We return to Normandy in September to photograph a couple of dozen churches in the Cotentin and Calvados. There are so many historical associations to this land, not the least being the invasion of June 6, 1944, but to us it is the miracle that is Normandy itself.
No church in Normandy exists that was built before the year 1000, and for good reason. For three centuries the Vikings savaged the land and burnt every church and abbey to the ground. The French finally managed a response in 911 after the Viking chief Rollo besieged Chartres. A relieving army came to aid the Bishop of Chartres and defeated Rollo’s forces on July 20, 911. By the terms of the ensuing Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte with Charles the Simple, Rollo converted to Christianity and was granted in fief the lands that now comprise Normandy and Brittany.
In a short time these sea-faring marauders settled their new land, intermarried with the local population and created a Christian culture that emerged as the most prolific builder of churches in Europe. Their monumental energy was not just limited to the construction of religious structures – their Viking blood led them to conquer and establish kingdoms as far away as Sicily.
In 1066, William, the Duke of Normandy, attended the consecration of the Abbaye aux Dames, La Trinité in the city of Caen. Just months later, he and his followers crossed La Manche. These Normans invaded England with the newly composed “Song of Roland” on their lips. Just a few decades later, Jerusalem itself rang with the same song when the first Crusaders stormed its walls.
In England, these Normans continued their church-building ways – in the 150 years after the conquest, their bishops built 400 churches in expiation of the wrongs done to the Saxons.
But there was more to these people than war and the equally energetic enterprise of church building. The Normans had a dynamic monastic community, first dedicated to the strict Celtic Rule of Saint Columbanus and later to the rule of Saint Benedict. It was this monastic community that produced the monk of Bec “with a face like an angel,” who signed himself “Brother Anselm by the heart, Archbishop of Canterbury by coercion”. Anselm toiled on his philosophy late at night in the abbey while his brethren slept. In the dark of that night he wrote the words “Credo ut intelligam.” “I believe so that I may understand.”
“I believe so that I may understand.” This is an extraordinary formulation, and one that provided the spiritual foundation for two hundred years of Romanesque architecture. The secret of these buildings is hidden in those three Latin words “Credo ut intelligam.”
In the twenty-first century, I can only paraphrase Anselm; “Intelligo ut credam” – we seek to understand so that we might believe. It might be this impulse that propels us forward with our work in Via Lucis. If we can understand these churches and what moved the builders, we can perhaps understand the belief – the Credo – that was the prime mover behind them.
Thomas Aquinas cautions us against such presumption in the hymn “Tantum Ergo” – “Praestet fides supplementum sensuum defectui,” freely translated as “Faith supplies where the feeble senses fail.”
Our senses are feeble, and getting feebler with every passing year. But then again, using our senses to try to understand the belief of Anselm and his Norman brethren, spending years trying to apprehend their faith and their God – isn’t that a form of faith in itself?