Decorative Gardens and Garden Fountains of the Cistercians

Posted by Nick Niesen on November 1st, 2010

The Cistercians, following in the footsteps of the Benedictines, did much to further the progress of horticulture and decorative gardens on the continent and in England. Their monasteries, lush with flowing water from large fountains and dramatic statuary, stood in contrast to those gardens as conspicuously bare of decoration as those of the Benedictines. These gardens were built in the hollows of valleys, where culture could fertilize the soil, and where there was an abundance of water to fill the fountains and irrigate the land.

St. Bernard founded the most famous of all Cistercian garden communities in the wild and gloomy valley of Clairvaux, beside a clear stream that provided plentiful water for the surrounding garden fountains. An ardent lover of nature, he wrote, "You will find more in woods than in books, trees and stones will teach you what you can never learn from school teachers." One of the most sacred spots in the monastery, now sadly deprived of all its ancient glory, was a little plot of ground whose cultivation was his special care. Centered around several beautiful garden statues, large gardens belonging to the community lay within the cloisters, and outside others surrounded giant water fountains, with jets spraying 20 feet into the air. The several divisions of ground were separated by intersecting canals, with water supplied to the fountains by the river Alba.

The Carthusians, belonging to an order founded by St. Bruno in 1084, dwelt in monasteries planned to isolate, as completely as possible, each member of the
community. This was to fulfill the rules peculiar to their order, obliging them to live in absolute silence and solitude, the only sounds coming from the small, ornate fountains found in the corners of the courtyard. Each of the brethren, like the Egyptian monks, occupied a detached cottage, to which was added in the twelfth century a small garden, decorated and cultivated by its tenant. Numbers of these cottages and gardens surrounded the cloisters with central water fountains for water supply which eliminated the necessity of having large centerpiece garden fountains for the grounds under cultivation.

Among the orders of friars were the Dominicans, founded by the Spanish Dominic, and the Franciscans, by St. Francis of Assisi, in the thirteenth century. Both lived according to different lights from the monks, despised all luxury, and their fountains were stark, plain, and functional. They also took less pride in owning beautiful buildings, statuary, and garden decor. Wanderers over the country, preaching and begging for food wherever they happened to stop, unlike the members of other orders, the friars required but small establishments, and few cultivated acres for their food supply, relying instead on natural streams rather than public fountains for their sustenance.

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Nick Niesen

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Nick Niesen
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