Art and Architecture

Anglo-Norman Church Architecture

Column from Westminster Abbey of c.1066The Norman Conquest led to a great upsurge in the building and rebuilding of cathedrals, monastic houses and parish churches. Some features of Anglo-Saxon architecture survived briefly, but the Romanesque style was favoured in most cases. It was developed in France in 1025-50 and first used in England on a grand scale in Edward the Confessor's Westminster Abbey.

Peterborough cathedral: the choir looking eastThe two abbeys founded by William the Conqueror at Caen provided one model for the major churches of early Norman England. They were designed to emphasise the position of the high altar, any associated shrine, and the choir stalls of the clergy. South transept of Winchester CathedralThe choir aisles might be continued as an ambulatory around the eastern apse from which there was access to side chapels.

The choir was separated from the nave by a screen and above the crossing between choir and nave there was a tower flanked by the transepts. The aisles in choir, nave and transepts were separated from the main body of the building by an arcade of round arches above which there might be a gallery behind arches known as a triforium, and then a clerestory pierced by windows. An advance on previous structural techniques was the use of stone vaulting which allowed the spanning of greater internal spaces than was possible hitherto. In order to support the vaults, the arcade columns and walls were of great thickness. Ornamentation in the early Norman churches was restrained, involving simple geometric patterns and blind arcading, but little figurative work.

Early 12th century vault  in Durham cathedralCapital (c.1130) from the crypt in Canterbury Cathedral showing a pair of jugglers. A High Romanesque style emerged in the early 12th century which involved structural innovations such as the use of rib vaults and pointed arches to take the weight of roofs more effectively. From about 1130 onwards there was a great increase in the ornamentation of churches with, for example, sculpture of complex figurative scenes. Wall painting and painted glass made buildings more colourful than their somewhat austere predecessors.

The only serious resistance to the new trends came from the Cistercian order which banned figurative scenes and rich fittings from its churches as they were seen as distracting and irreconcilable with vows of poverty.

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