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The Catholic Historical Review 90.1 (2004) 102-104
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Cistercian Europe: Architecture of Contemplation. By Terryl N. Kinder. [Cistercian Studies Series, No. 191.] (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications. 2002. Pp. 407. $70.00.) [End Page 102]
First of all, Kinder's book is handsome, filled with exquisite photographs from across the continent of Europe (many of them her own) as well as clear, useful floor plans. Its attractiveness extends to the gracefully written and reader-friendly text, the authoritative statement of decades of study by the author, studded with thoughtful personal insights. These qualities make Cistercian Europe an ideal text to put into the hands of non-specialists—say, university undergraduates—as a perfect introduction to the subject of medieval monasticism. The glossary and a brief selected bibliography add to the volume's usefulness as an introductory pedagogical tool.
The specialist also benefits from Kinder's long involvement with the subject, her personal drive to comprehend "wie es eigentlich gewesen," and not least her command of fresh and engaging language with which to communicate these insights. The book covers fairly well-trod paths—offering thought-provoking and engaging interpretations all along the way. Some that struck the reviewer as new and compelling are as follows. In discussing possible sources of St. Bernard's emphasis on visual simplicity, Kinder discusses and illustrates Saint-Vorles in Châtillon, the church of secular canons in whose school he was educated for perhaps as long as a decade. Her suggestion is very convincing, that the clean, unadorned wall elevation and vaulting of eleventh-century Saint-Vorles could well have formed Bernard's visual taste.
Another new idea concerns the siting of new foundations to the east. It is suggested that if the siting is more northeasterly, the ground plan may have been laid out in summer, while a more southerly siting implies a winter decision. It is refreshing that Kinder begins the discussion of the church plan with a section on nuns' churches, a topic normally tacked on (if mentioned at all) as a coda to such material. While the text is blissfully free from jargon (including the new buzz-word "space[s]"), it addresses the areas of current scholarly investigation, from book collections and their accommodation to hydraulic engineering and site planning. The consideration of cloister galleries as centered around activities of spiritus (collation gallery, adjoining the church), animus (east gallery), and corpus (refectory gallery) is a useful way to introduce the distinction of monastic functions situated in each.
Kinder's conclusion, which is compelling, is that what marks architecture as Cistercian is the play of light and the concept of "visual silence," akin to the emphasis in the Rule of St. Benedict on auditory silence. Our society in particular is bombarded incessantly by "visual noise," which we cope with by simply seeing "less of everything." The clean unadorned lines and planes preferred by the Cistercians provide a neutral screen upon which the monk or nun can project their personal meditations. Only light—God's constantly renewed yet always shifting manifestation—activates this neutral screen. The predictable daily passage of light on the clean surfaces provides a visualization of His presence, with us, in (our) time.
For the specialist, the absence of the many hundred footnotes that might have been provided with the text of this book will be an annoyance. Kinder [End Page 103] does provide a handful of notes, each one carefully selected to reflect the latest authoritative position on the topic, one not found in the standard surveys of Cistercian arts such as Lekai, Dimier, or Aubert. Another minor annoyance is the obscurity of the plate numbers on the illustrations, and the difficulty in locating the captions. Those used to the publications of Zodiaque, where Kinder's book first appeared, will have gotten used to this irritation. It is a sacrifice made to the beauty of the images. Only one minor quibble with the material presents itself: that the Cistercians never "copied" their own traditional buildings, but always built in a contemporary style. Surely...