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Books offer close-up look at Catholic Church’s greatest architecture

January 7, 2007

Book Reviews from Catholic News Service:

Cluny: In Search of God’s Lost Empire tells the story of the times and personalities that produced Cluny, France, a Benedictine monastic community that was founded in 910 and was for three centuries the most important center of Western Christianity.

Its abbey church, consecrated in 1095, was the largest church in Christendom for 500 years. The church was part of an enormous stone complex – including workshops, sleeping quarters, stables and agricultural buildings – that stood until the end of the 18th century.

It is difficult to comprehend the grandeur of Cluny today, because the great buildings of Cluny no longer exist. At the end of the 18th century, anti-clerical forces in the wake of the French Revolution closed the abbey and auctioned off the stone to be used as construction material. The enormous walls and arches were brought down.

The hundreds of sculptures were scattered, most treated as rubble; some few, like the two pieces on display in Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, are conserved as treasured fragments. The monks of Cluny worked in illuminating manuscripts and performing music as part of their prayer life. Sadly, the library of Cluny was burned by the Huguenots in the Wars of Religion in 1562, and what survived the fire was destroyed in the French Revolution.

Although the creative work of Cluny was later destroyed, author Edwin Mullins contends that the creative influence of Cluny endures. In its early centuries Cluny founded dozens of monasteries throughout the Holy Roman Empire. The monastery charters directed that all monks be trained at the motherhouse. As a result, monks carried the learning of Cluny across Western Europe, even though much of Cluny’s own music, manuscripts, painting, sculpture and architecture would later be destroyed.

Cluny was a community in decay, a corrupt shadow of itself by the 16th century, when the center of Christendom shifted to Rome and the Renaissance popes began the building of a basilica larger than Cluny’s abbey church.

Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s tells the story of Christendom’s next great building project. The first stone of the present Basilica of St. Peter in Rome was laid in 1506. The plan was to replace the wooden basilica built by Constantine which had been consecrated in 326 and was still in use when its replacement was begun.

The new and present basilica would not be consecrated until 120 years after the cornerstone was laid and 1,300 years after the consecration of Constantine’s building. Basilica is the story of the popes and architects who over the decades expended vast sums building the great church with its dome that stands as tall as a 45-story building, its glorious colonnade embracing the grand plaza with the obelisk in the center. The terrain of the church and plaza cover more than five acres, the church alone 3.7 acres.

Author R.A. Scotti gives us the splendor of architectural and artistic wonders, and she sets it in the political context which is also a story of waste, vanity and extravagance. The excesses of the construction costs prompted the selling of indulgences, a practice that precipitated the Protestant Reformation.

Scotti gives us vivid portraits of the men who built modern Rome. The story is expansive and complex, like the glorious Baroque building itself.

See also:
Curled Up: Cluny: In Search of God’s Lost Empire
NRO: Well-Churched: A trip to Rome
America: A Very Long Story

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