The Church

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almost 4 years ago, Kirkstall, Leeds, United Kingdom
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leedsmuseums

The church was the most important part of any monastery; it was built in the shape of a cross and like all Cistercian churches, was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Cistercian monasteries were all built to a similar plan, the idea being that a monk could travel between communities and find his way around easily and feel at home. As Cistercians believed in simplicity the church was not decorated, the walls would have been whitewashed and there were no paintings, sculptures or stained glass to distract the monks from worship. Even the altar, the focus of worship, was undecorated with only a simple cloth and cross. Cistercian monks demonstrated to God how important he was to their community through the sheer size of the church and how often they visited it. It must have been an awe inspiring site for a novice monk joining the community at 17, seeing it for the first time and it is hard to believe that this magnificent building was constructed by and for a community of monks that never got bigger than 100 and by the time of the dissolution was only around 30 monks.

If you would like the opportunity to spend some time quietly exploring press pause now.

The monastic day was built around visits to the church for worship. Choir monks would visit the church at least 8 times a day for services and more if they wished, for private prayer or private mass, the rest of their day was fitted around these services or hours as they were known. They would sing or chant these services as this was a much easier way to remember them.

Think of how many songs you know all of the way through compared to how many poems you can recite off by heart.

Like the other parts of the abbey we have visited the church was split into sections for choir monks and lay brothers. The choir monks got the top of the church nearest to the altar, and even got a section for sick and old choir monks who would need to sit during worship. The lay brothers were separated from them by a screen and would enter the church and worship in silence so as not to disturb the choir monks. If you look at the top of the columns you can see Victorian signs which show where these screens would be. The screen nearest to the main entrance separated the lay brothers from the public who could come and worship at the very back of the church for certain services though women were not allowed into any part of the abbey precinct until 1401.

The main road into Leeds was put through the centre of the church some time after the abbey was dissolved, perhaps as a way of stopping it being used as a church as there were plenty of other places to put a road! The roof and windows had already been removed by Henry VIII’s commissioners to stop this happening and because they were of value. The road passed through the presbytery, where the large window is, which was the most sacred part of the church where mass was celebrated. The road was relocated to its current position in the 19th century and the wall under the large east window was repaired.

If you look closely you can see that the mortar doesn’t match the rest of the abbey, particularly from the outside.

The parts of the church that make the cross are called transepts.

leedsmuseums almost 4 years ago