The church stood at the heart of monastic life
and brought together communal worship, private prayer, ceremony
and ritual. It was the most visited of the buildings and structured
space and time within the monastery. The church dominated the precinct
and determined the arrangement of the other claustral buildings;
the monks day revolved around the eight canonical hours that
they celebrated in choir.
The church of St Mary at Roche is today
one of the first examples of the New
Gothic architecture in the country. The use of clustered piers, pointed
arches and rib vaults created
a greater sense of space, height, and light. Construction of the present
church began c. 1170, some twenty years after Durand (c.
1147-59) and the founding monks had arrived at the site. It probably
replaced an earlier wooden building, for Cistercian legislation prescribed
that an oratory should be erected before the arrival of a new community so
that they may straightaway serve God there and live in keeping with the
Rule.(1) Contemporaries noted the fine
ashlar stonework of the abbey, but would have been also struck by its
stark simplicity, characteristic of Cistercian architecture and décor.
A Cistercian church was characterised by its
layout, which represented and reinforced distinctions within the
monastery. The church at Roche was cruciform in shape. The nave
was divided into eight bays and accommodated the lay-brothers choir
and part of the monks choir, which extended into the crossing.
Transept chapels were located in the side arms, and the presbytery,
the most sacred part of the church, lay beyond the crossing, elevated
and set apart from the rest of the church.