Spotlight on Cîteaux
(to download a pdf article, click here)

May through October 1998: A Fine Time to Visit Medieval Burgundy

Travelers interested in history, art, architecture—indeed, in  just about any cultural aspect of France and Western Europe—should plan now to attend the great celebrations that will surround the 900th anniversary  of the founding of the monastery of Cîteaux. Besides enjoying the specific events planned for that commemoration, travelers can discover the many intriguing facets of medieval Burgundy still surviving today.

From May through October 1998, the influential monastery will be celebrated with a series of exhibitions and concerts at the monastery itself, as well as in other abbeys, churches, and towns in Burgundy. Visitors will be able to appreciate and experience its accomplishments in art, architecture, technology, and agriculture. There will be stirring performances of Gregorian chant and medieval music to help evoke the spirituality that accompanied the creation and growth of the monastery.


Cîteaux would wield great influence on the culture of France, and of Europe as a whole, but its original intentions were humble.  In the year 1098, Robert de Molesme, a Benedictine monk, was inspired to build the monastery after he had grown disillusioned with what he and many of his time perceived to be the spiritual decadence consuming the Benedictine order. He hoped to create the ideal monastic community—in but not of the world. Molesme could not have foreseen its lasting impact.

St. Benedict of Nursia founded the Benedictines about 529 AD in Monte Cassino, Italy. His rules were predicated on a community devoted to prayer and work, known for the Latin motto: ora et labora. Monastic work was often manual, for the monks’ subsistence, and sometimes intellectual, especially the reading and copying of religious manuscripts. Indeed, monasteries were the main repositories for learning and for the transmission and preservation of Western culture throughout the Middle Ages.

By Molesme’s time, Benedictine monasteries had evolved from small self-supporting communities into large seigniorial holdings, wealthy from donations and tithes and hierarchical in ceremony and in power. Many monks yearned for the simplicity and asceticism of the past. And so Molesme repaired to an isolated swamp in Burgundy, just south of Dijon, that was filled with reeds, or cistels, from which Cîteaux got its name. There he built his vision of monastic life.


Molsesme himself soon found that Cîteaux was too severe even for him, and left for a less rigorous Benedictine monastery.  Some of Molesme’s fellow monks remained at Cîteaux, and they would be joined by the man who was actually to found the Cistercian order.

St. Bernard de Clairvaux entered Cîteaux around 1112 to flee the distractions and corruption of the world, to pursue, as Molesme had once said, “a stricter and more faithful observance of the Rule of St. Benedict.” Attracting numerous recruits to Cîteaux, and eventually becoming the abbot of Clairvaux (another Cistercian abbey, founded in 1115), St. Bernard would not only begin the Cistercian order, but would also emerge as a renowned theologian, philosopher, and defender of Catholic church orthodoxy.

The Cistercian order spread quickly throughout Europe. By 1151, 300 Cistercian monasteries were home to more than 11,000 monks and nuns. By 1250, 647 monasteries stretched from Spain to Scandinavia.

The energetic new order revolutionized church governance, breaking with the Benedictine practice of enforcing conformity on its far-flung abbeys through an intrusive, centralized hierarchy. The abbots of Cîteaux rarely interfered in the daily operations of the other Cistercian abbeys. Indeed, Cîteaux would call annual meetings (chapitres généraux) at which all Cistercian abbots discussed the order’s affairs on an equal basis. In 1215, the Cîteaux form of governing was applied to all the monastic orders.


To free themselves from feudal entanglements, the Cistercians prized economic self-sufficiency, a goal that spurred their intense activity—and innovations—in agriculture and technology. All over Europe, they drained swamps, pioneered crop rotation, and cultivated new strains of grapes. They built mills and fisheries; developed more efficient ways to forge steel; and worked wonders with hydraulics, conveying water from lakes to fields through aqueducts and canals. Little wonder, then, that the Cistercians are sometimes credited with having invented modern rural Europe.

The Cistercians weren’t all prayer and work and no play. They also built wineries. One of them was Clos de Vougeot, located in the Côte de Nuits, the area just south of Dijon that produces arguably the best red wines in Burgundy. Today, Clos de Vougeot remains one of the most respected names in the region.

Since 1944, Clos de Vougeot has belonged to a fraternity of a different sort: the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin (Brotherhood of the Knights of Wine Tasting), an international club whose goal is to promote the wines of France, particularly those of Burgundy. The organization holds a series of banquets every year for its various chapters, and it is open all year to the public (information: 03-80-62-86-09), which can visit the Renaissance château as well as the more properly Cistercian 12th-century wine cellar and wine press room.

Clos de Vougeot


The most enduring legacy of the Cistercians may be their art and architecture. They were among the most talented illuminators of their time. Perhaps their most famous work is the Bible translation commissioned by Steven Harding, a 12th-century abbot of Cîteaux.

The hallmark of Cistercian architecture is simplicity, reflecting the order’s asceticism. St.
Bernard believed many of the churches of his time were ostentatious, their enormous dimensions and ornamentation distracting from the meditation on God. His pared-down cruciform church design, duplicated at Cistercian abbeys all over Europe, has relatively extended transepts, square apses, and clean lines. Natural light gleams down on pure volumes of white stone, lending austere grandeur to the interiors. Ornamentation, sculptures, multicolored windows, and paintings are shunned, with the exception of painted crucifixes. Figurative art, so popular in other churches of the time, is replaced with abstract designs, especially the geometric patterns of Cistercian windows and floor tiles.

Unfortunately, during the French Revolution, the structures of Cîteaux were mostly destroyed and its monks disbursed. Though the monastery was revived in 1898, when it again became the mother house of the order, all that remains today, along with the modern abbey church, is a 15th-century library with its original Gothic arches, a 17th-century définitoire (where the abbots would gather for their meetings), and an 18th-century monks’ dormitory.

Though Cîteaux as it looked in the days of Molesme, St. Bernard, and their successors can no longer be seen by the tourist, you can still experience the ineffable devotion that made the abbey so vibrant in its time. Go to the present-day abbey church and listen. The monks still chant and still sing the Salve Regina, as their brothers have done down through centuries.



Today the original abbey at Cîteaux exists only in the imagination of inspired travelers. Yet there are numerous traces left by the Cistercians throughout Burgundy.
The Romanesque Abbey of Fontenay, built in the mid-12th century, northwest of Dijon, has one of the most characteristic Cistercian churches. The façade is sober, its interior spare, its proportions harmonious. The entire abbey merits a visit, as it is the only Cistercian monastery in Burgundy to have survived intact. Replete with its church, cloister, chapter house, forge, and dormitory, it provides an accurate picture of Cistercian life (open all year, information: 03-80-92-15-00).
Cistercian architecture lost much of its severity, but none of its beauty, when it was mixed with Gothic forms in the church of the Abbey of Pontigny (northwest of Fontenay). Built between 1150 and 1212, the church was transitional: it’s Romanesque groined vaulting sits atop Gothic-style radiating chapels and a hemicycle choir. Although the church might not follow the strictest rules of St. Bernard, its Cistercian spirit is still evident in its stark white interior, graced mainly by the harmony of clean lines (open all year, information: 03-86-47-54-99).
For the sake of contrast, the inquisitive traveler could visit two churches in the area that reflect the other major movement in Romanesque architecture that arose in Burgundy—the more decorative Cluny school, named after the influential Benedictine abbey whose early 12th-century cathedral (very little of which still stands) was known for its immense size, high windows, and rich sculptures and reliefs. The 12th-century Cathedral of St-Lazare, in Autun, boasts masterpieces of Romanesque sculpture: an Eve carved magnificently in fluid lines and a dramatic depiction of the Last Judgment on the tympanum above the central door. The Basilica of St-Madeleine, in Vézelay, rivals St-Lazare in the beauty of its tympanum sculptures, which depict Christ and his apostles, and its colorful rounded arches give powerful expression to their forms. Both churches are mostly Romanesque, and both feature exterior additions from the Gothic period and restorations from the 19th century.

Burgundy’s list of beautiful Romanesque churches, contemporaneous with the Cistercians, is a long one, including those in Paray-le-Monial, Anzy-le-Duc, Sanlieu, and Tournus. All of them attest to Burgundy as a preeminent center of religious and intellectual power in the early Middle Ages, and to the lives of Robert de Molesme, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and their contemporaries who made manifest their spirituality in the beauty they left behind for us to contemplate.

(to download a pdf article, click here)


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