Cluny Abbey

The Abbey of Clunyin Burgundy was the center of a major monastic movement in the Middle Ages. Its church was the largest Christian building in the world until St. Peter's Basilica was rebuilt in Rome in the 16th century.

Today, one transept of the 12th-century abbey church remains, along with 15th-century abbots' residences and 18th-century convent buildings. The site also includes pleasant gardens and a museum with Romanesque artifacts.


History of Cluny Abbey

Founded in 910, the Abbey at Cluny was the center of a monastic reform movement that would spread throughout Europe. The abbey was built on a forested hunting preserve donated by William I the Pious, duke of Aquitaine and count of Auvergne.

Unlike most monastic patrons, William relieved the monks of Cluny of all obligations to him except for their prayers for his soul. It was much more common for patrons to retain some proprietary interest in the abbey and they usually expected to install their relatives as abbots. Thus Cluny was able to avoid the secular entanglements that plagued many other monasteries. Cluny answered to the Pope alone, and would come to develop very close ties with the papacy.

The Abbey of Cluny was founded by Benedictine monks who wished to observe closer adherence to the Benedictine rule. One distinction was their commitment to offer perpetual prayer, emphasizing liturgy and spiritual pursuits over labor and other monastic activities.

At Cluny the liturgy was extensive and beautiful in inspiring surroundings, reflecting the new personally-felt wave of piety of the 11th century. Monastic intercession appeared indispensable to achieving a state of grace, and lay rulers competed to be remembered in Cluny's endless prayers, inspiring the endowments in land and benefices that made other arts possible.

Another uniqueness of Cluny was in its administration. Before Cluny, most monasteries were autonomous and associated with others only informally. But when new monasteries were founded in the Cluniac tradition, these were designated "priories," not abbeys, and were accordingly overseen by a prior who reported to the abbot of Cluny. The abbot of Cluny made regular visits to these priories and the priors met at Cluny once a year.

This system worked well, and especially after the Pope decreed in 1016 that the privileges of Cluny also extended to subordinate houses, there was further incentive for Benedictine communities to join the Cluniac order.

On September 30, 1088, construction began on the third abbey church at Cluny ("Cluny III"), the one that still stands in part today. Financed by kings, for centuries it was the largest church in Christendom. In 1095, five altars were consecrated by Pope Urban II, and in 1130, the abbey was dedicated by Pope Innocent II. Construction of the antechurch continued until 1190.

The early Cluniac establishments had offered refuges from a disordered world, but by the late 11th century, Cluniac piety permeated society. This is the period that achieved the final Christianization of the heartland of Europe.

At its height of its influence in the 12th century, Cluny was at the head of a monastic "empire" of 10,000 monks. The abbots of Cluny were almost as powerful as popes, and four of them later became popes. In 1098, Pope Urban II (himself a Cluniac) declared that Cluny was the "light of the world."

Cluny's great success was due in large part to its abbots. The Abbey of Cluny was guided by an orderly succession of able and educated abbots drawn from the highest aristocratic circles, two of whom were canonized: Odo of Cluny, the second abbot (died 942) and Hugh of Cluny (died 1109). Odilo, the fifth abbot (died 1049), was a third great leader.

In the early 12th century, however, the order began to lose momentum under poor government. Cluny was subsequently revitalized under Abbot Peter the Venerable (d. 1156), who brought lax priories back into line and returned to stricter discipline. Cluny reached its last days of power and influence under Peter, as its monks became bishops, legates, and cardinals throughout France and the Holy Roman Empire.

But soon, newer and more austere orders such as the Cistercians were generating the next wave of ecclesiastical reform. At the same time, the rise of English and French nationalism created a climate unfavorable to the existence of monasteries autocratically ruled by a leader residing in Burgundy.

The Papal Schism of 1378 to 1409 further divided loyalties: France recognized the pope at Avignon and England that at Rome, interfering with the relations between Cluny and its dependent houses in England. Under the strain, some English houses, such as Lenton Priory, Nottingham, became officially English, weakening the Cluniac structure.

By the time of the French Revolution, the monks of Cluny were so thoroughly identified with the Ancien Régime that the order was suppressed in France and the monastery at Cluny was partly demolished. The abbey was sold as national property and was used as a stone quarry. It was systematically dismantled until 1823.

What to See at Cluny Abbey

Although most of the great Abbey of Cluny stands in ruins, the ruins still suggest the size and glory of the abbey at its zenith, and imagining it as it once was is part of the attraction.

The best place to start is the Porte d'Honneur, the entrance to the abbey from the village. Its classical architecture is reflected in the pilasters and Corinthian columns of the majestic Clocher de l'Eau-Bénite ("Holy Water Belfry"), which crowns the only remaining part of the abbey church, the south transept.

Between the two is the reconstructed monumental staircase, which led to the entrance of the abbey church, and the excavated column bases of the vast narthex. The entire nave is gone.

On one side of the transept is a national horse-breeding center founded in 1806 by Napoléon and constructed with materials from the destroyed abbey.

The other side is an elegant pavilion built as monastic cloisters in the 18th century. The gardens there once contained an ancient lime tree (destroyed by a 1982 storm) named after Abélard, the controversial French philosopher who sheltered at the abbey in 1142.

Off to the right is the 13th-century Gothic building that served as a wine cellar on the bottom level and a flour store (or granary) on the upper level. The flour store has a beautiful oak-and-chestnut timber roof (c.1275) and now functions as a small museum, displaying models of the abbey, various artifacts, and a collection of exquisite capitals from the vanished choir.

There are eight Romanesque capitalsin all, each 80 cm high and displayed on an original column from the choir. The themes are generally refined and symbolic, as befits such a sophisticated abbey: the seasons, personified tones of plainsong, the palaestra (exercise ground), four winds, four rivers of paradise, trees of paradise, and the theological virtues. Also shown are Adam and Eve, the sacrifice of Isaac, and some mythological animals.

The Musée Ochier, in the abbatial palace, contains masterpieces of Romanesque sculptures. Remains of both the abbey and the village constructed around it are conserved here, as well as part of the Bibliothèque des Moines (Monks' Library).

Quick Facts on Cluny Abbey

Site Information
Names:Abbaye de Cluny · Abbey of Cluny · Ancienne Abbaye · Cluny Abbey · Cluny III
Categories:churches; abbeys; ruins
Faiths:Cluniac order
Dedication: St. Peter and St. Paul
Status: museum
Visitor and Contact Information
Coordinates:46.434666° N, 4.659410° E
Address:Palais Jean de Bourbon
Cluny, France
Phone:33 / (0)3 85 59 15 93
Email:contact form
Hours:Sep-Apr: daily 9:30-noon and 1:30-5
May-Aug: daily 9:30-6:30
Lodging:View hotels near Cluny Abbey
Note: This information was accurate when first published and we do our best to keep it updated, but details such as opening hours and prices can change without notice. To avoid disappointment, please check with the site directly before making a special trip.


  1. Personal visit (June 2, 2008).
  2. Cluny Abbey - Wikipedia (some text incorporated under GFDL)
  3. Jean-Denis Salvèque, The Abbey of Cluny (Paris: Monum, Éditions du patrimoine, 2001).
  4. Abbaye de Cluny – Center of National Monuments

More Information

Site of the former Cluny Abbey church (1088-1130), of which only the south transept survives, seen from the... © Holly Hayes
Site of the former Cluny Abbey church (1088-1130), of which only the south transept survives, seen from the... © Holly Hayes
Painting of Cluny Abbey before it was mostly destroyed.
18th-century monumental cloister built on the site of the original Romanesque cloister. © Holly Hayes
The best view in the house of the surviving south transept of Cluny Abbey (1088-1130), from the small Cour de... © Holly Hayes
Vault of the great south transept, looking into the cupola of the octagonal Holy Water Belfry. Even from this... © Holly Hayes
Late 13th-century Gothic flour store or granary at the southeast corner of the abbey complex. It is now a... © Holly Hayes
The third plainsong tone. Romanesque capital from the ambulatory around the choir of the abbey church, dating... © Holly Hayes
An angel stops Abraham (who has disappeared from the left side) from sacrificing his son Isaac, who is bound... © Holly Hayes
13th-century cellar. © entropie fatal

Map of Cluny Abbey

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