Cistercian Architecure.

Cistercian Architecture.

Cistercian architecture represents a transition between Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The term comes from a group of rebellious monks of the Benedictine Order of Cluny (France), who objected to the decadent life style enjoyed by the Benedictine monks in the late 11th-early 12th centuries. The group broke away in 1098 and founded the first Cistercian abbey at the village of Citeaux --about 25 kilometres south of Dijon—with the aim of living more closely the rules of St Benedict. The Order gathered pace under the leadership of Bernard (1090-1153), a young Burgundian nobleman who left Citeaux with twelve monks and founded an abbey at nearby Clairveaux.   By the middle of the 13th, the Cistercian Order counted about 2,000 abbeys throughout Europe.
In Spanish history, the Cistercians played a significant
role in the struggles against Muslim al-Andalus. In 1147,
Alfonso VII, King of Castile-Leon, took the castle of
Calatrava la Vieja (Old Calatrava), which he then placed
under the protection of the Order of the Knights Templar.
Soon after Alfonso’s death in 1157, the Templars returned
the castle to Alfonso’s son, Sancho, admitting that they
were unable to guarantee protection. The challenge was
taken up by Raymond, abbot of the Cistercian Monastery
of Fitero (in Navarre), and one of the monks, a former knight,
Diego Velázquez.  Together they gathered a group of
volunteers and settled in Calatrava. There, in 1158, they
formed a religious community following Cistercian rules
adapted to their military situation. In 1164 they were admitted
into the Cistercian Order itself.  In the same year, Pope
Alexander III recognized the Order and gave it his approval.
The first of Spain’s three great 12th-century Military Orders
(the other two being Santiago and Alcantara) was thus born. 

Advocating simplicity in all matters, the Cistercians championed an austere life style and self-sufficiency.  They practiced agriculture widely and developed an expertise in hydrology to irrigate their fields.  In keeping with their contemplative life and avoidance of materialism, they built their monasteries in rural areas, preferably in valleys and near streams. Because of the emphasis on simplicity, sculptures of saints, biblical or daily scenes, or monstrous figures, all of which functioned prominently as teaching material for the illiterate faithful in Romanesque churches, were discouraged and frequently omitted.  The same applied, also, to stained glass, just beginning to appear in some Romanesque churches. For the Cistercians, nothing should distract from prayer and meditation. Their attitude is neatly summed up in St Bernard’s words: "What utility can there be in so many ridiculous monsters, that misshapen beauty… especially on the walls of the cloisters, under the eyes of the monks who are engaged in reading? What use have these primitive monkeys, these fierce lions, these spotted tigers, these fighting warriors, these horn-blowing hunters? Here one sees many bodies beneath a single head. On one side there is a four-footed beast with a serpent’s head; on another a quadruped’s head with the tail of a fish; here a horse with the hindquarters of a goat… In short there is such a large and prodigious diversity of animals that the marble stones make better reading than the books.  One could pass the whole day here admiring the details of each one instead of meditating on God’s Law" (Gitlitz 110).

Bridging Romanesque and Gothic architecture, Cistercian architecture partakes of both. The earlier monasteries have a more Romanesque quality e.g. the Monastery of Moreruela (1131, about 35 kilometres north of  Zamora), the earliest Cistercian building in Spain; later buildings reveal more Gothic elements e.g. the church of the Monasterio of Cañas (1236, La Rioja).

                Monastery of Moreruela 1131.

           Monastery of Moreruela 1131.

               Monastery of Moreruela 1131.
The ruins of the Monastery Moreruela (1131), show the preponderance of Romanesque influence. From the outside (top left), we can see how the east end looks typically Romanesque, with three small lower apses. Inside, the arches are rounded  (top right) with hints of pointed Gothic arches linking the lower circular columns (left). There are no carvings on the capitals of the columns, the columns themselves are solid, and the elongated windows above are small.

                 Monastery of Cañas 1236.

            Monastery of Cañas 1236.

           Monastery of Cañas 1236.

The Monasterio of Cañas (1236) is really simple, non-decorative Gothic with its large of expanse of glass, its pointed arches, ribbed vaulting and elegant upward thrust. In keeping with the simplicity sought by the Cistercians, the windows are not made of stained glass and there are no carvings or sculpture. The ornate altarpiece in the upper right is a 16th-century addition and clashes with the serene simplicity of the rest of the interior.

About sixty strikingly simple, plain Cistercian monasteries and abbeys were built in rural areas along the north of Spain, from Catalonia to Galicia. Among the most beautiful of these buildings are the monasteries of Santes Creus ca 1160 (about 35 kilometres north of Tarragona),  Santa María de Poblet ca 1170 (about 45 kilometres north west of Tarragona), Las Huelgas 1187 (just outside Burgos), and Santa María de la Huerta 1162 (in Soria).

            Monastery of Las Huelgas 1187
Note the longer Gothic style windows and taller
apse in a basically Romanesque outline.

      Monastery of Santes Creus ca 1160.
Note the lack of sculptures, and the solid
Romanesque pillars and rounded arches.
The ribbed vaulting over the chancel
anticipates the more complex ribbing
of Gothic vaulting.

         Santa Maria de la Huerta 1162.
The transition to Gothic is more marked
here, with pointed arches along the nave
and ribbed vaulting.


Barral I Altet, Xavier ed. Art and Architecture of Spain Boston 1998   
Boyd, Alastair  The Companion Guide to Madrid and Central Spain London 2nd ed. 1986
Gitlitz, David M and Davidson Linda K The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago New York 2000
White, Robert A River in Spain: Discovering the Duero Valley in Old Castile London, New York 1998
For a god list and access to photos of Cistercian monasteries in Spain, see
Photos of Monastery of Moreruela from:
Photos of Monastery of Canas from:
Photo of Monastery of Santes Creus from:
Photo of Monastery of Las Huelgas:
Photo of Monastery of Santa Maria de la Huerta from: