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2014 | 14 | 123-138

Article title

A Source of Distraction for Those Attached to the Vanities of the World. The Re - flections on Sacred Art by St Bernard of Clairvaux as Interpreted by Armand Rance



Title variants

Źródło rozproszeń dla przywiązanych do marności świata. Rozważania św. Bernarda z Clairvaux o sztuce sakralnej w interpretacji Armanda Rancego

Languages of publication



1666 Armand Jean Bouthillier de Rance (1626-1700) started a thorough reform of the Cistercian abbey at La Trappe, aimed at restoring in the monastery the strict rule of the Cistercian orders founding fathers: Sts Robert of Molesme, Stephen Harding and Bernard of Clairvaux. A vision of monastic life based on their teachings was presented by Rance in his De la saintete et des devoirs de la vie monastiąue (1683). In this treatise he recalled St Bernards reserved attitude towards art, as expounded in An Apology to William of St Thierry. In his radical reading of this text, Rance declared that, in order to stimulate their piety, monks did not need magnificent churches, splendid liturgical utensils or paintings representing sacred subjects. On the basis of a thorough survey in the orders archival materials and an analysis of works of medieval Cistercian art, he demonstrated that in the centuries immediately following the foundation of the order, Cistercians had faithfully adhered to the‘artistic doctrine’ of their founding father. Rance appealed to his comrades and other monks to liberate their liturgical practices from the rich artistic setting, in order to be able to return the liturgy its proper spiritual character. He was convinced that, while proclaiming such radical teachings, he remained faithful to Catholic orthodoxy which had established the practice of richly decorated churches and the cult of religious images for the use of ‘lay people who by their very condition are imperfect and who are attached to vanities, whence their piety has to be stimulated by external things’. According to the holy tradition of the religious order, however, ‘all these things should be renounced, because not only may they distract the monks, but also instil things in their memory and hearts that should be rejected, in order that they do not divert the attention of monks away from the hermitage [of the monastery] towards the world’. Yet, in the last quarter of the seventeenth century Rances radical puritanism appealed also to the lay members of French intellectual elites who earlier had been under the influence of Jansenist theology, which criticised excessive magnificence of sacred art. One of them was Andre Felibien, an outstanding art theorist and secretary of the Parisian Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. The architectural forms of the Fa Trappe abbey church, remodelled by Rance, were depicted by Felibien in his Description de YAbbaye de la Trappe (1677) as a consistent realisation of the Cistercian reformers concept of sacred art. Similar views were expressed by Frere Pacome (actually, Guillaume Dardenne) in his laconic characteristic of the church and monastery at La Trappe, appended to the plans of the buildings offered by him to King Louis XIV in 1708. Rances artistic doctrine was also expounded in numerous pamphlets that propagated the Trappist reform among pious female members of the aristocracy; it was further disseminated by numerous pilgrims who freąuently yisited La Trappe in order to learn there pure piety, liberated from ‘mundane attachments’. Therefore, the radical interpretation of St Bernards thoughts on art included in De la saintete et des devoirs de la vie monastiąue must have significantly influenced the development of a conviction - widespread among enłightened French elites in the eighteenth century - that engendering piety by means of the works of art was associated with na'ive and superficial religiosity, and did not go with the enłightened piety of the honnetes







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  • Instytut Historii Sztuki UJ


Document Type

Publication order reference


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