Above, the Monastery of Santa Maria de Vallbona de les Monges in Vallbona de les Monges, Catalonia, Spain. It was founded in the early 12th century and its church represents an example of transitional styles between Romanesque and Gothic architecture.  Below, a view of its cloister’s arcades.


We will now go through the diffusion of the style imposed by the Cistercian Order and the spread of Cistercian monasteries in Europe following in the footsteps of Cluny. The first Cistercian monastery in Central Italy was Fossanova built between 1179 and 1208 near Terracina. Founded by French Cistercians of Haute-Combe located on the road from Rome to Naples, it is famous because St. Thomas Aquinas died there while on his way to attend the Council of Lyons.

The large monastery of Casamari depended of that of Fossanova, and in turn the Abbey of San Galgano (in Tuscany, near Siena) depended on Casamari. San Galgano was founded by the French monks of Clairvaux and was the focal point in Italy for the expansion of the Burgundian methods used for the construction of vaults with groins. The church of San Galgano, nowadays an impressive ruin, was begun in 1218. However, the great Italian buildings built in pure Cistercian style don’t differ from those simultaneously built in France and Spain. Here, the churches have three naves, with archivolts decorated with simple moldings; inside, the pillars are very simple, with their attached columns on which the main arches are supported; outside, the only element protruding from the building’s main body is the octagonal tower of the church’s dome which can be distinguished from afar.

Above, the abbey of Santa María la Real de la Oliva in Carcastillo, Navarre, Spain. It was begun in 1134.  Below, interior of this abbey’s church.

Each Cistercian monastery was dependent of another who had previously founded or adopted it and between them there was little difference. The monks repeated in a subsidiary house the same layout and design of the mother monastery and, as usually happens in art, the continuous repetition of a fixed type led to perfection and, as always happens too, not wanting to premeditatedly create anything new, at the end the most amazing artistic novelties appeared. If the interiors of two Cistercian churches are compared, it is surprising to see how insignificant the differences are in their general layout and elements: the pillars have almost the same transverse section and the moldings are identical. The chapter house was always squared and divided into nine groin vaults with four pillars at the center. The refectory was a rectangular room with a grandstand for the reader and a fountain at the center.

In Spain, the churches of Poblet and Veruela have almost the same layout, which is not surprising because both were built by French monks. In addition to these two major churches, there are many other Cistercian monasteries in Spain. In Catalonia, there are those of Santes Creus (built between 1174-1225) and Vallbona de las Monjas; in Navarra, La Oliva; in Leon, the Moreruela founded directly by the monks of Clairvaux; in Castile, the Las Huelgas, and in Portugal, Alcobaca also a direct descendant of Clairvaux and whose construction was begun in 1158 and completed in 1223.


Above, the remains of the Moreruela Abbey in the province of Zamora in Castile and León, Spain.  Below, interior of the abbey’s church.

In England there were eighteen Cistercian monasteries founded by French monasteries or their affiliate houses; in Germany there were over forty, eleven in Austria and up to six in Sweden and Norway. Each constituted a focal point for the dissemination of the semi-Gothic forms of the Burgundian vaults, pointed main arches and groin vaults. From these Cistercian monks, lay architects learned their constructive techniques which would later be applied in Gothic churches, and so the appearance of the magnificent Nordic Gothic cathedrals does not seem so mysterious. Cistercian monuments represent the transitional link between a Romanesque church building, with cylindrical barrel vault, and the Gothic church, with light vaults supported in the air by buttresses. Cistercians also built in Spain these cathedrals in a transitional design as those of Siguenza, Tarragona and Lleida. The cloister of the cathedral of Tarragona, from the early thirteenth century, is almost identical to that of the monastery of Fontfroide its contemporary. All Cistercian cloisters are characterized by a series of discharge arches with groups of semicircular arches below. The difference lies in the pace set by the number of semicircular arches that correspond to each discharge arch: two in Poblet and Le Thoronet (Provence), three in the cathedral of Tarragona and Vallbona, four in Fontfroide (Languedoc).

Above, the Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas near the city of Burgos in Spain.  Below, a view of the cloister arcade.

The spread of the Cistercian and Cluniac styles was enhanced by some outside events not contemplated in the principles initially established by each Order. By restoring discipline in relaxed monasteries alone would not have been produced the great constructive furor that followed both reforms. Cluny promoted the uniformity of the liturgy by imposing the Roman Missal to replace provincial rites. In order to fuse Christianity in one sole spirit, Cluny stimulated pilgrimages and thus promoted the movement of pilgrims from remote European countries to Rome and Santiago. By traveling the roads of the pilgrimage routes, pilgrims found housing in monasteries depending on Cluny and admired the excellence of the Cluniac style. This explains the internationality of the Cluniac art. The monastic empire of Cluny, with its houses spread throughout Europe, led to a first wave of continental religious Europeanism which consequently gained political scope. The Papacy, supported by Cluny, regained its lost strength.

Above, view of the cloister and church of the Alcobaça Monastery located in the town of Alcobaça, Portugal. It was founded in 1153.  Below, view of the chapter house.

Similarly, although apparently reduced to a mere monastic revolution, the Cistercian reform went beyond its limits by fostering the Crusades. St. Bernard himself preached the Second Crusade in 1146 by order of Pope Eugenius III (by the way a Cistercian monk who had been proclaimed Pope the year before). In its origins, the conquest of the Holy Land had strict devotional bases, but evolved into a political affair and many of the constructive methods employed by Cistercian architecture were used in the construction of the Crusader’s castles.

Above, view of the Cathedral of Tarragona in Tarragona, Catalonia, Spain.  Below, view of the cloisters.

To participate in the lay movements of the pilgrimage routes and the Crusades, both Cluny and the Cister had to soften the rigor of their rules. Cistercian monasteries finally accepted some decoration consisting of simple geometric interlaced and stylized leaves. Although Cistercian buildings never came to tolerate the decorative fantasies of the Cluniac style, they were not reduced to a mere stone skeleton supporting a vault as it was the original ideal of St. Bernard. The same trend happened with Cistercian painting. The Cistercian monasteries were never decorated with frescoes, but the Cistercian manuscripts were wonderfully illuminated with astonishing miniatures.

Above, the Cathedral of St. Mary of La Seu Vella also known as the Cathedral of Lleida, in Lleida, Catalonia, Spain.  Below, the Cathedral’s cloisters.

Above, the cloister of the Fontfroide Abbey in France, founded in 1093.  Below, the interior of the abbey church.

Above, Le Thoronet Abbey built in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century. It is located in the Var Department of Provence, in southeast France. Le Thoronet Abbey is one of the best examples of the spirit of the Cistercian order.  Below the central nave and apse of the abbey church.