In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cistercian Architecture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals and Book Series
  • Primary Sources
  • Image and Online Resources
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Architectural Legislation, Characteristic Types and Forms, Historiographical Debates
  • Aesthetics and Meaning
  • Art, Furnishings, and Décor
  • Patronage and Commemoration
  • Monastic Precincts, Economic and Urban Buildings
  • Architecture of Cistercian Nunneries

Medieval Studies Cistercian Architecture
Maximilian Sternberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0257


Cistercian architecture emerged as a specialist area of scholarly interest after World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, scholars developed the idea that the Cistercian order had formulated groundbreaking, proscriptive architectural ideals in the early 12th century. They argued that Cistercians had used various mechanisms including legislation, visitations, and even their own building lodges to ensure a high degree of architectural uniformity. Cistercian architecture was taken to be at once rigorously functional and ascetic. As part of the Cistercians’ rapid expansion across Europe over the course of the 12th and 13th centuries, scholars, starting in the late 19th century, also studied Cistercian patrons and builders as early exporters of French Gothic forms to every corner of the Latin West. This conception of Cistercian architecture was essentially normative, and tended to selectively idealize early abbey churches from the 12th century. Evidence of variety and development, particularly from the 13th century, were taken to be results of inevitable compromises or even of the decline or loss of a distincitve Cistercian identity. Since then, scholarship has done much to rebuke the image of Cistercian architectural exceptionalism, which one can still find in the nonspecialist literature. Today, it is largely accepted that certain salient ascetic architectural traits—for instance, a short flat apse or a pared-down décor, or the absence of a towered west facade or a crossing tower—were common in the order, but not as systematically adopted as once assumed. It has been established that choir monks were not directly involved in construction, either as ‘architects’ or builders, and that the order drew on regional workshops and building lodges also employed outside the order. Furthermore, ideals of architectural sobriety and poverty could have been perceived as such only relative to the richest regional ecclesiastical architecure of the time. All Cistercian architecure was indebted to regional building traditions and practices on the one hand, and the demands of lay patronage and church politics on the other, leading to considerable variety and evolutionary dynamism. Scholars have also explored how liturgical demands, both within the order and in relation to lay people, changed over time and made new architectural solutions necessary. Nevertheless the idea of a distinctive forma ordinis—an architecural character expressing a Cistercian understanding of charity, uniformity, and simplicity—persisted in a continuous process of architectural adaptation and creative renewal of this very ideal.

General Overviews

Surveys of Cistercian architecture and art are presented in Dimier and Porcher 1962, Dimier 1971, France 1998, Kinder 2002, and Leroux-Dhuys 1998. These works have a tendency to overemphasize the uniformity and internal coherence of Cistercian architecture, but they remain useful starting points for any inquiry. The most detailed and rigorous scholarly surveys of the field are in German and may be found in Untermann 2001 and Rüffer 2008. Written by a historian rather than art historian, and addressing a broader audience, the work of Duby 1998 still stands apart in the literature.

  • Dimier, Anselme. L’art cistercien. Vol. 2. Sainte-Marie de la Pierre-Qui-Vire, France: Zodiaque, 1971.

    This survey is the second survey of Cistercian art produced by Dimier. It covers the rest of Europe.

  • Dimier, Anselme, and Jean Porcher. L’art cistercien. Vol. 1. Sainte-Marie de la Pierre-Qui-Vire, France: Zodiaque, 1962.

    This survey offers a popularizing, richly illustrated account of Cistercian art in France with a particular emphasis on architecture. Dimier was one the pioneers of the field.

  • Duby, Georges. L’art cistercien. Paris: Flammarion, 1998.

    Originally published as Saint Bernard: L’art cistercien in 1976 (Paris: Flammarion), this book has been viewed with skepticism by many art historians. It remains a provocative interpretation of the role of the Cistercians and specifically Bernard of Clairvaux in the wider cultural transformations of the medieval West in the 12th century.

  • France, James. The Cistercians in Medieval Art. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1998.

    This book is a survey of the history of the Cistercian order, illustrated with a wide-ranging selection of primary visual evidence.

  • Kinder, Terryl Nancy. Cistercian Europe. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2002.

    This book is a popularizing, richly illustrated, and reliable survey of Cistercian architecture across Europe.

  • Leroux-Dhuys, Jean-Francois. Cistercian Abbeys: History and Architecture. Cologne: Könemann, 1998.

    Written by a nonspecialist, but handsomely illustrated, this survey contains a particularly useful appendix with introductions to the history and architecture of a selection of abbeys across Europe.

  • Rüffer, Jens. Die Zisterzienser und ihre Klöster: Leben und Bauen für Gott. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2008.

    This book presents a reliable survey with ample reference to the Primary Sources. The author also mediates critical insights from recent scholarly debates and also from outside Cistercian studies.

  • Untermann, Matthias. Forma Ordinis: Die mittelalterliche Baukunst der Zisterzienser. Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2001.

    This monograph is a seminal, near-comprehensive synthesis of the historiography of Cistercian architecture by one of the leading specialists in the field.

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