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Synthesis: Abbey Church of Notre Dame at Fontenay

Updated on March 22, 2012
Abbey Church at Fontenay
Abbey Church at Fontenay | Source

The abbey church of Notre Dame at Fontenay was not only a place of sanctuary for the Cisterian monks of the time but it also represented many underlying messages that were and still are currently conveyed through the many architectural techniques found throughout its form. The abbey was founded in 1098 AD but it did not arrive at its current location and start housing Cisterian monks until 1130 AD[1]. There are many different components to the church which include, the dormitory, church, cloister, refectory, gate, bakery, chapel, hostel, dovecote, lodging, forge, infirmary, garden, heating room, monks’ room, and council room. In this synthesis, I will be primarily focusing on the church, the cloister, and the monks’ room. I will be looking into their historical, social, and religious significance during their time of service.

The structure of the main church has a staple feature which are the naves. “The nave, a word derived from the Latin navis, meaning “ship,” symbolized a contained vessel, ferrying souls from damnation to redemption.”[2] The naves are located so that the light off of the east wall carries through them to make light present not only on the outer banks of the sanctuary but also in its center. In 1098 AD the abbey at Citeaux was founded, which sparked the start of the church at Fontenay. The abbey at Citeaux no longer stands, but the church at Fontenay is a representation of the Cisterian monks approach to architecture. The pointed arches that are housed within the interior of the main church not only have an architectural purpose, but also a spiritual representation. In many cases, ideas were pulled from other designs and locations. In the instance of Fontenay, its pointed arches were an attribute that was pulled from the abbey church at Cluny, most commonly known as Cluny III. The author of Gardner’s Art through the Ages, Fred S. Kleiner, argues that the “Romanesque builders may have thought this feature (pointed arches) gave churches the look and feel of the architecture of the Holy Land.[3]” Even though the arches interpret a spiritual message, it also works in the favor of the structure in that pointed arches create more of a relief from the weight of the ceiling over that of a basic round arch. Unlike many abbeys, the church at Fontenay only has an outdoor ambulatory and does not house one indoors.

Next in my discussion of the Fontenay church is the cloister, which is also known as an ambulatory. The cloister was built in the 12th century. Thomas Barrie the author of Spiritual Path, Sacred Place, and Myth Ritual, and Meaning in Architecture discusses the cloistered space at Fontenay and its purpose within I feel as if the cloister is a modern twist on the circumambulating path. Seeing that the Latin word ambulare means “to walk” and the purpose of the cloister was a walking path, I feel that the two satisfied similar purposes. However the Latin root for Cloister is claustrum meaning “enclosed place.” The cloister differs from the circumambulating path in that it focuses more on the enclosed and the circumambulating path on the actual path, even though the purposes are just about the same. Barrie states that, “the cloistered space was a distinguishing element of the ideal abbey.” Many of the original cloisters that set the standards have been destroyed, but abbey church of Notre Dame at Fontenay stands strong.

Lastly, I will be discussing the monks’ room within the property of the abbey church of Notre Dame at Fontenay. Its architecture also conveyed spiritual and architectural meaning just like the rest of the property. The monks’ room housed twelve ribbed vaults. Ribbed vaults have two different styles one being the semicircular and the other being the pointed arch; which we have already identified in the main church. However, unlike in the main church the ribbed vaults in the monks’ room are semicircular giving the room more of a natural flow. The semicircular style of arches, do not channel the weight of the ceiling as well as the pointed arch. There was not one specific purpose for this room it was simply a room set aside for the monks’ for various activities. I feel that this room served a greater purpose than we commonly take note of. The monks’ dedicated their lives to the progression of these churches and even a room set aside just for them they still had to share.

In conclusion, even though I have pulled information for only three areas of the property, the entire premises is filled with architectural and historical significance that could keep the minds’ eye wandering for a long time. In the main church, the pointed arches and long breezeways signify and point towards the Holy Land and also keep architectural balance. The cloisters contain many stories, conversations and afternoon strolls; which lead to the age old phrase, “If walls could talk.” There is no telling the amount of knowledge and wisdom that we could retain from them. Lastly there is the monks’ room; which I believe may be one of the most sacred yet underappreciated rooms. I think that it is too often forgotten the amount of service and self sacrificing actions that were given on a daily basis by these men in history. I feel that the greatest lessons to be learned were probably shared within these walls covered with the twelve semicircular arches.


[1] “Abbey Church at Fontenay” http://www.abbayedefontenay.com/english/histoire/histoire.htm

[2] Barrie, Thomas, “Spiritual Path, Sacred Place; Myth, Ritual, and Meaning in Architecture.” 228

[3] Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art through the Ages (Boston, Wadsworth,2001), 443


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    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Hi Sarah - Fascinating and extremely well-written Hub. You and I appear to be part of the 1% (or fewer!!!) of Hubbers who actually use footnotes, end notes, real citations!

      Welcome! It gets lonely here at times. :) Actually I enjoy a lot of Hubbers and a lot of different writing styles, but I can tell by scanning your titles, that I will be reading a lot of your work. :) SHARING