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