Cistercian Architecture

“To visit a Cistercian abbey is to make a voyage of discovery, but not necessarily a physical voyage.  It may be an inward voyage, where one discovers a part of one’s own being, an inner experience from which one seldom returns unaltered.  Depending on the investment made by the traveler, it may be a brief and pleasant diversion, or it may invite a change in the direction of one’s life.” 

~ From Architecture of Silence by Terryl Kinder

Cistercian architecture is a 12th Century style of architecture coming from the inspiration of St. Stephen Harding, third abbot of Citeaux, and promoted  by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Cistercian monks of this period built their monasteries of smooth, natural-colored limestone with windows of clear glass and without adornment such as color, paintings, or sculpture. 

More than one hundred Cistercian monasteries were built in 12th Century in Europe. Of these, the monastery in Fontenay, France, constructed under the direction of St. Bernard, is considered a fine example of a Cistercian abbey. Fontenay provides much evidence of the architectural vocabulary used by Cistercians during the first century of their history as builders.  Senanque, Le Thoronet, and Silvacane, all three located in Provence, are equally magnificent examples.

Cistercian architecture is often considered only from an aesthetic point of view. To emphasize this approach weakens and undermines the fact that simplicity of Cistercian architecture flows from principles proper pure monastic prayer as taught by John Cassian.

Viewed from a spiritual perspective, Cistercian buildings possess a stunning beauty—a sense of integrity and proportion due to the lack of excess ornamentation, images, and absence of painted color which tend to hide, destroy and distract from a building’s structural essentials. Those types of details prevent the integrity and harmony of the geometry of a building from becoming its sole beauty. 

What gives meaning and importance to Cistercian architecture is the fact that this architecture is a product of the Order’s spiritual teaching. The monk spends his entire life in his monastery, which becomes his whole horizon. If  buildings bear the imprint of the Order’s and the community’s spirituality, their architecture cannot fail to exercise a formative influence on those living in them. Imperceptible as it may seem, this influence is profound. 

The priority of early Cistercians was to build monasteries to provide the community with an environment suited to the monastic way of life as set forth in The Rule of St. Benedict. Their monastic buildings clearly expressed their faith. They translated this Rule into spatial terms by the use of architecture. 

Cistercians believe prayer involves listening as much as asking, and so Cistercian architectural principles, applied either to Romanesque or Gothic, are conducive to this type of prayer, emphasizing simplicity and an inner sense of quiet. Cistercian architecture uses a combination of proportion, form, space, and light that fosters pure contemplative prayer. Its spacious, simple design without images or statues promotes a simplicity and stillness in which a monk sees a distant reflection of the simplicity and stillness of the Divine.

By Abbot Thomas X. Davis, OCSO

The Four Tenets of Cistercian Architecture


Cistercian proportion incorporates the concept of the golden ratio. The effect on a person is that one’s spirit resonates with integration. The monks built into their buildings an effectiveness that would call forth from persons living in them a spiritual “awe.” Proportion, along with form, space, and light touch the human spirit with awe. Without elements that foster curiosity and cupidity, only an awe-inspiring sense of beauty and harmony remain.

Harmonious proportion produces a sense of structural and regulated integration.  The harmony coming from proportion in Cistercian architecture tends to place focus on what is authentic and suggests a centering on the true self.  This direction inward, toward the true self opens the possibility for a vision of God that the true self gives.  A theme in Cistercian spirituality is that a vision of the authentic self is a vision of God.


Early Cistercian churches were a constant architectural reminder of heaven intimately joined to earth.  Height in churches lifts the mind to God and bears witness to the teaching that the monk is not bent over but stands upright before God. The arches in the church rise up from the foundation of the earth and ascend to heaven. Often, this effect was achieved by the use of corbels and supports. The pointed barrel or groined vaulting suggests the vast vault of heaven. The visual effect was to give the impression of the upper section of the church (the church triumphant) hovering over the lower section (the church living on earth). The form of the church also expresses aspects of salvation as demonstrated by the ancient cruciform plan that symbolizes the mystery of the cross.


The ample space within a Cistercian building communicates a sense of transformation along with an experience of integrity and integration.   Space accents this architecture’s simplicity of form. It is more than emptiness and a blank area. It is more than a minimalist approach conducive to calm, quiet and serenity important to meditation.  It is an element of Cistercian architecture essential to the “awe” experience of what God must be like.


Light is another principal and prominent element in Cistercian architecture. Windows have always held a unique place in Cistercian buildings and were symbols of God both in terms of light’s coming through them and their numerical arrangement. This light is not to be understood as ordinary daylight that illumines the world, but a non-created light that existed before Creation. The windows in Cistercian churches, chapter houses, and refectories are symbols of uncreated Divine Light that Christ manifests. Round, circular windows were viewed as symbols for the divine light of Christ’s transfiguration, a vision of peace. The goal of a monk’s prayer was to see the glory of God shining through the transfigured Christ.

To early Cistercians, architecture is a revelation of the nature of God. With such means as proportion, form, space, and light, a Cistercian building creates an atmosphere of tranquility and awe that both encourages self knowledge and focus on the divine. Cistercian architecture embodies two things. First it reflects and symbolizes the nature of God one seeks; and second, it provides and effective environment for the pursuit of this quest… The heart of Cistercian  architecture lies in its power to transform, and the abbey serves as a catalyst  for our inward evolution toward an ever greater likeness to the image of God” present in each one of us. (Kinder and Heald, Architecture of Silence, Cistercian Abbeys of France, pp 43 &44).

Cistercian Architecture

Construction of the Church