Fragments of the Past: Imagining Medieval Cluny at the Smart Museum -- Claire Jenson

Fragments of the past

By Claire Jenson|February 26, 2015

Three medieval architectural fragments in the permanent collection of the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art were once part of the massive twelfth-century monastery church of Cluny in Burgundy, France.

After the building was destroyed during the French Revolution, the limestone pieces of its structure were dispersed. In 1977, shortly after its founding, the Smart purchased three fragments from Cluny, once the greatest Benedictine monastery of its time, and relocated these monumental artifacts to Chicago.

Today, each of the Smart’s pieces - one sculpted head and two decorative architectural fragments - could fit in an undergraduate’s backpack. Though these small fragments belie the extraordinary scale of the building for which they were made, the refinement and spectacular beauty of their carving have survived, reflecting the splendor of Cluny’s monastery at its historical height.

Through the pieces of the medieval past currently on view in the Smart’s Objects and Voices exhibition, we can peek into the lives and experiences of a community of monks distant in place and time.

The small angel’s head peers downward, his orderly hair subtly curving away from his face. He gazed at the faithful below with round, oversized eyes, which are carved in such deep relief that they almost project from his face.

Grey and blank today, his eyes were once painted, returning the medieval viewer’s gaze with an even more powerful presence. The artist has rendered an ethereal expression in the angel’s face. His mouth—one brief line, terminated delicately on either side with the suggestions of smiling cheeks—conveys an otherworldly impassivity.

Centuries ago, this angel observed the monastic prayer of three hundred monks in the church at Cluny. His constant surveillance must have protected Cluniac brothers as they tirelessly sang the divine office, and his heavenly gaze surely realigned their devotional attention if it ever wavered.

(image removed)

While the angel surveyed the gathered people from a high perch, the pilaster capital, one of the architectural fragments, probably belonged to a church furnishing closer to the ground.

This sculptural fragment might have originally decorated a lavabo, a basin in which clerics washed their hands before performing the Eucharistic liturgy. Seen up close, the intricately sculpted ornament on this column topper suggests the care and detail with which the Cluny artists worked every corner of the ecclesiastical space.

Four levels of decoration survive in this Smart object, and each has been carved in very high relief. Narrow holes have been drilled between the undulating leaves that create an arcing pattern on the bottom level and contrasting lights and shadows.

Under the flickering illumination of candles, which were both devotional offerings and practical sources of light in medieval churches, these organic shapes might have seemed to twist and bend around the capital.


The original location and use of the capital remains an open question, but scholars have confidently identified the third Smart fragment as a piece of the choir screen.

The screen was a free-standing arcade approximately one meter high that marked a division between the choir, where monks prayed, and the nave, where the laity gathered. Many fragments of this pseudo-architectural structure survive—so many that scholars like the former University of Chicago Professor Clement Edson Armi have been able to archaeologically reconstruct how Cluny’s screen looked.
The choir screen’s monumental arches received different bands of vegetal ornament, and the rosettes between each arch displayed slight variations in style and shape. The Smart fragment originally decorated the front of the screen, elaborating an arch that faced the congregation of laity in the nave.

For the privileged group of lay people positioned close to the screen, the subtle changes in banded decoration of each arch might have become a kind of ‘spot the difference’ game, engaging their eyes at length.
Modern people might be tempted to imagine the medieval church as a sterile stone hall; in fact, ornamental and figural sculpture enlivened Cluny’s architectural fabric with rich texture and detail. Of course, textile and metalwork furnishings, wall paintings, woodwork, lights, and the people gathered within it further amplified the sensory impact of the space for the twelfth century Christian.

The sculpted remnants at the Smart give us a vivid glimpse of Cluny’s past, but one that remains unavoidably fragmented by time.

  1. Sculptural Fragment: Head of an Angel, ca. 1120, Smart Museum of Art 1977.2
  2. Section of an Arcade (spandrel), ca. 1125, Smart Museum of Art 1977.3
  3. Architectural Fragment: Pilaster Capital, ca. 1120, Smart Museum of Art 1977.4


The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990.

Armi, C. Edson and Elizabeth Bradford Smith. “The Choir Screen of Cluny III.” The Art Bulletin 66:4 (Dec. 1984), 556-573.
Armi, C. Edson. Masons and Sculptors in Romanesque Burgundy: The New Aesthetic of Cluny III. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1983.
Cahn, Walter. and Linda Seidel, eds. Romanesque Sculptures in American Collections, vol 1: New England. Turnhout: Brepols, 1979.
Conant, Kenneth John. “A majestic abbey, long destroyed, rises again – on paper.” Harvard Magazine, Jan-Feb 1977.

Image: ClunyMonastery — a remaining tower of the Abbey St. Pierre et St. Paul; Credit: Clifton Beard Compfight creative commons.

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Author, Claire Jenson, is a Ph.D. student in Art History at the University of Chicago. She collaborated with Aden Kumler to co-curate the Fragments of the Medieval Past mini-exhibition for the Smart Museum of Art's Objects and Voices: A Collection of Stories exhibition (2015). Jenson's dissertation on the group of liturgical manuscripts owned by Metz bishop Renaud de Bar (1302-1312) will engage her broader interests in medieval liturgy, devotion and clerical patronage.