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There were three incarnations at Cluny, a monastic center located in east-central France (in the Department of Saône-et-Loire, Burgundy). The first, a small timber–roofed edifice, was begun in 910, and replaced by the second church, a much larger structure, in 955. The third, probably the most successfully ambitious Romanesque church, was begun in 1088, with basic construction through 1121. It is placed here in our search for the Gothic because it featured what might have been the earliest use of a pointed arch in Christian construction. We have to use past tense here, because it fell victim to the anti-religious fanaticism manifested by French Revolutionaries. So often religious institutions and their physical symbols of architecture are the focus of those seeking to overthrow all authority. Remnants of Cluny “three” remain, including some pointed arches. Here it seems that the downward thrusts of the pointed arches aided what otherwise was a most heavy construction, with walls as much as 2.4 meters (8'-0”) thick. Pointed arches are more directional than semicircular, and almost become columns as they approach their springing supports below.

The façade is noted for its sculptural depictions of Biblical forms, notably the tympanum over the center door. Do look for these revealing tales, which provide a constant integration of art with architecture.

Some notes as to the immensity of Cluny three. Its length has been described as somewhere between 134 to 182 meters (443' and 600'), the longest in France; its height second only to the German Romanesque Cathedral of Speyer. Able to accommodate not only its own congregation of 300 monks, it was the center of the entire Cluniac Order, which conceivably could have met at one time within the walls of the abbey church. Its multiple towers over the entrance, crossing, north and south transepts, as well as the eastern transept, combined with an almost continual series of radiating chapels to make this an almost organic complex of interlocking forms.

The size, not only the length but also particularly the height – the notion of nudging upwards towards the heavens – would be the strongest visible effect of the coming Gothic development. The new notions of transforming the semicircular arch into the pointed configuration would be the next structural step. Cluny – while it stood for seven centuries – was to influence other churches, particularly in Burgundy, which will bring us to our next church.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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