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Norman Architecture

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Edward the Confessor, who was more a Nor man than a Saxon, and more a churchman than a king, had been brought up at the Norman court; and, having had his ideas and tastes formed there, on his accession to the English throne introduced the Norman fashions and manners, filled his court with Norman ecclesiastics, and adopted the Norman style of architecture for his ecclesiastical buildings. Shortly before his death he built the abbey church of Westminster, which is described by William of Malmesbury (His words are: "King Edward the Confessor commanded the church Westminster to be dedicated on Innocents' Day. He was buried on the u of the Epiphany, in the said church, which he first in England had erect after that kind of style, which almost all attempt to rival, at enormous expense.") as being constructed in a "new style,'' and he also says that it served for a model for many subsequent buildings. This edifice, which has long since disappeared, was doubtless in the style he had imported from abroad, and, though built by a Saxon monarch, was, there can be no doubt, a genuine Norman building. Numerous churches and monasteries, founded on this model, are said to have sprung up in towns and villages in all directions, and thus we see that the Norman style was established even before the Norman Conquest. That great event confirmed the changes which the Confessor had begun, and the rude Saxon churches were swept away and replaced by the more finished Norman edifices.

The Normans were essentially a building people, and no building seems to have been good enough for them, if they had the means of erecting a better. Hence we see a continued change - a constant pulling down and rebuilding on a larger scale; and to this must be ascribed the disappearance of the buildings which had been erected before the Conquest. It is chiefly in remote places, which were to poor to enlarge their churches, that we still find remains o the original Saxon work. In many of the smaller churches, which were erected soon after the Conquest, the Saxon ideas still linger; the towers have the same proportion: and the same general appearance prevails, but the workmanship is better; the baluster disappears, and is replace by a shaft, and the capitals assume more of the Norman form. This lingering love for the old forms was, doubtless, owing to the necessary employment of Saxon workmen, who naturally still clung to their national style; but in large buildings, where foreign architects and workmen would be employed, the new style would be exhibited in its purity.

Canterbury, St. Albans, Rochester, and Ely were built in the reign of the Conqueror, but of these Canterbury is the most interesting, as it so fully illustrates the history of architecture in this kingdom. There was a Saxon cathedral on the spot at the time of the Conquest, but having been destroyed by fire, it was rebuilt on an enlarged scale by the Norman archbishop, Lanfranc, in 1070; but, within about twenty years, this church was pulled down by his successor, as not being large enough, and another erected on a more magnificent scale. This was again partially destroyed by fire, and was again rebuilt in 1175, and the following years. The history of the fire, and the subsequent rebuilding, has been minutely given by Gervase, a monk of Canterbury, who was an eye-witness of the whole; and his account is peculiarly valuable, as it enables us to compare the style of the remains of the old building with that erected under his own eyes; and we are by this means enabled to point out the differences between the early and the late Norman buildings. His narrative is clear and interesting, and his description of the present building wonderfully correct.

St. Albans' Abbey was built in the reign of the Conqueror, and in the construction of the building the materials of the Roman city of Verulam were freely used; so that a great part of it is built of Roman bricks.

The following cathedrals also were built in the Norman period, and still retain portions of the original work: - Lincoln, Rochester, Ely, Worcester, Gloucester, Durham, Norwich, Winchester, Peterborough, and Oxford. Castles were erected in various parts of the kingdom, to restrain the rebellious people, who could ill brook the tyranny of the Conqueror. Of these the Tower of London is one of the most important, and the chapel in the "White Tower" is one of the best examples (dated 1081) we possess of early Norman, though, from its situation in a military building, it has less of ornament than might otherwise have been expected. Of Norman castles, the chief parts which remain are the keeps or principal towers, and these have in general one prevailing character. They are square masses, not having much height in proportion to their breadth, and merely relieved at the angles by slightly projecting turrets. The windows are in general comparatively small, and the walls exceedingly thick - sometimes, as at Carlisle, reaching to sixteen feet. Norwich (1), from its immense size, is an excellent sample of this kind of tower, and Castle Hedingham (2) is another.

Of the houses of this period many yet exist, though not in an entire state; and of these some fine specimens are found in Lincoln (See Hudson Turner's "Domestic Architecture."), where they are said to have belonged to the Jews, but whose riches at that time only led to their destruction.

Many rich and magnificent examples of monastic buildings of this date occur in various parts of the kingdom.

Norman architecture may be divided into three periods - viz., Early, Middle, or fully-developed, and Transition; the first extending from the Conquest, or a few years previous, to the end of the reign of Henry I., 1135; the second from the commencement of Stephen to nearly the end of Henry II., 1180; after which date the Transition commences, and the style gradually loses its characteristics until it merges in the succeeding, or Early English style of the thirteenth century. Of the first period, the chapel in the Tower of London has been already mentioned as an example; the second includes most of our rich Norman buildings; and of the third, the Temple Church is a good specimen.

The great characteristics of Norman architecture are solidity and strength. Walls of an enormous thickness, huge masses of masonry for piers, windows comparatively small, and a profusion of peculiar ornament, seem to be essential to the full development of the style; and there is a gloomy magnificence in a fine Norman building which is highly impressive; its walls seem as firmly fixed in the earth as the iron foot of the Conqueror was on the neck of j a prostrate nation.

The characteristics of Norman architecture are the following: -

Towers. - These are in general rather low for their breadth. They are more massive than the Saxon ones which preceded them, and this is particularly the case with the later buildings. Many of the church towers which were built soon after the Conquest have very much of the Saxon character remaining, and are proportionally taller than those of later date, but the workmanship is better. A large belfry window, divided by a shaft, in the upper storey, is a common feature; and the surface of the tower is frequently ornamented with stages of intersecting or plain arcades, and sometimes the whole surface is covered with ornament. The angles of the tower are strengthened by flat buttresses having but little projection, which sometimes reach to the top of the building, and sometimes only to the first or second storey. The parapets of most Norman towers are destroyed, and it is consequently difficult to say what they were originally; but it seems probable that the towers terminated in a pointed roof. Staircases were of common occurrence, and are frequently made very ornamental features.

Windows. - These are universally round-headed, except in the transition period. The simplest form is a narrow round-headed opening, with a plain dripstone; but they are frequently wider and divided into two lights by a shaft, and richly ornamented with the zigzag and other mouldings.

Doorways. - These are the features on which the most elaborate workmanship was bestowed by the Norman architects, and it is perhaps to be attributed to this, that so many of them have been preserved; the Norman doorway having frequently been retained when the church was rebuilt. They are always, except in the transition period, semicircular, and are very deeply moulded. They are frequently three or four times recessed, and are richly ornamented with the peculiar decorations of the style, the most characteristic of which is the zigzag or chevron moulding. A peculiar head having a bird's beak, and called a "beak-head," is frequently used, and medallions of the signs of the zodiac are not uncommon. The jambs of the door are ornamented with shafts which are sometimes richly ornamented, and have elaborately sculptured capitals. The doorway itself is frequently square-headed, and the tympanum or space between this and the arch is filled with sculpture representing the Trinity, the Saviour, saints, or some symbolical design or monstrous animal, and sometimes merely foliage. There are a few doorways which are trefoil-headed instead of circular.

Pouches. - The Norman porch is in general little more than a doorway, the little projection it has from the wall being intended chiefly to give greater depth to the doorway, which is very deeply recessed, and it is in these porches that we find the richest doorways, the arches and shafts being overlaid with the utmost profusion of ornament, which, though sometimes rude, always produces a fine effect, and there is scarcely any architectural feature which is so universally admired; other styles may be more chaste and more finished, but there is a grandeur about a rich Norman doorway which is peculiarly its own.

Arches. - The semicircular is the characteristic form of the Norman arch, but there are few early examples in which the pointed arch was used, supported by massive piers; they are not likely to be mistaken for those of the next style. In the transition the pointed arch is very frequently used. Sometimes the arch is brought in a little at the impost, when it is called a horse-shoe arch; and sometimes the spring of the arch is above the impost, and is carried down by straight lines. They are then said to be stilted.

Piers and Pillars. - The piers in early buildings were very massive, consisting frequently merely of heavy square masses of masonry with nothing but the impost moulding to relieve their plainness. Sometimes they were recessed at the angles, and sometimes they were circular, with capitals and bases, but still of very large diameter. As the style advanced they were reduced in thickness, and had richly sculptured capitals and bases, frequently ornamented with sculpture at the angles. In the transition period the pillars became slender and clustered, with little to distinguish them from the next style. The Galilee at Durham is an excellent example of late Norman; the round arch and the zigzag mouldings are still retained, but the pillars are as slender as those of the early English.

Capitals. - The capital is the member by which the styles are more easily distinguished than by any other. In the Saxon style we have seen that the Corinthian capital was rudely imitated; and we find in the early Norman this imitation continued, but with more resemblance to the original, as will be better shown when we come to describe the specimen from the White Tower (3), and this imitation was more and more complete as the style advanced.

The general form of the plain capital is that of a hemisphere cut into four plain faces; this form is called a cushion capital. This may be considered as the fundamental form from which other varieties are worked. It is sometimes doubled or multiplied, and sometimes highly ornamented, as in the examples from Durham, where they are so overlaid with ornament that it is difficult to distinguish the original form. The abacus, or upper member of the capital, will at once distinguish the Norman from all other styles, and throughout Gothic architecture it is the feature most to be depended on in distinguishing one style from another. In the Norman it is square in section, with the corner edge sloped or chamfered off. It is commonly quite plain, but sometimes it is moulded, and sometimes highly ornamented, as in the example from Durham (6); but In ail cases it retains its primitive and distinctive form.

Mouldings and Ornaments. - These are extremely numerous; the ornamented mouldings are almost endless in variety, but the most general is the zigzag, which is used for decoration in all places, both simple and in every variety of combination, sparingly in the early buildings, but profusely in the later ones. The billet is much used in early work, as is also a peculiar kind of shallow lozenge, and other ornaments, which required little skill in the execution.

When large and otherwise blank spaces of walls, either on fronts or towers, have to be relieved, it is frequently done by introducing stages of intersecting arcades - a fine example of which occurs at St. Botolph's Priory, Essex (5).

There is a peculiar kind of ornament which is used to relieve surfaces of blank spaces, either over the arches or the interior, or in the heads of window-porches, &c. This is frequently called diaper work, and consists either of lines cut in the stone in the form of a trellis, or in imitation of scale-work, arches, &c., as on the tower here engraved.

Description of the Illustrations. - St. James's Tower, Burn St. Edmunds (4). - This is an example of an early Norman tower, and elucidates several of the peculiarities in the preceding remarks. It exhibits the flat, pilaster-like buttresses, so characteristic of Norman work. Secondly, a porch flanked by two pedimented buttresses, ornamented with corbel-tables and intersecting arcades. The arch is plainer than it would have been at a later period, but it exhibits the billet moulding which is also used on the buttresses. The capitals are of the plain cushion form, and the pediment of the porch exhibits the scalework surface ornament already mentioned. Other varieties of this ornament also occur in the heads of the lower windows, and in the arcade in the middle storey. The zigzag in this example is only used for a string course.

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Pictures for Norman Architecture

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