Cistercians, Art and Architecture of
CISTERCIANS, ART AND ARCHITECTURE OF
The Cistercians occupy an important place in the history of art primarily because of their architecture. They excelled as well in manuscript illumination and stained glass, but the few surviving specimens of these types of work pale when compared with the immense array of monasteries they constructed during the 12th and 13th centuries all over Europe and even in Cyprus and Syria.
Architecture. The Cistercian buildings, and especially their churches, were distinguished by structural simplicity and lack of ornamentation, which were the result of the principles laid down by the founders of cÎteaux as the basis of their reform of the order. As Étienne Gilson pointed out, "Cistercian architecture forms an integral part of Cistercian spirituality and cannot be separated from it" (Les Arts du Beau [Paris 1963]). The aim of the Cistercian reform was a return to the full observance of the Rule of St. Benedict, which over the centuries had changed and slackened, particularly
with regard to simplicity and poverty. The Cistercians desired to be poor with Christ, who was poor. As a result they decided to reject everything that might imply luxury or diminish poverty, whether in divine worship, clothing, or food. In their architecture they renounced stone bell towers, paintings, and sculpture for their churches, feeling that these might distract the religious from their prayer and meditation. All this was vigorously expressed by St. Bernard in the famous Apologia addressed to his friend william of saint-theirry, a Benedictine abbot. In this essay, which reads like a pamphlet, the saint protested against the extravagant splendor of the Cluny churches, their excessive size, their sumptuous decoration, and especially the ornamentation of the capitals in both the cloisters and the churches. He admitted that the representation of scenes from the Bible or the lives of the saints can serve for the instruction and edification of the faithful; "but," he said, "of what use is that for men vowed to poverty, for monks, for spiritual men?" He went on to add the following well-known passage: "What are these ridiculous monsters, this deformed beauty and this beautiful deformity, doing in the cloisters under the eyes of monks occupied by their reading? What are these filthy apes, ferocious lions, monstrous centaurs doing there? … Good God! Even if one is not ashamed of these stupidities, one should at least regret the expenditure of money they involve."
The noble and austere architecture that is so esteemed by the Cistercians sprang from their rules and the Apologia of St. Bernard. After a long period of fidelity to the Roman architectural style, their master workmen adopted the Gothic style and contributed to its expansion all over Europe, where numerous examples of their work are still to be found. To name some of the most typical churches: in France, Fontenay, le thoronet and Silvacane; in Germany, eberbach and ebrach; in England, fountains and rievaulx; in Austria, heiligenkreuz; in Belgium, villers; in Spain, Poblet and Santes Creus; in Italy, fossanova and Casamari; in Poland, Mogila and Wachock; in Portugal, alcobaÇa; in Sweden, Varnhem; and in Switzerland, Bonmont and hauterive. Ultimately even the Cistercians succumbed to the malady of building immense churches decorated with sculpture and painting. When baroque art became the rage, in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland they went so far as to reconstruct their monasteries in accordance with the taste of the times, or they simply added rococo decoration to already existing buildings. All of this was a far cry from the architecture of the first Cistercians, which, as Henri Focillon said, "is still an ancient witness to a very great spiritual revolution" (Art of the West in the Middle Ages [Greenwich, Conn. 1963]).
Manuscript illumination. The oldest manuscripts from the scriptorium of Cîteaux are filled with ornamented letters and illumination work of a high artistic level, as in a copy of the Bible that was begun under the direction of Stephen Harding during the first years of the foundation and completed in 1109, and the Moralia in Job of St. Gregory the Great, which dates from 1111. But a short time later, c. 1150 and under the influence of St. Bernard, a decree of the general chapter ruled that only one color was to be used for the initial letters. The copyists then devoted all their care to the quality of the parchment used, to the outline of the letters, and to the arrangement of the text on the page, the only ornamentation being the beautiful initial letters in monochrome. Nothing was allowed to interfere with the beautiful arrangement of the calligraphy. Soon, however, the prohibitive rule was forgotten and illuminations reappeared.
Stained glass. A statute of the general chapter decreed that the windows should be of clear glass, without either cross or color. The Cistercian master glassworkers then hit upon the idea of tracing all sorts of foliated scrolls, rosettes, interlacing designs, and arabesques onto the glass with the lead in which the glass was set. Very beautiful effects were produced by this technique. Unfortunately, very few specimens of this type of glasswork have survived. The finest are to be found in France in the churches of Bénisson-Dieu in the Diocese of Lyon, of obazine in the Diocese of Tulle, and of Bonlieu in the Diocese of Limoges. However, at the end of the 13th century the Cistercians came to employ representational windows.
Bibliography: General. m. a. dimier, Recueil de plans d'églises cisterciennes, 2 v. (Paris 1949), v. 1, text; v. 2, plates. f. van der meer, Atlas de l'ordre cistercien des origines jusqu'à la Révolution française, avec une introduction aux images cisterciennes (Amsterdam 1965). m. aubert, L'Architecture cistercienne en France, 2 v. (2d ed. Paris 1947). m. a. dimier and j. porcher, L'Art cistercien, France (La Pierre-qui-Vire 1962). h. p. eydoux, L'Architecture des églises cisterciennes d'Allemagne (Paris 1952); "L‘Abbatiale de Moreruela et l'architecture des églises cisterciennes d'Espagne," Cîteaux in de Nederlanden 5 (1954) 173–207. j. bilson, "The Architecture of the Cistercians, with Special Reference to Some of Their Earlier Churches in England," Archaeological Journal 66 (1909) 185–280. p. clemen and c. gurlitt, Die Klosterbauten der Cistercienser in Belgien (Berlin 1916). l. fraccaro de longhi, L'architettura delle chiese cistercensi italiane (Milan 1958). Illumination. c. oursel, Minatures cisterciennes, 1109–1134 (Mâcon 1960), 40 color pl. l. bonnay, "Église d'Obazine (Corrèze): Vitraux du XIIe siécle," Bulletin scientifique et archéologique de la Corrèze 2 (1879) 199–211, 4 diagrams.
[m. a. dimier]