Architecture of a Cloister- The New Benedictine Monastery

by John Burns, appearing in Volume 2

From June 24 to June 26,1998, I had the privilege of visiting the Benedictine Abbey of Sainte Madeleine, located next to the chateau and hamlet of Le Barroux in the Provence region of France. Founded in 1971 by Dom Gerard, a Benedictine from En-Calcat, the abbey is home to a fervent and flourishing community of some sixty monks. Dom Gerard has established a form of primitive Benedictine life at Le Barroux. There is no abbey school nor parish ministry. Life at the abbey revolves around the liturgy, fully sung every day in Gregorian chant. Manual labor, study, and the reception of guests and retreatants round out the life of the monks.

The community spent the first ten years of its existence in an abandoned medieval chapel dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene. In 1978, the site of Le Barroux was found, a seventy-five acre parcel of rocky land amid gorgeous hills dotted with vineyards and lavender fields. Construction of the new monastery began the following year and lasted over a decade. The church alone took more than three years to complete. To say that the abbey is in the Romanesque style is not to say enough. Not only does Le Barroux look Romanesque; it is Romanesque, both structurally and materially. Built entirely of beautiful yellow limestone with an orange tile roof, no expense was spared in the design and construction of this monastery. Even the floors are stone. But what is truly unusual for our age is the fact that the abbey’s masonry is load-bearing. This is a stone structure through and through. Many modern buildings have beautiful stone revetment on their exteriors, but few can claim to have that same beauty on the interior. Not every interior wall of the abbey is of stone, but one will see it in all the principle rooms of the monastery as well as in every room which has an exterior wall. The Abbey is a wonderful witness to that beauty and permanence which should characterize our Catholic structures.

Standing in the abbey church, gazing at the powerful stone arches and barrel vaulted ceiling, the realization comes over me that many of the features of traditional church architecture which we consider aesthetically pleasing and appropriate for worship also serve important structural purposes. Columns, pilasters, and arches bear loads; domes and vaults span spaces. The link between structure and aesthetics is not accidental; it should be seen as part and parcel of the wondrous order, integration, and harmony of the cosmos, established by the Creator as a reflection of Himself. Harmonic proportions are another example of this integrated order, namelv, the relationship between spatial proportion and musical intervals, first discovered by the ancient Greeks. At Le Barroux, we behold a beauty which is more than skin deep; the buildings breathe an air of authenticity. When beauty springs from the very structure of an edifice, it gives to that edifice a transparency and integrity which is awesome.

The church at Le Barroux is a basilica of three naves, oriented towards the East. Each of the three naves terminates in an apse, a typical feature of French Romanesque churches, probably derived from Byzantine architecture. The altar is free standing, slightly forward of the chord of the apse, while the tabernacle rests deep in the apse on a stone pedestal. There is a bell tower directly over the altar, in what would be the crossing if this church had a transept. The location of the bell tower here is also a feature of French Romanesque architecture. The bells are rung manually, the ropes being tied off to the sides in order to prevent them from hanging over the altar. The location of the bell tower certainly makes it easy for the monks to coordinate the ringing of the bells with the action of the liturgy. It is enjoyable to watch the ringing before and during the services.

The sanctuary has been raised a few steps above the nave in order to distinguish it from the latter. There is no chancel screen between the sanctuary and the choir of the monks. Rather, as is common in monastic churches, this feature has been moved westward and placed between the choir of the monks and the area reserved for guests at the west end of the nave. At Le Barroux, the screen is a simple communion rail of wrought iron.

Hefty choir stalls fill most of the nave, providing seating for about 80 monks. While this feature is traditional in Benedictine monasteries, at Le Barroux it has the deleterious effect of shutting off the nave from the side aisles. In my opinion, some of the beauty of basilican architecture is lost when the nave does not communicate freely with the side aisles. However, since the aisles of Le Barroux church open on to a series of niches designed for the celebration of private Masses, the choir stalls do provide a welcome element of intimacy and seclusion for the niche chapels.

It appears to me that the monks wanted their church and monastery to have a primitive and austere feel, something certainly in keeping with their way of life. Ornamentation in the chapel is simple and art work sparse. A beautiful polychrome crucifix hangs over the altar, while a 14th century statue of Our Lady stands on a pedestal to one side of the sanctuary. The half dome of the apse is painted with a row of standing saints.

The church at Le Barroux functions magnificently as a locus for Catholic liturgy. The reflective surfaces of the walls and vaulted ceiling make for excellent acoustics and give the chant a pleasing, ethereal quality, which is conducive to prayer and creates a sense of reverent mystery. The monks are masters of the chant, though they have not incorporated any of the newer semiological discoveries into their style of singing. In my three days at the abbey, I did not note a single mistake in the singing. Matching this perfection is an equally impressive mastery of the ceremonies of the liturgy.

The monks make little use of electric lights, either in the church or in the refectory. The use of natural light has the wonderful effect of manifesting the relationship between the Divine Office and the hours of the day. When the morning office of Lauds speaks of the reddening sky, and the evening office of Vespers sings of the setting sun, this was clearly visible from the light entering the abbey church through the deep-set windows with their splayed sills and jambs. Here the liturgy of creation is taken up into the liturgy of the Church, and the cycles of natural life are both sanctified and seen as revelatory of Christ, the light of the world.

Access to the cloister and other rooms of the abbey is reserved to the monks alone. Pictures of cloister show columns, capitals, bases, and arches all of stone, an impressive feat for our age. In the hot Provencal sun, the stone cloister must surely provide a welcome bit of cool and shade in an idyllic atmosphere of restful silence. Yet cloisters also serve the very practical function of linking the various buildings of a monastery together and providing a protective conveyance between them. In addition to the cloister of the monks, the Abbey of Le Barroux also has a second, smaller cloister for the guests and retreatants. This charming space, with massive wooden columns and capitals, adjoins the guesthouse, church, and refectory, the three areas of the monastery accessible to guests. One can only admire the careful planning displayed here. As is typical of Benedictine monasteries, guests of the abbey eat in the refectory of the monks, at separate tables, while listening to the reading of scripture or another religious book. The refectory is a long, spacious room with a barrel vaulted ceiling. The table for the Abbot, Prior and Sub-prior stands at the far end of the room under a large crucifix. The pulpit for the reader is located midway along one of the long walls, facilitating the ability of the reader to be heard. Of all the rooms of the monastery which I was able to visit, this one reminded me most of something right out of Romanesque France.

I have no clear idea of building costs in France, but I could not imagine building such a monastery in America for less than twenty-five million dollars. Le Barroux represents more than an architectural feat; it is a financial one as well. It demonstrates that people still value the opportunity to patronize a project of superior architectural quality. In my limited experience, architects and clients alike are too willing to settle for second best on the basis of budget. In the end, a lot of money is spent for something that fails to inspire and probably won’t last. Meanwhile, a building like Le Barroux will stand, gathering character and a history for succeeding generations to enjoy. One has to ask if we are making wise use of our resources by settling for plasterboard, auditorium-style churches. The Turkish proverb, “I’m not wealthy enough to afford cheap merchandise,” applies quite well here. Longevity aside, there is no price tag to be put on a church artistically well designed and durably built of fine materials. Beauty transforms space and transcends time, revealing to us the very nature of God himself. Like truth and goodness, it is a transcendental quality which has the capacity to transform those who behold it. Perhaps this is what Dostoyevsky meant when he said that beauty would save the world.