AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIÆVAL ART XIV: The Norman Churches of St Etienne and La Trinité

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Although the proposed marriage of William, Duke of Normandy and, later, King of England, to his distant cousin, Mathilde, Countess of Flanders, was opposed by Pope Leo IX on the grounds of consanguinity, it nevertheless took place in 1053. Lanfranc, the abbot of Bec, obtained a papal dispensation for William only in 1059. While the pope forgave that sin, he charged the couple with contumacy, or stubbornly resisting his will, and required that, as an act of penance, each found a church and fund its construction and operation pro remedia animae suae—for the salvation of their souls.

Caen, the Norman administrative center and largest city in lower Normandy (département Calvados), was chosen as the location of the two new Benedictine foundations, which were begun in 1062, just prior to the invasion of England. St Etienne, William’s abbaye aux hommes, lay on the west side of the city, while La Trinité, the abbaye aux dames, founded by Mathilde was situated on the eastern edge of town. Upon their deaths in 1087 and 1081, Duke and Duchess were buried before the high altars of their respective foundations, where their souls would benefit from the constant cycle of prayers of the Divine Office chanted daily by the monks and nuns.

Norman ecclesiastical architecture of the 11th century was far in advance of building traditions of northern France and England at the time. The Norman dukes were great supporters of the monastic reforms emanating from Cluny in Burgundy, and part of that reform entailed the construction of large churches that expressed the glory of the deity and the magnificence of his church. Being eminently practical, the reform movement also favored buildings that were durable, resistant to fire (a constant threat in an era of candle and torch lighting), large enough to accommodate crowds of pilgrims and acoustically suited to the performance of the extended and elaborated plainsong of the Divine Office, for which Cluny was famous. All of these needs were satisfied by the use of stone—massive walls of ashlared masonry supporting rubble and concrete vaults over the nave and aisles.

The Roman technology for stone vaulting and dome construction had been lost during the early Middle Ages and was revived only in the 11th centuries when Europe began a long period of economic, territorial and cultural growth. The second abbey church at Cluny, known as Cluny II, begun around 948, was barrel-vaulted entirely in stone, which encouraged Norman masons to experiment with larger and more daring buildings, such as the abbey church of Jumièges.

St Etienne has a west façade with three portals that correspond logically to the aisles and nave of the interior, surmounted by to tall bell towers. The nave elevation comprises an arcade, a large gallery level and a clerestory with a passage way. The nave consists of four bays, each clearly demarcated by collonettes that rise from the floor and continue across the ribs of the vaults. The Roman round-headed arch is used through the elevations but pointed arches were used for the the vaults as an optical correction: true round-headed groin vaults appear to sag at the intersection; the point compensates for that illusion making them appear to be round.

The elevation of La Trinité is more modern, doing away with the gallery level, substituting a purely decorative triforium instead. The same type of sexpartite ribbed vaults were employed, although the original ones over the centuries became unstable and were completely rebuilt in the 19th century. Mathilde’s foundation features another art form not seen since the collapse of the western Empire: architectural sculpture. This take the form of carved, historiated capitals, based on the Corinthian order, depicting biblical subjects chosen with a monastic audience in mind, including the Jacob Blessing his sons and Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Other capitals depicting monstrous and grotesque beasts tangled in decorative bands defy easy interpretation. On the west front of La Trinité, over the lintel of the central portal is a carved tympanum, dating from the 1130s, when the building was nearing completion, showing the three persons of the Holy Trinity flanked by the symbols of the four evangelists.This image concisely expresses a complex theological issue and its mode of dissemination, while at the same time serving as a street sign identifying the building. This ability to speak equally clearly to both learned, Latin-literate and uneducated, common audiences is one of the distinguishing features of medieval art.

Both St Etienne and La Trinité are masterpieces of engineering, stone cutting and formal innovation. The forms and technologies used in both—including the tripartite west front surmounted by towers; the simplified nave elevation; the bay system expressed by collonettes; the ribbed, groin vaults; the pointed arch; and the carved tympanum are all characteristics we associate with the Gothic style of a hundred years later, but seen here in the mid 11th-century, fully-developed and expertly handled by the precocious Normans, who only a hundred years earlier had been living in temporary encampments and burning and pillaging the churches of the same region.

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