Cluny Maior ecclesia

The Sound of the Maior Ecclesia of Cluny

In 2010 a group of archaeologists and digital wizards took part in the digital recreation of the Maior Ecclesia of Cluny. Now, another team has worked to recreate the soundscape.

Cluny III - Maior Ecclesia
Cluny III – Maior Ecclesia. Source: Pinterest

The Romanesque church of Cluny was arguably one of the great wonders of the high Middle Ages. In fact, it was the largest church before the building of the present St. Peter’s in Rome. Founded in 910, the Abbey itself played a profound role as a theological as well as political and economical centre of Europe until the beginning of the 13th century.

Unfortunately, the Abbey with its church – the Maior Ecclesia – suffered a terrible destruction after the French revolution. Today, no more than 8% of the abbatial church is left standing.

In 2010 the Abbey celebrated the 1100th anniversary of its foundation with a number of exhibitions and publications. Part of these festivities consisted in a digital reconstruction of this major edifice. Later work consisted of a reconstruction of the major carving on the portal, the polychromic tympanon. Today, the digital reconstruction plays a major role in making the place come alive for visitors to Cluny, who might otherwise be puzzled trying to figure out what the place was all about in the Middle Ages.

Exactly how it was done is best left to be explained by the engineers, who worked their magic together with art historians and archaeologists and recreated Cluny III, built in the 11th century by the monk, Gunzo; hence the name of the project: “The Gunzo Project”.

The Soundscape of Cluny III

Recently, this endeavour was followed up by a reconstruction of the soundscape of the church. This has been carried out by the same group, which in 2013 – 14 reconstructed the acoustics of the Romanesque Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The aim is to help create “an impressive, immersive, interactive and involving” experience for visitors trying to grasp the way in which people in the Middle Ages experienced these vast interiors.

Construction of Cluny III was begun in 1130 and created a vast cathedral encompassing110.000 m3. The plan was based on a Latin cross with a central nave over 30 m high and with a barrel vault. Uniquely, the church was fitted with two transepts. The nave was flanked by four side naves – two on each side. In this new church the chancel with the main altar and the choir merged into one space. Part of this consisted of the enclosed choir, which in this case could accommodate app. 470 monks. This constituted the primary locus for the musical avant-garde at that time, singing Gregorian plainchant.

As was the case with the reconstructed soundscape in the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, the enclosed space for this huge choir generated an intelligible musical experience inside the choir and the chancel. This created a musical experience for the members of the choir and the clergy celebrating mass at the altar as one characterised by clarity and intelligibility. But it also created a soundscape devoid of directionality, thus furthering a mystic sense of being immersed in a world infused by sounds coming from all directions. Even though Cluny was not – contrary to what is often claimed – dedicated to offering “Laus Perennis” (literally “perpetual praise”), the church would seldom have been experienced as anything but filled with sounds and singing, emanating from the choir. This is witnessed by an impressive number of liturgical books and practices.

As opposed to the Cathedral in Santiago, the Abbey church in Cluny was reserved for the monks and their visitors – lay as well as learned. Nevertheless, the church at Cluny was constructed in the same way with two distinct acoustic spheres – the enclosed choir and chancel constituting a core surrounded by an outer space. As in Santiago this meant that the church at Cluny furthered the idea of an ecclesiola in the ecclesia. The vision of Heaven presented here was like an apple. As anyone can hear if they listen to the recordings of


Archaeoacoustics of intangible cultural heritage: The sound of the Maior Ecclesia of Cluny.
By Rafael Suárez, Alicia Alonso, and Juan J. Sendra.
In: Journal of Cultural heritage Vol 19 (2016) pp. 567 – 572.

Digital Rebirth of the Greatest Church of Cluny, Maior Ecclesia; form optronic Surveys to Real Time Use of the Digital Model. 
In: International Archives of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences, Volume XXXVIII-5/W16, 2011 ISPRS Trento 2011 Workshop, 2-4 March 2011, Trento, Italy

The Romanesque Portal of the abbey-church of Cluny: study of polychromy
By Stéphanie Castandet and Juliette Rollier-Hanselmann
In: Open Journal of archaeometry Vol 1, No. 1 (2013)


Medieval Soundscape in Santiago de Compostela

Sound and Sights of 6th Century San Vitale in Ravenna







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