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The idea and Principles of Monastic Architecture

Claudio Daniel Conenna

Imagen 1. Monastery of Ioanni Gortyria

The Monastic Idea

The architecture of monasteries, both in the West and the East, reflects the essence of a style of life, that is, monasticism. In other words, monastic architecture as a material artistic expression "personalizes", as we could say in terms of the concepts of Plotinus , the content (the spirit) of monastic life. A significant part of the interest of this architectural topic is found in this mystic idea which expresses every monastery (fig.1-2, 3-4).

However, we believe that the architectural idea and the monastic conception of the Orthodox monasteries of the East differ from those of the Catholic monasteries of the West. These differences originate from a different dogmatic principle and continue with the different perception which each has of monasticism based on the same Christian principle: absolute dedication to God. On the one hand, there is the "hesychasm" of the Orthodox Christians , which is represented in Byzantium by the Holy Fathers of the church and by St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) , which consider the nature of faith as "the prayer of the heart," and on the other, Catholic monasticism in the West, represented by St. Augustine (early 5th century), St. Benedict (early 6th century), and later, "scholastic theology." Scholastic theology was expressed originally by St. Anselm (1033-1109) with his position that "belief is a work of genius" , and later by St. Bonaventure (1221-1274), who refers to the "journey of the mind towards God" and finally, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) , who sustains that "the nature of belief consists exclusively of knowledge."

With these concepts, we could sustain that the mentality, the way of thinking, behavior and concept of cenobitic monastic life of each culture (Byzantine and Western Middle Ages) constitute points of reference in order to grasp the difference in the architectural idea between the Christian monasteries of the East and the West. By extension, the different manner of architectural expression helps us to understand the two cultures.

The Eastern Orthodox monasteries demonstrate a character of individuality: they are set, arranged, formed, and built more "organically", since the concept of their implementation comes from sensitivity and the movement of the heart, while Western Catholic monasteries present a repetitive and collective character, and are arranged and architecturally formed in a more "rational" manner, since the concept of their construction is based on strict logic.

"Organic" and "rational" (geometric) architecture differ in their conception in the following way: the basis of the "organic" conception is found in the idea of the building as a continuation of the plastic form of the natural environment, while the basis of the concept of "rationality" is found in the pure expression of geometric form. Although both concepts are in some way inspired by the form of nature, each finds morphological expression according to its own view concerning the image of nature. Namely, while the former "imitates" the plasticity of nature by following it, the latter "assimilates" the basic morphological rules of nature as axes, shapes, etc. and expresses them geometrically. In other words, the monastery architecture of the East forms a figure which represents the idea of "natural expression", while the monastic architecture of the West constitutes the given morphological formation of a geometric model.

More analytically:

1.) Western monastic architecture expresses itself both in terms of the arrangement of spaces and volumetrically (in the expanse of its mass) with geometric shapes, with clear organization of volumes, and with axes of symmetry, forming in this way a rationalistic architectural conception of the monastery. The monastic architecture of the West, with this "rationalistic" expression, seems to follow, architecturally speaking, Western medieval logic, which is consummated in the pure schematic form of the theological thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, in his known work Summa Theologiae. Western monastery complexes show an inflexible typological evolution and a stricter morphological expression, where the order to which are subordinated dominates over the variety offered by the topic (monastery architecture) and often the site itself.

2.) The Eastern monastic architecture of the Byzantine and post-Byzantine age, with almost the opposite perception, presents another logic for the composition of its buildings, the flexible logic of the heart, and as Blaise Pascal would say, "the heart has its own logic, which knows nothing of logic."

The idea of this architecture expresses itself dynamically with invented organic shapes. We believe that these shapes are inspired by the figure of the setting within the natural environment and by the free architectural ideas of the "founder-architect." Thus, the architecture of monasteries becomes organic and expressive, and variety dominates over order. In these monasteries, one can distinguish a lively and dynamic architectural character, both internally, in the form of the outdoor space, and externally, in their structured, fortress-like morphological structure. From these characteristics, we may consider the monastic architecture of Greece as a "romantic architecture", which does not mean architecture of the Romantic period, but romantic from the point of view that emphasizes the particular in relation to the general, the empirical in relation to the logical, and the concrete in relation to the abstract, which distinguishes itself for its multiplicity and variety and is characterized by an intense mystic atmosphere.

In general, the Christian monastic architecture in Greece, with the formation of its volumes, expresses a result of growth, rather than of organization, as it recognizes the lively form of nature. By extension, the monastery appears as a topological space, rather than geometric space, according to the terminology of Ch. Norberg Schulz for the romantic medieval settlement space, a space which indeed did not aim for regular, defined organization. Additionally, the profile of the monastery, that is, its "skyline", presents, with its particular morphological structure, a romantic character similar to a medieval town, with its towers (the defensive tower and the bell-tower), the domes of its main church and chapels, as well as the structured walls.

On another, more symbolic side, we could say that in the various creative architectural ideas which are observed in the architectural expression of Byzantine and post-Byzantine monasteries in Greece, once again "it is revealed" that man was created in the image of God. This element finds itself where human action, concerning creativity in the construction of a habitat, exceeds the bounds of logic, the static, and domination of form and by extension, reflects the free way of action of God with His creations. Thus, monastic architecture, with its composition, goes beyond simple functionality, the static nature of space, and the austere geometric expression of its volumes. In this way, we compare the human architect with the divine, meaning that the architectural inspiration and knowledge of the spiritual person, the "founding architect", concerning monastery art, in some way approached the unlimited inspiration and knowledge of God during the creation of the world. With this concept, we can say that in Orthodoxy, the deep spirituality that characterizes man, corresponding to the creativity of God, and inspires him in his work, is "hesychasm." Therefore, we could state that the architectural expression of Greek Orthodox monasteries originates from a "pure creation of the spirit" , which is emphasized even more in those monasteries which show an intense, separate architectural individuality in their settings, the arrangement of their areas, and their morphological expressions). This architecture, which is set in a varied and difficult landscape but also answers in morphological terms in a creative, organic, and plastic way, emphasizes the basic knowledge of spiritual monastic asceticism in terms of buildings:

" the spiritual man also benefits from adversity"

As a result, we may show in brief all the concepts which express monastic thought and the monastic architectural conception in the parallel routes of Western and Eastern Christianity in the following:

Characteristics of the monastic
and monastery ideas in the West:

Saints Augustine and Benedict

The Benedictine Rule

St. Thomas Aquinas

Scholastic Theology

Rationalistic logic

Mind-based knowledge of God

Mind as center of human existence

Imposition on the environment

Criterion of repetition of the main idea

Geometric setting (object)

Architecture of form

Strict geometric structure

Architecture of the model

Order dominates variety

Homogeneity of form

The "general" and the "abstract"

International style = dogmatic, systematic

Characteristics of the monastic
and monastery ideas in the East:

The Holy Fathers of the East


St. Gregory Palamas

Theology of Divine Vision

Experience of God or Theosis

Experiential knowledge of God

Heart as center of human existence

Adjustment to the environment

Criterion of individuality of main ideas

Organic setting (contextual)

Architecture of the figure

Romantic (topological) architecture

Architecture of the type

Variety dominates order

Heterogeneity of form

The "individual" and the "concrete"

Local character = pluralistic

These forms of categorization resulted from the analysis of the theological treatment and the architectural implementation of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian monastic institutions.

Imagen 2 Monastery of Simonos Petra- Mount Athos


Imágenes y fotografías: Cortesía del autor.


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Claudio Daniel Conenna