The Cistercian Standard
Posted on June 1, 2018
“Listen, my son, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart.”
– Prologue to Rule by Benedict of Nursia
The opening words of David Heald’s Architecture of Silence set a tone of calm, faith and austerity — a theme that is continued throughout its pages. This leads the reader to believe that whoever had the ear of these monks and nuns share similar virtues.
The Cistercian Order of Roman Catholicism, founded by Bernard of Clairvaux, developed a monastic style reflected in its architecture that intends to confess the nature of God rather than His glory. Thus, the style is not overly ornate, but practical and succinct.
Most Cistercian abbeys were built in low valleys due to topographical and spiritual requirements. This imposed both physical risks and advantages compared to monasteries located on higher ground. These valleys had often been carved by rivers which still flowed near the abbeys, allowing monks with ingenuity the luxury of a watermill. However, should the river flood or be poorly managed, life at its border could quickly become dangerous.
The towering mountains surrounding the abbey reminded its inhabitants of the frailty of the human condition and its remedy, the need for assistance from a higher power.
The conversation between materials and finished product echo within these abbeys’ walls. The simple but naturally beautiful stone used to lay the path or ceiling compliments the deeply sincere life of its inhabitants.
Despite their purely geometric forms, Cistercian abbeys comprise a vast variety of minimalist accents. Some rules, like a lack of color, are universal within the order. However, the complexity of patterned forms symbolize the complexity of God’s nature even in His simplest sense.
According to the Cistercians, color is a distraction that causes the mind and eye to wander from the lessons at hand. This explains the lack of stained glass nor decorative works. Similarly, in Heald’s book, the images are black and white as a continuation of this practice.
Light allows for a playful rhythm within the monastery. As it filters through the glass, the cave like interiors are illuminated with subtle undertones of salvation.
In the monastery, few religious images were allowed with the exception of the necessities, like the crucifix and subtle symbols like the mason’s mark.
Through proportion and design the monastery feels as if it grew out of the ground as naturally as a tree. Not an aggressor on the landscape, the architecture is in harmony with the wilderness surrounding it–bringing chaos into focus as order–both in physical reality and, by extension, in the soul.
*All images and quotations are from the Architecture of Silence, written by Terryl Kinder and photographed by David Heald unless otherwise noted.