Plan of the Clairvaux abbey (Ville-sous-la-Ferté, northeastern France). The original is now in ruins and the grounds are now occupied by the Clairvaux high-security prison.

The Cistercian church did not reach its full development until St. Bernard and his companions who joined the Order in 1112; from this moment, a new spiritual militia came to oppose the principles dictated a century ago by the Order of Cluny. Initially, the Cistercian monastery was a humble place where the first monks from Molesme had gone to build their poor huts where they wretchedly lived and cultivated their land. Soon after, in a short time, more than sixty thousand monks left the Cister monastery and rapidly spread throughout Europe founding new Cistercian monasteries in Italy, Spain and Central Europe. When St. Bernard died, in 1153, the Cistercian Order already had 343 monasteries and by 1200 they were 694. The spirit of this new Order arose as a protest against the very richness of the Benedictine monks of Cluny personified in their luxury abbeys and churches. Therefore, the primary characteristic of the Cistercian abbeys, as opposed to the Cluniac, was that they were built following an austere style, without any kind of sculptural ornamentation, and only with the necessary moldings to separate the different parts of the building.

Pictured above, the Royal Abbey of Santa Maria de Poblet (Catalonia, Spain), founded in 1151: Top left, exterior view; top right, the church with the altarpiece in the background; bottom left and right, view of the cloister.
However, in their general layout the Cistercian monasteries weren’t very different from those of Cluny for they continued repeating their same distribution. The great abbey of Clairvaux, founded by St. Bernard himself in 1115 about 70 km north of Dijon, was insufficient to accommodate all the monks of the Order and in 1133 a new immense construction began. These buildings had the same general layout of other Benedictine monasteries, with its central cloister, the church on one side, the chapter house* on the other, the refectory and the outbuildings for agricultural purposes. In addition, outside of this monumental enclosure, there were two more cloisters, ovens, mills for grains and oil, hostelry and the abbot’s house, plus some other additional buildings for oratory and rooms for workers and peasants depending on the monastery. All Cistercian monasteries had a similar layout and dimensions due to identical religious and agricultural needs. Soon the Cistercian Order came to include hundreds of religious houses for both sexes, and so the new Benedictine spirit restored by St. Bernard spread throughout Europe propagating a uniform architectural style. Here’s how the aesthetic extravagances of Cluny, first, and the excessive austere Cistercian reaction, later, helped to spread throughout Europe the constructive principles of the school of Burgundy, a style that prepared the road for the eventual advent of the Gothic architectural methods. As both Cluny and Cister orders had originated in Burgundy and both took advantage of the same construction methods, the Burgundian Romanesque school of architecture was one of the most advanced of all French regions. Since the eleventh century this school used pointed arches and groin vaults although without groins.

Pictured above, the Royal Abbey of Santa Maria de Veruela (Zaragoza, Spain), founded in the XII century: Top left, the abbey church; top right and middle left, the chapter house; middle right and bottom, view of the cloister.

In the Constitutions of the Cistercian Order, written in 1119 during an assembly called the “General Chapter”, was clearly specified that for the Order in particular, the church was to be built with great simplicity, without sculptures or paintings of any kind, with white glass windows, and without towers or bell towers of immoderate height. All the churches of the Cistercian monasteries should be devoted to the Mother of God to avoid the danger of extravagant cults, and to prevent the accumulation of monastic property and wealth it was established that herds owned by the abbey could not be further away from the farm and should not be allowed that two Cistercian monasteries were separated by less than two burgundy leagues.

Without sculptures, paintings, or any liturgical objects embellishing the Cistercian constructions, they would certainly be considered as artistically uninteresting if it weren’t for their large vaults which came to be like a foretaste of the constructive boldness that soon after would be developed during the Gothic period. In the Cistercian monasteries, vaults were the most important element of the buildings, as due to its size they demanded careful calculation and techniques for its time, comparable only with the efforts made in current construction techniques.

Pictured above, the Abbey of Fontenay (département of Côte-d’Or, France) founded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in 1118. It is considered one of the oldest and most complete Cistercian abbeys in Europe: Top left, exterior view; top right, view of the cloisters; second row left, the abbey church; second row right, the Virgin of Fontenay in the abbey church; third row left, stair in the abbey interior; third row right, the monk’s dormitory; fourth row left and bottom, view of the chapter house; fourth row right, cloisters.

The floor plan of the Cistercian churches had two well defined types, both derived from the floor plans of Cluny’s churches. The first type of Cistercian church had circular apse with ambulatory and chapels: so were the churches of Poblet and Veruela in Spain, and the monastery church of St. Bernard at Clairvaux. A simple comparison of the floor plan of Cluny with those of Veruela and Poblet suffice to show how they share the same arrangement; only that Cistercians reduced and simplified the great church plan of Cluny by building their churches with only three naves and one transept.

The other type of Cistercian church is that with a rectangular apse, as the very own church of the Cister and the church of Fontenay in Burgundy, the monastery of Santes Creus in Spain, and the churches of almost all Cistercian monasteries in Italy, with Fossanova, Casamari and San Galgano. This second type also has its antecedents in some monasteries of Cluny. Thus, Cistercians took advantage of the Cluniac construction procedures without falling into its decorative excesses. The naves of the Cistercian churches were designed from the beginning to be covered with groin vaults, at least in the lateral naves (as seen in Poblet) as some churches still had the central nave covered with barrel vaults. In Veruela though, the central nave is covered with groin vaults, as well as the central naves of the Cistercian churches of Fossanova, Casamari and San Galgano. In churches with circular apse, the small trapezoid elements of the ambulatory in front of the chapels are also covered with groin vaults so that a Cistercian church such as Veruela was already subdivided into sections crossed by nerves or diagonal groins, as it would be later seen in the Gothic cathedrals.

Pictured above, the Monastery of Santa Maria de Santes Creus (Catalonia, Spain), from the XII century: Top left, aerial view; top right, interior of the abbey church; middle left, the stairs to the Royal Apartment; middle right, entrance to the chapter house; bottom left, the chapter house; bottom right, the cloisters.

What, then, distinguishes a Cistercian building from another of pure Gothic style as both are so similar in its internal structure? Technically, a Cistercian church is only missing the buttresses to counteract the thrust of the vaults. In a Gothic building, all the weight of the vaults focuses on some unique points on the walls where exterior arches determine a counter-force that counteracts the pressure exerted by the interior arches. This allows raising stone vaults into heights and dimensions previously unknown and -at the same time- allows the installation of huge windows. In Cistercian buildings there are hardly any buttresses, completely missing in Poblet or reduced to pilasters in Veruela.

Pictured above, rows 1 to 3, the Fossanova Abbey, (province of Latina, Italy). The Monastery of Santa Maria de Santes Creus (Catalonia, Spain), from 1135: Top left, exterior view; top right, interior of the abbey church; second row left, presbitery; second row right, rose window; third row left, view of the cloister; third row right, fountain in the central courtyard.
Rows 4 and 5, the Casamari Abbey (province of Frosinone, Lazio, Italy): fourth row left, façade of the abbey church; fourth row right, the choir of the abbey church; fifth row left, entrance to the abbey; fifth row right, the chapter house.
Pictured above, rows 6 to 8, the Abbey of Saint Galgano (province of Siena, Tuscany) from 1218: sixth row left, exterior view from above; sixth row right, exterior view; seventh row left, interior view; seventh row right, cloisters; eight row left, the chapter house; eight row right, interior view of the lateral nave.


Chapter house: A building or room that is part of a cathedral or monastery in which larger meetings are held. In monasteries, the whole community often met there on a daily basis for readings and to hear the abbot or senior monks talk. In medieval times monarchs on tour in their territory would often used this room for their meetings and audiences.


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