Cistercian Architecture - Theological Principles

Theological Principles

In the mid-12th century, one of the leading churchmen of his day, the Benedictine Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, united elements of Norman architecture with elements of Burgundian architecture (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". St Bernard saw much of church decoration as a distraction from piety, and in one of his letters he condemned the more vigorous forms of early 12th century decoration:

But in the cloister, in the sight of the reading monks, what is the point of such ridiculous monstrosity, the strange kind of shapely shapelessness? Why these unsightly monkeys, why these fierce lions, why the monstrous centaurs, why semi-humans, why spotted tigers, why fighting soldiers, why trumpeting huntsmen? …In short there is such a variety and such a diversity of strange shapes everywhere that we may prefer to read the marbles rather than the books.

These sentiments were repeated frequently throughout the Middle Ages, and the builders of the Cistercian monasteries had to adopt a style that observed the numerous rules inspired by Bernard's austere aesthetics. However, 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 was in theory at least 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. Usually Cistercian churches were cruciform, with a short presbytery to meet the liturgical needs of the brethren, small chapels in the transepts for private prayer, and an aisled nave that was divided roughly in the middle by a screen to separate the monks from the lay brothers.

The mother house of the order, Cîteaux Abbey, had in fact developed the most advanced style of painting, at least in illuminated manuscripts, during the first decades of the 12th century, playing an important part in the development of the image of the Tree of Jesse. However, as Bernard of Clairvaux, strongly hostile to imagery, increased in influence in the order, painting ceased, and was finally banned altogether in the order, probably from the revised rules approved in 1154. Crucifixes were allowed, and later some painting and decoration crept back in.

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