There are many examples of the wonderful adornment in Romanesque churches – the sculpture of the capitals, the tympana, the frescoes, and even the painted churches themselves. Particularly in the Cluniac churches, the adornment of churches was so prevalent that Bernard of Clairvaux felt constrained to rail against the practice. 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?”
Just ten miles dues north of the Abbey of Cluny, the epicenter of the Cluniac universe, lies an exception to this culture of adornment. The tiny municipality of Malay is composed of five hameaux with an aggregate population of 255 souls and two Romanesque churches. Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité is in the le bourg and the Église Saint Martin in the adjacent hameau of Ougy. The first mention of the former (the “ecclesia de Maleto”) was in 1095 and by 1160 it was listed as a dependency of the Abbey of Cluny. Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité is unique in that it presents almost no decoration inside or outside. There are no capitals or external sculptures. Instead we find pure undecorated Romanesque lines that would have delighted Bernard.
The church is a well-restored Romanesque building with a three-bay nave and two side aisles, short transept arms, and modest choir. Notice that the nave arcades have ogive arches while the transverse and chancel arches are round. The arcades are supported by powerful piers and support a banded barrel vault (restored during the 1990’s).
We can see how the visual elements of the church were architectural instead of decorative. The contrasts of the archivolts of the ogive arcade arches and the pilasters supporting the transverse arches for the vaults are most attractive. Variation is also offered by the clerestory window above each arcade arch.
In this shot of the nave from the transept we can see the short three bays of the nave. In this shot, more than any other, we sense the modest character of this monastic church.
The side aisles continue this simplicity. Each bay is covered with a groin vault that provides space for windows high on the outer walls. Each aisle terminates in an apsidal chapel in the distance.
The apse is a simple structure with pierced by two exterior windows and covered by an oven vault. There are apsidal chapels from each transept echeloned on either side of the apse. The simplicity of the apse is the result of the lack of an ambulatory – there are no radiating chapels in the chevet and there is no hemicycle dividing the choir from the ambulatory aisle. Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité seems to have been a sanctuary for the resident Benedictine community and not a pilgrimage church.
At some point in time, a decision was made to add some decoration. In the north apsidal chapel we see frescoes from the beginning of the 15th century. This is about the only adornment that we see in the entire church and it was completed three centuries after the structure was completed.
The simplicity of the church may have been its salvation over the centuries. For the most part, Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité has been spared the litany of destruction visited upon so many of her sisters. There is a 16th century reference to some violence during the Wars of Religion, but that is all. Even during the Revolution, which resulted in the almost complete destruction of the Abbey of Cluny, the benign influence of the Benedictine monks spared the church. Perhaps Bernard of Clairvaux would have found the spiritual practice of the monks as pleasing as the simplicity of the architecture.
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