Survival in the War Zone (Dennis Aubrey)


In June 1944, the quiet Norman countryside of the Manche was torn apart by the violence of the largest military invasion in history and little was spared if the gods of war called for destruction. Towns were annihilated as the massive armies of the Allies and the Axis struggled in the dense hedgerows of the bocage.

Destruction of the village of Vallonges, June 1944

Destruction of the village of Valonges, June 1944

Less than three miles from the landing site of the US Army’s 4th Infantry Division at Utah Beach is the village of Saintes Marie-des-Monts. The town itself miraculously escaped destruction and despite changing hands in the fighting from the combatants several times during the night of June 6, the Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption itself was not substantially harmed. The church is very interesting from a point of view other than survival. It was built in several distinct time frames. The nave is very early Norman, 11th century, and distinguished by a very un-Norman set of early Romanesque capitals. The side aisles are from the early 12th century. The crossing and apse are 14th century Gothic and feature a contrasting set of capitals.

The nave is composed of four bays with large cruciform piers topped with sculpted capitals. The rib vault that exists today was rebuilt in 1870.

Nave, Église Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The fact that the rib vault is not the original covering is apparent in this shot of the nave arcade from the side aisle. The vault clearly impinges on the clerestory window, which would never happen with the original builders. It is interesting to speculate on what the original vaulting was. My sense is that it was a banded barrel vault, which would be in keeping with the lovely round arcade arches of the nave. The upper walls would probably have been strong enough to take the weight, given the thickness of the clerestory windows. If this were the case, the nave would have had quite an elevated feel to it, especially considering the narrowness of the nave.

Nave arcade, Église Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave arcade, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

The side aisles were added in the 12th century but are completely Romanesque in their forms. The groin vaulting enabled the placement of large windows that flood the interior of the church with light.

Side aisle, Église Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Église Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

The 14th century apse is pure Gothic, but like the amalgamation at the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay, fits in quite nicely. The large windows in the choir wash the altar with bright light, drawing the eye to the center of the rites of worship.

Choir, Église Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

Choir, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

The pillars of the chancel crossing are topped with wonderful Gothic capitals of realistic human figures dressed in distinctive and recognizable medieval clothing. Both of these figures are crouched and carry the weight of the springing arches on their backs.

Gothic capital, Église Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption,  Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Gothic capital, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

These sophisticated sculptures are more finely rendered and sophisticated than their Romanesque counterparts in the nave from three centuries earlier.

Gothic capital, Église Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Gothic capital, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Each of the engaged columns of the cruciform piers in the nave features a historiated capital. These Romanesque capitals are wonderfully eccentric creations, filled with fanciful creatures and scenes of dramatic action. Some commentators feel that these carvings show the influence of the Norsemen who took over the territory after the 911 treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, between Charles the Simple (King Charles III of France) and Rollo, the leader of the Vikings.

Nave capitals, Église Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave capitals, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

To us, however, they look more like the Celtic influence that we saw at Biollet, especially the human figures. In first example, hunting dogs attack a stag. It is clear that these are domesticated dogs because they have collars on their necks.

Romanesque dogs attacking deer, Église Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Romanesque dogs attacking deer, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second hunting scene features a strangely-hatted centaur unleashing an arrow at what appears to be another deer. It is difficult to see precisely what the creature is because of the erosion of the stone, and the animal has a strange spade-like tail, but on close inspection it seems to be a deer.

Romanesque centaur hunting deer, Église Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Romanesque centaur hunting deer, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The strange hats appear again in this capital of two variations of griffins. The mythological griffin is conventionally described as having the body of a lion and the wings, talons, and features of an eagle. These creatures, however, have lower bodies like snakes and the tail ends in a snake’s head, like a chimera. At any rate, this interesting amalgam-creature wears the same hat as the centaur in the previous capital.

Romanesque griffins, Église Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Romanesque griffins, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The final capital in this sequence features Christ holding a cross and giving a benediction. This is the image the most fits in the Celtic-style representations. Christ is encompassed by a mandorla held up by winged angels. Notice the “G” on the tunic of Christ; I think that this represents the Christian rendition of the Hebrew symbol “gimmel” (ג) that refers to Yeshua Mashiach (the Redeemer). The name “Jesus” derives from “Yeshua”. It is a mystery how an 11th century sculpture in rural Normandy comes to have this esoteric representation (which I have seen nowhere else from this time). If anyone knows a more likely interpretation, please let me know.

Christ giving benediction, Église Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Christ giving benediction, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

To day, Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption serves as the parish church to the town of Sainte Marie-du-Mont. On June 11, 1944, it served as the parish church for American soldiers fighting the Battle of Normandy.

American soldiers at mass in the Église Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption,  11 June 1944

American soldiers at mass in the Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, 11 June 1944

We would never know from today’s view of this small town on the Channel that it was in the epicenter of the European war in 1944. Our Lady of the Assumption sits peacefully on its small hilltop overlooking the distant Bay of Veys, perhaps remembering the great armada that set an army of young men ashore on that chilly June morning. And perhaps she remembers the hundreds of thousands that never left the cauldron that was Normandy and are buried in military cemeteries scattered throughout the bocage.

Église Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche)  Photo by PJ McKey

Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 49.378645° -1.225462°

Note: for a follow-on post on the “Griffin” capital and its possible Norman reference, follow this link.

17 responses to “Survival in the War Zone (Dennis Aubrey)

      • You’re right, the helmet appears to be styled on the same lines. This shape persisted into the French Revolution during which it became known as a “liberty cap”, but of course you’re interested in what the style and shape would have meant to medieval people, and there I have no clue. Would like to learn more, if you uncover anything.

      • I’ll try to do some research before we leave. Who knows, could be another post? If you can suggest some references, that would be a great help!

      • Carroll, I just noticed something. In the picture of the Norman helmet, the warrior is wearing chain mail. In the picture of the two griffins, are they also wearing chain mail on their chests? If so, this could certainly be a reference to Norman soldiers – depicting them as predators? This is early 11th century, so it is just barely a century after the Normans took over this territory. Maybe it is a reference from the indigenous population to invaders. Now I have something specific to research.

      • You might be on to something there! (That is, assuming the texture isn’t simply meant to indicate feathers.) — I find it curious how some of the churches you have featured have outstanding and sophisticated capitals but the ones in this church seem rudimentary.

      • Carroll, the issue of the sophistication is timing. Almost all early capitals were rudimentary, but the skill of the sculptors progressed with enormous speed. These at Saintes Marie-des-Monts are early 11th century. By the 12th century we’re seeing the flowering of Romanesque figurative sculpture. Also, the sophistication is a function of access to talent. A small country church might not be able to afford the skilled workers and local artisans did the job. We’ve seen that in the Allier and the Puy-de-Dôme.

    • Michael, that’s half the fun of the project, the research and the discoveries that we make. We return to France in eight days – we are on pins and needles.

  1. I haven’t popped in for a while – it’s been a busy time one way or another. I am now a bionic woman, having a pacemaker fitted in March. I hope you and PJ are well.

    This is a church I must visit – I love all those capitals. Did you mean Valognes in the first pic? I’ve not heard of Vallonges.

    • Dear Bionic Viv, between my knee and your heart, we are good for a number of years! Glad to hear from you; PJ and I wish you and Jock the very best. Valonges is correct, but I took the information from the original Signal Corps data without checking it. We have photographed at Valonges so I should have known better.

  2. What an awe-inspiring post. An image to add to my memories, both of being a kid with a father who worked in the war industries, so my interest in the 1944 invasion. Then fast forward to a visit to Omaha Beach and the cemetery in 1991. Korea and Vietnam; in one version or another, involved in them all. Thank you, Dennis

    • Kalli, for those interested in WW2, the whole of the Normandy peninsula is fraught with meaning; sometimes towns, sometimes villages, sometimes just little lanes in the bocage. It was a massive contest in a small area. The Mortain pocket and the destruction of the German Army still remaining in Normandy after the breakout wrenches the heart. Thanks for your comments, as always.

  3. Hey Dennis, you raise some interesting questions about those capitals and the symbolism behind them. I don’t think it’s a stretch to infer that the helmeted griffins are representations of the newly-minted overlords, although it must have been dangerous to the health of the townspeople to boldly proclaim their ill will to the Norsemen.

    Regarding the letter G on Jesus’ chest, I’m confused as to how you associate Gimmel with Yeshua. The Hebrew letter Gimmel does indeed correspond to “G,” but Yeshua starts with the letter Yud–basically it is drawn like an exaggerated apostrophe and corresponds to the letter “Y.” I realize this leaves us even more in the dark, but better off being lost than on the wrong road!

    • Nathan, I have just finished a post on the “Griffin” capital and the possible Norse connection. It seems that the enmity of the celts of Lower Normandy extended until the reign of The Conqueror! As far as the “gimmel” material, I have used a site called “Hebrew for Christians” for years because I found that the information on Christian use of the Hebrew alphabet very difficult to come by. This site gives that perspective. It may be incorrect even by a Christian site, but is certainly not accurate from a Hebrew perspective.

  4. Hi Dennis, Re: the phrygian caps as worn by the Phoenicians these were worn by the Doges of Venice, and I believe the Phoenicians were trading with the Cornish for their tin in Anglo Saxon times. It may be that they were also known to the Normans (who were also originally Vikings). Since both were sea faring nations it is very likely they had encountered each other.

    As ever, fabulous shots and it is amazing how this church survived. Those on the Channel Islands in the bay of Mt St Michel (& only 15 miles from the Normandy peninsula) could hear the big guns. The islands were occupied by the Germans from 1940 to 1945 and were unscathed by the battles, but suffered starvation in the last year of the war. Their churches are untouched by war, but how those on the French mainland survived at all, is amazing.

    • Mell, interesting link to the Normans from the Venetians. Certainly they would have been known during the Crusades, but the earlier trading links are intriguing. It is interesting how the few Norse words that made it into the French language are either place names or nautical terms – cingler (to sail), ris (reef), and vague (wave).

      During the critical portion of the Battle of Normandy, the Germans kept a sizable garrison in the heavily fortified Channel Islands. The Allies decided not to invade and their policy on the Germans stationed there was to “let them rot.” By cutting the garrison off from supplies, they also induced starvation among the civilian population. The Red Cross finally started making deliveries in December 1944. As for the churches on French soil, I’ve read that 300 were destroyed or badly damaged in the battle for Normandy.

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