The Romanesque Trail in Burgundy

The Romanesque Trail in Burgundy

Wine apart, Burgundy is particularly loved for its Romanesque architecture which includes some of the best examples in Europe; Tournus, Paray-le-Monial and Vezelay, as well as the sadly gutted remnants of legendary Cluny and thousands of exquisite Romanesque village churches with their typical round arches and barrel vaults, distributed through a landscape cultivated for millennia.

The name of Cluny most of all echoes through the centuries; for medieval worshippers once the greatest monastery in Christendom; for scholars the pinnacle of Romanesque achievement, for one culpable 19th-century French property developer a nice load of old stones.

Cluny was founded in 940 in Southern Burgundy, ideally located at the centre of a road network and surrounded by a great forest. Only foundations remain of the first and second abbey churches, and it is the third church, Cluny III, begun in 1086, which is celebrated today, its full glory known mainly through the indefatigable archaeology of Kenneth Conant.
It was an immense edifice over 600 feet long, the longest building in Christendom until St Peters, itself only five feet longer, constructed 500 years later. It had four major steeples, two towers and double aisles. The unknown “master of Cluny” carved its superb capitals, influencing thousands of other subsequent sculptors. The greatest known artists of the time were assembled to paint its interior in glowing Byzantine colours. .For hundred of years the great abbey church was the greatest power in Europe, of which it was said, “wherever the wind blows there is rent for Cluny abbey.”

Do visit Cluny; but first follow a Romanesque trail to the abbeys and churches in the surrounding area, in order to appreciate it and the achievements of medieval architecture it represents. Picture the small French medieval town before the building of the great cities and cathedrals; muddy tracks and wooden shacks, surrounded by the massive overgrown ruins of long abandoned Roman towns- vast amphitheatres, triumphal arches and colonnaded temples. Medieval builders were deeply influenced by these impressive fragments, along with the only Roman architectural manual to survive, Vetruvius’ The Ten Books on Architecture. Thus their own work became known as Romanesque.

The three centuries between 1050 and 1350 saw the greatest period of religous building France has ever known, spurred by the spread of Christianity, the stabilising power of the Holy Roman Empire and the development of monasticism. Several million tons of stone were quarried in France, more than in ancient Egypt through its entire history, to build 80 great cathedrals, 500 large churches and thousands of parish churches.

The Burgundians were great experimenters- and many of their constructions, including part of Cluny III fell down in the process. We marvel today only at the ones that survived. It was this inventiveness that finally led to rib vaulting to lighten the roof and flying buttresses to support the walls, paving the way to Gothic with its huge windows and unbroken columns soaring towards heaven. Had the great abbey church of Cluny been any more advanced in its techniques, it would itself have been Gothic – it already had flying buttresses and a slightly pointed barrel vault.

Piecing together the Cluny jigsaw provides an extraordinary opportunity to survey an entire period of architecture and its development from the simplest barrel vault nave to the soaring tiers of the abbey churches, and anyone with a particular interest might choose to follow a route dictated by architectural chronology rather than geographical logic.

To the north-east of Cluny is the superb abbey of Tournus on the wide, slow-moving Saône river. It pre-dates Cluny and makes an excellent introduction to the Romanesque trail. Tournus is a beguiling town of winding lanes lined with century carved wooden houses. It is also comfortably close to the Chalonnais and Maconnais vineyards; by no means a digression since the monks devoted as much of their energy to wine cultivation as they did to building churches.

The Abbaye Saint-Philibert , consecrated in 1019, shelters the bones of St-Philibert himself and has a distinctly military look with two imposing 11th century towers. It was built by fleeing monks anxious to protect their relics, and was designed more for repelling pyromaniac invaders than welcoming pilgrims.

The 1000 year old narthex, or entry porch, is the oldest part of the abbey, crowded with massive pillars supporting the tremendous weight of the towers and the chapel on the floor above, from where there is an excellent aerial view of the black and white vaulting of the nave. The architecture is powerful and confident- a beautiful geometry of perfect round arches and attenuated columns, often capped with intriguing capitals carved with beasts and goblins, best viewed with binoculars.

Paray-le-Monial, to the west of Cluny is an essential element in the Romanesque jigsaw puzzle. You approach through the prime agricultural country of the rolling Charollais hills, fields of huge white Charollais cows with their short necks and long curved horns, ruminating comfortably.

In contrast to Cluny, Paray is today a thriving pilgrimage centre, birthplace of the cult of the Sacred Heart. The golden stone facade of the basilica faces the river bank, removed from whatever hustle and bustle Paray can muster.

It was begun at the end of the 11th century and is like a minature version of Cluny III, only simplified, with many details, like the pilasters, identical. Paray shows how daring the Burgundian Romanesque church builders could be. They raised the nave to an astonishing 71 feet, with fluted pilasters and Corinthian capitals lining the arcades. It is crowned by a pointed barrel vault with clerestory windows that illuminate the nave directly from outside. Most glorious are the four levels of lighting at the east end, each on a different elevation, modelled exactly on Cluny III and our only clue to how the great abbey was illuminated.

To appreciate how magnificently Cluny was decorated follow the Romanesque trail to the Chapelle aux Moines at Berzé-la-Ville, once one of the many farms which supplied Cluny. Today an unassuming farmyard gives access to a small chapel, and an amazing spectacle. The entire apse and walls are covered in luminous frescoes of Christ in glory surrounded by saints. They were executed by the same painters as Cluny and their rich colours-ochre, blue, gold and violet- echo the Oriental influence, “the golden gloom” of Byzantium prevalent at the time.

The most serendipitous Romanesque route from here is south through the cow country of the southern Brionnais and its innumerable small churches, famous for their fine carved doorways and sculpture,

surprisingly sophisticated for such a backwater, due of course to the influence of Cluny. There are so many to see that a Circuit des Eglises Romanes has been mapped out by the local tourist authority.

The church at Anzy-le-Duc, a priory, is considered to be one of the finest in the Brionnais, with a three-storey Romanesque tower and particularly well preserved capitals. Its famous tympanum can now be seen in the museum at Paray-le-Monial. St-Julien-de-Jonzy, nestling in an old churchyard with a view of the Beaujolais hills, has a magnificent tympanum carved by an anonymous master from a huge block of sandstone and features a delightful Last Supper with everybody’s feet sticking out from under a carefully worked tablecloth.

The 11th-century church at Iguerande has many fine carved capitals featuring foliage and geometric designs, some still painted in their original colours, one of the most charming a cyclops playing the pipes of Pan. The interior proportions of the church are very pure and simple with semi-circular chapels either side of the apse in the correct Clunic manner.

St Hugues, the abbot who built Cluny III, came from Semur-en-Brionnais. Semur still retains parts of its ramparts and flocks of black birds swoop round a squat 9th century keep. The church of St-Hilaire is a beautiful example of Clunic architecture, in particular its octagonal belfry with two storeys of Romanesque arcading. On a square of shady lime trees is an old-fashioned wood-beamed cafe where the unmistakeable aroma of Gauloises intensifies as farmers from the cattle market at St-Christophe stop on Thursday mornings for a late breakfast of wine and soup.

But with the memory of Cluny so pervasive the town itself is almost bound to be a disappointment. The great abbey itself no longer exists. Only a few fragments remain; the south tower of the transept, a gateway and a few capitals in the museum, around which Cluny now bases its tourist industry.

After the Revolution the abbey became town property and was divided up into four lots with a road driven right through the centre of the nave, now the Rue Municiple. At a public auction the church was bought by Batonard of Macon, who, despite the protests of Paris and antiquarians world-wide, sold off the dressed stones as building materials. It took more than 70 explosions to topple the 700 year old walls and 30 years to clear them.
The great central space is now impossible to enter without paying for a 75 minute guided tour of the few fragments that the 18th and 19th century burghers of the town inadvertently left standing. The classic octagonal tower, with its two tiers of arcades, copied all across France, appears tantalizingly over high walls and locked gates. Imagination is necessary to fully appreciate its lost glories- it is like an ancient ruined skyscraper, immensely larger than anything built in Cluny during the last two centuries and still controlling the lives of the townspeople who tore it down.