Unadorned Romanesque – Malay (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Malay (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Malay (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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).

Nave, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Malay (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Malay (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Nave elevation, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Malay (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave elevation, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Malay (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Nave from transept, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Malay (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave from transept, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Malay (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Side aisle, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Malay (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Malay (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Apse, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Malay (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Malay (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Chancel, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Malay (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chancel, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Malay (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Arcade arches, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Malay (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Arcade arches, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Malay (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 46.565940° 4.679568°

15 responses to “Unadorned Romanesque – Malay (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Were I to have to shape faith in that way, I could only believe in a god who was not embarrassed by silliness.
    I fear the great Bernard of Clairvaux is being silly. And I hope his god loves him for it.
    (Thank you not just for the Bernard quotation but, of course, for yet another truffle you have snuffled out from the woods.)

  2. Dennis – great post on a particularly beautiful building. It almost looks as though it had recently been scrubbed clean, but I suspect this may be a result of ample light and reflection. So simple and beautiful, yet not at all severe.
    Lovely! JP

    • JP, the church was restored in the 1990’s (the vaults were separating) and I’m sure that it was replastered as well. But the key is that it is a living church, a part of the local community – clean, well-kept cemetery outside, and filled with flowers. Always a good sign.

  3. I admire Bernard of Clairvaux and Clunaic Romanesque architecture. This is a fascinating example only ten miles from the Abbey of Cluny! Amazing! I’m delighted to see the photos and to learn of this lovely church!

    • Margarita, we love the Cistercian architecture of Bernard’s as much as the Cluniac; they reflect different sides of the monastic life of the Middle Ages. And we seem always to find surprises, no matter how much research we do. Thanks for your visit.

  4. Pingback: Unadorned Romanesque – Malay (Dennis Aubrey) | mmelouiseinparis

  5. Pingback: Unadorned Romanesque – Malay (Dennis Aubrey) | Madame Louise: Parlez-Vous Provence?

    • Thanks, Barbara. I’m not sure that I see the Romanesque as primitive after spending so much time with these churches. In fact I am continually amazed by the sophistication of the architectural expression and certainly with the craftsmanship. There is a reason that 5000 of these churches survive in France and another 1500 in Spain. Appreciate your attention and comments.

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