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(canton of Caen, Calvados)

Abbey Church of Saint-Etienne
Abbaye aux Hommes

    In c. 1063 Duke William the Conqueror and Duchess Mathilda founded the male and female abbeys [abbayes aux Hommes et aux Dames] both by way of atonement for their incestuous marriage, according to Milon Crispin, the biographer of Lanfranc, and also to give impetus to the development of the new ducal capital.

Lanfranc of Pavia, Prior of Bec, who was appointed as head of the abbey, supervised the work until his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070. The dedication took place in 1077 and Duke William was buried in the choir of his church ten years later (the current tomb - a single slab of black marble - was created in 1802). However the western façade (apart from the gothic spires) was only built at the end of the 11th century. The original plan was the Benedictine layout of the Latin cross and east end with chapels in echelon (of which Saint-Nicolas just a few hundred meters away provides a small-scale copy). A gothic choir was, however, built at the beginning of the 13th century which is very much in keeping with the Romanesque structure of the church.

The nave elevation has three separate levels which was to become the traditional Norman pattern, but also introduced three major innovations: the width of the galleries opening onto the nave with a single large arch (an arrangement seen again in Norwich cathedral); the alternation of groups of two bays with heavy columns and two with light, the first intended to support diaphragm arches and fire break walls which have disappeared along with the original wooden ceiling; and the third level ambulatory gallery (which hitherto only existed in the transepts at Bernay and Jumièges). 

The very structure of the nave with its large open spaces and the alternation of the columns constitutes an arrangement which was to lead naturally to the ribbed vault. In addition, in c. 1115, sexpartite vaults replaced the wooden ceiling. This was to lead to a transformation of the upper level: the openings onto the nave were modified (instead of four large arches in groups of two, large and small arches alternate); a small column was added to the top of the pilaster strips of the heavy columns to receive the arches; a new decoration of monstrous figures was applied to their bases and bands bearing a fret pattern were put round the window openings.

The façade employs a large square mass with three ranks of openings, which is supported by four solid buttresses, and the two towers, whose refined progression of arches and openings lightens the mass as it soars upwards. This is probably reminiscent of the massive westworks of Carolingian and Ottonian structures. It is also, however, the first example of the harmonious Norman façade whose formula was passed on to the great cathedrals of the following century. 
William had wanted a church fit to house his tomb and to celebrate his glory. St Etienne not only fulfils this wish, but also expresses the power of ducal Normandy and the rigorous perfection attained by the end of the 11th century by Norman Romanesque architecture. 

Bernard Beck


- Carlon, E.G. " The Abbey-church of Saint-Etienne de Caen in the eleventh and twelth centuries ". Thèse dactylographiée ; Yale University, 1968
- Musset, Lucien. " Saint-Etienne de Caen ", in Normandie Romane, t.1 ; Editions du Zodiaque, La Pierre-qui-Vire, 1967