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The Norman World of Art

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Anglo-Saxon art gave way to Romanesque under the Conqueror and his successors, but the change was more gradual and less one-sided than the political changes might lead us to suppose.

The victory of Duke William of Normandy and his army in 1066 cleared the way for an invasion into England of artistic fashions which were already firmly established on the Continent. But even in the pre-Conquest period England was not entirely cut off from the artistic life of the Duchy. During the peaceful reign of Edward the Confessor Norman culture and art had already begun to infiltrate. Edward was himself half Norman and had spent part of his childhood in Normandy; upon receiving the English crown in 1042, he naturally enough surrounded himself with Norman advisers and maintained certain Norman customs.

A pious man, Edward had been deeply impressed by monastic reforms carried out in Normandy by William of Volpiano, formerly abbot of Saint-Benigne at Dijon. This, too had important consequences for England. At the time of the Conquest there were some twenty-eight monasteries in Normandy; among the most important were those at Bec, Bernay, Jumieges, Mont-Saint-Michel and Saint-Ouen at Rouen. These houses, some old foundations, others newly established, were built in the monumental early Romanesque style. It was according to the mould of such buildings that Edward the Confessor began the work which was to occupy him for the rest of his life, Westminster Abbey.

The plan of the abbey drew directly upon the early Romanesque style then current in Normandy. It is particularly close to that of Jumieges Abbey which was being rebuilt at about the same time (1040-67) and on the same grand scale. The church at Westminster was even built of Caen stone, a pale fine-grained limestone imported from Normandy, which became one of England's principal building stones after the Conquest.

But the influence was not just one way: certain Anglo-Saxon trends influenced the arts in Normandy. Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were much admired on the Continent for their vibrant colours and expressive, vigorous style. Late Anglo-Saxon manuscript illumination itself was ultimately based on Carolingian models, the famous masterpiece of the Rheims School, the Utrecht Psalter (circa H1635) had been in Christ Church Canterbury since circa 1000, where it was copied several times during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The first copy, the Harley Psalter (of the early eleventh century), faithfully imitates not only the iconography of the Utrecht Psalter, but also its lively, sketchy drawing. Anglo-Saxon draughtsmen absorbed this style and elaborated on it, making it their own. With it they produced tine line or wash drawings and illuminations rich in pinks and blues with a lavish use of gold. Another characteristic of these paintings was the profuse use of exuberant acanthus foliage painted in elaborate, interwoven border patterns around full-page illuminations. This style was dominant in major scriptoria across southern England, at Glastonbury, Canterbury, Winchester, Ely and Ramsey, but it is known as the 'Winchester School Style' because of the large number of manuscripts which survive from there.

The so-called 'Winchester School Style' had a strong influence on Norman painting and, to a lesser degree, on sculpture. The abbey of Jumieges played an important part in the diffusion of the style in Normandy. One of its abbots, Robert, appointed by Edward the Confessor, first to the bishopric of London in 1044 and later in 1051 to the archbishopric of Canterbury, made rich gifts of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts to Jumieges. Although clearly not an isolated instance of such contact, it is of particular interest as manuscript illumination, stone and ivory carving at Jumieges all show Anglo-Saxon influence.

There were of course other artistic traditions in England. Scandinavian art gained great popularity, especially during the rule of the Danish king, Cnut (1017-35). The Ringerike style, which evolved towards the end of the tenth century, usually includes an animal motif, 'the Great Beast', interwoven with snakes and slender plant tendrils to form a dynamic pattern. An example of this style, which was executed in England, which impresses by the composition, vigour and tension of its forms, is the relief from a sarcophagus found in the churchyard of Old St Paul's Cathedral in London. It has a runic inscription on one edge while the front is carved with the type of motif described above.

Anglo-Saxon artists excelled not only as sculptors and illuminators of books, but as embroiderers, metalworkers and ivory carvers. Of these rich treasures only a pitiful fraction survives; but much information about them can be gleaned from documentary sources. Among the recorded treasures which belonged to King Edward was a ship with a golden lion on the stern and a golden winged dragon on the prow. Some idea of the splendour of such works produced on the eve of the Conquest, may be obtained from the golden bookcover of a Gospel book of Countess Judith of Flanders, wife of Tostig, Earl of Northumbria. It depicts Christ in Majesty surrounded by cherubs, and Christ on the Cross flanked by the Virgin and St John. The craftsmanship and material is of the highest quality: embossed gold, filigree, precious stones, pearls and translucent cloisonee enamels. No contemporary examples of textiles survive, but again, documentary references to them are numerous. Their fame was such that when Eadmer, monk and historian of Canterbury, accompanied Archbishop Anselm to Bari in the late eleventh century, he was shown vestments which Cnut's queen, Emma had sent from England to Benevento.

None of these artistic traditions died out with the Conquest, but following the political events of 1066 new patrons took control in England and their demands on artists and craftsmen were different from those of the Anglo-Saxons. Duke William placed Norman and other northern French barons in all the major seats of power – as earls and sheriffs, bishops and abbots. The primary concern of the Duka, and his men was how to maintain military and administrative control in their new country. Architecture became an important tool to meet that end, and dramatically new building types were introduced.

It is significant that the Conqueror's first action on reaching English shores was to construct an earth-and-timber castle. After the Conquest, a network of castles was rapidly built at strategic points across the country. The two major keeps erected by the Conqueror survive, one at Colchester, the other in London. Both are massive, austere structures and it is only too easy to imagine how they must have daunted and intimidated the newly conquered Anglo-Saxon population who, it must be remembered, had no previous tradition of castle building. Great keeps or donjons were usually tower-like structures, built on artificial earth mounds. They provided living quarters for the lord and his men, a prison in the depths of the basement and a stronghold system and surrounding defences. This type of arrangement remained important during the reign of Henry I, as the mighty example at Castle Hedingham illustrates.

Even more important as a means of controlling the local population was the Church. In the decades immediately after the Conquest, the Church undertook a prodigious amount of building. Before 1066 in Normandy churches were of moderate size, but in newly-conquered England, wealth was available which encouraged architecture on a truly grand scale. Anglo-Saxon monasteries and cathedrals were considered by the Normans as old-fashioned and were soon demolished and replaced with large Romanesque buildings, in the first instance based on the type which had evolved in Normandy and thereby continuing the trend which had already begun with the building of Westminster Abbey. These buildings can generally be characterised as consisting of a three-apsed or ambulatory plan, with wide, sometimes aisled transepts, a crossing tower, a nave with aisles and often two massive western towers. The internal elevation, generally three tiered (aisles, galleries, clerestories), had such massive walls that passages were often threaded through their thickness. The interiors were articulated with regular repetitive units, columns, capitals and simple mouldings.

Durham Cathedral is one of the outstanding examples of this type of building erected in England after the Conquest. The church is dramatically situated on high ground, with a river below, its twin tower facade dominating the massive rock on which it was built. The sombre interior is memorable for the alternating system of round columns incised with geometric patterns and compound piers. Durham Cathedral is important for technical as well as aesthetic reasons. The building, started in 1093 and consecrated in 113:3, was rib-vaulted in stone throughout. The introduction of rib-vaulting at Durham opened the way for great architectural advance: the rib reinforced the weak point of the vault and allowed substantial developments in quadripartite and sexpartite vaulting to be made in Normandy and in England.

With the reorganisation of the church in the years after 1066 monastic life blossomed and a range of intellectual activities v ere encouraged. Two successive archbishops of Canterbury, Lanfranc and Anselm, Italians by birth, but both trained at the powerful Norman abbey of Bec, were scholars of European reputation who helped shape the revival of English intellectual life. Both scholars were more interested in the texts of books than in their illustration.

Nevertheless, there were changes in manuscript illumination after the Conquest. The sumptuous service and devotional books and bibles of the pre-Conquest period often with magnificent full-page illuminations, were to a large extent replaced by the type of illumination current in the Duchy. In Norman manuscripts, ornament was chiefly confined to initials. These were often inhabited by men or monsters, or enriched with foliage. The humans and grotesques were sometimes involved in a violent struggle with occasional detail of specific events, mainly from the Gospels. But narrative cycles, in manuscript illumination at least, were only revived circa 1120-30 in such manuscripts as the St Albans Psalter, now in Hildesheim, or in certain related works such as the Life and Miracles of St Edmund, from the once enormous and powerful monastery at Bury St Edmunds, and now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.

Secular narrative art, on the other hand, flourished after the Conquest. One of the greatest works of this period, the Bayeux Tapestry, is an epic document of the events leading up to the Conquest. There is now fairly conclusive evidence that the tapestry (in fact an embroidery), was commissioned in Canterbury by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of the Conqueror. The work consists of six linen strips embroidered with woollen thread of rich, earth-tone colours. The main events are flanked by delightful borders, abounding in humorous anecdotal detail. The original function of the tapestry is not entirely clear. It has been argued that it was a hanging for Bishop Odo's castle or that it was made for the choir of Bayeux Cathedral, to be displayed on certain ceremonial occasions. The original use of the tapestry leads us to the interesting question of the interior decoration of buildings and this question, that of the original use of the tapestry, serves to introduce us to the more general one of interior decoration.

Here the Conquest is unlikely to have had any great effect, for buildings in England and Normandy were apparently decorated in much the same way. Weavings or embroideries were sometimes used to enliven the wall surface but even in the eleventh century almost all church interiors would have been decorated with wall-paintings, as the recently discovered examples in the rural church of St Mary, Ickleton (Cambridgeshire), demonstrate.

Sculpture was also used in the decoration of many buildings, both inside and outside; here too there were marked contrasts in the Anglo-Saxon and Norman approach. Sculpture in Anglo-Saxon England was generally applied to buildings in a rather haphazard way and carvings were placed at random on wall surfaces. One of the strengths of the Norman sculptural tradition was its intimate connection with architecture. Another fundamental difference between the two sculptural traditions was the type of capital used in Normandy and in England. At the time of the Conquest, the most popular form of capital in the Duchy was the corinthian capital with angle volutes (scrolls). These were also occasionally employed in England, but the most usual English capital form was the cushion or cubic type. Such capitals appear to have reached England from Flanders or Germany, possibly even before the Conquest, but seem to have been unknown in Normandy. Even after the Conquest, when artistic links between England and Normandy were at their closest, cushion capitals were never much used in the Duchy. The capital provided an ideal form tor painting, but marvellous sculptures were also adapted to fill the form. The charming examples in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, with dragons and other monsters crouching in the shield of the cushion, show what great imagination was used by the artists responsible.

In some cases, particularly immediately after the Conquest, Norman carvings in England were indistinguishable from those of the Duchy. The capitals in the crypt of Gloucester Cathedral, or in the castle chapel at Durham, with masks and volutes, and geometric backgrounds, are very similar to examples at the abbey of La Trinite at Caen or at Graville-Saint Honorine.

However, native Anglo-Saxon sculptors also continued to find employment. Their productions, both those which perpetuate old styles and those which attempt to imitate new Norman fashions, are usually designated 'Saxo-Norman overlap' work. The church of St Mary at Sompting in Sussex for instance, with capitals on which the volutes are transformed into animal horn-shapes enclosing berries, provide a clear instance of the naive adaptation of Norman forms by Anglo-Saxon carvers.

The victory of the Anglo-Norman style in England was assured, and yet the traditions of Anglo-Saxon art were not completely eclipsed. The legacy of Scandinavian art long remained influential. One of the most telling instances of this is the capital of circa 1130 from the cloister (now destroyed) at Norwich Cathedral. Its decoration consists of two wingless dragons on each face, intertwined together, their snake-like tails terminating in foliage tendrils. A Viking-age brooch found at Pitney (Suffolk) is so similar that one could almost imagine it as the model for the capital. Anglo-Saxon art, particularly works in the Winchester School Style, also continued to inspire artistic productions of the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. The charming tympanum of the humble parish church of St Mary at Halford (Warwickshire) is carved with a three-quarter angel holding a scroll. The proportions of the figure in addition to such features as the trailing drapery flourishes on the sleeves are extremely close to certain late Anglo-Saxon illuminations. Winchester School Style acanthus continued to be used as well; one of the cushion capitals in the crypt of Canterbury is carved with lush acanthus, as are several metal and ivory pieces, also from Canterbury. Anglo-Saxon models continued to be used even in the second half of the twelfth century; the roundels at Malmesbury Abbey for instance, were based on Anglo-Saxon prototypes.

The Norman Conquest transformed Anglo-Scandinavian England into an Anglo-Norman nation and with that transformation the Romanesque style took root. One can argue that even had the Conquest never occurred, Anglo-Saxon art would eventually have given way to the Romanesque style. But the process would probably have been much slower. In the event, it was the Norman Conquest which led England to join the artistic life of mainland Europe.

Further reading: 
  • English Romanesque Art 1066-1200, Arts Council of Great Britain exhibition catalogue (Weidenfeld &Nicolson, 1984)
  • The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art, British Museum and British Library exhibition catalogue, 1984; G. Zarnecki, '1066 and architectural sculpture', Proceedings of the British Academy, LII, 1966, pp. 87-104.
Historical dictionary: Normans


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