Bernard of Clairvaux was an odd chap. From an aristocratic background, he rejected earthly gains in favour or a very severe asceticism that won him more influence on account of his stern piety. In spite of his saintliness, he was renowned for having a short temper and wasn’t shy about dabbling in papal politics.
He had retreated to a place called Clairvaux with a group of Cistercian monks to form a monastic group that would reject the ostentation that could now be seen in most medieval churches. He believed places of worship should be minimally decorated – and in this he anticipates the protestant backlash against Catholic showiness by about four hundred years.
In his writings, Bernard talks about churches in the twelfth century – and a lot were being built at this time – having “immoderate length”, “superfluous breadth” and “strange designs which attract the eyes of the worshiper, hinder the soul’s devotion”.
Though Bernard did not condone the crusade era pogroms against Jews, he does say that the glittering designs now cropping up in churches reminded him of “the old Jewish ritual” – which one assumes he did not think was a positive development.
All those aspects of gothic cathedrals we are used to and like, gargoyles pulling faces and smiling saints – were complete anathema to Bernard when they were being constructed. Pack it in, was his simple message to the masons and the clerics who employed them.
Bernard believed that if it was beautiful to the eye then it was “dross and dung”. He beheld the “great trees of brass” that had replaced plain candlesticks and asked: “What do you suppose is the object of all this? The repentance of the contrite or the admiration of the gazers?”
Put the paint pots down was one of his regular shouts. Whether it was gaudy illumination in bibles or saints richly coloured on church walls. The insertion of griffins and other fantastical animals in to sacred imagery was abhorrent and pagan in his view.
“Again, in the cloisters, what is the meaning of those ridiculous monsters, of that deformed beauty, that beautiful deformity, before the very eyes of the brethren when reading”
He railed against “disgusting monkeys”, “ferocious lions”, “monstrous centaurs”, “spotted tigers” and other things littering the gospels and peering from walls. “You may see there one head with many bodies or one body with numerous heads”.
Quadrupeds with serpent tails and a fish with a beast’s head might seem enchanting and mysterious to us but to Bernard the ascetic, it was absolutely repellent.
“Good God! If we are not ashamed of these absurdities, why do we not grieve at the cost of them!”