The perfection of Norman architectural Ideas

The perfection of Norman architectural Ideas

Cerisy-la-Foret (Manche), former priory church of Saint-Vigor. Around 1080. Choir with apse, transept, central tower and two nave bays

The perfection of Norman architectural Ideas

Only a few years after Jumieges and Mont-Saint-Michel, the building of the two abbey churches of Saint-Etienne and Sainte-Trinite in Caen was begun. The architectural rivalry between these two churches over decades saw the perfection of the Norman style (figures, pp. 141ff.). The benefactors were William the Conqueror and his wife Mathilde. William was laid to rest in Saint-fitienne in 1087. It is possible that the monastery had always been conceived of as his place of final rest, but the immediate reason for the endowment was that the marriage of William and Mathilde was disputed by Rome.

Mont-Saint-Michel (Manche), former monastery church Saint-Michel. Around 1035 ff. Nave wall and wooden barrel vaulting

Mont-Saint-Michel (Manche), former monastery church Saint-Michel. Around 1035 ff. Nave wall and wooden barrel vaulting

The construction of both churches began between 1060 and 1065. Both have a powerful twin-towered west front, a nave and two aisles with a three-storey elevation, and an aisleless transept. The original chancel in Saint-Etienne had to make way for a Gothic ambulatory. Although excavations have given no firm evidence, analogous structures at Cerisy-la-Foret (inspired by Saint-Etienne) and Sainte-Trinite strongly suggest that it was a chancel with chapels in echelon of the Bernay type.
Saint-Vigor in Cerisy also gives us clues about the elevation of the chancel. Because the clerestory was supposed to be two- layered and include a passageway, as at Jumieges, there was no vaulting in the eastern parts. Above the arcades of the forechoir there must have been a double-arched opening in each bay. In the main apse, which had no articulation on the ground floor, these double arches were offset from the wall allowing room for a narrow passageway between themselves and the wall. Both zones of the apse were illuminated by windows. The forechoir, which similar to the nave had a three-storey elevation, may have had sets of two or three arches in front of the passageway and windows. More likely would have been a simple arch, which framed the window and pierced the wall in front of the passageway.

Caen, Sainte-Trinite. Sexpartite rib vaulting. Around 1120

Caen, Sainte-Trinite. Sexpartite rib vaulting. Around 1120

The transept, also with a passageway in front of the windows, has survived intact. The construction of the nave began in the years after 1070. With the subsequent addition of a sexpartite rib vault, the original appearance of the clerestory has been modified. The arcades have been retained, however, together with the almost equally large gallery openings above. The piers in the nave are complex, consisting of responds and engaged columns, and forming an alternation of “strong” and “weak” supports. The responds, which used to reach to just under the flat ceiling, also alternate, but today now only extend upwards as far as the edge of the vaulting. The wide gallery openings may have had tympana above a colonnette.
Tracery balustrades would certainly not have been used here. It is known that sets of three arches were constructed in front of the passageway.
The articulation of the wall, not only in the gallery area, but also in the clerestory, had, on the one hand, made barrel vaulting impossible, but, on the other hand, had lent the interior a whole new quality. The wall did not have the ethereal quality of the later Gothic, yet the articulation in the clerestory is a clear step in this direction. The nave and the end of the chancel were now well-illuminated, generous spaces, whilst the arches, whose number increased in the upper parts of the cathedral, rested on delicate colonnettes and were backlit by the increased strength of the light.

Caen, Saint-Etienne. Sexpartite rib vaulting above altered clerestory. Around 1120

Caen, Saint-Etienne. Sexpartite rib vaulting above altered clerestory. Around 1120

The story of the construction of its sister church of Saint-Etienne, the convent of Sainte-Trinite, is very similar. Sainte-Trinite also originally had a chancel with chapels in echelon, which was raised slightly because of the underlying crypt. As the nuns had to be kept from view, the main apse with its two forebays was closed to the side chancels. Of the original structure only the ground floor of the long chancel with the blind arcading remains. There must have been just such a row of arches in the main apse too, and above it simple windows and a barrel vault, whose central transverse arch is still in place today. The transept may have been low, as is suggested by the northerly and southerly crossing arches.
Next came the nave. In contrast to Saint-Etienne there is no alternation of supports and it has a blind triforium instead of galleries. This significantly changed the spatial proportions of the interior. The present clerestory has been modified in its form, as the original at the time of building (1075-85) must have been lower, perhaps the same height as the lateral arches of today’s triple arcatures, which probably belong to the original structure. The central arch, which framed the deeper-lying window, may have been just as high, as it may be assumed that there was a passageway in front of the clerestory such as at Saint-Etienne. Above the clerestory would have been a flat ceiling, perhaps even a wooden barrel vault. Two towers form the west front.

Caen (Calvados), former monastery church of Sainte- Trinite. Around 1060

Caen (Calvados), former monastery church of Sainte- Trinite. Around 1060

It is quite possible that the barrel vault in the long chancel, which, after all had a span of almost 24 feet, was soon threatened with collapse. At all events it was dismantled between 1100 and 1110. The long chancel now had a double-walled clerestory added, albeit with very low lateral openings. The windows in contrast are very high. This elevation was groin vaulted. It was known from Burgundy, Anzy-le-Duc and Vezelay that groin vaulting, which had, after all, been used extensively in the aisles, allowed a significant increase in the size of the upper windows. This was successful at Sainte-Trinite, even over a double wall. The interior of the apse was given an inner layer consisting of two superimposed column arcatures, causing the elevation to be double-layered.
Once the rib vaulting of the long choir had been successfully mastered, it might be assumed that this form of vaulting would establish itself everywhere. England, where William had been king since winning the Battle of Hastings in 1066, had led the way in experimenting with rib vaulting since about 1100. The future clearly belonged to rib vaulting, and between 1120 and 1125 the idea was brought to Normandy, where it was used to vault Saint-Etienne and Saint-Trinite. It is one of the unsolved mysteries why rib vaults were sexpartite at the beginning.
They group two bays together and span them diagonally in what is approximately the form of a round arch. A third arch, similar to a transverse arch, spans the nave and intersects the other two at a crossing point in the center. The alteration of supports in Saint-Etienne suited this type of vaulting, indeed seemed almost designed for it. Sainte-Trinite on the other hand had no alternation of supports.

Caen (Calvados), former monastery church of Sainte- Trinite. Around 1060. West front with two towers

Caen (Calvados), former monastery church of Sainte- Trinite. Around 1060. West front with two towers

The height of the clerestory at Saint-Etienne, which was determined by the height of the galleries, caused difficulties with the vaulting. The transverse ribs intersected the outer arches in each double bay. The whole inner layer of wall was taken down right to the base of the clerestory zone and a new triple arcature was planned, this time with low and narrower arches at the sides. Apparently they were still too high in the area of the transverse ribs, as subsequently both the outer arches in each double bay had to be filled in with masonry. The result was the well-known asymmetrical clerestory.
At Sainte-Trinite the initial situation was more favorable. The clerestory was significantly lower because of the blind triforium and could remain the same apart from the windows which were altered. The clerestory was extended upwards by the height of today’s windows and the nave was covered with sexpartite vaulting as at Saint-Etienne.
With the introduction of rib vaulting, the Norman architects had made the great breakthrough which allowed them to vault their naves so that they were wide, well lit and presented an elevation with a variety of articulation and openings right up to the ceiling. For decades they had made do with wooden barrel vaults, limited themselves to vaulting of the eastern parts, or even abandoned vaulting altogether in order to break up and lighten the uniformity of a plain wall. The dimensions of the naves give a clear indication of their intentions. All of them are between 29 and 36 feet in breadth, far in excess of what could be successfully spanned up until 1100 with a barrel vault. Cluny III was the first to break this barrier with the construction of a pointed barrel vault with a width of about 36 clear feet.
After this period Normandy lost its way as an inspiration for artistic ideas and sank into oblivion. Its achievements were taken up elsewhere, for the world was now on the threshold of the Gothic age, both chronologically and architecturally speaking. It was the Ile-de-France which was to be the cradle of the Gothic.
The few buildings which were built in Normandy after 1065 to 1070 are the descendants of Saint-Etienne or Sainte-Trinite: namely Lessay, Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville and Cerisy-la-Foret. Especially the last, Saint-Vigor in Cerisy-la-Foret, has retained much of its original character, and is still surrounded by the same meadows and apple orchards. It was indeed built as part of the priory of Saint-Etienne between 1080 and 1085, but in contrast to its mother building, it was never vaulted. The chancel, a chevet with radiating chapels like that of Bernay, has three storeys, as has the apse. The five ground floor windows in the apse have no counterpart in the two choir bays where there is only smooth wall with doors to the choir aisles. It may be that the arcades, which one might have expected here, were filled in later with masonry. In the second level the galleries have two arches in each bay and are continued into the apse as a low colonnade in front of a narrow passageway. The clerestory is also double-layered with three slender arches in each bay, the central arch being fractionally higher. The windows of the passageway have been made smaller by a subsequent change in the aisle roofs. The passageway continues past the apse windows and it is striking that here at Saint-Vigor the three levels are all more or less the same height.
The transept is very high and crowned by a tower. In its outer bays there is a tribune placed transversely over a central support and groin vaulting. Only one and a half bays remain of the nave. Their elevation resembles that of the choir: arcades, double arches in the galleries grouped together by larger arches, and three slim arches on columns in front of the clerestory stairs. The strong piers carry strainer arches, whilst the weak piers serve only to articulate the interior space.