Abbey of Gethsemani, Trappist, KY
Potter / Cox Architects
The increased international fame of the theologian, monk, writer, and social activist Thomas Merton’s in the 1960’s brought about great changes to the cloistered monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, KY where he lived and worked. His notoriety brought an influx of new visitors to the Abbey, which brought tension to the community because their members had joined the Abbey to step away from society and minimizing all speech to only that which was necessary according to the Trappist monastic order tradition. Now society was making its way to their monastery which brought about a need to accommodate the many new visitors. In the late 80’s, a renovation program was begun which expanded the guest housing and introduced a separate area where visiting worshippers could attend the office of readings, daily lauds, and vespers conducted by the monks.
This area in the sanctuary was a balcony overlooking the nave, in which six new windows were added facing due east. The theme of these windows was developed to express the changes that happening at this time in the history of the monastery. The Abbey is a Trappist order, official recognized as the Order of the Cistercians, which traced its history to St Benedict who had established geometric patterns to be used in the ornamentation of worship spaces because he believed figurative art distracted from the performance of the liturgy, which was the most important function. These patterns became known through history therefore as Cistercian patterns.
To express the changes in the monastery, these geometric patterns were used as the primary element of the composition as blue squares with etched delineations of the form, though the patterns were presented as disintegrating along the edges where they met the background, which was etched with laminated square prisms, the same shape as the Cistercian pattern, though they were clear, not colored. The interpretation of this relationship is that as a new order ( etched field with prismatic elements ) evolves the old order ( deep blue forms with etched lines ) begins to dissolve. The new order is the same form as the traditional Cistercian pattern, though it is expressed in a more modernistic method. In this interpretation, the new order has evolved from the old order and therefore is a continuation of the original traditions and practices.
In the other worship space created for the use of visitors is the daily chapel, which is adjacent to the sanctuary, there are a series of windows with similar forms and materials as the windows in the balcony of the sanctuary. In these windows, the Cistercian patterns used are circular, rather than square, and they are seen through etched glass forms with animated lines of movement. The background is also prismatic, though the prisms used are linear and comprise the majority of the background.
The interpretation of the these windows is that through the new order the old order is seen as complete and whole, and that together the new and old order co-exist as a new entity, one that is both old and new. The prismatic glass background fills the chapel space with spectral colors, introducing a visual delight thereby elevating the worship experience.
The intent of the work is to present two different ways of understanding the evolution of the Cistercian and Trappist traditions, though neither is intended to be understood as being the more relevant of the meanings.