Mellifont Cistercian Abbey

Site Plan

The nave is the area in the western part of the main body of the church where the congregation gathered to hear sermons preached and to attend Mass.
In Cistercian churches, the nave was divided between the lay brothers’ choir to the west, where those members of the community charged with manual work attended mass and an abbreviated form of the Divine Office at the beginning and the end of their day’s work, and the monks’ choir to the east.

This picture was taken within the nave, looking towards the chancel. Very little standing remains are left of the nave. Less than half of the piers that separated it from the lateral aisles have left any trace. In Cistercian churches the monks’ choir was usually located within the crossing (the intersection of the transept and the chancel), and the east end of the nave, the rest of the nave being used by the lay brothers.

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The aisle is an area that runs parallel to the nave or chancel, separated from either by a row of arches and columns known as an arcade. It often contained side altars and was used for liturgical processions.

A view of the church, looking east. The two aisles on either side of the nave can be seen here. They were separated by rows of piers, very little of which remain.

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Towers served as belfries, ringing out the hours of the Divine Offices, which called the religious community to the church. They were generally built over crossing or the intersection of the nave and chancel.

A view of the crossing, looking towards the nave. The monks’ choir was partly located within the crossing. In the later Middle Ages, a tower was added over the crossing, at which point the piers were enlarged in order to support it.

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The presbytery lay at the east end of the chancel, located underneath the principal window, and contained the High Altar and the sedilia (or ornamental seats for the clergy officiating at Mass).

The presbytery was greatly extended in the 13th century, going from 7.63m to 13.55m in length. It was likely covered with a rib-vault. In the north wall of the presbytery are traces of two tomb recesses, between which are the remains of a doorway, perhaps the ‘porte des morts’ (door of the dead), though which the dead were carried to the cemetery following the funeral mass.

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The transept is the space which intersects the nave and chancel, giving the church its characteristic cruciform appearance. These rectangular extensions to the north and south of the church provided space for additional altars dedicated to various saints and serving as mortuary, burial or chantry chapels for the community’s benefactors. In a mendicant context, only one transept arm is found, in most cases abutting the nave, or the nave and the tower between the chancel and the nave, known as a ‘one armed transept.’
In Cistercian churches, a night stairs was often placed in the transept arm on the side of the east range, allowing the monks to access the choir directly from their dormitory in the upper floor of the east range during the prayers of the Divine Office happening at night time.

A view of the transept looking south. In the foreground of the picture can be seen the foundation walls of the original north arm of the transept, which was enlarged in the 13th century, to the north, east and west. The new transept almost doubled the size of the original, and had western and eastern aisles divided up into three chapels divided by wooden screens.

A view of the southern arm of the transept, looking towards the east range. Like the north arm of the transept, the 12th-century south transept was enlarged, though the work was made more complicated by the presence of the east range and the cloister walk, and the reconstruction was completed much later, in the 14th century. Because of the cloister walk, no western aisle and chapels could be accommodated in the south transept, making the updated plan of the church lopsided.

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The chapel is a small separate space (usually off the aisle or transept) which contained a secondary altar, often dedicated to a particular saint. They were usually erected by members of a specific family as a private chapel.

A view of the east chapels in the south transept, showing the foundations of the 12th-century chapels, similar to the ones in the north transept. The central chapel was square while on either side were apsidal chapel, with rounded ends.

A view of the chapels accommodated in the west aisle of the north transept when it was enlarged in the 13th century. The chapels would have been divided from each other by wooden screens.

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A crypt, located underneath the twelfth-century nave at its west end, was discovered during excavations carried out in the 1950s. It is comprised of a main chamber and a small room to the north. The crypt was not vaulted, indicating that the west end of the nave had a wooden floor. In the west wall were windows and cupboards, indicating the practical purpose of the crypt though it was also structurally necessary, as on that side of the church the ground sloped towards the river.

A view of the crypt, showing the small room that was separated from the main chamber of the crypt by a doorway, and which would have been located underneath the north aisle.

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The east range contained the rooms essential for conducting monastic life, such as the sacristy, chapter house, calefactory and dormitories above. The range was connected to the church via the chancel or transept.

The east range appears to have been arranged according to the usual Cistercian plan, with a sacristy and a chapter room, which in the 13th century was rebuilt behind the original one. Little remains of the east range and it is difficult to identify the rest of the rooms, though they probably comprised a parlour, a staircase leading to the dormitory above, and the monks’ day room beyond.

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The chapter house played an important role in monastic life. The community gathered here every morning to listen to a reading of a chapter of their rule, to pray for their benefactors, to receive instructions for their daily tasks and to deal with administrative matters.

A view of the 13th-century chapter house, behind the remains of the original one. The latter was probably vaulted, perhaps like in Dunbrody Abbey, with two free-standing piers supporting rib-vaults. The new chapter house was probably used in conjunction with the older room, which thus became a sort of vestibule.

A view of the interior of the new chapter house, which is rib-vaulted, and has three windows. The north and south windows have later, 14th-century curvilinear tracery, while the tracery of the east window is gone. The capitals of the windows jambs and those supporting the ribs of the vault present an array of carvings, including foliage ornaments, grotesque heads and trumpet scallops, which allow to date the construction of the chapter house to the first quarter of the 13th century.

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In a Cistercian context, the chapter room was often adjoined by a parlour, a small room or passage where the monks gathered to receive their work tools from the prior.

This room located directly to the east of the original chapter room might have been a parlour, where the prior might talk to monks individually and organise the day’s work.

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The day stairs was a staircase leading up to the monks’ dormitory above the east range.

This narrow room might have housed the staircase, or day stairs, leading up to the monks’ dormitory above the east range.

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The day room is a room located in the east range where the monks or friars assembled for a variety of activities, the day room occasionally doubled as the novice’s room, where those wishing to join the religious community spent their period of training and tutelage under the care of the Novice Master, and/or as the calefactory.

In a Cistercian context, the larger room to south end of the east range was usually the monks’ day room. It would have been vaulted and heated by a fireplace.

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Many religious houses functioned as hospitals for the wider community and ran leprosaria for the care of lepers. Sick or infirm members of the community were cared for in the infirmary, often a separate building located to the east of the main claustral complex. Here the religious followed a relaxed dietary and liturgical regime. Occasionally benefactors of the community were permitted to pass their final days in the monastic infirmary.

This large room projecting east from the south range appears to have been divided by piers into three aisles, though it is unclear whether the surviving sections of masonry are the remains of piers or in fact of continuous walls. It is too vast a room to have been the reredorter or latrines, and architectural historian Harold Leask has suggested it was an infirmary, though it is also possible it is post-medieval in date and belongs to the secular occupation of the abbey.

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The calefactory or warming house contained a large communal fire, making it one of the few in a medieval monastery that was heated. It was also where inks were prepared for the scriptorium and where boots and outdoor clothing were greased with wax or animal fat.

These two barrel-vaulted spaces do not seem to belong to the early phase of the abbey, but rather to its late medieval history or to the 16th-century secular occupation of the abbey. They occupy the space where the calefactory would have usually been found in Cistercian monasteries, directly to the east of the refectory.

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The refectory was the main dining room of the community, normally located in the cloister range parallel to the church. Each refectory contained a pulpitum, or reader’s desk from which a member of the community read devotional material during the silent communal meals. There was a lavabo at the entrance for the religious to wash their hands.

Of the refectory, located in the centre of the south range, only the foundations remain, tracing a long rectangle with a north-south axis, which suggests it was rebuilt around or after 1200, replacing an original refectory aligned with the range, arranged around a smaller cloister. At the south end of the west wall the foundations widen where the reader’s desk was located.

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The lavabo was a basin placed at the entrance of the refectory, sometimes within an elaborate structure, where the monks, brothers or friars would wash their hands prior to attend each meal.

A view of the lavabo, which is widely consider the most beautiful feature of the abbey to have survived. It has an octagonal plan, and about half of the original structure remains. On each side is a richly moulded arch and capitals carved with a variety of ornaments. The upper part of the lavabo was likely remodelled by the Moore family after the Dissolution. It has been suggested they used the refectory as a hall, and the lavabo as a porch.

A view of the interior of the lavabo. It was rib-vaulted and the first few sections of the vault remain. Based on its elaborate mouldings and other stylistic features, architectural historian Roger Stalley suggested a date of around 1210 for the construction of the lavabo.

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The kitchen was used for preparing food, baking and sometimes brewing and was located adjacent to the refectory. Due to the risk of fire, kitchens were occasionally located in separate buildings.

To the west of the refectory are a group of foundations which it is difficult to make sense of, but that likely represent the site of the kitchen.

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The west range of domestic buildings was where the community interacted with the secular world, where visitors and alms were received. In Benedictine and Cistercian communities, the west range was reserved for the lay brothers.
In Benedictine and Cistercian communities, the west range was reserved for the lay brothers, and included their refectory, workrooms, and their dormitory and latrines on the upper floor.

A view of the west range of the domestic buildings, where the lay brothers slept and took their meals. Their refectory would usually be located to the south end of the range, their dormitory above. The range would have also accommodated store rooms and an entrance into the monastery from the west.

Another view of the west range. Between the rooms of the range and the cloister walk is a narrow passage. This is known as the ‘ruelle des convers’ (lay brothers’ alley), common in 12th-century foundations, but often removed in later reconstructions. Its function was to provide an easy access to the rooms of the range without encroaching on the cloister, while it emphasizes the strict separation between the monks and lay brothers as underlined in Cistercian statutes.

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The cloister garth was the uncovered central space within a cloister. The cloister garth is surrounded by the cloister arcade and the cloister walk or alley.

A view within the cloister garth, looking towards the Lavabo. It has been suggested that the cloister was extended to the south at some point, probably around 1200, which would explain its unusual rectangular plan. At the same time the south range was demolished and rebuilt further south, with a new refectory built along a north-south axis as shown by the remains of its foundations.

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The cloister walk (or cloister alley) was the covered walkway that surrouded the cloister garth, connecting the domestic ranges to the church. It was often used as a burial place for members of the order or for important benefactors.

A view of the south cloister walk, featuring the section of the arcade reconstructed following the 1950s excavations. It is comprised of round arches resting on twin, slender columns with scalloped capitals, and is representative of the cloisters of many Cistercian monasteries throughout Europe. It is possible that Mellifont introduced the design to Ireland. It has been dated to the end of the 12th century, and parallels can be found at Boyle and Corcomroe abbeys.

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