“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.
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 This superseded La Charité and became the largest church in Europe at the time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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°