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Cloister at Moissac (ca. 1100 AD, southern France)

Cloister at Moissac (ca. 1100 AD, southern France)

Where do cloisters come from?

Cloisters were a medieval kind of building that developed out of Greek and then Roman peristyles.

What is a peristyle?
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What is a cloister?

A cloister is a courtyard garden inside a building. Often people grew herbs or fruit or flowers in the garden. Around the sides of the courtyard there is a covered walkway, with a waist-high wall between you and the garden in the middle. On top of the waist-high wall, small columns hold up the roof of the walkway.

Growing an herb garden
Where do figs come from?
Oranges and lemons

The cloister at Fossa Nuova

The cloister at Fossa Nuova in southern Italy. Photo – Adrian Fletcher,

Christian monks built this cloister at Fossa Nuova in Italy in the time of Friedrich Barbarossa.

Monks and monasteries
Nuns and convents

What does “cloister” mean?

Cloister means a closed space, and some cloisters were enclosed so that nuns and monks could get some fresh air and have a garden without anyone seeing them or distracting them from their prayers. But other cloisters were just private courtyards, where people could hang out without danger of being attacked by enemies.

Reusing Roman columns

The first medieval cloisters, like early Islamic mosques, often re-used small columns from Roman buildings, to show how Christianity had beaten the Roman gods (and to save money).

Islamic mosques
Fatimid architecture
Delhi Sultanate mosque

A little later on, cloisters used Romanesque arches; later on people began to build Gothic style cloisters.

What is Romanesque?
How is Gothic different?

But by the time of the Renaissance, life in Europe wasn’t so dangerous anymore, and cloisters went out of fashion. Instead people designed bigger, more open, and less protected gardens.

Learn by doing: growing herbs
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