The Romanesque church was primarily monastic in origin and nothing demonstrates this more than the cloisters. Derived from the Roman atrium that opened up before the main entrance of the basilica, it was originally a place of instruction where novitiates could learn the mysteries of the religion before being granted membership in the congregation. This process took some time, even years in the early days of Roman Christianity. As the population was more generally converted, the function of the cloister was split into two parts.
For pilgrims, it was turned into a narthex, a waiting area or hall outside the west wall of the nave. Eventually the narthex was enclosed as an integral part of the church, as in Vézelay. Pilgrims would gather in the narthex before being allowed into the church to see the relics. The atrium itself moved from the west face of the church to the south or north, and opened onto the transcept of the church, usually. It became a place of meditation for the monks and nuns.
Many of the great cloisters have disappeared over the years, but France is lucky to have a number that survived. The cloister of the Abbaye Saint Michel de Cuxa is in two parts, one at the original abbey in the Pyrénées mountains and the other in the Cloisters Museum in New York City. The Cloisters was created in the 1930’s to display medieval art and architecture. I’ve always been conflicted by the removal of great architectural monuments from their original locations. It smacks of travesties like the Elgin Marbles stripped from the Parthenon in Athens or the Altar of Zeus in Pergamum, Turkey, removed by the Germans and now kept in the Pergamum Museum in Berlin. But we are lucky enough to be able to see these magnificent works of art in our own backyard in a setting faithful to the originals.
Some of the cloisters that we love most are in Moissac at the Abbatiale Saint Pierre, the Cathédrale Saint-Trophime in Arles, the Abbaye de Cadouin in Le Buisson-de-Cadouin and the Abbaye de Fontenay, but there are many others that compel our admiration.
The cool shaded rectangular porches with their narrow columns are often decorated with the most wonderful capitals. The space inside the cloisters were often turned into herb or flower gardens. Architecture is created to mirror the activities that take place in the buildings, and certainly the cloister is a perfect example. Made for, and capable of inducing, meditation, they are a remnant of a life dedicated to reflection of higher purposes.