Saint Bernard’s Apology makes a strong point against the excesses that he observed in decorated Romanesque churches. In the Apology, he criticizes both the ornate decorations of the church and the manner in which the funds for the decorations are gathered. To him, the ornamentation is idolatrous and distracting, the gathering of money favors the rich and takes the focus away from worship, and, if nothing else, decorating the floors with saints is disrespectful because they are walked on.
In the Apology, St. Bernard describes the paintings and decorations as distracting from monastic life and appealing to people who do not have proper worship in mind. “Just show them a beautiful picture of some saint. The brighter the colors, the saintlier he’ll appear to them,” he says. He felt that attracting people to Christianity through bright colors and images and appealing to their worldly side brought in followers who admired wealth and expensive possessions more than God.
St. Bernard also questions the amount of gold in the churches and likens it to a mother ornamenting rocks with gold and allowing her children to go naked. To him, it is irresponsible and a mismanagement of funds to spend large sums of money on the decoration of a building. To him, it would be more pious to spend the money helping people, such as the poor.
In Abbot Suger’s account of what he did with the church in Saint-Denis, he says that decorating the church is something he wanted to do since the time he was a student. The decorating of the church is his way of showing his Christian zeal. However, his account does sound very heavy on the physical items that the church gains. In discussing the possessions that they earn he mentions “the accumulation of gold, silver, precious gems, and quality textiles.”
While Abbot Suger may have had good intentions when decorating the church in Saint-Denis, and we can thank him for the beautiful building that we can now go and look at, it is easy to understand where Saint Bernard is coming from when he frowns upon excesses in the church. He was concerned that the churches served as distractions from worship and that people would come to look at the beautiful images rather than to worship God. It seems that he had the right idea, because the ornate churches are often visited by people wanting to admire the decorations rather than people who are coming to worship or pray. While architecture benefited from the decoration of churches, perhaps European Christianity did not.
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