Cistercian architecture is a style unique to a number of European monasteries that emerged in the first half of the 12th century. And one of the best examples is this Fontenay Abbey in France, built between 1139 and 1147, following the instructions and direct supervision of the monk Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1150) authentic theory of the Cistercian architecture. And the truth is that his most rigorous ideas were followed here, and the abbey, and especially its church with a blind nave, became a model to be followed by other Cistercian monasteries in southern Europe.
Bernardo de Claraval proposes an extraordinarily sober and simple type of construction. It is not conceived that there is any decorative element, nor symbolic. In a way, it is a style that wants to oppose the sumptuousness that the Cluny order represents. Along these lines, it also prohibits the construction of towers, and of course no decorations appear in the interiors in the form of paintings, sculptures, furniture or stained glass windows.
On the other hand, the Cistercian monasteries have three well-differentiated spaces. On the one hand there are the rooms related to work and on the other the bedrooms, cells and bedrooms that are the residential rooms. And finally, well isolated from those profane worlds are the churches and cloisters, places wherethere is only room for meditation and prayer.
These ideas spread throughout much of Southern Europe well into the 13th century. And although these austere approaches were scrupulously followed at first, the truth is that over time elements of the local tradition were incorporated, and even others typical of the last years of Romanesque art and early Gothic.
But returning to the Abbey Church of Fontenay, there awaits us a ship that is the very image of sobriety. A huge and deep nave that is covered with a barrel vault, although it is somewhat pointed. A space in which light does not abound, since everything is bathed with the small side openings and with other larger ones at the head of the temple. But that is all there is, the building stone and the light, there is no other element inside the temple.
That allows us to perfectly contemplate the architectural structure of the church. Everything is based on straight lines and square cuts. The simplest modules, mainly based on the square. This gives sobriety, but also simplicity, regularity, harmony and rationality to the construction.