The Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay: thumbs up from Bernard of Clairvaux

You know those fantastical hybrid animal monsters abounding in Romanesque church art?  They really pissed off Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux.  I love to read and re-read his attack on Romanesque art extravagances in his Apologia c. 1124:

But these are small things; I will pass on to matters greater in themselves, yet seeming smaller because they are more usual. I say naught of the vast height of your churches, their immoderate length, their superflous breadth, the costly polishings, the curious carvings and paintings which attract the worshipper’s gaze and hinder his attention….But in the cloister, under the eyes of the Brethern who read there, what profit is there in those ridiculous monsters, in the marvellous and deformed comeliness, that comely deformity? To what purpose are those unclean apes, those fierce lions, those monstrous centaurs, those half-men, those striped tigers, those fighting knights, those hunters winding their horns? Many bodies are there seen under one head, or again, many heads to a single body. Here is a four-footed beast with a serpent’s tail; there, a fish with a beast’s head. Here again the forepart of a horse trails half a goat behind it, or a horned beast bears the hinder quarters of a horse. In short, so many and so marvellous are the varieties of divers shapes on every hand, that we are more tempted to read in the marble than in our books, and to spend the whole day in wondering at these things rather than in meditating the low of God. For God’s sake, if men are not ashamed of these follies, why at least do they not shrink from the expense?

I’ve got to admit, St. Party Pooper of Clairvaux has a point.  I mean, I absolutely adore Romanesque art for just the reasons he rants about, but they surely must have been a distraction from a pure spiritual experience.  St. Bernard’s solution?  Reform.  Away with the lavish décor: monks were to live austerly in simply designed buildings, with lives dedicated to labor and prayer.  Cistercian monasteries were build on St. Bernard’s vision, and Abbey of Fontenay is stunning embodiment of his ideals.

Abbey of Fontenay is fascinating and incredibly well preserved.  In addition to the church, you can still walk through almost the entire complex in it’s original layout, where the monks lived and worked autonomously, including a forge.  As much as I want to object on principle to St. Bernard’s hostility to the arts, I confess that the Abbey is sublimely beautiful: spiritual in an earthy way, remote, self-sufficient, and perfectly designed.


The Romanesque church facade.


The nave is covered by a pointed tunnel vault with transverse arches.  See those capitals on the top of the shafts?  They’re plain–don’t look for any of the usual Romanesque funny business there.


Virgin of Fontenay, the only statue at the Abbey.


With no distracting decoration, the light became a focus of our experience.


The cloister.


Okay, maybe just a little bit of funny business.  Shhhh, don’t tell St. Bernard.


How we got to Abbey of Fontenay: (okay take a breath because it’s complicated) we started in Vezelay, took a taxi, followed by a train, followed by a bus to Montbard and then a taxi from Montbard to the Abbey.

Where we slept: Hotel de L’Ecu.  Price: €80 for a double.  Recommended: yes, but try to find something cheaper.




  1. I too admire the Romanesque, but have to admit that the purity of this building is striking.


    1. I think there’s room for us to love both styles….


  2. One of our favorite churches (in fact the whole compound is remarkable).


    1. I bet you took some amazing photos!


  3. Also St. Party Pooper of Clairvaux cracked me up.


    1. Dude was totally a party pooper.


      1. He seemed to be, but this abbey turned out lovely so at least there’s that. Lol m


  4. emilycommander · · Reply

    I like his parting shot the best: if you can’t object on moral terms, at least think about your wallet…


    1. Ha! As a confirmed cheapskate, this should be my mantra.


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