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The saint who founded the Carthusian order

A detail of the Vision of St Bruno by José de Ribera

The founder of the Carthusian order, St Bruno of Cologne, exemplified in his life the humility that characterises his followers to
this day.

Born around 1030 to a well-to-do family in Cologne, Bruno undertook his theological education at Reims in northern France. He was probably ordained in his homeland around 1055. The following year he returned to Reims to teach at the episcopal school. Very quickly, he rose to be master of the school and established a reputation as a brilliant teacher. One of his pupils was Eudes of Châtillon, later Pope Urban II, who would call on the saint for counsel in later years.

In the face of numerous brushes with high ecclesiastical office, Bruno maintained a quiet desire for solitude. He was considered the natural successor to the disgraced Bishop of Rheims Manasses de Gournai after the latter’s deposition in 1080. Bruno resisted the appointment and, along with two friends, sought to renounce worldly ambition for a life of asceticism.

Bruno and his companions sought assistance from St Hugh of Grenoble who, in 1084, installed them in an uninhabited region of the French Alps called Chartreuse. This first group would evolve into the Carthusian order and Chartreuse is now the site of the Grande Chartreuse monastery. This monastery was brought to the world’s attention by the 2005 film Into Great Silence, which granted the public unprecedented access to the daily life of Carthusian monks.

Despite his intentions, Bruno’s life of solitude would not remain undisturbed. In 1088, his former student was installed as Pope Urban II. Faced with struggles against an antipope and the hostile Emperor Henry IV, Urban called Bruno to Rome in 1090, where the saint acted as the pontiff’s personal adviser.

Bruno spent the last 20-odd years of his life in Italy. During this period, he resisted the pope’s wishes to make him Archbishop of Reggio Calabria, instead pleading to be allowed to return to his eremitical life. He befriended Count Roger of Sicily and Calabria, who granted Bruno and his companions the land on which they built a monastery. Here Bruno died in 1101. The monastery is now known as Serra San Bruno Charterhouse.

In line with Carthusian practice, Bruno was never officially canonised. But in 1623 Pope Gregory XV included Bruno in the General Roman Calendar. He is celebrated as the patron of Calabria and is often depicting contemplating a skull, which symbolises the transience of all earthly life which is not directed towards God.