The Cloysters Pale (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

Cloister, Abbaye de Montmajour, Arles (Bouches-du-Rhône)  Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister, Abbaye de Montmajour, Arles (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Cloister interior, Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cloister interior, Abbaye Saint Martin-du-Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Cloister, Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cloister, Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Cloister, Abbaye Saint Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cloister, Abbaye Saint Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Plan, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontenay

Plan, Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontenay

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.

Cloister detail, Abbaye Saint Michel de Cuxa,  Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cloister detail, Abbaye Saint Michel de Cuxa, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Cloister, ‪Abbaye Sainte-Marie d'Arles-sur-Tech‬, Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister garden, ‪Abbaye Sainte-Marie d’Arles-sur-Tech‬, Arles-sur-Tech (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

PJ sketching in the cloister, Abbaye de Fontenay, Fontenay (Côte-d'Or)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ sketching in the cloister, Abbaye de Fontenay, Fontenay (Côte-d’Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

21 responses to “The Cloysters Pale (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Great shots and an even better commentary. Thank you so much. Your stuff is always highest quality, please keep up the good work! Best wishes, John

      • I’ll look forward to it! I love browsing your various blogs, they’re consistently top-notch. I recently did a small project on Conques for uni here and your images of the tympanum and especially the capitals were really helpful and clear, and the commentary very illuminating too. You must have had some fun getting those close-ups of the capitals because aren’t they quite high up?? Best, John

      • John, glad our work could help you out. As far as the capitals are concerned, we use a 400mm lens to get those shots because too often they are so high that it would take a crane to get us up to that level. We use different lenses to get the lower capitals, but sometimes the 400 is the best of them. We just have to move further away. But the compression actually helps separate the shot from the background.

  2. As usual, Dennis a wonderful lesson filled with your beautiful photos. And P.J. Your shot through the cloister garden was wonderful. And what a beautiful spot to sketch!
    Thank you ,both. Kalli

    • I couldn’t resist the PJ shot, Kalli. We love these cloisters, and over the years they are being better cared for with gardens replanted in the garth. It makes us realize what it must have been like for the community in those days.

  3. And the hortus conclusus was also the symbol of the virginity of Mary…I think coming from the Song of Songs: ‘Hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus’

      • My pleasure Dennis, lovely work. No, alas, no sailing plans lined up at present. Would love to get back to W,trn France some stage but it’ll be a while. -Have just launched a little walking tour business, here in Dublin, so hard at work on that. It’s called Dublin Decoded, (dot com) easy to find, or off my normal page. Please have look sometime and tell me what you think. Compliments to you both. -Arran.

  4. I am 82 and have been visiting the Cloisters in New York since I was a child.
    I’ve visited many in France but am envious of your record!
    Thank you for these wonderful photos!

    • Carol, France has been part of my life since I was a very young child – my first memories are of the town of Mer, just outside of Orleans. I’m lucky to have found a partner in PJ who loves it as much as I do.

    • These are really lovely gardens when they’ve been replanted. Too often just a bit of grass because of course it takes a lot of work to sustain a garden. Thanks for the comment. I’m looking at Chaucer now because I am preparing a post on pilgrims.

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