Artistic Asceticism

The Cistercian Arts: From the 12th to the 21st Century

by Terryl Kinder and Roberto Cassanelli
2012 McGill-Queen’s University Press, 436 pages, $48.00
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The Cistercian Arts provides a one-stop catalog that at once nourishes sufficiently and leaves one desiring more. The essays in this fine book do not disappoint in depth of artistic exposition and exploration of topics—save the essay titled “Cistercian Architecture of the Twentieth Century,” which traffics in the usual hagiography of Le Corbusier (enough has been written in recent years to debunk the legend).

Cistercians or Trappists write five of the thirty-nine essays. Full-page photographs, most of superb quality in both full-color and black-and-white, generously populate the 432 semi-gloss pages.

Cistercian Contradictions

The subject matter not only covers the timeframe denoted in the title but also a vast geographic range across Asia, North America, and, of course, Europe. The diverse topics include the aesthetic influences of Saint Bernard’s theology, Cistercian plumbing and irrigation, construction techniques and abbey building typologies, metallurgy and seal-making, preservation of archaic book and manuscript collections, floor tile fabrication, and more.

The photographs dispel associations of visual reductiveness with the stereotype of Cistercians’ harsh simplicity. They showcase the vast range of Cistercian artistic expressions that, refined as they were across various epochs, we can’t help but view today as downright sumptuous. We admire intricately-laid stone and brick cloisters with hand-sculpted colonnettes; finely painted devotional pictures; brilliantly detailed metalwork; brilliantly-stained glass; and richly adorned liturgical vestments—to name only fragments of the wonderful scope of offerings.

The Cistercian history is one of lives surrounded by contradiction—usually in regard to the ways of the world, but often even from monastery to monastery. The opening essay introduces the reader to the origins of the Cistercian Order, origins that were firmly rooted in a desire to return to the ordering power of ratio. Their medieval artworks strove first to satisfy the intellect. This Cistercian artistic tradition of reform and asceticism for the benefit of the intellect withstood the buffering winds of the world’s fleeting styles across centuries.

Their art was sometimes an overt expression in support of the status quo, at other times quite the opposite. For example, the Cistercians rejected the extravagance of late Romanesque church forms that competed for greater length, width, and quality of furnishings. We are told that they rejected anything that would be a banquet for the eyes rather than of needful use (but today we observe a banquet!).

They shunned the architectural forms of new empires, cities, and corrupted religious communities. However, through the vicissitudes of time one perceives a constant: they infused their arts by hand with intelligible integrity, clarity, and proportion, or, Aquinas’ chief qualities of beauty.

A Limited Catalog

In later chapters a perceptible change transforms the nature of the showcased artwork. Essays that cover the latter half of the twentieth and the dawn of the twenty-first centuries reveal a limited catalog of figural imagery in art and architecture. The breadth of materials reserved for artistic expression wanes. After witnessing the handsomely-crafted treasures of previous centuries, the modern product reveals too few details of the layered Cistercian story.

Gone are the hand-hewn, dimensional stone bearing walls and vaulted ceilings, replaced by smooth-as-glass plastered expanses. Raw concrete, machine-faced stone, or whitewashed walls provide backdrops to assembly-line-produced beams and mass-produced furniture.

The familiar-yet-evocative shades and shadows of their old stone abbeys give way to modern interiors that glow unnaturally with diffuse or randomly-scattered light sources. In some modern abbeys light seeps into naves and cloisters from unexpected crevices on or between walls and roofs.

In others, conversely, bright and expansive landscape views now freely and without filter broadcast deep into church naves through large plate-glass windows. Artificial lighting and forced spatial sensations overpower rooms to the extent that the odd hand-crafted adornments seem out of place. Little remains to help spur the human soul toward direct contemplation of Saint Bernard’s imago Dei, or his special devotion to Mary the Mother of God.

The Modern Abbey

The modern abbey construction looks and feels less a product of material transcendence and more of material starvation. The former hierarchical progression of less to more richly-adorned rooms has been replaced by a series of nearly nondescript spaces.

Originally Cistercian art and architecture reflected a counter-cultural spiritual movement, one of either renovatio or reformatio. Today, the characterisitcs of the art and architecture of recently-constructed Cistercian communities looks markedly similar to that of everywhere else, independent of geographic location.

The book leaves a challenge not only for the Cistercians, but for every Catholic who wishes to participate in Saint Bernard’s spirituality of renewal: is there not another Church reform waiting to be instigated that might differentiate itself from the secular fashions of afigural minimalism?

John Haigh, who worked at the side of sacred architect Thomas Gordon Smith for almost a decade, teaches architecture at Benedictine College.