Fontenay is arguably the brightest star in Burgundy’s vast and impressive historical buildings firmament. A Unesco World Heritage site since 1981, it has been restored, preserved and maintained by several generations of the Aynard family, and is open to the public 365 days a year.
The Abbey of Cluny was founded in 910, just to the north west of Mâcon, and was the flagship Head Quarters of the Benedictine Order. Within a short time, Cluny was producing Popes and Saints galore (well four and three to be exact), and every major and minor noble wanted at least one son to be a Benedictine monk. For over 400 years, the main Abbey of Cluny, at 187m in length, was the largest building devoted to religious worship in the western world. However, for some of its adherents, Cluny had lost touch with the fundamental monastic principles of work, humility and piety. So in 1098, a group of 20 monks led by Robert of Molesmes (and including Stephen Harding, an English monk from Dorset), formed a splinter group, and broke away from Cluny. They founded the Cistercian Order at Citeaux, 13km to the east of Nuits St Georges. There, Robert and Stephen led their followers back to a very hard and simple existence, where the average life expectancy of a working monk was not much more than 30 years.
Bernard of Clairvaux was born into a noble Burgundian family. In 1113, when he was 23, Stephen Harding had just become the third Abbey of Citeaux. In that year Bernard, along with 30 other young noblemen of Burgundy, joined the Cisterian Order at Citeaux. Within a couple of years, Stephen recognised that Bernard had talents beyond ditch digging and vineyard planting, and in 1115, Bernard was sent by Stephen to found a new Abbey 170 km to the north of Citeaux near to Bar-sur-Aube, which became known as Clairveaux. Under Bernard’s direction, Clairvaux became a monastic training centre, attracting many new disciples, while those already trained, left to found further Abbeys for the Order, including in 1118, at Fontenay.
Bernard died in 1153 at the age of 63, by which time the presence and influence of the Cistercian Order had spread throughout the Western world. He was canonised on 18 January 1174 by Pope Alexander III.
The Abbey at Fontenay resonates with a serenity derived from its surroundings, the elegant and harmonious use of space, and the gentle linear simplicity of the architecture and stonework. The funding for the construction of the Abbey Church, came in part from the fortune of Ebrard Arundel, the Bishop of Norwich, who found solace and refuge at Fontenay, which became his final resting place. The Abbey receives more than 100,000 visitors each year, and has been the scene for many famous films and tv series, including Cyrano de Bergerac with Gerard Depardieu. It is an impressive and moving place to visit.