Architecture Planning and Preservation Cloister
Elizabeth Valdez del Álamo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0018


The term “cloister” has two definitions, both based on the Latin word claustrum (pl. claustra), meaning an enclosure, a lock, or a place that is shut. A cloister may be the monastery or convent that encloses a religious community away from the world, monks as well as canons, priests living together under a rule. Architecturally, a cloister is the open courtyard that connects the various buildings of the monastery by means of a covered walkway. Cloister galleries are usually formed by an arcade of columns springing from a plinth, often with piers at the corners. These may be ornamented with carvings, as on the column capitals and sometimes on the columns themselves. The cloister courtyard normally includes a well and garden. By the 9th century, the layout for an ideal monastery had been recorded in the Plan of St. Gall. There, the cloister is rendered in what was to become its traditional form, a quadrangle. The main features of the St. Gall plan are found, for example, at Monte Cassino, the head of the Benedictine order, and at the monastery of Cluny. This arrangement was generally followed by Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries. To the north of the cloister lies the church nave; to the east are the church transept and dormitory. Along the east gallery is the chapter house, the meeting place for the monastic community, then there is a parlor near a spring that must have served for washing, baths, and latrines. To the south is the refectory, and to the west, the gateway and guesthouse. The north gallery of the cloister often has a funerary function, with burials of abbots located there. The west gallery often flanks the cellar and guesthouse. Because the cloister provides the passageway between the church, dormitory, refectory, and chapter house, it is the heart of a monastery, and the decoration reflects its spiritual ideals. On the one hand, it was the site for processions on Sundays and holidays, for teaching novices and children, and for reading and meditation. On the other hand, the cloister may be used for a variety of activities, some concerning the practical side of life, such as laundry, barbering, and the reception of guests. Larger communities sometimes had a second cloister connecting the infirmary to the rest of the compound. Because monasteries and colleges of secular canons sometimes evolved into universities, campuses often have cloister garths as well. This article focuses on medieval cloisters.

General Overviews

The forms and functions of medieval cloisters are introduced in these general surveys on monasteries and monasticism. Serious studies of cloisters began to develop in the 1970s, as indicated in Pressouyre 1973, and they usually encompass the monastery as a whole and as architecture; see Braunfels 1972 and Brooke 2001. Kinder 2002 and Krüger 2012 emphasize the usage of the monastic space and provide the most-thorough introductions for serious students and researchers. Greater emphasis on the cloister itself is offered in Meyvaert 1973, Faure and Rouchon Mouilleron 2001, and McNeill 2006. All these overviews reflect the dual sense of “cloister” both as the monastic compound and as the arcaded galleries that connect its buildings.

  • Braunfels, Wolfgang. Monasteries of Western Europe: The Architecture of the Orders. Translated by Alastair Laing. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.

    An early, masterful survey of western European monasteries from the Early Christian period through the mid-20th century. Braunfels organizes each chapter around how new monastic rules influenced the design of the monastic space. Selections from original sources, with excellent plans and illustrations, make this a basic reference tool for the subject. Originally published in German: Abendländische Klosterbaukunst (Cologne: DuMont Schauberg, 1969).

  • Brooke, Christopher. The Age of the Cloister: The Story of Monastic Life in the Middle Ages. Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Verlag Herder im Breisgau, 2001.

    The author describes this as an updated edition of Brooke’s The Monastic World, published in 1974, but the focus is now on European orders rather than international monasticism. The title and text reflect the dominance of the cloister in monastic design, which constitutes the major difference from the earlier work. Employs “cloister” both in the sense of monastic enclosure and the architectural unit. Originally published in German: Die Klöster (Freiburg in Breisgau, Germany: Herder, 2001).

  • Faure, Daniel, and Véronique Rouchon Mouilleron. Cloisters of Europe: Gardens of Prayer. Translated by Deke Dusinberre. New York: Viking Studio, 2001.

    Thoughtful survey of the aesthetics and symbolism of medieval cloisters, with an annotated bibliography and an outstanding collection of color photographs by Faure. An excellent, appealing starting point for research, and more conceptual in its approach than earlier surveys. Despite the designation of Europe in the title, does not include Germany. Originally published in French: Cloîtres: Jardins de prières (Paris: Flammarion, 2000). Also in German (2003).

  • Kinder, Terryl N. Cistercian Europe: Architecture of Contemplation. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2002.

    A thorough examination of Cistercian architecture. The chapter on cloisters discusses function, design, and usage, with many astute archaeological observations on individual monuments. The clear, straightforward language makes this a very useful introduction for students at every level. Originally published in French as L’Europe cistercienne (1997).

  • Krüger, Kristina. Monasteries and Monastic Orders: 2000 Years of Christian Art and Culture. Edited by Rolf Toman. Translated by Katherine Taylor. Potsdam, NY: H. F. Ullmann, 2012.

    A history of monasticism, with emphasis on how the structures in the monastic compound function. Essays introduce the reader to topics such as the cloister, the cloister garden, the fountain, the Cistercians, etc. Glossary, biographies of significant monastic figures, lavish photography, and excellent plans make this eminently readable volume one of the best introductions to the religious orders, cloisters, and their function. Originally in German as Orden und Klöster (2007). See especially pp. 66, 104–105, 109, 123, 132–133, 149, 151–153, 160, 166–168, 172, 176, 190–194, 202–205, 214–220, 225–229, 234, 238, 269, 278–281, 290, 300–302, 309, 318, and 324–325.

  • McNeill, John. “The Continental Context.” In Special Issue: The Medieval Cloister in England and Wales. Edited by Martin Henig and John McNeill. Journal of the British Archaeological Association 159.1 (2006): 1–47.

    Reviews the development, design, usage, and iconography of cloisters between the 11th and 13th centuries on the European continent. Emphasizes that cloisters serve the needs of the particular community, and that design adapts to the site. This is the introductory essay for the special issue The Medieval Cloister in England and Wales (see Henig and McNeill 2006, cited under Anthologies).

  • Meyvaert, Paul. “The Medieval Monastic Claustrum.” In Special Issue: The Cloister Symposium, 1972. Edited by Wayne Dynes. Gesta 12.1–2 (1973): 53–59.

    DOI: 10.2307/766634

    A fundamental essay that introduces the cloister as lived by the monastic community under the Rule of Saint Benedict and described by Benedictine authors of the Middle Ages, written by a modern Benedictine. An excellent starting point to understand the spiritual ideals and practical uses of the cloister. This volume of Gesta is dedicated to the topic of cloisters; see also Dynes 1973 (cited under Anthologies).

  • Pressouyre, Léon. “St. Bernard to St. Francis: Monastic Ideals and Iconographic Programs in the Cloister.” In Special Issue: The Cloister Symposium, 1972. Edited by Wayne Dynes. Gesta 12.1–2 (1973): 71–92.

    DOI: 10.2307/766636

    Describes the essay as “only the beginning of what must inevitably be a long investigation.” Identifies themes in cloister ornamentation that express monastic ideals: images of abbots, apostles, the administration of discipline, and the Mandatum (Washing of the Feet). The 11th through early 13th centuries were the most creative, with a loss of creativity due to the aesthetic system eventually imposed by Gothic art. This volume of Gesta is dedicated to the topic of cloisters. See also Dynes 1973 (cited under Anthologies).

  • Reconstructing Monasticism. MonArch Project, Brown University.

    Sheila Bonde and Clark Maines dedicate this section of their 1998 MonArch (Monastic Archaeology) Project to documenting the monastic way of life by means of texts, architecture, and archaeological remains from and at the abbey of Saint-Jean des Vignes. The website visualizes the information on plans of the abbey. An excellent, engaging introduction for scholars and students (see also MonArch Project and Bonde and Maines 2003, both cited under France).

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