A modern visitor could be easily seduced by Three Sisters of Provence, whether it is the seamless flow of pure stone-vaulted spaces, the gentle and sometimes golden glow from light falling on bare stone, the carefully calibrated hierarchy of elements, or the unfailing discipline of the continuously felt geometric order. On top of all this, in their current restored state, the buildings play to the contemporary requirement for painless rusticity and explicit naturalness: unadorned stone surfaces underfoot, overhead and on walls; retained mason’s marks proving hand-made authenticity; the imperfects and discolouring that could only have resulted from a lengthy service; the controlled irregularity of the (local) stone roofing tiles; and the now unmatchable position in wild country: if not the exact form, at least the preferred textures and location of a desirable contemporary country house.
But these buildings are not some easy luxurious abode, designed for the comfort of the occupants and to be envied by the television viewers. The three surviving intact Cistercian monasteries of Provence, known as the Three Sisters of Provence are the words of the Rule of St Benedict formed into stone. The same qualities of discipline, balance, consistency and cohesion are found in both the 6th century manual on running a monastic community and these 12th century buildings: buildings designed to most effectively bring the monks closest to God. The three sisters are Senanque near Gordes in the western Luberon, Silvacane near the Durance River on the southern edge of the Luberon, and Le Thoronet, further to the east.
The great distinguishing feature of Cistercian monasteries was their sparseness, the rejection of the ornaments and decoration, whether in stone, paint or fabrics, that other orders or the wider church used to glue their adherents more firmly to them. Instead of visual clues, monks were to reflect solely on the word of God, either sung, recited (during the main meal) or read individually. Buildings had to encourage this singular focus not only through the near absence of adornments but also in the enclosure and removal from wider world with windows placed high and kept small, though carefully detailed and precisely positioned. The distracting comforts were avoided, whether it was the unyielding stone provided as the bed base in the brother’s dormitory or the absence of heating except for one space: the calefactory. The daily discipline of physical work (alongside the prayer), the assistance of lay helpers, the seemingly constant donation of additional land by local lords, together with the order and system brought to the task of food production and storage, meant regular nourishing food was available, something very different to the variability of the outside world.
It is this constancy of daily existence, undistracted by hunger or the random events of the wider world, reinforced by the regularity and repetition of the sequence of stone spaces that provided the best opportunity for monks to stay focused on their singular mission of getting closer to God. An efficient earthly ordering of living, praying, contemplative and working spaces provided the best chance of freeing their minds for non-earthly things. Though, of course, it was ultimately this same ability and discipline to order material things that concentrated excess wealth in the hands of the monasteries and, in many cases, corrupted their original mission in later centuries.
Just as the Rule of St Benedict was not some instant, abstract or even utopian ideal about how a group of people could live effectively together, the arrangement of monastic spaces resulted from experience over time and had to combine workability with symbolism. The symbolism is obvious: the Latin cross form of the church is the dominant element, with the cloister, ideally nestled into north-eastern corner of the cross, providing the link space, drawing all the other parts together, whilst doubling as a reading, meditation and possibly meeting space (though silence was required, with necessary discourse by hand signals). The other key spaces of the sacristy, chapterhouse (meeting room), calefactory and monk’s dormitory were an extension of the transept or cross arm of the church (allowing direct access to the church at night, from the dormitory). This was a tried and true formula, repeated in monastery after monastery, just as much as a modern fast food chain would lay down world-wide systems and procedures.
While the system may have been precisely prescribed, the realisation could never be. Abstract geometry had to meet physical reality, whether that is the shape of the land, the nature of the local stone, and even the quirks, interests and knowledge of the local builders. Each of the Sisters step down their site, adjusting floor levels to the slope with carefully considered transitions that add complexity to the spaces. While cloisters are all square more or less, they are rarely level and in one case, Thoronet, the form is so distorted as to be trapezoidal, with the expanded (and sunny) northern end holding an elegant hexagonal room for the washing fountain. The cloister of Thoronet also descends quite rapidly into this northern end, with multiple flights of stairs providing a challenge for perambulating monks. Silvacane holds the most of the height changes within the church, making a seating ledge out of the step up from the nave to the southern aisle and a rather tight set of steep stairs from the church to the cloister, allowing the steps in the cloister itself to be quite modest.
However, it is the colour of the stone and the lightness, openness and styling of the stone screen separating the central garden from the walkers that define the cloister. The cloister of Senaque is perhaps the most enticing, with sunlight able to fall on the double sets of fine columns: a small forest of light-coloured trunks that enable our sight to easily penetrate the supports, as well as sunlight to brighten the elegant flower or leaves of the column capitals. By contrast, the depth of the cloister arches of Thoronet creates a sequence of mini-vaults, demonstrating that the main vault of the cloister is firmly suspended. Initially hidden, a single sturdy column in each mini-vault produces two secondary vaults (or arches?) and oculus above, creating a complex stone screen of great depth and dramatic shadows. With its pink or orange colour and rich pockmarked surface, this stonework the is the ultimate in pleasing rusticity: gentle golden reflected light thrown on to heavily textured and almost irregular surfaces. This enviable material, combined with the stripped-down, almost 20th century sense of geometry greatly impressed one of the high priests of Modernism, Le Corbusier, when he was after inspiration for his own monastery (Sainte Marie de La Tourette, near Lyon).
The cloister of Thoronet is almost an exact extrusion of the nave arches of the adjoining church. Both have amazingly minimal, with a small projecting capital restricted to the inner surface of the arches and pilasters, just enough to define the separation of the vertical (pilaster) from the curving (arch) and reinforce the modularity of the system. The absence of wrap-around mouldings or capitals allows the whole inner surface of the nave or cloister walls to flow almost uninterrupted into the stone of the vault above: all-around unceasing stone. Again, only a simple moulding for the length of the springing of the vault breaks the flow and helps control the space.
While Thoronet divides the barrel vault of the nave with a sequence of simple ribs aligned with the centre of the piers of the arcade, Silvacane ignores this ‘rule’ and has a unbroken nave vault through to the crossing, while Senanque goes for a more elaborate combination of engaged columns, with clearly defined capitals, both for the arches and for the base of the vault ribs. All three abide by the Cistercian habit of ending ribs well above the floor to allow for stalls to abut the nave piers. All churches end in either a pleasing semicircular apse, or in the case of Silvacane, a more stark square sanctuary, though all retain the seeming obligatory three balanced windows. Windows in general are simple and deep-set: pin-pricks of light in an otherwise sombre interior, with the sloping surfaces of the slits in the thick walls creating expanded pockets of light. This is a long distance from the later northern French quest for churches to become almost walls of glass, with light, particularly light coloured by stained glass, given some mystical role as leading the mind directly to the immaterial, heavenly or transcendent. Here it is the building form itself that is to influence the mind.
When these monasteries were built, Christianity was very old and had hammered out its position on key doctrinal issues over the previous millennia or more. To the monks, God was not some nebulous unformed thing but to be approached with fixed idea of the nature of his existence and purpose in bringing his physical presence into this world. So equally the separation and simplification of these buildings is not some ‘New Age’ stripping away of the distracting low grade clutter of the modern industrialized world, with the hope that enlightenment and non-attachment might somehow result, but instead is a strict system. The sequence of bays, columns, vault spans, heights and spaces of various purposes are all locked together in a way that reinforces the sense of the whole place, and possibly the relationship to the whole cosmos created by God the architect.
It is tempting to describe these Sisters as ‘machines for producing spiritual enlightenment’, just as Modernism Architects saw their houses as ‘machines for living in’. However, ‘machine’ implies that there is almost a guarantee about the result, a precision about the method and a nearly infinite repeatability. Instead, all the original monks themselves would have been likely to acknowledge is that the simplicity and order of these spaces created the possibility of moving closer to their God.