Evolution Of The Monastery: Cathedrals And Other Key Spaces

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In this essay I hope to analyse the aesthetic and practical uses of early monasteries, and how they influenced the design and plan of twentieth-century architects. It is evident that religion and religious orders have always had a huge impact on architecture – ‘Architecture has always been served by religious fervour. Our (Nepal’s) traditional tiered temple structures were built to house idols, just as the lofty Gothic cathedrals in Northern Europe just kept on getting higher and airier, striving to reach towards heaven and God himself, every arch and buttress designed to prop up a homage to the divine’. (Ponde, 2015) The design and evolution of monasteries has always centred around the concept of self-sufficiency, as stated by St.Benedict – ‘The monastery itself ought to be built so as to contain all necessities within it’. (St.Benedict, c. AD 535) This idea of self-sufficiency among monks resulted in complex layouts of service buildings, including the oratory, the cloister walk, refectory and dormitory, in monasteries throughout the world.

Cistercian architecture is an architectural style of the Cistercian monastic order in the 12th century. The order was a severe community characterized by devotion to modesty and to rigid discipline. This style of architecture was considered simple and utilitarian, unlike the medieval churches of the time, which were once infamously criticised in a letter by St.Bernard. Later abbeys were also made in Renaissance and Baroque styles which were more ornamental in design. Cistercian architecture is considered one of the most beautiful styles of medieval architecture and has played an vital role in the development of European civilization. Cistercian establishments were primarily erected in Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles during the Middle Ages, although later abbeys were also constructed in Baroque and Renaissance styles. In terms of construction, buildings were built, if plausible of smooth finished, light coloured, stone. Columns, pillars and windows fell at the base level and were equidistant, and if plastering was done at all, it was kept extremely simple and minimal, so as not to distract busy monks. A modest style of proportion ratio 1:2 at elevation and floor levels was kept. To maintain the appearance of ecclesiastical buildings, Cistercian constructions were built in a pure, balanced style; and have to be included amongst the most beautiful relics left from the Middle Ages (Bhutia, 2017)e.g. Dunbrody Abbey, Wexford, Ireland.

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Figure A: Dunbrody Abbey, Wexford. Photo taken by Humphrey Bolton (2006)

In the mid-12th century, one of the leading churchmen of his day, the Benedictine Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, united elements of Norman architecture with elements of Burgundian architecture (rib vaults and pointed arches), creating the new style of Gothic architecture. As previously stated, St.Bernard thought of this decoration as a distraction, stating:

‘But in the cloister, in the sight of the reading monks, what is the point of such ridiculous monstrosity, the strange kind of shapely shapelessness? Why these unsightly monkeys, why these fierce lions, why the monstrous centaurs, why semi-humans, why spotted tigers, why fighting soldiers, why trumpeting huntsmen? …In short there is such a variety and such a diversity of strange shapes everywhere that we may prefer to read the marbles rather than the books.’ (Harpham, 2006)

One of the earliest Christian monasteries was founded in 4th century Egypt by St Pachomius. This monastery was established in Tabennisi, near Chenoboskion which is about 5 km east of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. This monastery was the first of its kind, as it allowed the monks and those living inside of it to live a comfortable life within the confines of the abbey walls. In the 5th century St.Benedict started a monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy. He made up guidelines, which stated how a well functioning monastery should be run. Monks had to work as well as to pray and to be compliant. This was the main inspiration for the typical layout of monasteries:

Figure B: the ideal layout of a monastery (Abbey of St.Gall, 719 AD)

Highlighted in red we see an oratory (church) and presbytery ( front part at entrance). The oratory was usually positioned towards the east, the monks believed that the rising sun symbolised Christ in all his Glory, the rising sun (Christ) would meet the monastic community during lauds (morning praise). The choir stalls are situated in the middle of the nave at each end of the oratory. The symbolic role of the monastery church is its protection of the remaining parts of the church:- the cloister with the rooms adjoined on its east, south and west. The northside is a symbol of darkness and evil, the opposite of Christ who, according to monks, was the light of the world. Also included in the oratory is the scriptorium and library (klastervyssibrod, n.d.)This is where monks would spend hours reading Holy scriptures, and crafting beautiful copies of the new testament e.g. The Book of Kells.

Highlighted in yellow is the cloister, which links the most important parts of the monastery. The word cloister is derived from the German word Kloster (monastery), which in turn is derived from the Latin Claustrum (enclosure). The cloister is a four-sided enclosure surrounded by enclosed walkways, and usually attached to a monastic or cathedral church, monks would have been buried here under the floor, this reminded the living monks of their promise of paradise or heaven at the end of their mortal lives, after theyhad dedicated their lives to Christ. A cloister is usually the area in a monastery around which the major buildings (oratory, dormitory, refectory) are arranged, giving a means of communication between the buildings. In Cistercian monasteries the western side of the cloister was usually occupied by the two-story domus conversorum (lodgings of the lay brothers) with their day rooms and workshops located beneath the dormitory. The buildings generally stood on the south of the church so that as much sunlight as possible could be utilise. Earlier cloisters were made up of of open arcades, usually with sloping wooden roofs. This form of the cloister was generally seen in England with a range of arched pointed windows, usually unglazed but sometimes, like in the case of Gloucester Cathedral, are decorated with beautiful ornate stained-glass, illuminnating the vaulted ambulatory. (Sampaola, Encyclopaedia, 2018)

Figure C: The Cloister in Gloucester Cathedral, taken by Geoffrey Einon (2013)

The dormitory is highlighted in green, the name itself is self explanitory, this is where the monks would sleep, but also do a large percentage of their praying.

The refectory is highlighted in purple and this is where the monks would go to eat, dining members would be served by those on duty, silent prayer would usually take place during meal times or a chapter from the rule of St.Benedict would be read aloud by the abbot.

The refectory would sometimes double as the chapter hall, making it the second most important building or room for the monastic community. For this reason it is also where new members are introduced to the monastic community and where celebrations of life for deceased members were held.

Highlighted in purple is the monastery chapel. The chapel is a small intimate place of worship, usually reserved for smaller gatherings of the monastic community. These chapels were usually home to important religious relics such as what was thought to be the Crown of Thorns in the Saint Chappelle (1248) built by St.Louis IX in Paris (Heneghan, 2014).

Usually there is also a chapter hall present in the monastery. Chapter halls exist in many various forms. In England, typically, the chapter houses of the medieval cathedrals were originally rectangular in plan (e.g. Canterbury), but the most common design is a polygon with a vital pillar to support a vaulted ceiling. Particularly stunning octagonal examples can be seen at Salisbury or Westminster. There are quadrilateral chapter houses at Canterbury and Exeter and a circular one at Worcester. (Lotha, 2007)

Plan of chapter house at Westminister Abbey (Journal Article: The Restorations of the Westminister Abbey Chapter House Volume 4 No.2 – Steven H.Wander 1977)

Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, Gothic Revival was used across Europe and throughout the western world for public buildings and homes for the people who could afford the style, however, Gothic Revivial was most commonly used for the construction of churches and cathedrals. Churches in the countries that were influenced by the Gothic Revival, minor and major, whether secluded in small villages or in the big cities, there is, usually, at least one church constructed in Gothic Revival style. Particularly beautiful examples of Gothic cathedrals in the U.S. include St.John the Devine’s Cathedral in New York City and the Cathedral Church of Saints Peter and Paul (also known as Washington National Cathedral) on Mount St. Alban in northwest Washington, D.C. (Sampaola, 2017)

Another particularly fine example of Gothic Revival Architecture is that of St.Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork, Ireland. St.Fin Barre’s Cathedral is the most recent clerical site situated where the saint is believed to have founded a monastic school in the 600’s. The present Neo-Gothic (gothic revival) cathedral, designed by the English architect William Bruges, is made from Cork limestone, the interior wall stone was sourced from Bath, the red-marble was quarried in nearby Little Island and the purple-brown stone from the nearby town of Fermoy. The plan is conservative; the west front is introduced by three entrance doors leading to the nave, with internal vaulting, arcade, triforium and clerestory,rising to a timber roof. Beyond the nave, the pulpit, choir, bishop’s throne and altar end in an ambulatory. (Crook, 1981)[image: ]Figure 1 St.Fin Barre’s Cathedral, taken by Rene Mattes(2010)

Gothic Revival architecture remained one of the most popular and long-lived revival styles. Although Gothic Revival began to lose force and popularity following approximately 1875 in the commercial, housing and manufacturing areas, some buildings however, such as churches, schools, colleges and universities were still erected in the Gothic style which remained popular in England, Canada and in the United States (the United States is the leader of Gothic Revival style architecture for Schools and Colleges/Universities) until deep into the early to mid-20th century. Only when new materials, like steel and glass along with questions surrounding the style’s plausibility and functionality in everyday life and a lack of space in cities and towns, resulting in buildings being built up rather than out, began to stick did the Gothic Revival start to disappear from common building. (Sampaola, 2017)

The Gothic style dictated the use of structural members in compression, leading to higher, reinforced buildings with interior columns of load-bearing stonework and tall, narrow windows. But, by the beginning of the 20th century, technical advances like that of the steel frame, the incandescent light bulb and the elevator caused many to view this style of architecture as obsolete. Steel framing replaced the non-ornamental functions of rib vaults and flying buttresses, providing wider open interiors with fewer columns interrupting the view, thus leading to a simpler, more functional building. (McIntosh, 2016)

However, some architects continued in the use of Gothic Revival style and continued to apply ornamentation and decoration to an iron framework or ‘skeleton’ underneath, an excellent example of this is the Woolworth Building Skyscraper in New York (1913) by Cass Gilbert as well as the Tribune Tower in Chicago by Raymond Hood and John Meade Howells (1925). However, during the earlier half of the 20th Century, Gothic Revival became replaced by Modernism. Some in the ‘Modern Movement’ saw the Gothic tradition of architectural form entirely in terms of the “honest expression” of the technology of the time and took it upon themselves to alter this tradition, with their oblong frames, unprotected iron girders and minimalistic designs. (McIntosh, 2016)

The Woolworth Building Skyscraper,1913, is a prime example of gothic architecture in the 20th Century. Its Gothic detailing at its pinnacle has been made over-sized so that pedestrians and drivers can read it from street level. The lobby has been decorated in marble, stained-glass ceiling lights, mosaic and bronze fitting.Figure 2 Wooloworth Building Skyscraper, New York, unknown photographer

[image: ]Cass Gilbert, as an architect has left behind a legacy larger than any of his buildings, including the United States Supreme Court Building. ‘Gilbert’s pioneering buildings injected vitality into skyscraper design, and his ‘Gothic skyscraper,’ epitomized by the Woolworth Building, profoundly influenced architects during the first decades of the twentieth century.’ (Heilbrun, 2000). Gilbert has numerous marks behind him, mostly in the form of New York’s Skyline.

It is evident, that the influence of Gothic architecture, dating back to Early Christian Monasteries, has had a profound impact on the development of 20th century architects, thus resulting in the unique and astonishing man-made feature that is the New York Skyline. It is fair to question whether the infamous skyline would resemble what it is today without the impact of Gothic Architecture, and in turn, monasteries.

[image: ]As previously stated, another example of gothic inspired 20th century architecture is the Tribune Tower, Chicago, 1925. This building is 141 metres in height at its pinnacle, with 36 floors and a stunning exterior, it is truly a massive accomplishment for the head architects, John Meade Howells and Raymond Hood. The decorative buttresses circling the peak of the tribune tower ar particularly visible at night when the tower is illuminataed. The tower depicts carved images of Robin Hood (Hood) and a howling dog (Howells) close to the main entrance to honor the architects. The top of the tower is designed after the Tour de beurre, butter tower in English, of the Rouen Cathedral in France. (Sampoala, 2017)Rouen Cathedral itself is comleted in Late-Gothic style, immediately a relationship between the Tribune Tower and gothic architecture can be seen. Clearly the architects were inspired by the amazing quality and beautiful aesthetic of gothic style buildings and wished to involve that in their design. Figure 3 Tribune Tower, Chicago, taken by Eric Allix Rodgers

Overall, it is just and correct to say that the architecture of the 20th century, and in turn the 21st century, would not be as advanced or as aesthetically pleasing as it is today. From the beginnings of simplistic cistercian monastic architetcure to the complex and ornate décor of gothic revival architecture, architects of the 20th century have been and are still today inspired by the technical and decorative advances involved with these architectural styles. The analysis I have provided of the evolution of monasteries and by exploring its key spaces, allows me to conclude that the evolution of monasteries and thei plans have heavily, and positively impacted certain 20th century architects such as Raymond Hood, John Meade Howells and Cass Gilbert.


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