The St Gall Monastery Plan (“an architectural plan for an ideal monastery “)
AD 825 -830
(Dedicated to Gozbertus, the Abbot of St Gall from 816-36)
Roll of parchment made of five pieces sewn together (ca. 77cm. by 112 cm.)
Stiftsbibliothek Sankt Gallen, Switzerland
Cluny II and its Monastery, according to Excavations and the Dimensions of the Farfa Consuetudinary (1043).(J P Conant)
The cloister was the heart of a monastery. It was a covered walkway surrounding a large open courtyard. It gave access to all other monastic buildings. It was also a passageway and processional walkway, a place for meditation and for reading aloud. It was the site where the monks washed their clothes and themselves.
One fascinating interpretation of the architectural symbolism intrinsic in the layout of the buildings surrounding the cloister is by William Durandus (13th c.) in his Rationale Divinorum Officiorum according to which the church building symbolises the Church Triumphant and the claustrum signifies heavenly paradise:
“Just as the Church building symbolises the Church Triumphant, so is the claustrum a symbol of the heavenly paradise, a paradise where all will live together with one heart, rooted in the Love and Will of God, where all possessions will be held in common, where love will make each one possess in another whatever he may lack in himself.
This image of Paradise is given by those who dwell within the cloister. [...]
And if you wish to interpret the cloister in the moral sense, it symbolises the contemplation of the soul; for by dwelling within it, the soul shuts itself off from the crowds of worldly thoughts and concentrates on the meditation of heavenly things.
The cloister also has four sides which stand in turn for contempt of Self, Contempt of the World, Love of One’s Neighbour and Love of God. [...]
The buildings that surround the cloister also have symbolic meaning: the Chapter House is the Secret of the Heart, the refectory, Love of Holy Meditation, the dormitory, a Clean Conscience, the cloister garden with its flowers and herbs, all the virtues, the font of flowing water, the Gifts of the Spirit which quench the Soul’s Thirst and extinguish the Fire of Eternal Punishment. “ Quoted in Paul Meyvaert “The Medieval Monastic Claustrum.” Gesta 12 ½ (1973): 53-59, at page 58.
See also Megan Cassidy-Welch, Monastic Spaces and their Meanings: Thirteenth-Century English Cistercian Monasteries (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2001) 65-71