Chapter room

Period: gothic

The Gothic chapter room continues the prolongation of the southern transept that is begun by the treasury and sacristy. The room forms a square 13 meters on a side. Originally divided into nine bays by four columns, only a single masonry course of its walls and the four column bases remain intact above circulation levels. From the absence of any interruption in the coursing and of any trace of wear on the edges of the blocks, we can conclude that the lateral walls of the chapter room never had openings. In contrast, the exterior division of the east wall by four projecting buttresses strongly suggests that this wall contained three lancet windows, one between each buttress. Vestiges of the jambs of the entry portal and the size of a fragmentary stair block recovered during excavation, taken in relation to the circulation level of the Gothic cloister, make it possible to assert that the canons descended three steps from the cloister to enter their chapter room.

Although the chapter room at Saint-Jean is contained within the dormitory range, both its plan and the composition of its tile floor, as well as aspects of its ritual use emphasized the central bay. The particular relationships between architecture and ritual at Saint-Jean imply that the community of canons thought of its square chapter room as a meaning-charged, centrally-planned structure. Particular events occuring at the abbey in the late twelfth century, as these are known to us from medieval and early modern sources, permit us to offer an explanation of why, at Saint-Jean-des-Vignes, this centrally-conceived and -used space was so important.

The disposition of bays in the Gothic chapter room at Saint-Jean-des-Vignes: eight outer ones arranged symmetrically around an inner ninth, creates a centralized plan. Although no evidence for vault decoration survives at Saint-Jean, other aspects of the decoration of the room do exist and relate directly to its central space. Careful excavation of the interior of the chapter room at Saint-Jean revealed the remains of a tiled floor containing an elaborate central design. This floor, and its two substantial repairs, have been reconstructed from the careful recording of imprints of robbed-out tiles, from the very few tiles remaining in situ around the column bases and from a small number of tiles and tile fragments recovered in the back-fill. These tiles and fragments correspond to the differently-sized imprints of the floor and its repairs. Excavation also revealed imprints of the large paving stones around the edges of the room. Their particular arrangement indicates that the canons sat on wooden benches that ringed the room on all sides. The original tile floor of the Gothic chapter room of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes consisted of an elaborate 'X' motif linking the four columns of the central bay and a series of framed rectangular panels in each of the eight outer bays of the room.

Among the activities occurring regularly in the chapter room at Saint-Jean-des-Vignes were daily meetings of the community, which included the correction of errant canons, and school classes for the juniores. Other regularly occuring activities included a weekly mandatum (or ritual foot washing), and, on days of fasting, collation (meditation and discussion of the lives of the saints). Special, and therefore more occasional, functions included the reception of novices, and a more elaborate mandatum liturgy performed during the first four Sundays of Lent, and on Holy Thursday.

The passages in the customary text sometimes provide relatively explicit "stage directions" and, in so doing, they corroborate liturgically the special status given to the decoration of the chapter room's central bay. For example, the central bay of the chapter room played an important role in the administration of monastic discipline. Errant canons were identified and admonished during the daily chapter meetings. When an erring canon's name was called by the prior,

...he...rose from his seat and went into the middle of the chapter room

and he prostrated himself in front of the abbot's chair, within the decorated central bay.

The decorated central bay also seems to have been the focus of the assembled chapter's attention for the reception of novices. The novice was led before the chapter by the order of the lord abbot directly and prostrated himself before the abbot and humbly asked to be received in brotherhood.

The mandatum, or ritual footwashing, was performed frequently in most monasteries. This ritual commemorates Christ's washing of the Apostles' feet on the Holy Thursday. The mandatum was enacted weekly in the chapter room at Saint-Jean-des-Vignes, where the abbot and prior washed the feet of each member of the community. The same ritual was repeated and amplified during Lent and on Holy Thursday. Whether the act of washing took place in the middle of the room or at the benches is not specified in the text. Monumental images from monastic contexts show the apostles seated, which suggests that during the ceremony the canons were seated in their places around the periphery of the room. However, regardless of where the mandatum itself took place, for the Lenten and Holy Thursday celebrations the Saint-Jean customary states explicitly that prayers and readings did take place in the decorated central bay.

Then when the prior strikes the gong a second time, the priest and the deacon, dressed in liturgical vestments, with the juniors in front of them carrying two lighted candles must come in order into the chapter room, and all the canons in ecclesiastical apparel enter their seats. Then all of them stand up and bow and the abbot begins the [prayer], Confiteor, or the priest in his absence, standing in the middle [of the chapter room]. And after he says the prayer and the orations which follow...

At Saint-Jean, the decorated central bay was also important to the use of the room as a zone for privileged burial. The customary tells us that during regular chapter meetings, readings were made from the libro capituli to recall deceased members of the community, and "others," presumably lay people. On special anniversaries, the sacristan was to

...provide four burning [lights] for the chapter room.

Although the customary text does not so state, it seems probable that these readings were done at a portable lectern in the central bay of the room. The number of lights suggests that they may have been placed on the floor at the four corners of the same bay, or suspended from the columns which marked its corners.

One further response to the central plan and decoration relates to the hierarchical seating within the chapter room. The customary text states that the abbot and subprior, and therefore presumably also the prior, were seated together in the chapter room. Comparative evidence makes it clear that these three seats would have been in the eastern middle bay opposite the door. The customary text also indicates that each member of the community had an assigned seat in the chapter room and the frequent references to processions "in order" strongly suggests that seating of the entire membership was hierarchically arranged.

Functions such as correction or reception, each with the suppliant prostrate in the central bay of the room, are essentially rituals of incorporation which link the petitioner to the community as a whole. Similarly, acts of commemoration like the mandatum and the recitation of the abbey's special dead, each of which involved prayers and readings given in the central bay of the room, are rituals of continuity that connect living canons to communities past and future. Like these rituals, the concentric arrangement of the seats and the hierarchical organization of the seating of the community underscored the central plan of the room and its centrally emphasized tile floor. There is a long, rich tradition of centrally-planned spaces in Christian architecture and the form has been plausibly associated with cosmological meaning and the dome of heaven. The chapter room of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes seems to have participated in this meaning-laden tradition.

After the Huegenot sack of 1567, the church was unsuited for service for 18 years. The chapter room served as a temporary church during that time. During this period, the chapter room received a new floor, and the fittings for an altar and benches are preserved in traces on the surviving portions of that floor, revealed in excavation.

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