More generally speaking, an abbey is a Christian community of monks overseen by an abbot, or of nuns by an abbess. Precisely, it is a monastic complex focused on a church or even a cathedral. In terms of architecture, the church stands for the main building of that community. The whole abbey is composed hence of various sacral buildings of a different purpose, associated with a set of usable rooms, such as a scriptorium, library, dining room, bedrooms, the kitchen or other utility rooms. Any abbey’s layout is dictated by the founding order. The idea of creating an abbey had been developed throughout centuries.
The monastic ideas first appeared in the Egyptian desert, in the fourth century, together with such great anchorites as Saint Anthony and Saint Paul the Great who lived in an isolated place, far away from urbanist centres, in order to offer their life to God through the ascetism. Their godliness started to attract much attention of others who followed Saint Anthony into the desert. In such a way, first monastic communities started to grow; they were usually composed of small cells around the place where a hermit dwelled. With time, an original eremitical life changed into coenobitism, whose idea was continued by another Egyptian monk, Pachomius, who introduced a set of significant architectural elements; firstly, the church, monks’ cells, refectory (dining hall), kitchen, infirmary (hospital), and guest house for the community’s gatherings. The whole architectural complex was surrounded by an enclosure with strongholds. Such communities were known either as the laurae or caenobia.
Such a monastic progress was also observed in Hiberno-Scotland, where early medieval ascetics first built beehive huts in remote places, such as bogs or lonely islands, and then proceeded to constructing larger communal monastic sites with oratories, scriptoriums and stone high crosses. The idea of abbey as the ecclesiastical formation had already been known in early Christianity, for both male and female communities, but its Romanesque and Gothic variant was primarly spread by the Benedictines, whose order slowly replaced Insular way of worshiping God by an anchoretic life. The term ‘abbey’ originated either from Latin word abbatia or Aramaic abba, which refers to the idea of fathership. Hence, an abbot or an abbess. The title of an abbey for a monastic complex has been approved by the Holy Church of Rome, so although the term abbey can refer to each monastery with such a title, not all the monasteries can become an abbey. In England, abbeys were established by the Benedictines but after the Reformation of the English Church, they were transferred into cathedrals, though their names still include the term “abbey” (e.g., Westminster Abbey).
In the case of an abbey, it is a self-sufficient and autonomous structure. It is rather open to visitors, where at least a group of twelve monks lead a more communal life than in the case of a monastery, while the latter can be secluded and closed for people coming from the outside. Whereas a monastery is usually established to provide a dwelling place for monks and hermits, an abbey is the seat of an abbot to supervise the conducts of monks. Therefore, the community of an abbey follow their religious and daily duties under control of their abbot, and even train young ecclesiastics. In such a sense, the term abbey can be understood as a version of a monastery but of an untimelier idea of the monastic life. See: The Middle-Way Point of the Angels’ Battle in the Piedmont Region).
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Davies, N., Jokiniemi, E., 2018. Dictionary of Architecture and Building Construction, p. 3. Oxford: Architectural Press is an imprint of Elsevier.
Julita, 2010. ‘Difference Between Abbey and Monastery’, in DB Difference Between.net. Available at <https://bit.ly/3l3PLOl>. [Accessed 4th February, 2023].
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