Overview: The Cistercian Order and Their Architecture
The Cistercians are a Roman Catholic religious order of enclosed monks and nuns. This order was founded by a group of Benedictine monks from the monastery of Molesme in 1098, with the goal of more closely following the Rule of Saint Benedict.
Cistercian architecture is considered one of the most beautiful styles of medieval architecture and has made an important contribution to European civilization. Because of the pure style of the Cistercian monasteries and churches, they may be counted among the most beautiful relics of the Middle Ages. Cistercian institutions were primarily constructed in Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles during the Middle Ages, although later abbeys were also constructed in Renaissance and Baroque. The Cistercian abbeys of Fontenay in France, Fountains in England, Alcobaça in Portugal, Poblet in Spain, and Maulbronn in Germany are today recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The abbeys of 12th century England were stark and undecorated – a dramatic contrast with the elaborate churches of the wealthier Benedictine houses – yet to quote Warren Hollister, "even now the simple beauty of Cistercian ruins such as Fountains and Rievaulx, set in the wilderness of Yorkshire, is deeply moving".
Characteristics of Cistercian Architecture
Cistercian architecture was based on rational principles. In the mid-12th century, the prominent Benedictine Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis had united elements of Norman architecture with elements of Burgundinian architecture (including rib vaults and pointed arches respectively), creating the new style of Gothic architecture. This new "architecture of light" was intended to raise the observer "from the material to the immaterial" – it was, according to the 20th century French historian Georges Duby, a "monument of applied theology." Cistercian architecture expressed a different aesthetic and theology while learning from the Benedictine's advances. Although St. Bernard saw much of church decoration as a distraction from piety, and the builders of the Cistercian monasteries had to adopt a style that observed the numerous rules inspired by his austere aesthetics, the order itself was receptive to the technical improvements of Gothic principles of construction and played an important role in its spread across Europe.
This new Cistercian architecture embodied the ideals of the order, and in theory it was utilitarian and without superfluous ornament. The same rational, integrated scheme was used across Europe to meet the largely homogeneous needs of the order. Various buildings, including the chapter-house to the east and the dormitories above, were grouped around a cloister and were sometimes linked to the transept of the church itself by a night stair. Cistercian churches were most often built on a cruciform layout, with a short presbytery to meet the liturgical needs of the brethren, small chapels in the transepts for private prayer, and an aisle-edged nave that was divided roughly in the middle by a screen to separate the monks from the lay brothers.
Santa Maria Arabona
Abbey church of Santa Maria Arabona, Italy.
Engineering and Construction
In terms of construction, Cistercian buildings were made where possible of smooth, pale stone. Columns, pillars, and windows fell at the same base level, and if plastering was done at all, it was kept extremely simple. The sanctuary kept a simple style of proportion of 1:2 at both elevation and floor levels. To maintain the appearance of ecclesiastical buildings, Cistercian sites were constructed in a pure, rational style, lending to their beauty and simplicity.The building projects of the Church in the High Middle Ages showed an ambition for the colossal, with vast amounts of stone being quarried. This was also true of the Cistercian projects. Foigny Abbey was 98 meters (322 ft) long; Vaucelles Abbey was 132 metres (433 ft) long. Monastic buildings came to be constructed entirely of stone, right down to the most humble of buildings. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Cistercian barns consisted of a stone exterior, divided into nave and aisles either by wooden posts or by stone piers.
The Cistercians recruited the best stone cutters. As early as 1133, St. Bernard was hiring workers to help the monks erect new buildings at Clairvaux. It is from the 12th century Byland Abbey in Yorkshire that the oldest recorded example of architectural tracing is found. Tracings were architectural drawings incised and painted in stone, to a depth of 2–3 mm, showing architectural detail to scale.
Acey Abbey, France
The "architecture of light" of Acey Abbey represents the pure style of Cistercian architecture, intended for the utilitarian purposes of liturgical celebration.A