But let my due feet never fail,
To walk the studious Cloysters pale,
And love the high embowed Roof
With antick Pillars massy proof,
And storied Windows richly dight,
Casting a dimm religious light.
Il Penseroso, John Milton (1645)
In Il Penseroso, Milton shares with his monastic subjects the contemplation in the cloister, where he imagines that his devotion will be rewarded with heavenly visions.
The Romanesque church was primarily monastic in origin and nothing demonstrates this more than the cloisters. During Roman times, the basilica was preceded by an atrium that opened up before the main entrance. This was originally a place of Christian instruction where novitiates could learn the mysteries of the religion before being granted membership in the congregation. This program of instruction took time, even years in the early days of Roman Christianity. As the population was more generally converted, the function of the atrium was split into two parts.
For pilgrims and novitiates, the atrium evolved into a covered space, the 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. In the monastic and collegiate churches, the atrium itself moved from the west face of the church to the south or occasionally the north, and opened onto the transept of the church.
This rectangular enclosure was surrounded by covered walkways and became a place of meditation for the monks and nuns. The cloister is most often located to the south of the nave so that it receives maximum sunlight. The walkways are separated from the garth – the central enclosure – by arcades of narrow pillars, often topped with capitals. The base of the arcades make a fine place to sit.
The cloister of a religious house was also its pedagogical center – the younger members were traditionally educated in the west walk, while the elders studied in the walkway closest to the church, normally the north walk. The cloister also served for exercise and general recreation, particularly in bad weather.
The cloister also had another important function – it served to connect many different buildings of the monastic compound with a covered passageway. In Fontenay, for example, the cloister connects the church, the refectory, the scriptorium and the various work areas that the monks would use on a daily basis. The monks could pass from one area to the next freely, no matter what the weather.
The decoration of the cloisters was often spectacular. At Saint Michel de Cuxa, we see slender columns of pink Conflent marble supporting superb capitals. The man-made decoration was often supplemented in the garth with cloister gardens featuring herbs and flowers.
Today, we often only see evidence that these gardens existed – gardens need water and there is almost always a well to be found in the garth. This enclosed garden, the hortus conclusus, was a Benedictine staple. The scents of the gardens in full bloom must have been extraordinary in the quiet of the monastery, easing the cares and tribulations of the reflective life the monks lived. As a hidden, secret place in the heart of the monastery, separated from secular persons, the cloister was often compared to the heavenly Paradise. The tree often found at the center of the garden was a reminder of the Tree of Life and a symbol of Christ. Further, it is been said that garth recreated the first three days of creational paradise as described in Genesis and constituted the symbolic center of the entire monastic complex.
For a final shot, one that I can’t resist, here is PJ sketching in the cloister at the Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontenay. I can see the monastics sitting in this exact same place on a fine summer day enjoying the warmth and quiet of their secluded world, surrounded by the scent of lavender and other herbs. It is not difficult to understand why the word “cloistered” means to be isolated from the outside world.
Architecture is created to mirror the activities that take place in the buildings, and certainly cloisters are a perfect example. Made for, and capable of inducing, meditation, they are a remnant of a monastic life dedicated to reflection of higher purposes. Saint Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictine rule, spoke of the purpose of the monastic calling as living the whole day in the awareness of God’s presence. The cloister is a special part of the monastery that helped achieve that goal.
A final note, before her recent retirement, Dierdre Larkin was the Managing Horticulturalist at the Cloisters Museum and Gardens in New York. She wrote many fascinating articles on her blog A Medieval Garden Enclosed. The writing and the photography are both excellent and make a visit to the site well worthwhile.