Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The ruins of Cluny

What is left of Cluny is worth seeing, if only for the formidable effort of imagination that it demands of you.

Until the construction of the new St Peter's, Rome, during the Renaissance, Cluny Abbey was the world's largest church. It is believed that the Pope sent a delegation with specific instructions to measure the length of Cluny's nave so that St Peter's could be larger, since that was only appropriate for the premier church of Christendom.

Mind you this was presumably the same Pope who also authorised the demolition of parts of the Colosseum to provide a source of cheap marble for St Peter's.

In its heyday Cluny was the mother house of monastic institutions all over Europe. These Cluniac houses were mostly priories, not abbeys, because they owed allegiance to their Abbot in Burgundy and the priors of the satellite houses travelled once a year to confer at the gigantic centre of the monastic world.

After the French Revolution, Cluny suffered an even worse fate than Vespasian's grand arena. Sold to a stone mason it was almost completely razed to the ground; only the tower adjacent to the cloister was saved, and that not from any sense of the building's historic significance. Merchants who had turned the cloister (left) into a shopping mall were concerned that any attempt to demolish the final tower would risk the destruction of their business premises along with it.

In a year when we mourn the devastation of remnants of ancient civilisations in the Middle Eastern war zone, it is as well to remember that the urge to do away with monuments to a culture with which we have no sympathy is a recurring blight on the human race and no new invention.

The blowing up of the Parthenon in 1687 and the careless burning of Linlithgow Palace (close to Sliabh Mannan) in 1746 are two more examples. 

And in case we think we in the civilsed West are now immune to the Vandal mentality, perhaps we should consider why it was only this year, seventy years after the end of the Second World War, that a decision could be taken about what to do with the remains of Speer's Nazi rally arena at Nuremburg.

We do not have to agree with the religious or political philosophy that underpinned a historic monument in order to wish to preserve it. We learn about ourselves by learning about our ancestors and there are few better ways than having the opportunity to consider what they built and what marks they left upon the physical world.