Biblical Symbolism

In our readings sur les sources de l’Art roman en Poitou-Charente, we’ve seen that animal themes from Eastern and Greek cultures were common in Romanesque art, especially atop the capitals of the many columns characteristic of l’Art roman. As I mentioned in a previous post, mythical themes were commonly depicted in Romanesque churches to warn the pilgrims against the sins embodied by those images. Similarly, animal themes were often intended to warn Christians against sin, lest they perish by the “leones” represented on the capitals, or some other feral beast. While this practice seems to have a legitimate end – directing the Christian away from sin – the practice in some churches became somewhat misdirected. In an Apology written in 1125, the Cistercian abbot St. Bernard (abbot of Clairvaux from 1115-1153) speaks out against the misuse of art in the Benadictine churches of Cluny. St. Bernard inveighs against the excesses in food, clothing and buildings in the Cluniac monasteries.

The elaborate monastery at Cluny.

In his sharp critique, St. Bernard criticizes the extravagance of the churches, arguing that such extravagance distracts the Christian from devotion. He speaks out especially against the excessive amounts of gold and gems adorning the churches in Cluny. “Tell me, poor men, if you really are poor what is gold doing in the sanctuary?” St. Bernard suggests that the Benadictines in Cluny are making their churches into luxurious houses that succumb to the idolatry of pagans, with the church’s physical beauty being established out of a greedy, idolatrous desire for contributions:

Oh vanity of vanities, yet no more vain than insane! The church is resplendent in her walls and wanting in her poor. She dresses her stones in gold and lets her sons go naked. The eyes of the rich are fed at the expense of the indigent. The curious find something to amuse them and the needy find nothing to sustain them.

However, St. Bernard clarifies that he does not believe in stripping the churches of their artistic adornment of physical beauty. In answer to the question, “If you really are poor what is gold doing in the sanctuary?” St. Bernard concedes that one might reply, “Lord, I have loved the beauty of your house, and the place where your glory dwells” (Ps. 26:8). As he continues:

I agree. Let us allow this [artistic adornment] to be done in churches because, even if it is harmful to the vain and greedy, it is not such to the simple and devout. 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?

St. Bernard does not suggest such austerity as to strip the adornments from God’s sanctuary; even if the rich adornments are harmful to the vain and greedy, as the art was not made for them, but for God. But why would the cloisters need to be filled with carvings of mythological and bestial creatures? Those spaces are set apart for the austere lifestyle o the priestly brotherhood. Why would they need enticing deterrents against sin? Have they not taken a vow of poverty? As St. Bernard points out, those cloisters are not designed for pilgrims, but rather for the brothers who are living a life set apart from the world and worldly things. They need no brilliant art works to remind them not to sin – they are living in devout austerity in order that they might devote themselves not to worldly concerns, but rather to the things of Heaven (Colossians 3:5-17).

It seems then, that in this case in particular, St. Bernard speaks out not against art or its power in the church, but only against the misappropriation of art. The church at Cluny was extravagant and its right end – the glory of God – was not reached. The church was sumptuously decorated not to the glory of God, but to the vanity of the parish. The monks had adorned the cloister with lavish portrayals of mythical and bestial images in a way that tied them to the things of this earth, as opposed to living lives set apart for the Kingdom of Christ, and not their own, clerical kingdom.


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