The Ruined Abbey of Cluny, France

photo exterior cluny france abbey
Only one of the original eight towers of the Cluny Abbey is left standing.

History of the Cluny Abbey

The Cluny Abbey, Abbaye de Cluny in French, is a former Benedictine monastery in Cluny, the the department of Saône-et-Loire in central France. We visited the Abbey as part of a cruise we did with Viking Cruises of the Saône and Loire rivers in central and eastern France.

Three churches built in succession from the 4th to the early 12th centuries on the site of the current ruins. The earliest basilica was the world's largest church until the St. Peter's Basilica construction began in Rome.

Unfortunately today, only a small bit of the transept of the 12th Century abbey church and a part of the apse remain. Only one of the original eight towers still stands.

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In the middle ages, the Abbey of Cluny was richest abbey in the world and the seat of the largest medieval monastic order, Cluny Abbey was a casualty of internecine jealousies within the church, conflicts between church and secular authorities, and eventually the French Revolution.

king david photo cluny france abbey
Bust of King David from the chapel of Jean de Bourbon, an abbot of Cluny Abbey who commissioned the chapel as his burial spot. However it was never used as such.

The Abbey church was essentially demolished in 1810. The destroyed abbey was used as a stone quarry to build the current city. The lead in the stained glass windows was melted to make bullets for Napoleon's guns.

Almost all of the decoration of the Cluny Abbey was destroyed. A chapel intended as a burial chamber of Abbot Jean de Bourbon was never finished, and perhaps because of that, it escaped destruction. Busts of Old Testament biblical figures line the walls, but it's believed that statues of New Testament figures that were supposed to fill the accompanying niches were either never installed, or were buried somewhere to protect them from the ravages of the French Revolution.

prophet daniel cluny france abbey
Bust of the Prophet Daniel from the chapel of Jean de Bourbon.

The images below of Romanesque decorations are from the excavations of the Cluny Abbey ruins, carried out in the first half of the 20th Century. They now reside in a small art museum near the Abbey. In addition, there is a Cluny Museum in Paris, which houses many of the treasures of the Abbey.

mermaid cluny france abbey

serpent cluny france abbey

dragon cluny france abbey

wings cluny france abbey

riding lion cluny france abbey

We visited Cluny as an excursion from the Viking Cruises cruise up the Rhone and Saone Rivers in Southern France. We were the guests of Viking for the cruise, but we paid ourselves for the trip to Cluny as a supplement to the cruise.

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4 thoughts on “The Ruined Abbey of Cluny, France”

  1. One can’t help but wonder what the New Testament figures might look like if they come to light in the future.
    These designs are wonderful in that sly Romanesque way

    Reply
    • The Catholics of France buried a lot of statuary during the French Revolution. That which wasn’t mostly had the heads cut off. Really. The rumor is that the Cluny statues are in somebody’s garden. Every spring they tell the children to did in in the garden to look for them. That’s how their gardens get tilled.

      Reply
  2. The French Govt owes an apology to the Catholic Church for such wonton destruction. Just the literature that was lost is immeasurable. Disgusting.

    Reply
    • Well, that was a couple hundred years ago, so it’s unlikely the current French government had anything to do with it. Also, the leaders of the French Revolution weren’t known for apologizing. And, of course, the Catholic Church probably has some things to answer for, as well.

      Reply

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