Bernard of Clairvaux, Apology (Apologia), 1125
Bernard of Clairvaux was abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux, in Burgundy, France, and a well-known preacher who travelled widely and was involved with many of the most pressing issues of his day, from papal power to the Crusades. The Cistercians were a reformed order who espoused ascetic ideals, and were deeply critical of other orders of monks whose lives were more integrated with the world, like those of Cluny. Written by Bernard at the request of William, the abbot of St. Thierry, this text critiques the large, decorated churches of the Cluniac monks, as well as what Bernard saw as their lax lifestyle. It also sheds great light on medieval debates about art, and is also notable for its rich descriptions of the art that Bernard purports to despise.
Oh vanity of vanities, yet no more vain than insane! The church is resplendent in her walls and wanting in her poor. She dresses her stones in gold and lets her sons go naked. The eyes of the rich are fed at the expense of the indigent. The curious find something to amuse them and the needy find nothing to sustain them.
What sort of reverence is shown to the saints when we place their pictures on the floor and then walk on them? Often someone spits in an angel's mouth. Often the face of a saint is trampled by some passerby's feet. If sacred images mean nothing to us, why don't we at least economize on the paint? Why embellish what we're about to befoul? Why decorate what we must walk upon? What good is it to have attractive pictures where they're usually stained with dirt?
Finally, what good are such things to poor men, to monks, to spiritual men? Perhaps the poet's question could be answered with words from the prophet: "Lord, I have loved the beauty of your house, and the place where your glory dwells" (Ps. 26:8). I agree. Let us allow this to be done in churches because, even if it is harmful to the vain and greedy, it is not such to the simple and devout. But in cloisters, where the brothers are reading, what is the point of this ridiculous monstrosity, this shapely misshapenness, this misshapen shapeliness? What is the point of those unclean apes, fierce lions, monstrous centaurs, half-men, striped tigers, fighting soldiers and hunters blowing their horns? In one place you see many bodies under a single head, in another several heads on a single body. Here on a quadruped we see the tail of a serpent. Over there on a fish we see the head of a quadruped. There we find a beast that is horse up front and goat behind, here another that is horned animal in front and horse behind. In short, so many and so marvelous are the various shapes surrounding us that it is more pleasant to read the marble than the books, and to spend the whole day marveling over these things rather than meditating on the law of God. Good Lord! If we aren't embarrassed by the silliness of it all, shouldn't we at least be disgusted by the expense?
Heidi Catherine Gearhart is Assistant Professor of Art History at George Mason University. Gearhart specializes in the art of Medieval Europe. Her research focuses on sacred arts and manuscripts, artists, and medieval art theory, and she is especially interested in issues of memory, craft, and manufacture.