The Architecture of Renunciation (Dennis Aubrey)


“In truth, Cistercian architecture owes everything to him. Saint Bernard was indeed the patron of this vast building site and, as they say, the master builder. For this art was inseparable from the ethical system of which Bernard was the incarnation.” Georges Duby, “L’Art Cistercien”, Paris 1976.

Our recent post on the abbey of Noirlac led PJ to suggest we do a post on Cistercian monastic architecture in general.

The Romanesque church was fundamentally monastic and a pilgrimage church with a nave with two side aisles, transepts, and an apse with an ambulatory and radiating chapels. The churches were highly decorated – painted and filled with sculpture and ornamentation, richly furnished with precious jewels and metals. The vast majority of monastic churches were associated with the Benedictine order centered at Cluny, in Burgundy. As the order grew more powerful and prosperous, a reform movement led by the monks of Citeaux was formed.

Cistercian Code of Arms

Cistercian Code of Arms

Bernard of Clairvaux was one of the earliest and most influential of the Cistercians. His immense prestige as a holy man made him one of the most important figures of the age. Bernard rejected the decoration and ostentation of the Benedictines as a distraction from piety and advocated a return to simplicity and manual labor as the foundation of monastic life.

He wrote in his famous “Apologia“, “On vanity of vanities, yet no more vain than insane! The church is resplendent in her walls and wanting in her poor. She dresses her stones in gold and lets her sons go naked. The eyes of the rich are fed at the expense of the indigent. The curious find something to amuse them and the needy find nothing to sustain them.”

L’Abbaye de Silvacane, La Roque d’Anthéron (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by PJ McKey

L’Abbaye de Silvacane, La Roque d’Anthéron (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by PJ McKey

Austerity and discipline were the twin guides to Cistercian life. Denying themselves poetry, sculpture, painting and the other arts, they concentrated their passion on their architecture, which of all the arts was the only one sanctioned by usage. The immense task of raising these stone houses of worship fit in with the monastic dedication to labor as a means of service and the Cistercians became known as great builders, administering for themselves their building sites. They “made it a point of honour to recruit the best stonecutters” and craftsmen and increasingly, their churches and abbeys became models of a new formal architecture.

Nave elevation, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruere-Allychamps (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave elevation, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruere-Allychamps (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cistercian architecture expressed the principal of renunciation of display that characterized the philosophy of the order. Ornament and decoration were replaced by purity of line and what Jong-Soung Kimm called the “clarity of logic present in Cistercian space”.

Abbaye de Senanque (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Abbaye de Senanque (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

We can see this clarity in this comparison of the groundplans of a Benedictine pilgrimage church in Toulouse and the Cistercian structure in Fontenay. The building is simplified and based on square volumes. Only the nave bays are rectangular and they consist of two square volumes of the side aisles. The eight bays of the nave create four square volumes that are four times the size of each side aisle bay.

Dehio_191_Fontenay

The nave of the Cistercian church also featured side aisles, which is something of an anomaly, since these were not pilgrimage venues and did not need to accommodate the passage of pilgrims during the services and offices of the brethren. I believe that they were retained because the common groin vaulting enabled the builders to place windows in every bay and provide more light into the interior. Clearly that was not the case in the Abbaye de Senanque pictured earlier, but we can also see that in this building the side aisles were barrel-vaulted.

South side aisle, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontenay, Fontenay (Côte-d'Or)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

South side aisle, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontenay, Fontenay (Côte-d’Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The east end of the church was specifically designed in a flat, instead of round, configuration and was pierced by windows to let in light. The windows shown here in Notre-Dame de Boquen are modern, but are faithful to the spirit of the original.

Nave, Eglise abbatiale Notre-Dame de Boquen, Plénée-Jugon (Côtes-d'Armor)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave, Eglise abbatiale Notre-Dame de Boquen, Plénée-Jugon (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by PJ McKey

Bernard formulated his architectural principles in order to provide guidance to the rapidly growing order. He based the rules of his conservative view architecture on rational principles – in fact, French historian Georges Duby called these churches a “monument of applied theology.” But Bernard and his followers were receptive to the technical and engineering improvements of the new Gothic architecture despite its origins at Suger’s Saint Denis. Pointed arches, rib vaulting, and windows were common features in these churches.

Nave, Eglise Abbatiale Notre Dame de Pontigny, Pontigny (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Eglise Abbatiale Notre Dame de Pontigny, Pontigny (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The aesthetic minimalism demonstrated in the greatest of these Cistercian churches is very attractive to modern eyes, in many cases more so than the conventional Romanesque churches. We perceive clarity instead of emptiness and sense in their simplicity a richness of spirit. Bernard would have approved this appreciation.

L’Abbaye de Silvacane, La Roque d’Anthéron (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by PJ McKey

L’Abbaye de Silvacane, La Roque d’Anthéron (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by PJ McKey

Bernard of Clairvaux’s written instructions on how the Cistercian churches were to be built was something new and powerful. He created an actual artistic movement, perhaps the first such movement in Europe. This was beyond fashion, tradition, and convention, a deliberate attempt to give a moral and intellectual basis for creation. As a result of his efforts, Cistercian architecture is considered one of the most beautiful styles of medieval architecture. It is simply, despite his most fervent wishes, an ornament on the human soul.

12 responses to “The Architecture of Renunciation (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Great article and pictures! They are really interesting for me, because a couple of days ago I was thinking on the influence of Saint Bernard in the Crusaders architecture…

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