Welsh Monastic Skyscapes

A brief note on the project by Dr Bernadette Brady

The Welsh monasteries, their location, orientation, and stonework, represent human activity that sought to build a place for God on earth, or as Megan Cassidy-Welch stated, to build 'the earthly manifestation of heavenly space, a site that was suffused with celestial longing' (2001:164). It is this celestial longing that implies that the monasteries are not just structures for the housing of a community of monks but were, instead, cosmological buildings. These buildings, according to Janet Burton (1994:159), support the theological agenda of saving the individual monk's souls so, by extension, would then help the salvation of the world. Cassidy-Welch (2001:164) expanded this argument by claiming that the Cistercian view of the human body was as a 'complicated and tumultuous space, in relation to not only the Cistercian institutions, but in relation to the cosmos, spirituality and the quest for union with God.' She then suggested that the entire monastic structure, with its variety of parts, was designed to have a special relationship to the heavens which allowed the buildings to actually draw the heavens to earth, and in this way the very the landscape itself was the source of what she called an eternal medicine (2001: 97, 249).

The question of this research is to explore the cosmological intention of the Welsh monasteries. Such a research question, as reflected in Cassidy-Welch's arguments, requires sensitivity to the landscape. Understanding such landscapes, according to Belden Lane, (2001:58) bring in 'the recognition that the human role in completing the task for jointly perceiving a given landscape is to tell its story, to weave a narrative that embraces the energies of land and sky in suggesting common meanings only discovered together.' It is Lane's idea of this emergence of story that occurs when culture, sky, and earth are seen as a single entity, which is the heart of what one can define as a skyscape - a human narrative only revealed when culture, earth, and sky are joined together.

Consequently, in investigating the Welsh monastic skyscapes, we will be drawing on a story that includes the kaleidoscope of God, monks, landscapes, and abbeys, all in a relationship to the heavens, along with its history and cultural background. By taking this approach, it is our ambition to obtain a glimpse of how the medieval Welsh monks joined earth and sky to create a divine place. We have adopted an interdisciplinary methodology, which draws together the fields of anthropology, archaeology, archaeoastronomy, art history, and medieval history. Consequently this study has been conducted using a blending of quantitative data on orientation, along with local east and western horizons, as sunsets could be just as important as sunrises. In parallel we also collected qualitative data such as the history of the founding of the monastery, the cultural implications of its architectural features and its possible local connections, or lack of connection, and the Christian community already present in its area. In a sense we chose to 'interview' each monastic site.

The project commenced in the summer of 2014 and is ongoing.

Burton, Janet E. 1994. The monastic and religious orders in Britain, 1000-1300 (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge).
Cassidy-Welch, Megan. 2001. Monastic spaces and their meanings, thirteenth-century English Cistercian monasteries (Brepols: Belgium).
Lane, Belden C. 2001. Landscapes of the sacred: geography and narrative in American spirituality (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, Md. ; London)

Project Overview

Project Researchers
Dr Bernadette Brady
Dr Fabio Silva
Dr Darrelyn Gunzburg
Pamela Armstrong MA

Bristol Univ., UK 29 Oct 2015
SEAC 2015 9-13 Nov, Rome

Technological Enhanced Learning Unit,
Mount Pleasant Campus Trinity Saint David
Executive Head: Lyndon Shirley

Further information
Dr Bernadette Brady
Email b.brady@uwtsd.ac.uk