From The Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Early History of Monasticism
The term “monasticism” (monachos, a solitary person) describes a way of life chosen by religious men or women who retreat from society for the pursuit of spiritual salvation. The earliest form of monasticism appeared in the late third to early fourth century in regions around the eastern Mediterranean. Men and women like Antony (died 356)—whose biography provided a model for future monks—withdrew into the Egyptian desert, depriving themselves of food and water as part of their effort to withstand the devil’s temptations. Along the Nile River, in the shadow of the great pyramids, Pachomius (died 312/13) and others established communal structures for ascetics that offered a daily regimen of work and prayer (29.9.2a-v; 10.176.37). Though the earliest monasteries were built to promote isolation, Christian intellectuals sought very early on to bring desert monasticism to the city.


Byzantine Monasticism
Monasticism was integral to Byzantine life. From the fourth century, after the founding of the first monastic institution in Constantinople, Dalmatou, monasteries proliferated throughout town and country. By the early sixth century, there were over seventy monasteries in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Monks and nuns came to play critical roles in the doctrinal debates at the center of imperial politics.

One of the most important early monasteries was built on the site of the Burning Bush at the foot of Mount Sinai. Recognizing the religious and military significance of this locus sanctus, Justinian I, between 548 and 565, constructed a heavily fortified monastery around the shrine to protect the monks. In the tenth or eleventh century, the monastery took the name of Saint Catherine after acquiring the martyr’s relics, which the saint’s vita described as having been carried to the mountain by angels. This scene is depicted in The Belles Heures (54.1.1).

Though monasteries were landowners from their inception, in the tenth century they began to acquire substantial gifts of cash, precious liturgical objects, land, and livestock. Monasteries, in turn, provided a haven from the world for pious men and women, as well as for social outcasts in need of assistance. One of the major contributions of the monastic members was their achievement in scholarship, providing instrumental books about hymnography, hagiography, and theology. Monastic centers encouraged a fiercely intellectual environment, requiring literacy of brothers and sisters and creating major libraries. Today, the library at the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine still contains more than 3,000 manuscripts in a variety of languages. Monastic complexes were also patrons and sources of tremendous art and architecture, such as frescoes and wall paintings. The mosaic of the Transfiguration at Saint Catherine’s is a splendid example of the artistry encouraged in monastic centers.

Benedictine Monasticism
Monasticism spread quickly to western Europe. The Rule of Saint Benedict, compiled in the first half of the sixth century, laid the foundation for the form of monastic life most commonly practiced there. The rule—with its stress on moderation, obedience to the monastery’s leader (the abbot), and a prescribed program of prayer, work, and study—synthesized many of the teachings of the desert hermits and early Christian writers. By the ninth century, Benedictine monasticism had engendered a typical monastic plan that included a church with an adjacent cloister in the shape of a square courtyard (25.120.398,.399,.452). Around the cloister could generally be found the library, chapter house (35.50), dormitory, refectory, kitchen, cellar, infirmary, and other spaces essential to the daily monastic regimen. The Benedictine order enjoyed long periods of wealth and power. One of its most influential houses, at Cluny in Burgundy, built the great Abbey Church of Saints Peter and Paul, which was reputed to be the largest church in all of Christendom (1980.263.1).

Monastic Reforms in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries
The founding of the Cistercian order in 1098 marked one of the most important monastic reforms in history. One of its champions, Bernard of Clairvaux, famously denounced the excesses of contemporary monasticism in a twelfth-century letter, criticizing the Church because it “clothes its stones in gold” but “leaves its children naked.” Though the Cistercian movement advocated a return to strict asceticism by reducing all forms of material life to the bare minimum, the manuscripts its monks produced did not necessarily scorn rich decoration (1999.364.2). The mendicant orders, such as the Franciscans (1994.516) and Dominicans (1982.175), brought about more reforms in the thirteenth century. Drawn to universities and large cities, Franciscan and Dominican friars lived and preached among the people, supporting themselves by working and begging for food (mendicare, to beg).

Women and Monasticism
From its earliest days, the monastic life drew scores of women. Monasteries not only offered women protection for themselves and their property, but also often nourished their intellectual growth and political power. The Benedictine nun Hildegard of Bingen, author, composer, physician, and consultant to popes and kings, is one among many female monastics who participated in the important cultural and political events of her day. Like their male counterparts, abbesses and nuns were patrons and producers of art (29.87). Their monasteries also housed great libraries and contributed to the production of illuminated manuscripts.