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Spring Books

Place, word and light

by Terryl N. Kinder
William B. Eerdmans/Cistercian Publications, 407 pages, $70

Reviewed by RICH HEFFERN

“Architecture,” said Frank Lloyd Wright, “is the mother of all arts.” He added: “A doctor can bury his mistakes; an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.”

Terryl Kinder’s Cistercian Europe offers a lavishly illustrated tour through Europe’s wonderful Cistercian abbeys. The coffee table-sized book demonstrates the truth of Wright’s statement. More than 200 full-color and black-and-white photographs of the cloistered walkways, decorated downspouts and interior details show how the construction of these buildings brought together artist and artisan, working with stone, glass and wood to build elaborately beautiful and sturdy shelter for illustrated manuscripts, hymnals and prayer books, statues, fountains and all the other necessary accoutrements of communal living and worship for the men and women who had taken up the contemplative life there.

Kinder is a leading expert in medieval architecture. Her book aptly illustrates the Christian precept that the divine life is disclosed in the material world. Besides depicting places where monks prayed and worked, the “exquisite architecture of these buildings reflects the spiritual transformations to which their residents aspired.”

The Cistercian Order was the most important of the new religious orders that developed in Western Europe in the late 11th century in response to movements for reform in the church. Cistercians dominated the spread of new monastic foundations in Europe and spread rapidly from Burgundy, where the order began, throughout France, Britain and Ireland.

The Cistercian way of life emphasized solitude and isolation; Cistercian monasteries were thus often built far away from towns and villages. Driven by an ideal of individual poverty, Cistercian monks had no personal property and the monks worked the land with their hands to support themselves, dependent as well on rich benefactors.

Cistercian Europe is not a guidebook to individual monasteries,” writes Kinder. “It is, rather, an introduction to a way of life as it has been lived since the early 12th century, and in many respects continues to be lived today.”

In a forward, Michael Downey, editor of the New Catholic Dictionary of Spirituality, points out that spirituality is expressed through an abundance of media, architecture included. “The relationship between Cistercian spirituality and architecture,” he writes, “hinges on a central insight: The way in which these men and women have understood God has influenced how they built their buildings. There is a reciprocal relationship between their life with God and the kind of environment they create.”

In our fragmented and disoriented world, seeing and absorbing this kind of integration between the inner and outer can be profoundly healing and hope-bestowing.

Rich Heffern is NCR opinion editor.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 2003