Art and architecture

Sculpture in Normandy

The sacrifice of decoration is habitually presented as one of the characteristics of Romanesque art in Normandy. Capital with rams, abbey church of the Trinity at Caen, c. 1060/1080. (?). Local development of the capital copying the antique style.The façades of the Norman churches did not adopt the sculptural programme that was characteristic of other regions. Norman builders emphasised the rigour and majesty of architectural lines in a context where the increasing number of new buildings, especially after 1066, could probably not have enabled the mobilisation throughout the region of a specialist work force..

Recent studies have, however, revealed the interest and variety of Romanesque sculpture in Normandy. The decoration of the capitals in the 11th century in particular shows the influences of the Corinthian style. The Incredulity of St Thomas, Bayeux Cathedral, transept crossing capital, first half of the 11th c., taken down after the cathedral fire in 1105.This style, which was largely in imitation of the antique, is often attributed to the influence of Italian monks – William of Volpiano, Lanfranc of Pavia, and Anselm of Bec - in the entourage of the Norman dukes, and to their role in the great sites such as Bernay, early 11th century, and the abbeys of Caen in the second half of the century.

Most often there is a preference for simplicity and lack of ornamentation which predominates in the great abbeys after 1070. More rarely, however, capitals display ornamental scenes, as in the first Romanesque cathedral of Bayeux, which was destroyed in 1105, or the church of Rucqueville en Bessin. But these exceptional masterpieces are generally considered to display influences outside the practice of the Duchy.

Capitals, decorated with geometrical and plant motifs, collegiate church of St Hildebert at Gournay-en-Bray. Engraving by John Sell Cottman, 1817.Sculpted decoration in Normandy in the 11th century is also marked by a close link with the arts of precious materials, gold and silver, and ivories, but above all illumination of manuscripts. This involves low relief compositions, profusely mixing plant and animal motifs in a style in which the art of the scriptoria of the abbeys of Jumièges, St Ouen in Rouen, Fécamp, and St Pierre-de-Préaux, etc. can be discerned. Scalloped capital. in "L'architecture normande aux XI-XIIe s. en Normandie et en Angleterre", V. Ruprich-Robert, 1899.In this area contacts with the Anglo-Saxon world were noticeable from before the conquest, especially in Jumièges, whose Abbot Robert became Archbishop of Canterbury. They are even more evident in the years that followed and developed in the first half of the 12th century, especially in the buildings of Caen which were in close contact with the southern regions of England.

The beginning of the 12th century is also marked by a common tendency in both English and Norman sites: the development of geometrical decoration on arches and tympana, and it is sometimes continued in a carpet over the walls (as in Bayeux, Thaon, and Secqueville-en-Bessin). In the years 1120-1130 this decoration tended to become more exuberant, especially in England, from where one of its characteristic motifs was imported: the voussoir in the form of a bird's head (‘beak head’) biting the torus of an arch. Nordic or perhaps oriental dragon, spandrel of the nave arches of Bayeux Cathedral, c. 1120-1130. In :  "L'architecture normande aux XI-XIIe s. en Normandie et en Angleterre", V. Ruprich-Robert, 1899.The scalloped capital, appearing as conical sub-divisions of the base of a cuboid capital, is another particularly common form in this period, which might be plain or ornamented with plant or fantastical motifs on the semi-circular upper part of the cone.

Statues colonnes de la salle capitulaire de l'abbaye Saint-Georges-de-Boscherville, seconde moitié du XIIe s. Photo ATAR.Some aspects of Norman sculpture of the 12th century are still the subject of disagreement. The resurgence of an Anglo-Scandinavian influence in interlace decoration, and in some of the animal motifs - serpents and dragons - has been cited, in particular for a group of churches of the Nord-Cotentin region, but also in the decoration of the spaces between the arches in Bayeux cathedral. The number of these special cases is worth noting as it reveals a continuing originality in artistic activity in Normandy in the first half of the 12th century.

For the most part, however, the major sites were completed and the creative force of Romanesque art depleted during the period 1140-1150. From that time, even though the rivalry between the Plantagenet and Capetian became more accentuated, it was from the Ile-de-France that the models for a new style were derived, that of the ‘Gothic’. In Normandy, the influence of the sculpture at the site of Chartres cathedral is thus particularly noticeable in the sculpted decoration of the cloister and the chapter house of St Martin-de-Boscherville, and also in the portal of the abbey church of Ivry. Much further west, the recumbent statues of the abbey of Lucerne are reminiscent of the column statues of the cathedrals of Chartres and Le Mans.


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