cloister, unroofed space forming part of a religious establishment and surrounded by the various buildings or by enclosing walls. Generally, it is provided on all sides with a vaulted passageway consisting of continuous colonnades or arcades opening onto a court. The cloister is a characteristic part of monastic institutions (see abbey), serving both as sheltered access to the various units of the group and for the recreation of the monks. Cloisters became an important architectural form in the 11th cent., a period marked by active monastery building all over Europe. They were not limited to monastic houses, but were built in some English colleges, as at Oxford and Eton, and in some churches, mostly in England and Spain. In N France many of the original cloisters have disappeared, but superb Romanesque cloisters remain in S France, Italy and Sicily, and Spain. In the typical examples the arches are supported by delicate columns, generally coupled, the elaborate capitals of the paired columns sometimes being interlaced. The 13th-century cloisters of two Roman churches, St. John Lateran and St. Paul's outside the Walls, are notable Romanesque examples, distinguished by twin spiral columns inlaid with rich glass mosaics. Of the Gothic period, the English cloisters are especially fine, as at Salisbury, Wells, and Westminster Abbey. The Renaissance cloisters are confined chiefly to Italy and Spain. In the New World the Spanish colonists began in the 16th cent. to build simple cloisters, generally arcaded, in Mexico, Cuba, and California.
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