesty and simplicity were the key to their religion.

Ambulatory, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

This sense of excess brought forth reform movements and the monks became divided into reforming factions that in turn needed reform themselves – Benedictines, Cistercians, Augustinians, Carthusians, Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Premonstratensians. The churches grew higher and higher, and more secular, and then the faith itself split into Catholic and Protestant. Protestantism fragmented into Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist, Anabaptist, Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and more.

Christianity became a babel.

Choir and hemicycle, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir and hemicycle, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

As much as we may decry the resulting fragmentation, at least there was a continuing effort to find the simplicity and purity in the practice of religion. It is an admirable endeavor for any institution to continually purify and reform itself. Certainly no government does so.

Hemicycle, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

Hemicycle, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

There is almost a sense of fate in the subsequent history of La Charité and Cluny. The destruction of the great abbey of Cluny is too depressingly well-known to dwell on – in 1793, the archives were burned and the church was plundered. The abbey was sold in 1798 for 2,140,000 francs and until 1813 the abbey served as a stone quarry. The new owner used explosives to topple the great structure to provide stone to build houses in the town. Today only a small fragment of the greatness remains.

Ambulatory, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

La Charité fared somewhat better. In 1559 a huge fire devastated the nave; almost a century later it was rebuilt with four bays instead of the original ten. Standing outside the west portal, we see the north walls of the nave still standing in places and get a sense of how massive this church really was. Today, after several campaigns of restoration, it is still imposing, but it is hard to believe that this was the second largest church in Christendom.

Location: 47.177515° 3.017533°

21 responses to “Worldly Grandeur and Presumption (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Excellent post Dennis. Christianity is indeed a Babel; and until this post, I would have never assumed La Charite was once the 2nd largest church in Christendom. Even with just 4 bays though, it still is quite majestic. Thanks for sharing La Charite with us all 🙂

    • Thanks, Nathan. Standing in the forecourt by the Tourism Office you really start to get the sensation on the scale of the church as it was originally built. The western tower there was the beginning of the original nave.

    • Donations certainly were a factor, Helen. Donations of lands, mills, and estates to abbeys certainly fueled the rise in the number of churches and increases in the number of abbeys. These donations were often over-burdened, as at Vezélay, where the protest against the levies needed to build the basilica resulted in the murder of the abbot Artaud in 1120.

      As far as the secular role of the abbots – are you referring to the administration of abbey-owned properties? Or are you referring to interference in secular affairs in general?

      • I meant the role of the abbot as holder of lands donated to the foundation which carried with them feudal obligations…and involved the abbots very much in the secular world.

      • From my readings, it is clear that these obligations were a problem. Again, in the case of Vézelay, the well-documented struggle between the abbots there and the Count of Nevers required adjudication by the French crown after decades of feuding and violence.

  2. I liked your paragraph about large churches creating a distance between them and simple Benedictine monks and congregations – this is exactly the topic of a story I translated recently (which might even be published one day). And your phrase ‘it was as if the world was of one language’, though it was about Benedictine Europe, could well be about the 21st century electronically-connected world!
    Re photos: the hemicycle and pillars of different shades is my favourite.

  3. Wonderful pictures and interesting historical background here. It is amusing to see that people once sought to ‘restore’ medieval structures to their ‘original’ appearance – Carcassonne is a classic example – and yet we see here (and elsewhere) these buildings underwent often considerable change during the medieval period. The ambulatory replacing he echelon of apses in this church is a fine example of such architectural and aesthetic changes.

    • Tony, there is a serious question about restoration – should it take the building as it exists and repair it so that it will continue to exist in the form to which it has evolved over the years? In other words, should the building look like it did yesterday, only in better condition? Or should the restorer attempt to understand the minds of the original builders and re-create that structure? Douglas Read did a post on Architectural Conservation that addresses many of these questions.

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