The idea of withdrawal from secular society was central to the notions of monasticism and monastic architecture. The word derives from μόνος (mónos, Greek for ‘alone’). Christian monasticism made its first traceable appearances at the end of the 3rd century in Egypt and Palestine, though we know little of its architecture at this early stage. The eremitic ideal of the solitary saint retained its appeal, but was soon complemented by cenobitic monasticism where likeminded male or female ascetics joined together in communities that built architecture that was used in common. Monasticism as a religious form of life is found in Buddhism, Islam, and other traditions, though this essay will emphasize the medieval West, where monasteries were popular beginning in the 5th century. The various orders or congregations formulated differing architectural responses to their needs. The 9th-century Plan of Saint Gall, for example, represents an ideal meant to inspire emulation. Some monasteries were designed only for their resident populations of monks or nuns, while others might accommodate lay brothers or sisters, serfs, parish communities, visiting pilgrims, or dignitaries. A number of cathedrals across Europe were in fact monastic, following most often the Augustinian rule. The cenobitic monastery typically provided spaces for worship (church), sleeping (dormitory), dining (refectory), and meeting (chapter house) for the resident community, as well as buildings for reception and accommodation of visitors and other more functional structures (stables, storage barns, forges, mills, etc.). Monastic communities varied in size and might be very small or quite large. Some were found near or within urban locations, while others commanded large agricultural lands, including dependent parishes and granges. A survey of monastic architecture must therefore include industrial and hydraulic structures such as mills and dams, storage structures such as barns, dependent priory and farm buildings, and buildings for the care of the sick and infirm. Bibliography on monastic architecture is often divided regionally, and often focuses upon the church rather than the entire complex. Scholarship has privileged the architecture of certain orders—Cluniac Benedictines, Cistercians, and Franciscans, for example—over the more than five hundred monastic orders and congregations that once existed during the European Middle Ages. Archival research, architectural analysis, and archaeology are all contributing to a broader picture of the range and diversity of monastic architecture for male, female, and double houses. Traditional approaches to medieval architecture and its decoration have been primarily formalist, anchoring stylistic observations upon church records read as building documents in order to establish chronologies. While this approach remains important, new approaches such as stone-for-stone recording, C-14 dating of lime mortar and plaster, and dendrochronology, as well as the scientific study of painted layers and 3D modeling, are reshaping the history of medieval buildings. Together with archaeological analysis, early-21st-century work is examining the longer and more complicated cultural biographies of buildings and sites. This more integrated approach has recognized that architecture is not merely a reflection of monastic reform, but rather plays a strategic role in shaping it.
Most books surveying monastic architecture are limited in scope, either in period coverage, geography, or in the number of orders considered. Braunfels 1972, Brooke 1982, and Krüger 2008 are notable exceptions. Coverage is not the same in all three volumes, however, with Krüger 2008 being the broadest by virtue of reflecting advances in scholarship over the last fifty years.
Braunfels, Wolfgang. Monasteries of Western Europe: The Architecture of the Orders. Translated by Alastair Lang. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.
A general survey with many illustrations and a selected appendix of primary sources. Braunfels treats the beginning of monasticism, the plan of Saint Gall, Cluny, Cistercian monasteries, mendicant orders, English cathedral monasteries, and Baroque and later monastic buildings.
Brooke, Christopher. Monasteries of the World: The Rise and Development of the Monastic Tradition. New York: Crescent Books, 1982.
A richly illustrated survey that treats the establishment of monasticism and the arts and architecture from the 3rd through the 11th century, with attention to Cluny; the hermit traditions of Camodoli, Vallombrosa and the Carthusians; the new orders of the Augustinians Cistercians, Praemonstratensians, Franciscans and Dominicans; and an epilogue tracing monasticism from 130–1500. Reprinted with a new introduction, corrections, updated bibliography and fewer illustrations as The Age of the Cloister: The Story of Monastic Life in the Middle Ages (Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2003).
Krüger, Kristina. Monasteries and Monastic Orders: 2000 Years of Christian Art and Culture. Edited by Rolf Toman, translated by Katherine Taylor and First Edition Translations, Ltd. Königswinter, Germany: H. F. Ullmann, 2008.
Lavishly illustrated, the volume considers the origins of monasticism in the Near East, and follows the spread and development of monasticism through the Counter-Reformation into the 20th century in the West with a chapter (chapter 9, pp. 326–353) on Byzantine monasticism by Rainer Warland.
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