Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 4, 2003
Peter Fergusson and Stuart Harrison Rievaulx Abbey: Community, Architecture, Memory New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 296 pp.; 35 color ills.; 189 b/w ills. Cloth $90.00 (0300078315)
Megan Cassidy-Welch Monastic Spaces and Their Meanings: Thirteenth-Century English Cistercian Monasteries Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2000. 312 pp.; 51 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (2503510892)
Terryl N. Kinder Cistercian Europe: Architecture of Contemplation Grand Rapids, Mich. and Kalamazoo, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and Cistercian Publications, 2001. 407 pp.; 200 ills. Cloth $70.00 (0802838871)

These three publications are among the latest of a surfeit of Cistercian titles published in recent years: Terryl Kinder surveys Cistercian life and architecture throughout Europe with emphasis on the medieval period, Peter Fergusson and Stuart Harrison chronicle one of the earliest Cistercian houses in England from its founding through the twentieth century, while Megan Cassidy-Welch speculates on the use of monastic spaces in thirteenth-century Yorkshire. Though each work has its own focus, they all benefit from the comparatively voluminous, readily available primary documents on Cistercian history, such as the statutes decreed at the annual General Chapter meetings, the Rule of St. Benedict, and other writings of the Cistercian Fathers. All four authors organize their discussions around the main monastic spaces, such as the conventual church, the cloister, the chapter house, and the infirmary.

Kinder’s richly illustrated survey, Cistercian Europe: Architecture of Contemplation (first published in French as L’Europe cistercienne by Editions Zodiaque in 1997), is divided into nine chapters. Chapter 1, “Historical Overview,” begins with the earliest forms of monasticism developed in Egypt, the compilation of the Rule and its dominance since the early ninth century, the founding of the New Monastery (Novum monasterium) by Robert of Molesme at Cîteaux in 1098, and the subsequent establishment of the four other mother houses at La Ferté, Pontigny, Clairvaux, and Morimond. Noteworthy is her inclusion of the reform movement of the seventeenth century, which gave rise to the two branches of the modern Cistercian Order. Chapter 2, “The Organization of Life in a Cistercian Abbey,” details the function of the General Chapter; it also examines three documents (Instituta generalis capituli, Ecclesiastica officia, Usus conversorum) that established Cistercian customs and regulated daily life. In chapter 3, “Living in a Vale of Tears,” Kinder’s familiarity with Cistercian buildings and their surrounding topography throughout Europe allows her to argue convincingly against the common notion that Cistercian monks “deliberately sought unhealthy places…to found their abbeys” (83). To the contrary, the monks sought to transform “vaporous sites” (83) into habitable and cultivatable land by careful planning. When the effort failed the monks were willing to change locations, as Abbot Alberic of Cîteaux is recorded to have done in the first decade of the twelfth century (“The Siting of Cistercian Monasteries,” 81–85). The discussion on “Water Management” (85–87) touches on the introduction of external sources (such as rerouted rivers or manmade canals) and/or excavating sources within the precinct (such as the piping of underground springs). Examples are provided from houses in modern-day Belgium, England, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Portugal, including some that have traditionally been given little attention (Obazine in France, Walkenried in Germany, or Leyre in Spain).

In chapters 4 and 5, “The Cloister” and “The Church,” the formal elements and functions of these two spaces are examined, including topics such as plumbing and lavaboes not usually treated in scholarly discourse (131–38). Kinder discusses the Cistercian conventual church in detail under several headings, including “Sources of Cistercian Church Design” (161–64), “Plan and Function” (165–94), and “Decoration and Meaning” (217–21). She argues forcefully against the notion of a unique or ideal Cistercian plan. Rather, the design of the first generation of Cistercian churches drew on architectural elements common to Romanesque Burgundy (168–69). This is a leitmotif to which Kinder returns repeatedly: “no known model was put forth as an ideal” (375), for the so-called typical Cistercian plan commonly perceived to have a flat-ended chevet and square bay modules (see the portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt [BN ms fr 19093, fol. 14]). A total of twelve ground plans, four of female and eight of male houses, are selected to demonstrate the diverse styles employed in Cistercian church design (166–71). She further disputes the notion that daughter houses necessarily copied designs from the mother houses, which by extension would have produced at least five styles associated with the five founding mother houses—a notion that remains unsupported. As to the austere interior of many Cistercian churches, she offers the important distinction between “meaning” arising from narrative decoration that indeed was rejected and “meaning” residing in non-narrative forms. The latter was probably embraced, even though it is lost to the modern viewer.

The next three chapters—“The East Range,” “The Refectory Range,” and “The West Range and the Lay Brothers”—take the reader through the three wings of a typical cloister. Kinder describes individual spaces (chapter house, dormitory, refectory) and discusses their intended functions (warming, greasing shoes, and bloodletting within the warming room) and their intended inhabitants (choir monks and lay brothers). We even learn of the admonition that a “supply of large, cabbage-like leaves was to be replenished in the latrines” (275). The final chapter, “Beyond the Cloister,” is followed by a conclusion.

The monuments discussed—from Estonia to Norway, from Austria to Wales—exceed the usual geographical limitations. The juxtaposition of Benedictine and Cistercian practices in liturgy, division of labor, finances, or architectural settings is useful for an understanding of the Benedictine traditions from which the Cistercians sprang. Initially published in French in 1997, Kinder’s book refers extensively to source material published in French or on French subjects. While the references cited are impressively up-to-date (including reviews of a book published in 2000 [33, n. 2]), they are buried in footnotes scattered throughout the text and can be difficult to locate. The “Suggestions for Further Reading” at the end of the volume offers a carefully selected bibliography that is balanced for both specialists and nonspecialists. The book is also illustrated with luxurious color photographs that are interspersed between the text pages as galleries of plates. This type of layout, though not infrequently seen in French publications such as the Zodiaque series, hampers the effectiveness of the illustrations. Captions do not appear near the photos in question but are found in a diagram preceding each gallery, which the reader may find confusing. The absence of a “List of Illustrations” should be rectified with the next edition.

The name Peter Fergusson is inextricably intertwined with scholarship on English Cistercian architecture. His Architecture of Solitude: Cistercian Abbeys in Twelfth-Century England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984) is on the reading lists of most medieval architectural courses, and his collaborations with Stuart Harrison (an experienced archaeologist and prolific author on medieval Yorkshire architecture) have resulted in a number of publications, the most recent being Rievaulx Abbey: Community, Architecture, Memory, under review here.

In addition to the commonly cited Cistercian texts (see above), Fergusson and Harrison have at their disposal additional documents from, and related to, the Rievaulx Abbey. The former group includes writings by Aelred (r. 1147–67), the second abbot of the abbey, and his Vita, written by Walter Daniel, a contemporaneous infirmarer. The latter group includes five documents written during the sixteenth-century Suppression of the Monasteries (in Appendix D), papers of the Earls of Rutland and the Earls of Feversham, who owned the former abbey between 1539 and 1917, and finally clearance reports by the Office of Works (now English Heritage) as it took possession of the site in 1917.

Of the book’s twelve chapters, the first three address the origin of the Cistercian Order, the founding of Rievaulx in 1132, descriptions of the original community (Abbot William’s twelve monks and lay brothers), the growth of the monastery under Aelred, and its decline beginning in the late thirteenth century.

The next six chapters deal with specific structures or groups of structures within the abbey. Typically, a chapter begins with a detailed description of the physical remains, followed by carefully reasoned reconstructions of the missing elements. These archaeological descriptions are aided by copious illustrations and diagrams interspersed within the text. Fergusson and Harrison discuss the formal origin and daily function of each structure extensively and in context. Chapter 4, “The Opus Dei: The Romanesque Church,” examines the church commissioned by Aelred, which was “an enlarged version of its predecessor” (69) and “extremely austere” (76), with only chamfers and molded imposts for surface articulation. The austerity and the two-story elevation of Aelred’s church are common to “early Cistercian churches outside Burgundy” (79), as in the Tre Fontane in Rome. The authors see this formal connection with Tre Fontane as a conscious effort to reinforce “the theme of the ecclesia primitiva” of contemporary Rome (76–81). Chapter 5, “Commemoration and Discussion: The Chapter House,” considers the two chapter houses built by William and Aelred respectively. While William’s structure was most probably rectangular in plan and situated within the east range of the cloister, as was typical, Aelred commissioned a chapter house with two side aisles, an ambulatory, a semicircular apse, and a clerestory. The apse of this unique structure protruded from the east range, in essence making the chapter house a second, smaller oratory to the south of the conventual church. Commemorative functions associated with the chapter house included the reading of Martyrology and Necrology, and the burials of deceased abbots. In fact, a shrine to the founding abbot William was erected near the entrance to the chapter house, indicating the popularity of his cult (98 and 166, fig. 140). Recognizing this strong association with communal remembrance, the authors suggest an iconographic connection between the unique design of the chapter house with the so-called cemetery basilicas of fourth- and fifth-century Rome (99).

Equally impressive was Rievaulx’s infirmary hall (chapter 7, “Sickness and Age: The Infirmary Complex”). It is the earliest among surviving Cistercian infirmaries as well as the largest, with a reputed capacity for 140 monks (111–15). Fergusson and Harrison compare the construction of monastic infirmaries with the simultaneous rise of urban hospitals in the twelfth century. The construction of a separate abbatial residence between the infirmary and the chapter house—an unprecedented arrangement separating the abbot from his flock—is explained as a means of ministering to Aelred’s chronic illness (128–29). Just as the chapter house protrudes from the east range of the cloister, the refectory of Rievaulx (140–47) also juts out from the south range (similar examples can be found in Clairvaux, Kirkstall, and Fountains, among others). This orientation might have allowed monks direct entry to the kitchen, without leaving the cloister proper (147). The authors speculate that the two-story refectory “constituted a new architectural type” (148–49) that might refer to the biblical structure in Jerusalem known as the cenaculum, where the Last Supper and the Pentecost were believed to have taken place (149–50).

In the next chapter, “The New Monastic Church,” the remains of the thirteenth-century choir (much of it still standing) are described, analyzed, and interpreted. The layered thick-wall construction, with its preference for linear decoration, such as bundled shafts on nave arcade piers and multiple moldings articulating gallery openings, are shown to reveal northern English vocabulary (174). The choir had to accommodate the increasing need for burial commemorations and votive masses; at the same time it served as a luminous shrine for Aelred, whose sepulcher in the new church was described by a sixteenth-century antiquarian as having been covered with gold and silver decoration (168).

Rievaulx Abbey was signed away to the Suppression commissioners on December 3, 1538, marking the end of its four-hundred-year existence. The buildings were inventoried and then quickly dismantled by their new owner, and the site turned to industrial use. In chapter 11, “From Wreck to Ruin,” the tragic destruction of the abbey is chronicled with the help of five documents concerning the Suppression. Among these, the Inventory and Survey provide a vivid account of the state of the monastery in 1539, including the presence of “deskes” in the cloister walks (229, Inventory XX). In 1687 the lands were sold to Charles Duncombe (later Earl of Feversham), whose family constructed the Rievaulx Terrace in the mid-eighteenth century on the hill that overlooks the abbey from the north. The Terrace, approximately a half-mile long and anchored at one end by a Doric and at the other by an Ionic temple, came to be regarded as the “standard formulae of the picturesque,” attracting numerous artists and writers especially in the 1770s and 1780s (189–90). Subsequent scholarly and antiquarian interest in Rievaulx is summarized on pages 190–94 and in a section entitled “Historiography” in “Preface and Acknowledgment” (viii–ix). The last chapter, “Rievaulx in the Twentieth Century,” not only documents the clearing work undertaken by the Office of Works, but also tackles many thought-provoking issues involving the preservation and display of historical monuments.

The volume is exemplary in many aspects, particularly in its focused discussions of the archaeology of the buildings and their monastic history. Even though some readers may find the virtuoso descriptions of the physical remains and their implications daunting, it is possible to turn directly to the later sections in which history, function, and other contextual issues are explored. This formal organization not only allows the authors to concentrate on their various strengths to the maximum benefit of their exposition of the subjects, it also gives a gratifying clarity to the book as a whole. Often, brief excursions such as the “Origins of the Cistercian Order” (2–4) and “Historical Context [on infirmaries]” (120–23) prove surprisingly illuminating. The large, full-page color photographs in the beginning of the volume are complemented by numerous black-and-white images and line drawings.

Given the complexity of the abbey’s architectural history, it would have been helpful had ground plans been provided of the different phases of the conventual church, the cloister, and the chapter house to show the successive structures and their modifications in layers. While the layout of the text and illustrations is beautifully executed (the only error that caught this reviewer’s eye was the switched captions for figures 14 and 15 on page 49), the same cannot be said about many of the entries for German sources in the bibliography. A casual inspection reveals considerable typographical errors that a competent proofreader at Yale University Press should have caught.

Although entitled Monastic Spaces and Their Meanings: Thirteenth-Century English Cistercian Monasteries, Megan Cassidy-Welch does not concern herself so much with the physical structures of Cistercian monasteries in thirteenth-century Yorkshire as with the “creation and meaning” of spaces that are intangible, invisible, and/or imagined (1–2). In the introduction (1–22) she attempts to define “space” by examining recent scholarship, ranging from Pierre Nora to Michel Foucault. By citing writings that deal with urban space, prison space, and the Algerian Kabyle house, the author admits that “theories of space such as those outlined above have rarely been applied to the study of medieval monastic sites” (8). Contemporary theories, often derived from literary theory and criticism, are constantly pressed into service for her interpretations of thirteenth-century monastic architecture. Postmodern delight in the elimination of “either/or” propositions and polarities by claiming the simultaneous presence of erstwhile dichotomies (open/closed, constraint/freedom, physical/abstract) is found throughout this study. Thus Robert Venturi is cited to explain the enclosure/separation functions played by arcades surrounding a cloister (57). Unfortunately, Venturi’s quotation concerns solid walls, not cloister arcades. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1995) is invoked to help us understand the chapter house as a place of discipline (108–11). When Erving Goffman’s dubious analogy comparing concentration-camp inmates “forced to stand by as others are tortured to death” and monks watching their brethren “accepting the discipline” inside the chapter house is cited as an important insight, I suspect that many medievalists will not be able to accept her arguments (130).

Chapter 1, “Boundaries and Memories: The Space of Transition,” discusses the role of the novices and their inhabited space within the monastery. For the novice, spatial boundaries are established by the monastic walls and the confinement of the novitiate. To make the mental transition from novice to monk, we are told, it was necessary to reform (or eradicate) memory about the past. Chapter 2, “Metaphorical and Material Space: The Cistercian Cloister,” discusses not only the physical layout of the cloister, but also the rites performed in it (e.g., the mandatum, or symbolic washing of the feet) and the symbolism attached to it, that is, the garden of paradise. She perceives the cloister as “a space in which a finite locality is connected to a theology of the infinite” (69). Chapter 3, “The Cistercian Church,” proposes that the undecorated space of a typical Cistercian church, despite/because of the absence of images, allows the monks to visualize incorporeal divine images.

With chapter 4, “Community, Discipline, and the Body: The Cistercian Chapter House,” the discussion turns to the chapter house in connection with discipline and punishment, both of which took place in that room. The author equates this space with “a purgatory period of trial [on earth],” both of which are “defined in terms of suffering, bodily pain, and the possibility of communally directed redemption” (127). This statement seems to overemphasize the punishing that took place in the chapter house. Would it not be more apt to associate purgatory on earth with monastic prisons, which, as the author well knows, became required in all Cistercian houses by 1229 (123)? Chapter 5, “Blood, Body, and Cosmos: The Infirmary,” pays special attention to the practice of bloodletting, which each monk was required to undergo in the warming room four times a year. The author is much less concerned with the possible medical reasons for this procedure than with the notion that with each bloodletting, natural order is restored to “a body that in itself is a microcosmos” that, while it is recovering in the infirmary, can be seen as “the microcosmos within the macrocosmos” (160). Unfortunately, the entire discussion fails to take into consideration the medical aspect of this practice and the fact that bloodletting was not limited to monasteries.

Chapter 6, “Status, Space, and Representation: The Cistercian Lay Brother,” describes the rules observed by the Cistercian lay brothers (the Regula Conversorum of 1174) and the functions they performed outside the monastic walls (175–78). The rapid decline of the lay brother population (replaced by hired laborers or reduced during economic downturns) is considered by the author as the end of “the spatial story of Cistercian lay brothers” who suffered from “the tension between material circumstance and imagined space” (193). Chapter 7, “Apostasy and the Contravention of Monastic Space,” provides definitions of apostasy and the ensuing actions taken by the Order. The runaway monks, by leaving the monastery, defied “both physical and imagined boundaries”: monastic walls and vows (216). The final chapter, “Sites of Death and Spaces of Memory,” considers burials within the monastic walls not only of the religious but also of the lay notables, the latter commonly interred in the cloister walks and the galilee [western porch] of the conventual church (233). The increasing requests for burial from the lay population prompted the General Chapter to limit the performance of commemorative rites. Nevertheless secular burials took place in the aisles, the crossing, or the presbytery by late thirteenth century (235–56). Here Cassidy-Welch stresses the importance of remembrance and how memory could be “evoked by the topographical presence of graves, tombs, and effigies” (240). It was within the enclosures of the monasteries, as the author puts it eloquently, where “this life and the next coalesced in the quiet Yorkshire earth” (253).

There are a number of illustrations that are plainly illegible (13, fig. 1; 86, fig. 3.9) and instances in which the layout of the figures is inconsistent with the captions (53, fig. 2.4; 83, fig. 3.6; 84, fig. 3.7; 136, fig. 5.2). Also, there are a few typographical errors (“chuch” instead of “church,” “Cisterian” instead of “Cistercian”) and one erroneous layout to be found (61). And though this is quibbling, there are occasional factual mistakes as well: calling the cloister at St. Riquier “triangular” when it is an asymmetrical, five-sided courtyard (48, n. 4), or locating the tabula (wax tablet) in the north arcade of the cloister when it was normally found in the east range near the chapter house (49). What becomes a real hindrance for readers is the reluctance to give full citations of bibliographic sources: COCR instead of Collectanea Ordinis Cisterciensium Reformatorum, or ASOC instead of Analecta Sacri Ordinis Cisterciensis. In a few places I would have liked to see a different choice of words: Aelred, who died in 1167, could not have “upheld” a legislature of the General Chapter of 1202 (100); nor could anyone sing in “soprano, bass, and alto” in the thirteenth century (100). The contribution of this work is the integration of findings by architectural historians with more recent concepts derived from the fields of philosophy and critical theory. It should prove a stimulating enterprise that architectural theorists will read with profit.

Nancy Wu
Senior Managing Educator for Public Programs, The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art