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The 'Things of Greater Importance': Bernard of Clairvaux's 'Apologia' and the Medieval Attitude Toward Art.

In 1125, Bernard of Clairvaux felt that he could no longer defer writing a defence of the monks of his order against the charge of traducing monks of other traditions. The Apologia, dedicated to his friend Abbot William of Saint-Thierry, has ever since been regarded as an important piece of evidence for the differences between the monastic observances of the Cistercians and those of the traditional Benedictines. In the past hundred years it has been used by historians of art to shed light on the character of ecclesiastical art in Bernard's time and how it was appreciated. As art-history has acquired a wider appeal than monastic controversy, Bernard's remarks have been accorded very close attention. Meyer Schapiro declared that the whole of the Apologia called for careful study, because |every sentence is charged with meanings that open perspectives of the Romanesque world'. This book is that careful study, written to elucidate Bernard's attitude to art. The text proper (pp. 3-201) comprises three main chapters of unequal length. Rudolph begins by examining what he regards as the points of |greater importance' to Bernard: namely, the character of artworks in the monastic context, |investment' by churches in lavish works of art that would attract pilgrims and become thereby a source of income, and the criticisms of this practice by those who saw that expenditure on such |art' necessarily diverted material resources from the poor - those in real need of financial help. These points are raised by Bernard in chapter xxviii. Another point, from chapter xxix, was that ingenious works of art in the cloister distracted monks from concentrating on spiritual matters. According to Rudolph, Bernard considered all these problems raised bv ecclesiastical art within the orthodox framework laid down by Jerome and Gregory I, and argued his case with studied moderation. Bernard was no puritan, hostile to art as such, only to excess in either cost or invention. In the second chapter Rudolph discusses a variety of artworks from Bernard's time and argues that the kind of art Bernard seems most hostile to for its extravagance can actually be better illustrated from some illuminated manuscripts made at Citeaux than from any artworks made for the established Benedictine houses. In the third chapter, therefore, he concludes that the Apologia was not addressed only or mainly to the traditional Benedictines (|Cluniacs'), as has been traditionally argued, but that Bernard intended to denounce extravagance or excess in any kind of monastic community, including Cistercians themselves. The Apologia, on this view, becomes not a piece of invective in a narrow dispute between Citeaux and Cluny, but evidence of Bernard's anxiety about a profound malaise at the heart of monastic life throughout the West. Rudolph seems to believe that Bernard wrote in knowledge of Peter the Venerable's own recent defence of Cluny against its detractors but deliberately avoided a polemical confrontation with Cluny in order to keep the discussion focused on the general problem: what the monastic vocation really committed monks to.

On many of these points Rudolph's position commands assent. There are, however, places where his actual arguments do not carry conviction. It is, for example, difficult to believe that Bernard did not regard himself as writing as a champion of the extreme Cistercian party quite explicitly against the |Cluniacs', for it can only be Cluniacs, in the narrow sense, who treated |Odo, Maiolus, Odilo and Hugh as the principes et preceptores of their order (sui ordinis)'. In this sense Bernard obviously did consider the Cluniacs in general terms as representatives of |excess' in the monastic life. It is also difficult to accept his argument that Bernard can already in 1125 have had Suger of Saint-Denis in mind as representative of a different attitude to monastic art (p. 304). Suger's own works on monastic art were written much later, and in 1125 any |dissatisfaction' with certain aspects of Suger's conduct (p. 293) which Bernard felt towards him concerned the size of his retinue and the intrusion of seculars in the cloister which he allowed. Rudolph says that Bernard was on the verge of making this known to Suger when he was writing the Apologia, but the letter Bernard wrote to Suger in 1127 is actually full of praise because Suger had given up these bad habits; there is in it no mention whatever of Suger's artistic interests. By 1125, Suger had anyway not begun rebuilding the abbatial church.

What is a rather more serious cause for disquiet with this book is the way it seems to assume that for Bernard the |things of greater importance' (maiora) were works of art, as they are no doubt for Rudolph himself. He sees Bernard as reaching these things of greater importance at the end of his work as though rising to a kind of climax. Yet in his own account of how the Apologia came to be written (pp. 203-26), the chapters relating to art grew from a general idea about criticizing |excess in food, clothing and certain other things': they were certainly not from the first regarded in themselves as of greater importance. It is the art-historians who have magnified the significance of Bernard's chapters xxviii-xxix, a mere three pages of the twenty-eight given in this edition (pp. 232-87). These three pages provide the basis not only for writing three chapters of the book but for thirty of the forty-nine pages given to an elaborate art-historical commentary of the Apologia given in Appendix 2 (pp. 289-337), which adds nothing new to what Rudolph has written in the main text. The effect of all this is to overload Bernard's text and distort its intention, for when Bernard, in exasperation with the paraphernalia of abbatial retinues, turned to deal with |things of greater importance', he was certainly thinking not of |art' but of the spiritual life itself. What, he asks in chapter xxviii, has gold to do with this? Yet by pouring out a costly show in churches, trying to make the spiritual tangible by adornment and paint, monks (like other clergy) appeared to believe that the more money was spent the holier the place would become, and that the more colourful the saintly images the more saintly the figure represented must be. What makes these problems |of greater importance' is not that |art' is involved, but that the value of the spiritual itself is by implication measured according to the amount of money invested in making it manifest. Bernard hardly mentions any works of art as such. From his vague reference to images of the saints (forma is interpreted by Rudolph rather too precisely as reliquaries) Bernard in fact moves on quickly to the expense of the enormous candelabra where costly craftsmanship was under censure, but this is hardly artwork in the sense that interests Rudolph. In fact Bernard was not really concerned with art all all, but with the idea that expenditure of money could generate greater spirituality. Similarly in chapter xxix, when Bernard turned to consider the cloister as the place where monks were supposed to be alone to concentrate on their spiritual dedication, he asked what any kind of |abnormality' was doing there: ridicula monstruositas, deformis formositas or formosa deformitas? Any claustral ornamentation was a distraction capable of keeping the monks busy all day studying the sculptures instead of keeping their eyes on their books. Bernard was concerned about the worldliness of costly display and idle curiosity, for both threatened the kind of monastic life he and his party of reformers advocated. Rudolph's determination to read these chapters as though they were concerned with |artwork' misrepresents Bernard's purpose.

There is a further point. Rudolph shows Bernard as heir to a tradition of monastic criticism going back to Jerome and Cassian, but does not seem to think that Bernard's use of them needs explanation or justification. But by Bernard's time, monasticism played quite a different role in the Western Church and in western society from what had been the case in the early Church. Although those criticized by Bernard would certainly have found it difficult to ignore Jerome's views completely, this is far from establishing that Jerome was regarded as the ultimate authority in monastic disputes. As Bernard himself notices of the |greater things', they were taken for granted as not so important (ideo visa minora) because they were usitatiora. Rudolph renders this as |more common', where |more customary' or |long-established' would be more appropriate. Bernard was attacking not common abuses, but long-standing uses of the religious life. Since Rudolph alludes to the opposition of some of Bernard's own monks to his criticisms (p. 190 n. 518), it diminishes the significance of Bernard's Apologia to overlook how partial and passionate a view of the monastic life it gives us. He was not in the mainstream of monastic idealism.

Art-historians will find here a wealth of useful reference (though a more detailed index would have helped to keep track of them). As a commentary on the Apologia as a whole, however, the book is misguided about the importance of |art'. And in the end it really has no bearing on such a nebulous idea as the Mediaeval Attitude to Art.
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Author:Matthew, D.J.A.
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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