Casamari Abbey, the sobriety of the Cistercians

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The birth of the Ordo cisterciensis can be compared to a journey back to the origins of monasticism. Thus, when Robert of Molesme in 1098 decided to establish a new monastery at Cîteaux he felt the need to rediscover that profound sense of the sacred that had characterized the monks of the early centuries. The Cistercian Casamari Abbey still preserves this dimension of sober and essential spirituality today.

Casamari Abbey

Abbeys were already widespread in Robert’s time; the Benedictines had been the custodians of the medieval Christian tradition for more than six centuries. They had numerous monasteries throughout Europe, including Cluny in Bourgogne.

In that Abbey, since 909, a congregation known as the Cluniacs had formed, and it had an enormous following. The reasons are to be found in the period of instability and corruption that had affected the Church especially in the 11th century: the abbots of Cluny were against the moral vices, such as simony. Moreover, the Cluniacs were well liked by the people as they responded to the growing need for prayers and liturgical services during a time of feudal struggles and uncertainty. They basically interpreted St. Benedict’s Rule, which had guided the development of monasticism in the West since 534, as follows: Ora et labora, pray and, in your remaining time, work!

The arrival of the Cistercians in history

Nevertheless, by the end of the 11th century the Cluny order was already beginning to lose acceptance due to its excessive wealth and temporal power. The same reflections awakened the conscience of Robert of Molesme. When he founded the new monastery of Cîteaux on March 21, 1098, together with twenty-one monks, he wished to rediscover evangelical poverty and a more sober dimension of existence [1]. These, after all, were the principles of early monasticism. The term monk, from the Greek μοναχός, means solitary, and this helps to understand the spirit of the Desert Fathers who retired to inaccessible places to detach themselves from the world.

The Cistercian monastery as éremos

No better comparison could be found to describe the intentions of Robert of Molesme. In his spiritual vision, the monastery was to be built in a wild, solitary and unspoiled place: that is, it reflected the meaning of ἔρημος (éremos), desert. Indeed, that is what the Burgundian marshes of Cîteaux were, and since this place was called Cistercium in Latin, the monks who settled there were called Cistercians [2].

Although founded as a branch of the Benedictines, the Cistercians diverged significantly from them. One of the most evident demonstrations of this material and spiritual rupture was the choice of clothing: the black of the Cluniacs was contrasted with the white robes of the Cistercians (tunic, cowl and scapular), a symbol of renewal and purity. Even the rule of St. Benedict was interpreted by giving greater attention to the precept of work, as the place chosen for the novum monasterium was always to be reclaimed, cleaned up and ruled.

The Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova. Fossa Nova was the name of the canal that the Cistercians built to reclaim the marshy area near which the Abbey was built

The proto-abbeys of the Cistercians

The sober solitude and the proposal of a new cenobitic poverty were the main aspects of the Cistercians’ success and popularity in the years following their foundation. In Cîteaux, the number of monks increased so rapidly that it soon became necessary to establish daughter abbeys. Tradition states that four proto-abbeys were founded at first: in 1113 a monastery was established at La Ferté, in 1114 at Pontigny, in 1115 at Morimond, and in the same year the cenobium of Clairvaux was founded. The primitive Abbey of Clairvaux, in Champagne, was founded by a nobleman who had joined the community of Cîteaux only two years earlier. His name, Bernard de Fontaine, was soon changed to Bernard of Clairvaux, now a saint and doctor of the Church.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Bernard of Clairvaux was an advocate of Cistercian monasticism, which he contributed enormously to spreading. He was a preacher of the moral rigor and poverty; while he was alive, the mother Abbey of Clairvaux generated about seventy affiliated monasteries. During his preaching he reproached the Cluniacs for the excessive opulence and prosperity that characterized their monasteries [3]. To Robert, a relative who wanted to move from Clairvaux to Cluny he wrote:

“If soft warm furs, fine and costly garments, long sleeves and an ample hood, downy couch and dainty coverlet, make a saint, why do I delay a moment ? why do I not follow you to Cluny ?”

Bernard de Clairvaux, Letter to his kinsman Robert, 1119
Saint Bernard, Jean Fouquet, 1478, Musée Condé, Chantilly

St. Bernard and the Crusades

Bernard devoted himself not only to the administration of his Abbey and evangelical preaching, but was a prominent figure especially in the political questions of his time. He was one of the most ardent supporters of the Crusades, and his mediation allowed the Templars to be officially recognized by the Church; at the Council of Troyes in 1129 Pope Honorius II granted the Order the primitive Rule, which St. Bernard had contributed to draft. In De laude novae militiae ad Milites Templi the saint theologically justified the existence of an armed monastic congregation by the notion of malicide:

If he kills an evildoer, he is not a mankiller, but, if I may so put it, a killer of evil.

Bernard of Clairvaux, De laude novae militiae ad Milites Templi

For St. Bernard, the mission to the Holy Land was a necessary evangelization task: as Christ had expelled the merchants from the Temple, so the Crusaders were justified for using the sword. So Eugenius III, elected pope in 1145, entrusted Bernard with the specific duty of preaching the Second Crusade.

Émile Signol, Saint-Bernard prêchant la 2e croisade, à Vézelay, en 1146, 1840, Musée de l’Histoire de France

Eugene III was also a Cistercian monk ordained at Clairvaux. This suggests the political influence of St. Bernard, who had certainly contributed to the election of one of his monks to the papal throne. Moreover, it was not the first time that his mediation was necessary for the decision of Peter’s successor. In fact, following the schism of 1130, Bernard had helped Pope Innocent II to be recognized as the legitimate pope.

The essential and the sacred

Thanks to Bernard’s preaching, the Cistercians began to spread throughout Europe. In Italy they arrived in Tiglieto in 1120, where they built the Abbey of Santa Maria alla Croce; the Abbatia Sancte Marie de Morimundo in 1134; in 1135 they founded the Abbey of Chiaravalle Milanese; the Abbey of San Galgano in 1218; and the Abbey of Fossanova in 1163; after 1140 they settled in Casamari; in Rome, during the same period, they were the proponents of the construction of the abbey church and the monastery called Tre Fontane; in Palermo, in 1172, they were entrusted with the nascent Abbey of Santo Spirito. By the end of the 13th century, at the peak of their expansion, the Cistercians numbered more than five hundred monasteries.

Casamari Abbey
A side chapel at Casamari Abbey is an image of the essential and the sacred for the Cistercians: the light penetrating through the single-lancet window, with alabaster stained glass, is an invitation to contemplate the divine.

A sober architecture

Over time they received large donations and, sometimes, exemption from paying taxes. This made the Cistercians one of the most important orders of master masons and builders in medieval Europe; they were promoters of the Gothic style. However, the Cistercian style is a poor, bare, essential Gothic. Bernard states in his Apologia ad Guillelmum Abbatem (c. 1125) that sobriety should guide the life of the monk as well as the architecture. This explains the almost total absence of decoration, friezes or pictorial works in Cistercian churches.

“I shall say nothing about the soaring, heights and extravagant lengths and unnecessary widths of the churches, nothing about their expensive decorations and their novel images, which catch the attention of those who go in to pray, and dry up their devotion[…]. Very well, we may tolerate such things in the church itself, since they do harm only to greedy and shallow people, not to those who are simple and god-fearing. What excuse can there be for these ridiculous monstrosities in the cloisters where the monks do their reading, extraordinary things at once beautiful and ugly?”.

Bernard of Clairvaux, Apologia to Abbot William of St. Thierry, 1225

Further, the white monks gave special emphasis to light alone, symbol of the Trinity: its glow was meant to fill space and volume and encourage contemplation of the divine.

The floor plan of the Cistercian Abbey of Clairvaux

The plan bernardin

All the Cistercian abbeys were developed according to a well-established building and functional scheme, called plan bernardin. It was a self-sufficient monastic township: before the entrance to the abbey church, located to the east, there was an atrium with a portico. It was designated exclusively for the communities of monks and lay brothers. The quadrangular cloister provided access to all the rooms of the monastery, including the refectory, kitchen, chapter house and dormitory. The General Chapter of the Cistercians, moreover, prohibited the construction of bell towers since their abbeys were to remain remote from the towns.

Casamari Abbey, an example of Cistercian architecture in Italy

An important example of the Cistercian architecture in Italy is Casamari Abbey. The Chartarium Casamariense by Gian Giacomo de Uvis attests that around 1005 a primitive abbey dedicated to St. John and St. Paul was founded in Veroli. The Ecclesia S. Johannis et Pauli was built near the Amaseno River on the ruins of a Roman sanctuary dedicated to Mars.

From Cereatae to Casamari

The place was known since ancient times because it had hosted the Roman municipium of Cereatae [4], dedicated to the worship of the agricultural fertility goddess Ceres. It had also been the house of Gaius Marius, the homo novus, a famous consul who opposed Sulla in the civil war of 88 BC. This gives reason for the toponym Casamari, that means “house of Marius”.

Casamari Abbey
Roman columns in the ancient municipium of Cereatae

Actually, it is more likely that the construction of a monastic building on the site dates back to 1036 (Baronio, De Persiis, Longoria, Giraud), by the followers of the Benedictine Domenico da Foligno. About a century later, between 1140 and 1152, Pope Eugene III entrusted the monastery to the Cistercians of Fontenay.

“by 1143 the black monks had become so undisciplined, dishonest and forgetful of the salvation of their souls, that Eugene III […] introduced monks of the Cistercian order there in the year 1152”

Gian Giacomo de Uvis, Chartarium Casamariense, XV secolo

The Cistercians reorganized the monastery according to their monastic rule, in austerity and simplicity. In 1203 Pope Innocent III inaugurated the construction of a new abbey complex, in Gothic style: consecrated in 1217, it is the building we still observe in Casamari today. The monastery played a major role in the political, economic and artistic history of Central Italy, receiving enormous privileges from Frederick II, who resided there in 1221. The king was very close to the Cistercians; not only did he officially request to become affiliated, the chronicles record the date as April 24, 1222, but he declared himself to be a defender of the Order.

Abbey church of Casamari

The façade, in light-colored stone, according to the Cistercian sobriety is bare of ornaments. Beyond the vestibule, the façade is gabled, with a three-arched atrium – two lateral pointed arches and the central round-arched – which is accessed by a wide staircase.

The main portal features seven bands of splayed arches and elegant small columns with capitals decorated with phytoform motifs. The upper portion of the facade, with a spire, has a rose window and two single lancet windows.

Casamari Abbey
Entrance view of Casamari Abbey

The abbey church, which has a Latin cross plan with three naves and seven quadrangular bays, is surrounded by an austere and mystical atmosphere inside. This is due to the soft light filtering through the alabaster Gothic stained glass windows from the single lancet windows along the nave. The ceiling has cross-ribbed vaults. These are supported by massive bundled pillars whose hanging half-columns, resting on inverted half-cone corbels, connect to the ribs of the transverse arches, emphasising the strong lines of the structure.

Casamari Abbey
The monumental verticalism of the interior

The nave, twice the size of the side aisles, ends with a rectangular apse with a rose window and single lancet windows. Near the chancel, however, stands the high altar, surmounted by an 18th-century marble ciborium. The predominant element of the church is the monumentality of the spaces, which seem to project themselves (and project us) toward infinity, with a surge of absolute and transcendent verticalism.

Casamari Abbey
The high altar hosts a polychrome marble ciborium and lantern, a gift from Pope Clement XI (1711). In the foreground is the statue of St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

The cloister

The cloister was the true core of the monastic life. Because of its quadrangular shape, in Medieval symbolism it was an image of creation; the number four recalled the universe itself. After all, four are the cardinal points and the seasons, four are the natural elements…. The cloister reproduced the harmony of the cosmos by means of the water in its well, the cultivated earth, the air and the light that permeated its atmosphere of mystical essence. All around was the man, the monk, who walked metaphorically through the corridors towards the time of salvation. There, in fact, took place the liturgical functions that marked the rhythm of the day, such as the prayer of Compline.

Casamari Abbey, the cloister

The cloister is divided into four corridors, covered by barrel vaults, which open through mullioned windows with coupled columns. The columns belong to three distinct stylistic categories: plain shaft, broken-banded or twisted. They support capitals with phytoform motifs, and although the Cistercian rule prohibited carvings, careful observation reveals some exceptions. Indeed, few human faces stand out among the plant motifs. It was speculated that these are representations of Frederick II of Swabia, with crowned head, Pier delle Vigne and the abbot John.

Surrounding the cloister were all the functional rooms of the Abbey: the dormitory with cells, the chapter house, the dispensarium (now used as a refectory), the church, the armarium, the locutorium and the calefactorium.

Casamari Abbey, the chapter house and other rooms

The chapter house of Casamari is a small jewel of Cistercian-Gothic art in Italy. Its perspective spaces are divided into three naves, in accordance with the typical ad quadratum model, by means of four polystyle bundle pillars. They support ribbed, ogival cross vaults that divide nine bays.

Casamari Abbey’s chapter house with its polystyle beam pillars and ribbed ogival cross vaults

The wide passageway leading to the gardens and granges was called locutorium, perhaps because from it the abbot used to assigned the daily tasks. The room with the fireplace, a heated room in which the monks gathered for the divine office in the winter months, was called the calefactorium. This was also where the colors used by the amanuensis in the scriptorium to copy ancient manuscripts were melted. Finally, the armarium, as the term itself suggests, was a narrow compartment in which the books used for the liturgy of the hours were kept.

Samuele Corrente Naso


[1] G. Piccinni, I mille anni del Medioevo, Bruno Mondadori, Milano 2007.

[2] T. N. Kinder, I cisterciensi. Vita quotidiana, cultura, arte, Jaca Book, Milano 1997.

[3] G. M. Cantarella, Il monachesimo in Occidente: il pieno medioevo (secoli X-XII), in La Storia, a cura di N. Tranfaglia e M. Firpo, Il Medioevo, vol. I, I quadri generali, UTET, 1986.

[4] Strabone, Geografia.

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