Saturday, August 20, 2011

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the Mellifluous Doctor

Jean Bellegambe, Madonna and Child with Saint Bernard
French, 1509
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, born in 1090, and famous in his own lifetime, still speaks to us today. His life was one filled with important business, on a trans-European scale, but was also one filled with deep spirituality and profound thought. He was at once monk, abbot, theologian, poet, prolific writer of letters, diplomat, spiritual advisor and councilor to kings, queens, other monastics, bishops, cardinals and popes. His life, frequently on the move, is a reminder that the Middle Ages were far less static and provincial than we often think. An appreciation of his life and influence was given by Pope Benedict XVI in an address on Saint Bernard at the General Audience on October 21, 2009. You can read it in full here.

In 1113, when he was 23, Bernard de Fontaine (and several of his relatives) entered religious life in the recently founded Monastery of Citeaux (or, for those who can read French, here). This monastery had been founded in 1098 by a group of monks from the Benedictine monastery of Molesmes. These monks were seeking a more austere life, in accord with the original rule of Saint Benedict, than that currently being practiced in Benedictine monasteries. Citeaux, therefore, became the first monastery of what would become the Cistercian order or family of monks, which also includes the Trappists.

 In 1115, when he was only 25 years old, Bernard was chosen as abbot of the Cistercian “daughter house” monastery of Clairvaux. He remained abbot of Clairvaux until his death at age 63 on August 20, 1153. He was canonized in 1174.

 Saint Bernard is principally known to art historians as the author of some comments on the excessive display of fantastical imagery in the monasteries of the mainstream Benedictine order, especially as represented by the great Abbey of Cluny, the principal Benedictine monastery in France at that time. Frequently quoted, they give us a good idea of what the decorations at Cluny once looked like (the monastery itself was almost entirely destroyed during the French Revolution),

 “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? What are disgusting monkeys there for, or satyrs, or ferocious lions, or monstrous centaurs, or spotted tigers, or fighting soldiers, or huntsmen sounding the bugle? You may see there one head with many bodies, or one body with numerous heads. Here is a quadruped with a serpent's tail; there is a fish with a beast's head; there a creature, in front a horse, behind a goat; another has horns at one end, and a horse's tail at the other. In fact, such an endless variety of forms appears everywhere that it is more pleasant to read in the stonework than in books, and to spend the day in admiring these oddities than in meditating on the law of God. Good God! If we are not ashamed of these absurdities, why do we not grieve at the cost of them?”1

Monkey capital from S. Michel de Cuxa (France),
French, 1130-1140
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Cloisters Collection
 A sample of what Bernard was talking about may be found at the Cloisters branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in capitals of the Cuxa Cloisters, which was transported from the monastery of St. Michel-de-Cuxa in the Pyrenees and reassembled at this specialized museum in upper Manhattan.

Often interpreted to suggest that Bernard was antagonistic to images, I don’t believe this passage tells us anything of the kind. To me it suggests that Bernard was quite susceptible to the allure of such images, but was unhappy with their use in locations where they would be distractions to prayer and study, as well as being concerned about the cost of such items when money could have been spent on aiding the poor. If he was actually antagonistic to images it would be ironic, as his life, and the legends that grew from it, became the source of many images in the centuries after his death. As studied by James France in his book, Medieval Images of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the first comprehensive study of this subject, Bernard’s life and the legends that grew up about him gave rise to many iconographical types during the medieval period, which he ends at about 1530. 2

Among them are:

Bernard as monk and abbot.                                        
Saint Bernard
Book of Hours and Prayer Book
Dutch (Delft), 1460-1480
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 135 E22, fol. 140v (detail)
 Taddeo Crivelli, Saint Bernard
Italian (Ferrara), c. 1469
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS Ludwig IX 13, fol.183v
Bernard as writer and as teacher.
Jean Fouquet, Saint Bernard
From the Hours of Etienne Chevalier
French, c. 1450
Chantilly, Musée Condé  

Bernard as advisor to Kings and Popes and as the mediator in disputes. 

Saint Bernard and Emperor Conrad III,
French, 14th century
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France,
MS Latin 4900, fol. 184 (detail)

Saint Bernard Mediating a Dispute Between the Bishop of Bar and Duke Matthew von  Lothringen
From the Abbey of Altenberg (near Cologne)
German, c. 1532
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Lactation theme, which is the visionary and miraculous breastfeeding of Saint Bernard by the Virgin Mary. This miracle endows Bernard with the knowledge and inspiration he needed for preaching and writing.   According to James France this theme is more common in northern Europe and Spain than in southern Europe, including southern France.

Unknown, Lactation of Saint Bernard,
c. 1480-1485, Woodcut,
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Uknown Ghentish Master, Lactation of Saint Bernard
Belgian, c. 1525-1540
Ghent, Museum voor Shone Kunsten

The Amplexus theme, which is the image of Christ leaning down from the cross to embrace Saint Bernard. This image “reflects Bernard’s immense contribution in a developing theology centered on Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross".3

Simon Bening, The Crucified Chirst Embracing Saint Bernard
From the Da Costa Hours
Belgian (Bruges), 1510-1520
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M.0399, fol. 301v (detail)

Francisco Ribalta, The Crucified Christ Embracing Saint Bernard
Spanish, 1625-1627
Madrid, Museo del Prado

Johannes Dressel and Veit Duempel, Christ Reaches from the Cross to Embrace Saint Bernard
German, 1623-1626
Ebrach, Parish Church of Saints Mary, John the Evangelist and Nicholas

  • The Chained Devil theme, signifying Bernard’s conquest of the temptations of the world.

Saint Bernard with a Chained Devil,
From a Book of Hours
France, Burgundy, 1485,
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M25, fol. 24r (detail)
Jean Bourdichon, Saint Bernard with a Chained Devil
From the Hours of Frederic of Aragon
French, 1501-1504
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 10532, fol. 330

The Doctrina theme, which is generally an image of the writing Saint Bernard receiving a vision of Our Lady in which she instructs him. Like the Lactation iconographic type, it represents Bernard receiving the knowledge and skill he needed for his preaching and writing, but the method of transmission is more spiritual than physical.  According to James France, this theme was most popular in Italy as, for instance, in these works by the father and son painters, Filippo and Filippino Lippi.

Filippo Lippi, Blessed Virgin Appearing to Saint Bernard
Italian, 1447
London, National Gallery

Filippino Lippi, Virgin Appearing to Saint Bernard
Italian, 1486
Florence, Church of the Badia

as well as for other painters.

Perugino, Virgin Appearing to Saint Bernard
Italian, 1493
Munich, Alte Pinakothek

Alonso Cano, Lactation of Saint Bernard
Spanish, 1650
Madrid, Museo del Prado 

Bartolome Murillo, Lactation of Saint Bernard
Spanish, c. 1660
Madrid, Museo del Prado

In the Renaissance and later periods several of these types continue and additional types appear, such as:

Saint Bernard as one among other saints
Francesco Botticini, Madonna and Child with Saints Mary Magdalene and Bernard,
Italian, c. 1485
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Filippino Lippi, Madonna and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Bernard and two bishop saints
Italian, 1486
Florence, Ufizzi Gallery

Alonso Sanchez Coello, Holy Trinity Adored by the Virgin Mary, and Saints Bernard, Sebastian and Francis
Spanish, 1582
Madrid, Museo del Prado
Incidents from the Life of Saint Bernard
Particularly prominent in these paintings is the incident of Saint Bernard and the Duke of Aquitaine.  One of the disputes that occupied Bernard during his lifetime was the resolution of one of those situations that have sometimes arisen in the history of the Church where there of two (or more) rival claimants of the Papacy.  In the 12th century Saint Bernard supported Pope Innocent II.  On one of his diplomatic missions to heal the divide Bernard encountered Duke William of Aquitaine, who supported the rival (or anti-) Pope, Anacletus.  Excommunicated by Innocent for his support of the anti-Pope, William did not attend the Mass celebrated by Saint Bernard, but waited outside to speak to him.  After the Consecration, Bernard marched out of the church, holding the consecrated Host on the paten (special dish on which it rests).  He went to William and held the Host up to him, saying:
"Your judge is present, at whose name every knee in heaven, on earth, and below the earth is bowed... Do you spurn Him?  Do you Treat Him with the contempt with which you treat His servants?" 4 This dramatic action had the desired effect and the Duke abandoned his support of the anti-Pope.  

Jean de Saint-Igny (attributed), Saint Bernard and the Duke of Aquitaine
French, 1595-1600
Valenciennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Martin Pepyn, Saint Bernard and the Duke of Aquitaine
Flemish, 1600-1625
Valenciennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Other chosen incidents show SaintBernard as a peacemaker and reformer and as the most important preacher of the Second Crusade.

Vicente Carducho, Saint Bernard Visiting the Prior of the Chartreuse of Grenoble
Spanish, 1632
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Emile Signol, Saint Bernard Preaching the Second Crusade
French, 1840
Versailles, Musée national des chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon

  •  Saint Bernard as Patron
Jean Bellegambe, Le Cellier Triptych
French, 1509
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
(In this triptych Saint Bernard appears in both the central panel, where he presents a lay donor to the Madonna and Child,
and in the left wing, where he presents two Cistercian monks)
Jean Bellegambe, Madonna and Child with Saint Bernard and a Cistercian Monk,
French, after 1507
Pittsburgh, Frick Art and Historical Center
(Here the same painter presents a more intimate diptych in which only one monk is being presented by Saint Bernard)

And we should not forget other aspects of Saint Bernard’s heritage.
Saint Bernard Presents Dante to the Madonna and Child
Tuscan (Siena), 1444
London, British Library,
MS Yates Thompson 36, fol. 189
• In Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy, Saint Bernard becomes Dante’s final guide. It is Bernard who replaces Beatrice in guiding Dante through the higher regions of Heaven. Further, his devotion to the Virgin Mary also inspired Dante to present his glorious poem in praise of Mary, “Vergine Madre, figlia del tuo Figlio (Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son”) through the mouth of Saint Bernard at the opening of the last canto of Paradiso, the final book of the Divine Comedy.5

• And the poem “Jesu, Dulcis Memoria”, which has long been attributed to Saint Bernard, has had a long tradition in European music from Gregorian chant to polyphony to Baroque to Contemporary.

And then, of course, there are the dogs and the pass through the Alps, all reminders that this 12th-century man had a large impact on his world and continues to have an impact on ours today.
1. Excerpt from the Apologia to the Abbot William of St. Thierry, taken from Library of the World's Best Literature Ancient and Modern, Editor, Charles Dudley Warner, Vol. IV, 1896. It can be accessed at

 2. James France, Medieval Images of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Kalamazoo, Michigan, Cistercian Publications, 2007.

 3. France, above, p. 183.
 4.  France, above, p. 150.

 5. Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, verses 1-21. You can read the poem in its entirety in Italian and in English at the following sites: The Dartmouth Dante Project (, The Princeton Dante Project ( and in parallel versions at divine (

© M. Duffy, 2011

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