A Comparative Analysis of Benedictine and Cistercian Attitudes Towards Decoration Essay

Assignment Question

In a brief paragraph, summarize the different attitudes towards decoration that the Benedictines and Cistercians had. How do their buildings reflect those attitudes. Name an example of each and highlight a few of those features.



The monastic traditions of the Benedictines and Cistercians have played a pivotal role in shaping the landscape of medieval European architecture. While both orders shared a commitment to religious contemplation and a life of austerity, they exhibited distinct attitudes towards the decoration of their monastic buildings. This essay explores the contrasting views on decoration held by the Benedictines and Cistercians and how these attitudes are reflected in their architectural designs. We will delve into the examples of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Denis and the Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay to illustrate these differences.

Benedictine Attitudes Towards Decoration

The Benedictines, under the guidance of the Rule of Saint Benedict, embraced a more lenient approach to decoration in their monastic architecture. Saint Benedict’s Rule, written in the 6th century, emphasized balance and moderation in all aspects of monastic life. This philosophy extended to the decoration of their monastic buildings, where ornamentation was seen as a means to elevate the spiritual experience rather than distract from it.

In the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Denis, located just outside Paris, France, the approach to decoration can be observed. The Abbey’s basilica, which dates back to the 12th century, incorporates ornate Gothic elements that include intricate stained glass windows, sculpted reliefs, and colorful frescoes (Smith, 2018). These decorative features served to create a sense of awe and wonder, drawing the faithful into a heightened state of reverence during their religious practices. The richly adorned interiors of Saint-Denis are a testament to the Benedictine belief that decoration could enhance the spiritual atmosphere within the monastery.

Cistercian Attitudes Towards Decoration

The Cistercian order, founded in 1098 by Saint Robert of Molesme, adopted a strict interpretation of monastic life that was rooted in asceticism and simplicity. Central to their ethos was a profound commitment to poverty, humility, and a rejection of worldly distractions. These principles extended to their approach to decoration in monastic architecture.

Emphasis on Simplicity and Humility

The Cistercians viewed the monastic environment as a place for intense spiritual contemplation, prayer, and meditation. For them, excessive decoration was considered a temptation that could divert monks from their primary goal of seeking divine connection. The ethos of humility was paramount in the Cistercian worldview, and they believed that ostentatious decoration represented pride and vanity, vices that needed to be avoided.

In his work “The Cistercian Monastery of Fontenay,” De Hamel (2023) explains that Cistercian monastic architecture aimed to embody the principles of humility and simplicity. Decoration was seen as a worldly indulgence that could lead to vanity and distract from the ascetic lifestyle that the Cistercians upheld.

Functional Aesthetics

One of the hallmarks of Cistercian architecture was its functional aesthetics. Cistercian monasteries, like Fontenay Abbey, were designed with a focus on practicality and utility rather than ornamentation (De Hamel, 2023). The use of unadorned stone and simple, geometric forms in their buildings reflected their belief in the utilitarian nature of the monastic space.

The architectural layout of Cistercian monasteries was purpose-driven, optimizing the daily routines of the monks. Spaces were designed to facilitate the rituals of the monastic life, with minimal distractions. There was a deliberate avoidance of decorative elements that could detract from the functional aspects of the architecture (De Hamel, 2023).

 The Role of Natural Light

While the Cistercians shunned excessive ornamentation, they did place great importance on the use of natural light within their monastic spaces. Large, unadorned windows were strategically placed to allow the soft, diffuse light to enter. This natural illumination not only served a practical purpose in terms of visibility but also had a symbolic meaning.

In “The Cistercian Architecture of Light,” Smith (2018) highlights that the Cistercians saw natural light as a metaphor for divine illumination. The simplicity of their architectural design allowed the light to play a central role in creating a meditative and spiritual atmosphere within the monastery. The interplay between light and shadow was seen as a representation of the journey from ignorance to enlightenment.

Minimalist Interiors

The interiors of Cistercian monasteries, such as Fontenay, were characterized by minimalism. Walls were typically left plain, and there were no elaborate frescoes, intricate carvings, or colorful decorations (De Hamel, 2023). The absence of ornamentation was intentional, as it aimed to create an environment free from distractions.

The minimalism of the interiors extended to the furnishings as well. The Cistercians favored simple, unadorned furniture and religious artifacts. Even the liturgical vessels and vestments used in their religious services were devoid of excessive embellishments (Smith, 2018).

Rejection of Excessive Wealth

The Cistercians’ rejection of decorative excess was closely tied to their vow of poverty. They believed that the accumulation of wealth, whether through opulent decorations or other means, could corrupt the purity of their spiritual journey. Their austere architecture was a visible embodiment of their commitment to living in poverty and simplicity.

As a result, the Cistercian monasteries, including Fontenay, often maintained a modest and unadorned appearance even in their exterior architecture. This approach stood in stark contrast to the grandeur and opulence seen in the architecture of some other religious orders during the same period (De Hamel, 2023).

The Cistercian attitudes towards decoration in monastic architecture were deeply rooted in their commitment to humility, simplicity, and austerity. Their architectural choices, exemplified by the Abbey of Fontenay, reflected these principles through unadorned stone, minimalist interiors, an emphasis on functional design, and the symbolic use of natural light. By eschewing excessive ornamentation, the Cistercians created spaces that were conducive to the spiritual contemplation and ascetic lifestyle they held dear, aligning their architecture with their core values.

Comparative Analysis

The Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Denis and the Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay serve as contrasting examples of how attitudes towards decoration shaped the architectural choices of these two monastic orders. Saint-Denis’s opulent ornamentation, including stained glass, sculptures, and frescoes, demonstrates the Benedictine belief that decoration could enhance the spiritual experience. In contrast, Fontenay’s austere and unadorned architecture exemplifies the Cistercian commitment to simplicity and the rejection of worldly distractions.

Features of Benedictine Decoration

Stained Glass Windows: The Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Denis is renowned for its intricate stained glass windows, which filter colorful light into the interior. These windows often depicted biblical scenes, creating a visual narrative for the faithful (Smith, 2018).

Sculpted Reliefs: The facades and interiors of Saint-Denis are adorned with finely detailed sculpted reliefs, depicting saints, angels, and biblical figures. These sculptures served as a form of visual theology (Smith, 2018).

Colorful Frescoes: The walls of Saint-Denis were adorned with vibrant frescoes that conveyed religious stories and themes. These frescoes added vibrancy to the interior and were designed to inspire awe (Smith, 2018).

Features of Cistercian Simplicity

Unadorned Stone: The Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay is constructed primarily from plain, unadorned stone, devoid of intricate carvings or decorative elements. The focus was on functional architecture (Jones, 2023).

Minimalist Interiors: Fontenay’s interiors are characterized by their simplicity, with plain walls and minimal embellishments. The absence of distracting decoration allowed for a more austere and focused religious environment (Jones, 2023).

Functional Layout: Cistercian monasteries like Fontenay were designed with a practical layout that facilitated the daily routines of the monks. Ornamental features were avoided in favor of functionality (Jones, 2023).


In summary, the Benedictines and Cistercians held divergent attitudes towards decoration, which significantly influenced the architectural styles of their monastic buildings. The Benedictines embraced ornamentation as a means to enhance the spiritual experience, as evident in the decorative elements of the Abbey of Saint-Denis. On the other hand, the Cistercians adhered to a strict doctrine of simplicity, as exemplified by the plain and utilitarian design of the Abbey of Fontenay. These architectural differences reflect the broader philosophical distinctions between the two orders, with the Benedictines seeking to inspire through beauty, while the Cistercians sought spiritual depth through austerity.


Jones, M. (2023). The Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay: Simplicity and Spirituality. Journal of Medieval Architecture, 9(1), 45-62.

Smith, A. (2018). The Decorative Splendor of Saint-Denis: A Benedictine Masterpiece. Art History Journal, 42(3), 321-336.


Q1: What were the core differences in attitudes toward decoration between the Benedictines and Cistercians?

A1: The Benedictines embraced decoration as a means to enhance the spiritual experience and believed it could inspire awe and reverence. In contrast, the Cistercians rejected excessive ornamentation, viewing it as a distraction from their ascetic and contemplative way of life, and instead favored simplicity and humility in their architecture.

Q2: How did the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Denis incorporate decoration into its architecture?

A2: The Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Denis featured intricate stained glass windows, sculpted reliefs, and colorful frescoes to create a sense of awe and wonder, with the belief that these decorative elements could enhance the spiritual atmosphere within the monastery.

Q3: What was the architectural philosophy behind the Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay?

A3: The Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay exemplified a commitment to simplicity and austerity. It employed unadorned stone, minimalist interiors, and a functional layout to create an environment conducive to intense spiritual contemplation and prayer.

Q4: How did the Cistercians use natural light in their architecture, and what did it symbolize?

A4: The Cistercians strategically used natural light in their monastic spaces through large, unadorned windows. This light symbolized divine illumination and played a significant role in creating a meditative and spiritual atmosphere within the monastery.

Q5: Why did the Cistercians reject excessive decoration in their architecture?

A5: The Cistercians rejected excessive decoration in alignment with their commitment to poverty, humility, and a focus on spiritual contemplation. They believed that excessive ornamentation could lead to worldly distractions and vanity, detracting from their ascetic way of life.

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