The Benedictine abbeys represented in the Middle Ages the most widespread form of monastic life in Western Europe. Their name comes from the fact that the monks and nuns of these abbeys follow the Rule of Saint Benedict.
With their exquisitely ornate churches and cloisters many of the Benedictine abbeys are jewels of the medieval religious architecture.
Saint Benedict was born in the late 5th century AD in the village of Nursia not far from Rome. His Christian family gave him the name Benedictus the Latin for blessed. After many years spent as a hermit or monk, Benedict founded, in 539 AD with a group of disciples, the Monastery of Monte-Cassino located near the village of Cassino some 130 kilometers (81 mi) southeast of Rome. At Monte-Cassino he wrote the Benedictine Rule – “Regula Benedicti” – a 73 chapter book that became the founding guide for the Western monastic life.
It was Charlemagne (742 -814), King of Francs who imposed the Benedictine Rule to all the monasteries of his kingdom.
In France, as all over Western Europe, the Benedictine abbeys became in time centers of spiritual and intellectual life. In dedicated chambers called “scriptoria” the monks were transcribing the bible, liturgical and philosophic works and many abbeys fluorished into prominent learning centers.
An important figure in the development of Benedictine order was Benedict of Aniane(747 AD – 821 AD) also known as Second Benedict, an ecclesiastic who sought to restore the primitive strictness of the Benedictine monastic observance wherever it had been relaxed or exchanged for a less exacting canonical life.
The Benedictine monks of past and present, also called the black monks because of their black habit, profess religious vows of chastity, obedience, stability and ongoing conversion. They live a communal life of prayer, work and mutual support under the direction of the Rule and a Superior.
A Benedictine abbey is a building complex centered on its church and cloister. The ancient abbeys that have survived to the present times are of diverse architectural styles by reason of regional characteristics, technological advancements and ecclesiastical changes that took place throughout the centuries. During the Middle Ages the abbeys competed with each other in technical prowess, the vaults were higher and higher elevated and the open arches larger and larger thus becoming main triggers of architectural evolution. One of the changes that took place early on in the layout of the abbey’s church was the apparition of the deambularories and of “secondary” chapels that open on an annular corridor. These little chapels were built to accommodate the increasing number of Eucharistic celebrations as well as of their participants given that Benedictine abbeys were frequently located on pilgrimage routes. An important characteristic of the Benedictine order was/is the veneration of the relics and therefore many Benedictine churches have/had crypts situated under the sanctuary housing the tomb or the relics of one or more Saints.
An essential part of any Benedictine monastery is the cloister, usually situated on the south of the church. It is after the church the most decorated part of the monastery. The cloister – the name comes from the Latin “claustrum” which means enclosure – is a rectangular garden bordered by galleries opening on the court by a series of arches supported by usually beautifully decorated columns. The cloister is a connecting part of the building complex but also a meditation and reading space as well as a liturgical place for the great processions. The cloisters are also always equipped with a well called “lavatorium” where the monks wash their hands and face twice a day before the big prayers.
Many Benedictine abbeys’ churches, especially the ones situated on the Ways to Saint James de Compostella, are now famous throughout the world for their magnificent tympanums that represent 3D scenes or verses usually drawn from the Apocalypse or the prophetic visions of the Gospel that were intended for the religious instruction of the faithful.
For their superb architecture and decorations numerous Benedictine abbeys are now listed in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Hi, I am Carla. I am living and working in the beautiful city of Toulouse, France.
I like history, travel and... the southwest of France and try to share through this blog information about events that might be of interest to the travelers to this part of the world!