The Monastic Achievement by George Zarnecki
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
My brother Michael got me this book for Christmas, and when I started it, I was thinking that somehow it would be a history of monasticism pure and simple. But it isn’t — probably because such a thing could hardly ever be written. In this volume of Thames & Hudson’s Library of Medieval Civilization, Zarnecki gives us the history of the monastic movement primarily interested in the art and architecture of the monastic world.
This book has five chapters: ‘Monastic Origins’, ‘To the Limits of Christendom’, ‘The Return to Simplicity’, ‘Contemplation and Action’, and ‘Monastic Art and Artists’. They move roughly chronologically from the Desert Fathers to the 1400s.
In Chapter One, Zarnecki begins his discussion with the biblical precedents for the ascetic life and the early Christian domestic forms of self-denial, then moves to Sts Antony and Pachomius. The next patristic ascetic is St Basil ‘the Great’ of Caesarea, who has been very influential in eastern Christian monasticism. St Basil rejected the life of hermits, having tried it himself, because he did not see how a hermit could fulfil Christ’s command to love one another.
My one important tweak of this section is that eastern monasticism is not all ‘Basilian’ the way Zarnecki talks about it as though every monastery followed Basil’s Asketikon the same way Benedictines follow St Benedict’s Rule. In reality, eastern monasteries are usually independently organised, and the monastery follows a rule established by its founding abbot. They do tend to be very similar and are inspired by St Basil, but they are ‘Basilian’ in the way the adjective makes it sound.
The main focus of this book, however, is western monasticism in the Middle Ages, so Zarnecki makes his way West very quickly, discussing the early patristic sources for western monasticism. This takes about a page, and then more extensive discussion of St Benedict ensues. After St Benedict, we are introduced to Irish Monasticism, the earliest monasteries of which leave us some very interesting archaeological remains with their bee-hive huts. Then comes St Augustine of Canterbury and the Benedictines in England.
[Aside] As is usual with many Anglophone books about the Middle Ages, a lot of attention is paid to England throughout the book. I don’t mind this, although England is not instrinsically more interesting than other places in Europe. It is simply a reflection of the knowledge and interests of Anglophone writers, publishers, and their audience. [End aside.]
After the Insular section with some magnificently beautiful images of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon art, we meet the Carolingians and the influence their Reform had on monasticism — largely through regularisation and the spread of the Benedictines plus all that art. After the Carolingians comes the period of the Romanesque and the Order of Cluny.
Chapter Two discusses the spread and development of Romanesque in the 11th century when there was a monastic revival and the spread of many beautiful buildings built along similar lines, as well as the churches and art of the road to Compostela, with a discussion of the mother house at Cluny as the culmination of Romanesque art.
Chapter Three discusses the reform movements, above all the Cistercians, who are the most successful. These movements sought to return to the simplicity of the original Rule of St Benedict. Accordingly, their art and architecture tended to be quite plain — original Cistercian church buildings are square (no round apse!) and have no bell-tower. Their manuscripts tend not to have decoration, or — if they do — it is usually simple flower motifs (although Zarnecki gives us some striking examples that break such ideals).
Meanwhile in the mid-11th century, canons following the Rule of St Augustine were organised. These were clergy who lived a common life but who were also active in parish ministry and life — whereas the strictly-defined ‘monk’ lives only within the monastery walls and is truly ‘cloistered’ (a cloister is the covered walkway connecting the buildings of a monastery together).
Chapter Four brings us to the world of the Carthusians, who are hermits who live together — if you see a Charterhourse, you’ll note that in fact it is a series of small, one-room house, each with its own garden, looking into a common area with a chapel. Carthusians are the most austere monks — they all take a vow of perpetual silence. (I recommend the film Into Great Silence) And beside the Carthusians, we learn of the warrior monks, the Templars and Hospitallers, and their role in protecting pilgrims and the monastic houses they built in Europe and the Middle East. Also mentioned are the Teutonic Knights who did some ample conquering in north-central Europe.
We also meet the successors to the monks — in the 13th century, the heyday of monasticism was really over in Europe. Their place was being taken by the friars, the Franciscans and Dominicans, who also lived the ascetic, communal life, but who were preachers and much more active and visible in the community. The world was now Gothic, and the great architecture was now found in the cathedrals and parish churches, not in the abbeys and abbey churches. Manuscript production was moving to secular scriptoria. While monasteries would continue to produce and commission great art and architecture, their high point in such cultural influence was gone.
Finally, Chapter Five discusses monks and monk-art. Much art that we associate with the monasteries will actually have been created by lay craftsmen in the employ of the monastery, but the content will have been set. There are, however, some famous monk-artists, and it is evident that some of them were able to work in multiple media.
Throughout, Zarnecki discusses the art and architecture of the different orders and parts of western Europe under discussion. When tenable, he shows the relationship between an order’s ideals and its art. The book is accordingly full of pictures, which I found to be very useful as well as very lovely. Not only did I meet many interesting monastic persons while reading this book, I saw so much great art. In total, there are 19 colour plates and 109 black and white illustrations. I recommend it.
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