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The Great or Gothic Cloister

Period: gothic

Situated at the heart of an abbey's conventual buildings, the cloister forms the physical center of monastic life. At Saint-Jean-des-Vignes, the Gothic cloister once stood as a square 30 meters on a side. Partially demolished around 1830, the western and southern galleries still remain standing, though damaged by war, abraded by weather and altered by restoration. Of the eastern alley, nothing survives except foundation masonry below circulation levels. Of the northern alley, vault formerets, still supported by their consoles, remain embedded in the wall of the south side-aisle wall of the church. Like the eastern alley, the arcade wall survives only as foundations below circulation level.

Originally, each gallery consisted of nine bays. From the parts still standing, we can assert that the essentially rectangular piers were wrapped by eleven small colonnettes of which some of the shafts were reused from the Romanesque cloister. Of the arcades themselves, the best preserved are those in the easternmost three bays of the southern alley. The tracery, which is raised on a low wall, is composed of two pointed lancets surmounted by a large eight-lobed rose. The lancets are separated by a reused, Romanesque quadrilobed colonnette, and each was, in turn, subdivided by a simple colonnette, some of which were also reused Romanesque elements, including bases and capitals. Each pair of smaller lancets terminates in a trefoil arch and is surmounted by a quatrefoil rosette. The large rose, the rosettes and the tracery spandrels were all originally glazed.

In the third and fourth bays of the southern gallery, no low wall was ever (or ever intended to be) built across the width of the opening. Instead, the two bays provided entrance and egress to the cloister garden as is attested by the traces of wear on their sill stones (K). The three piers of these two bays extend slightly further into the garden and were originally surmounted by gables. The placement of capitals in the piers of those two bays also allows us to assert that they once contained tracery, so that the appearance of the south gallery was originally more unified than it is today. The abbey's customary suggests that these two bays communicated with the lavabo located at the center of the cloister garden.

At the southern end of the western alley, stairs rise to a simple, monumental portal (recently restored) that opens into the refectory (D). The eastern alley once contained two portals that may have been monumental ones similar to the refectory door. In that alley, a sill and excavated vestiges of the large entry portal attest to the existence and location of the sacristy door (J) and the chapter room entry (H) respectively.

There were, of course, two other extensively decorated portals in the cloister: the lay brothers’ door (B) and the canons’ door (A) that gave access into the church at opposite ends of the north gallery. The remaining openings off the cloister seem to have been simple passages. At the northern end of the western cloister alley, a barrel-vaulted passage runs under the refectory to link the abbey court to the cloister (C). Structurally, the passage is integral with the refectory, but its cloister opening has been reworked, probably in the sixteenth century. This simple passage was probably used by the conversi to enter the church, and perhaps also by rare visitors, secular and monastic, admitted to the cloister. In the fifth bay of the south gallery a simple pointed barrel vault marked the passage leading into the camera abbatis (E). In the seventh bay of the eastern alley, another simple opening probably marked the passage to the gardens east of the dorter (G). Finally, on the basis of old prints and plans like that of Bonhommé, we can assert that there was a door, or passage, in the ninth bay of the southern alley that opened into the area of the small cloister (F).

In the seventeenth century, the cloister received an upper level, designed to increase the private space and enhance the circulation of the abbey. This second storey is visible in the Barbaran engraving.