The Benedictine abbey of Cluny was founded 1,100 years ago this year: it was perhaps the most important center of monastic life in the Middle Ages, the mother house from which radiated a far-reaching reform of the Benedictine order. At its height the community had the largest church in the western world, 187 meters long, with five naves, a multiple choir, large and small transepts, three hundred chapels, seven bell towers, a building eventually surpassed only by the new St. Peter's in Rome. In 1791, the abbey's community had dwindled from the 400 monks living there in the Middle Ages to only twelve monks, who were expelled by order of the French Revolution. The abbey's precious objects were sold, and most of the buildings were reduced to rubble: the vast, fortress-like church had to be detonated with a mine, and the demolition lasted some twenty-five years. The French government has spent three years restoring the convent building to its 18th-century state and laying out a way for visitors to envision that grand church. Florence Evin had a report (L'abbaye de Cluny boucle son chantier-cathédrale, September 9) for Le Monde (my translation):
It is this abbey "in pieces" that the architect [Frédéric Didier] has made "readable" to the visitor. Already the 180 meters of the church, the grand perspective, its dorsal spine -- from the two tall, decapitated entry towers to the transept -- have been measured and made visible on the ground by a map engraved on the stone. The little cloister has regained its serenity around the ornate door given by Richelieu, abbot from 1629 to 1642. The palace of Pope Gellas, its façade restored, has been devoted to the reception of visitors.Le Monde also has a some images and a video showing some of the virtual reconstruction on its Web site, although it does not always seem to be working.
And then -- surprise! -- three touch-responsive and rotating screens allow you to discover the "augmented reality." Projected in 3D images, the grand abbatial church has regained all its scope and splendor (a fourth screen is planned). This remarkable digital device, directed by Christian Père, was realized from stone fragments, drawings made before the demolition, and research by archeologist Kenneth John Conant, conducted between 1928 and 1985, whose excavations allowed the site to be rediscovered.