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21.05.09 Carter, The Art and Architecture of the Cistercians in Northern England, c. 1300-1540

The Medieval Review

21.05.09 Carter, The Art and Architecture of the Cistercians in Northern England, c. 1300-1540


"Is Cistercian art and architecture in the late Middle Ages a viable and rewarding area of scholarship?" (269). Such is the question at the heart of Michael Carter's The Art and Architecture of the Cistercians in Northern England, c. 1300-1540. Focusing on a period of 240 years that spans the later Middle Ages through to the Tudor-era suppression of English monasteries, Carter aims to show that yes, late medieval Cistercian art and architecture is indeed worthy of scholarly study. In this aim he succeeds, assisted by an impressive amount of archaeological and material evidence, which is strengthened by the book's inclusion of 110 black and white and 8 color illustrations, the majority taken by the author.

As Carter discusses in the introduction, "Debates and Definitions," although the art and architecture of Cistercian monasteries during the so-called "golden age" of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries has been routinely studied, there has, until now, been a dearth of scholarship on the material and built culture of Cistercian monasteries during the two centuries before the Suppression of the Monasteries in the 1530s. Carter states that by and large, scholars have viewed the fourteenth century onwards as a period of "spiritual malaise and decay" for the Cistercian order, wherein the order strayed from its characteristic austerity and reliance on the teachings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and focused instead on the creation of elaborate art and architecture (xxix). The twelfth- and thirteenth-century self-imposed piety and poverty of the Cistercian order is perhaps best summarized by St. Bernard's invective against the lavish Romanesque ornamentation at Cluny Abbey: "In the name of God! If we are not ashamed at its foolishness, why at least are we not angry at the expense?" [1] Considering that the Cistercians are often defined by their dislike of superfluous decoration, which they believed distracted one from proper Christian contemplation, it is understandable that the large-scale creation of Cistercian built and material culture circa 1300-1540 has been routinely interpreted as a deviation from the Order's central tenets, and thus an example of the Order's impious decadence leading up to the Suppression of the Monasteries.

Carter, however, aims to redefine this later period of Cistercian rule, suggesting that the movement away from material and ornamental austerity, rather than signifying decadence, decline, and a refusal to adhere to the original rules of the Order, instead illustrates that the Cistercian monasteries were "living monastic institutions, not cultural museums for the preservation of twelfth-century life" (xxxiv). Carter argues that the creation of such a wealth of architectural and material culture between 1300 and 1540 exemplifies the continued vitality of the Cistercian order, and that an analysis of the art and architecture can provide insights into the late medieval Cistercian identity. An analysis of the architectural structures and sites (the majority now in ruins) and material culture (manuscripts, Opus Anglicanum embroidered vestments, metalwork...) forms the bulk of the book, and is both well-researched and integrated into the book's argument. Indeed, on the whole The Art and Architecture of the Cistercians in Northern England consists of a well-written and complex argument, made even stronger by the plethora of both textual and visual sources that are referenced. While an impressive and well-researched study, the overall lack of comparisons to the art and architecture of other, contemporaneous monastic orders, and the limited discussion of Cistercian nunneries are a couple of small weaknesses.

"Chapter 1. The Evidence" provides an overview of the aforementioned architectural sites and material culture of the late medieval Cistercians in Northern England. Carter also delves into documentary sources, including accounts, chronicles, inventories, wills, and testaments, thereby illustrating through both physical and textual evidence that Cistercian art and architecture was alive and well in the later Middle Ages. The use and mastery of such a wide variety of historical sources is impressive and should serve as a blueprint for future studies that aim to capitalize on textual-visual connections. The interdisciplinary nature of The Art and Architecture of the Cistercians in Northern England, using, as it does, both historical and art historical methods and sources, is its strongest quality. However, within Chapter 1 is also the first of many instances in which Carter points out that the styles of devotional art and architecture utilized by the Cistercians circa 1300-1540 is no different from that of contemporaneous English monastic orders. Although this does seem to be the case, the lack of a distinct visual identity for late medieval Cistercian art and architecture raises more questions than it answers. Comparisons with the art and architecture of contemporaneous English monastic orders, to illustrate the ways in which an overarching English monastic identity was being visually created, would have helped to nuance Carter's point.

"Chapter 2. Patronage" serves to connect the art and architecture discussed in Chapter 1 with the patrons, both internal and external to the Cistercian monasteries, who made such physical manifestations of piety and devotion possible. Through a continued use of both material and documentary evidence, Carter shows that abbots were the most important patrons of Cistercian monasteries, although external benefactors also played a significant role, making both financial and material bequests to the monasteries throughout the Middle Ages and until the Suppression. In this way Carter illustrates how the monasteries' monetary and object-based wealth points to their ability to adapt and thrive in a changing world.

In "Chapter 3. Art, Architecture and Religious Identity," Carter aims to illustrate that the late medieval architectural and material culture of the Northern English Cistercians both followed the order's traditions of Christ-centered piety and devotion to the Virgin Mary, while also following the "late medieval mainstream" (92). Here again Carter would have done well to delve deeper into the fact that "although there was nothing 'un-Cistercian' about the religious art of the abbeys...there was also little that can be confidently said to have asserted a specifically Cistercian identity" (92). For example, in the chapter's conclusion Carter mentions that the similarities between the material culture of the late medieval Cistercians and other English monastic orders points to "considerable intersection" between the various orders of the English Church (138-39). Further discussion of the cross-pollination of English monastic visual culture would have been appreciated, although perhaps is best left to a future study.

"Chapter 4. Death and Commemoration" is closely related to "Chapter 2. Patronage" in that it also focuses on both the clerical and lay patrons of the monasteries, in particular their burial within the grounds of Cistercian monasteries. Carter does well here to illustrate the symbiotic relationship between the Cistercian monasteries and their lay patrons: the Cistercians providing a "sure road to heaven" and the lay people providing for the continuation of the monasteries (202). A discussion of the ornamentation (or lack thereof) of Cistercian funeral monuments is also well executed.

"Chapter 5. The Art and Architecture of Cistercian Nuns" is the weakest chapter of an overall well-founded argument. Although a topic certainly worthy of study, and illustrative of Carter's impressive amount of research, the nunneries' overall poverty and therefore dearth of architecture and artifacts is at odds with the wealth of art and architecture found in contemporaneous Cistercian monasteries. It thus does little to support Carter's thesis of late medieval Cistercian vitality as seen through an influx of built and material culture. That the rest of the book focuses solely on Cistercian monasteries causes the only chapter to deal with female members of the Cistercian order to appear as an afterthought. The information presented in Chapter 5 may have functioned better spread throughout the text, allowing for one-to-one comparisons between the contemporaneous Cistercian monasteries and nunneries.

Finally, "Chapter 6. Suppression and Survival" provides an account of the immense losses sustained by the Cistercian monasteries and nunneries in Northern England as a result of Henry VIII's Suppression of the Monasteries. Although the destruction wrought on Cistercian structures between 1536 to 1540 is evident throughout the book, especially through the inclusion of contemporary photographs of the now ruined sites, Chapter 6 impresses on the reader the extent to which the despoliation of the monasteries was systematic, acting to thoroughly curtail the art and architectural culture of the Cistercians. Carter ends, however, by noting that the salvaging and preservation of the monasteries' material culture by Cistercian monks, nuns, and lay supporters illustrates the continued vitality of the Cistercian order not only throughout the Middle Ages, but also during and even after the Suppression. This is a fitting end to the final chapter of The Art and Architecture of the Cistercians in Northern England, reminding the reader of Carter's central argument, that the late medieval art and architecture of the Northern English Cistercians exemplifies the order's continued vitality within a changing world.

The Art and Architecture of the Cistercians in Northern England, c. 1300-1540 succeeds in its goal of illustrating that late medieval Cistercian art and architecture is just as worthy of study as is that of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and deserves further attention. Author Michael Carter has written a book that will appeal to a wide variety of scholars, both historians and art historians. Carter's hope that his book will serve as a blueprint for future interdisciplinary studies of Cistercian art and architecture is justified. Through its thoughtful consideration of a vast array of both textual and visual sources, The Art and Architecture of the Cistercians in Northern England, c. 1300-1540 both provides a window into the visual complexity of the late medieval Cistercian order, while also paving the way for further studies into the material continuity of monastic orders after the High Middle Ages.

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Note:

1. Bernard of Clairvaux, Apologia ad Guillelmum 12.29 (PL 182. col 91