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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Monasticism in Western Medieval Europe

According to an early biography, the young Saint Anthony (died 356) led a conventional Christian life until the day when, on the way to church, he “communed with himself and reflected as he walked how the Apostles left all and followed the Savior; and how they in the Acts sold their possessions and brought and laid them at the Apostles’ feet for distribution to the needy, and what and how great a hope was laid up for them in heaven” (Athansius, Life of Anthony 2). Anthony chose to give up his worldly routine in order to embrace Christ’s example as fully as possible, and in the fourth century, growing numbers of men and women embarked on the course that he charted. This way of life, called monasticism, imposed rigors and privations but offered spiritual purpose and a better hope of salvation. In western Europe, the focus of this essay, it exercised a powerful influence on society, culture, and art and was one of medieval Christianity’s most vigorous institutions.

The concept of withdrawal from society is essential to the Christian tradition of monasticism, a term that derives from the Greek word monachos , which means a solitary person. In regions around the eastern Mediterranean in the late third and early fourth centuries, men and women like Anthony—whose biography provided a model for future monks—withdrew into the Egyptian desert, depriving themselves of food and water as part of their effort to withstand the devil’s temptations. The ideal of the saint alone in the wilderness retained its appeal, but Pachomius (died 312/13) and others living along the Nile River pioneered an irresistible alternative in cenobitic monasticism, that is, retreat into a community of like-minded ascetics committed to daily regimens of work and prayer. In western Europe, some monks and nuns settled far from cities and towns, seeking lives of devotion and self-denial in inhospitable or fortified locations, but other communities flourished in populous places, where they might withdraw from the world in spirit and yet remain nearby to offer instruction and guidance.

Monks and nuns performed many practical services in the Middle Ages, for they housed travelers, nursed the sick, and assisted the poor; abbots and abbesses dispensed advice to secular rulers. But monasticism also offered society a spiritual outlet and ideal with important consequences for medieval culture as a whole. Monasteries encouraged literacy, promoted learning, and preserved the classics of ancient literature, including the works of Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, and Aristotle. To beautify the celebration of the liturgy, monastic composers enriched the scope and sophistication of choral music, and to create the best environment for devotion, monasticism developed a close and fruitful partnership with the visual arts. The need for books and buildings made religious houses active patrons of the arts, and the monastic obligation to perform manual work allowed many monks and nuns to serve God as creative artists. Exceptionally, some of them signed their works in words that seem intended not only to name the maker but also to identify the object as a prayerful offering. So the Latin inscription on an exquisite silver chalice (47.101.30) translates, “In honor of the Blessed Virgin brother Bertinus made this in the year 1222,” and the three nuns who made a fourteenth-century lace altarcloth (29.87) included their own names in the fabric along with the wish, “May our work be acceptable to you, o kindly Jesus.”

Every monastic community consisted of men or women vowed to celibacy and bound by a set of regulations. By 400, several rules were current, each of which stated the spirit and discipline of monastic life in a different way. In time, communities observing the same rule found a shared identity as an order. For instance, instructions written by Augustine of Hippo (354–430) for a group of nuns in North Africa gained the status of a rule for the Augustinian order. In addition to discussing the leadership and activities of the community, Augustine describes the emotional bond that links the monastery to the faithful outside it: “Amid the great offenses with which this world everywhere abounds, I may be comforted at times by thinking of your number, your pure affection, your holy conversation, and the abundant grace of God which is given to you so that you not only have renounced matrimony, but have chosen to dwell with one accord in fellowship under the same roof, that you may have one soul and one heart in God” (Augustine, Letter 211).

In the fifth and sixth centuries, the founders of new houses often codified new rules, but these seldom extended far from their origins. One remarkable exception is the rule devised by Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480–534) for the monastery at Monte Cassino, which was widely adopted in religious communities throughout western Europe, encouraged by such powerful promoters as Pope Gregory I (the Great, died 604) and the emperor Charlemagne (742–814). The Benedictine Rule is addressed “to you . . . whoever you may be, who are renouncing your own will to do battle under the Lord Christ, . . . taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience” (prologue 2). The Benedictine Rule is often summarized by the Latin motto “Ora et labora” (Pray and work), for it enumerates the essential obligations of monastic life, emphasizing manual labor, daily reading, and, above all, communal prayer, called the “opus Dei,” the work of God. Eight times a day, beginning in the darkness before dawn and concluding in the evening before bedtime, the monastic community is to meet in church for a liturgy called the Divine Office, drawn primarily from the Psalter, the collection of poetic songs traditionally ascribed to the biblical King David. Throughout the Middle Ages in western Europe, the language was Latin, and the office was chanted or sung, sometimes very elaborately. The music of the office, the selection of psalms, and the inclusion of other material varied with the seasons and feasts of the liturgical year, articulating sacred time within every monastic community. Monks and nuns thus worked to secure their own salvation, but also through prayer to seek the salvation of others.

Monastic life appealed to many in the Middle Ages, and as the number and wealth of monasteries increased, so did demand for buildings, books, and devotional objects. Medieval monastic communities shaped the development of the arts by their patronage but also by their creativity and inventiveness, as innovations tried in one monastery often spread to other houses and into more general use.

Monasticism posed a continual challenge for builders, for there was always a conviction that monastic life would flourish best in surroundings most conducive to it. The authors of the fifth- and sixth-century rules say little about the design and disposition of buildings, but later authorities devised careful instructions for the form and arrangement of monastic communities. The ninth-century plan preserved at the abbey of Saint Gall in Switzerland, for example, depicts an ideal meant to inspire both emulation and devotion. As in this plan, each actual monastery had at its heart a church of adequate size to hold the whole community, ideally constructed of stone and proportioned for the most resonant acoustic. Some monastic churches were intended only for the resident nuns or monks, but others had accommodations for visiting pilgrims or lay worshippers as well. Other spaces reserved for special functions typically adjoined the church. These include the refectory, where the monks or nuns assembled for meals (35.35.1); the dorter or dormitory, where they slept; the chapter house, where the community met for business matters and reflection on the rule (35.50); and the cloister, an enclosed garden surrounded by covered walkways (25.120.398). The columns, arcades, and arched portals devised for these structures create architectural rhythms that seem to echo the ordered patterns of monastic life.

The style and decoration of a monastery’s buildings varied according to its own means and its traditions. In the early twelfth century, for instance, the great Benedictine abbey at Cluny constructed a church of astonishing size with imposing exterior towers and lavish interior ornament; the tightly packed buildings that fill a fragmentary frieze (1980.263.1) suggest the richness of the structure and the way it complemented the spectacular liturgy celebrated there. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), principal founder of the Cistercian order, considered such decoration distracting as well as costly and improper. Cistercians thus insisted on the utmost simplicity in buildings, which are notable for their pure geometric proportions and deliberate avoidance of ornament. Elsewhere, monastic buildings were decorated with a lively mix of themes ranging from sacred subjects to depictions of rulers and donors (32.147), exotic animals (31.38.1a), and apparently humorous or even lascivious figures (34.21.2).

Monastic needs and tastes proved as transformative for the arts of the book as for architecture in the Middle Ages, for monasteries required books for everyday use in the liturgy, at mealtimes and meetings, when books were read aloud, and for private prayer and meditation. An array of liturgical texts, from the breviary, a compendium of texts for the Divine Office, to missals, gospels, antiphonaries, and graduals for the choir, was standard in monastic libraries, as were the books of the Bible and theological works by Saint Augustine, Gregory the Great, and other patristic writers. Other books served the demands of particular religious orders: every Benedictine house, for instance, needed a copy of the rule that governed its existence, and the imposition of a standard liturgy by the Dominican order spurred the creation of illuminated choir books for its communities. Until the thirteenth century, medieval monks and nuns made most of these books themselves, preparing parchment, mixing inks, laboriously copying texts by hand, and painting exquisite images in the time allotted to work between the liturgical hours. Some monks composed texts of their own, like the Spanish monk Beatus of Liébana, whose commentary on the Book of Revelation was enriched with vivid illustrations (1991.232.1). Medieval nuns, like the poet Hroswitha of Gandersheim (died ca. 1002) and the mystic Hildegard of Bingen (died 1179), also authored original works.

In a monastic setting, the very exercise of producing a book became a means of meditation on scripture, and the embellishment of the text often highlights this fact: the complex ornament of an initial in a twelfth-century Bible, for instance, invites sustained contemplation (1999.364.2). Other illuminations connect the liturgical celebration of time with the events narrated in scripture; so an initial for a hymn text used on the feast of the Annunciation contains an image of the angel Gabriel greeting the Virgin Mary (1982.175). Musical notation, itself the invention of medieval monks, appears in manuscripts large enough for a whole choir to see (2005.273).

Beyond books, many monasteries contained works of painting or sculpture intended to foster devotion. A statue of the Virgin and Child from late thirteenth-century Spain had this function (53.67): on the base of the throne, below the Virgin’s feet, are painted Benedictine monks engaged in veneration. A religious house might commission such an image for itself, or a lay patron might offer one as a pious donation. Some of the painters and sculptors responsible for such works were bound by monastic vows, but others were not, and arrangements between patrons, artists, and monasteries caused ongoing interaction between secular society and cloistered communities. The close relationship between devotional imagery and monasticism continued into the Renaissance, when many iconic works of religious art—Leonardo’s Last Supper, for instance—were made for monastic settings.

The steady stream of donations enriched many monasteries to fabulous proportions. Men and women of means offered lands and fortunes or endowed new houses: Saint Guilhem, for instance, was duke of Aquitaine and count of Toulouse before he founded the Benedictine monastery that bears his name in 804 (25.120.1-.134). Other noblemen sought burial in monasteries, commissioning monumental tombs and offering gifts in the hope that the prayers of monks or nuns would guarantee their salvation (25.120.201). All over Europe, rulers and aristocrats demonstrated their adherence to Christian ideals by presenting monastic communities with lavish gifts, including costly manuscripts and elaborate reliquaries (1987.217), sculpture (33.23), and splendid liturgical objects (17.190.134).

The glittering treasuries and magnificent architecture of the wealthiest monasteries struck some as incompatible with the ideals of poverty and humility, and many attempts to reform monasticism aimed to purge it of perceived excess. Of particular significance, the Dominicans and Franciscans, founded by Saint Dominic (ca. 1170–1221) and Saint Francis (1181/82–1226), respectively, committed to owning nothing, and are called the mendicant orders from the Latin word meaning to beg. Unlike earlier monks and nuns, the mendicants moved freely outside their houses and actively ministered to the laity by preaching and caring for the sick and the destitute. From their beginnings in the thirteenth century, they laid new emphasis on poverty, but they soon found themselves as richly endowed with works of art and architecture as the older monastic orders (25.120.531–.1052). Saint Clare (1194–1253), a friend and follower of Saint Francis, founded an order of nuns and won them the right to refuse all possessions, and yet donors offered costly gifts (62.96) to communities of her followers. Mendicant themes, like scenes from the lives of Saint Francis and Saint Clare, gained wide currency in frescoes, panels (1984.343), embroideries (64.101.1384) made for friaries and convents, and illustrated books conceived for noblemen and kings (1994.516). Many works of art demonstrate the impact of the mendicant orders on laypeople’s spiritual awakening: a relief from a tomb in Milan, for example, shows a family in the care of the Dominican saint Peter Martyr as they kneel before the Virgin and Child (2001.221).

By the late Middle Ages, a dramatic increase in lay piety affected expectations for religion and for religious art. Yet new forms of spirituality and new endeavors in the arts continued to spring from monastic foundations. Books of hours, devotional prayer books, often magnificently illuminated, put forth the daily regimen of the monastic offices, and the preaching of mendicant friars threw open to all the faithful the longstanding monastic challenge to find sanctity through spirituality.