Castle Acre Priory

Cluniac priory founded in 1089. As with all monasteries, it was dissolved by Henry VIII and is now largely in ruins. But some of the remains are actually very impressive.

Photographs show the remains of the monastery church, the ruins of the main priory buildings (including an impressive lavatory), and the intact prior’s lodgings. One photograph shows some tudor roses painted on the ceilings as a display of loyalty to the throne; that didn’t do so much good as the same monarch shut the place down.

Cistercian Architecture

One of the primary practical results of the Cistercian rejection of Benedictine, particularly Cluniac, ostentation was a change in architecture.  Since Cistercian monasteries were always founded by monks sent out from an already existing community, certain architectural choices spread and remained common to most or all of the Order’s monasteries.  The most obvious changes were in their ways of building and decorating their churches, but they made other alterations to the typical layout of a Benedictine monastery as well.

Since both Cîteaux and Clairvaux were distroyed in the French Revolution, Fontenay is our best example of Cistercian architecture we have.
[Interior of the church at Fontenay, facing west, built early 12th century, photographed by Jean-Christophe Benoist, Image Source]

A Cistercian church, unlike the Cluniac “small piece of the Heavenly Jerusalem on earth,” was supposed to feel like a “workshop of prayer.”  Elaborate, colorful decorations were for lay people, who needed the glory of the Church and its stories displayed before them.  A monk or nun should need no such reminders.  As a result, Cistercian churches may seem at first glance dull, with a squared off presbytery* rather than a rounded apse and no decoration.  The beauty of such buildings was intended to be subtle, found more in the lines of their architecture rather than in painted walls and sculpted capitals.

North is to the left in this image, not up.  As is pretty common with “typical” plans of things, very few actual monasteries, if any, don’t deviate from this in some way.
[Ideal plan of a Cistercian monastery, Carla Christiana Carvalho, Image Source]

The Cistercians made changes to other parts of the traditional Benedictine monastic layout as well.  They usually left their chapter houses open to the cloister walk,** presumably so that the lay brothers could stand out on the walk and participate in certain meetings, while the choir monks sat inside.  Their refectories, unlike those in most Benedictine monasteries, were turned perpendicular to the cloister rather than parallel.  This not only gave them extra space for a warming room on the south range, but it also meant that they could expand their eating space as little or as much as necessary to accommodate their numbers.

The chronicler Odericus Vitalis tells us that Cistercian monks built their monasteries with their own hands.  He almost certainly did not mean that they let unskilled monks build in stone.  Rather, they almost certainly put up preliminary wooden buildings themselves and assisted in the actual construction of the stone buildings, but the skilled labor would have been done by professional masons hired from outside.  The Order did have a few experts in building within its ranks, and with them acting as advisors alongside the abbot, Cistercian architecture maintained its simplistic, practical bent.

*The presbytery is the area around the altar and the space to the east of it (in a traditional church).  If the walls at the end are rounded rather than squared off, the resulting semi-circular space is known as an apse.  For an overview of spaces in a monastery, try here.
**Though hopefully in colder climates the cloister walk was enclosed from the garth (the open space in the middle).  Asceticism does not mean freezing to death.

Sources/Further Reading:
Cook, William R. and Ronald B. Herzman. The Medieval Worldview: an Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Stalley, Roger. Early Medieval Architecture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Cistercian Architecture - Wikipedia