An English Friend in Norman Coutances (Dennis Aubrey)


On September 30, PJ made a very short post on the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Coutances in Normandy, featuring me setting up for a vault shot on the altar. But the church deserves more than such a cursory mention, so we’re showing some more photos of this magnificent structure.

Parvis and Cathédrale Notre Dame de Coutances, Coutances (Manches) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is history about Notre Dame de Coutances, as there is with every cathedral and church in France. Coutances is in Normandy, about 35 miles from Utah Beach and 45 miles from Omaha Beach. It is the linchpin for the North-South roads on the west side of the Normandy peninsula. Because of its strategic position, the town received a great deal of attention from the Allied Air Forces before and during the Normandy invasion.

Although much damage was done to the town of Coutances, the cathedral miraculously escaped unscathed. This photo from the “8th Air Force Book June 44” shows the road junctions in the town being bombed, perilously close to Notre Dame de Coutances.

US Air Force bombing of Coutances, June 1944 (Photo credit: U.S. National Archives)

The battle of Normandy continued through August 1944 by which time Coutances was a complete wreck.

Coutances after the battle (Photo credit: U.S. National Archives)

The fact that such damage was inflicted on Coutances and the cathedral was almost completely spared remind us that war is not always fought with complete barbarity. Even the German cathedral of Cologne was spared in that same war. Notice that the bridge, the railroad marshaling yards, and the road junctions are destroyed in every direction around the cathedral.

Cologne Cathedral (Hohe Domkirche St. Petrus) in 1944

Fortunately for us, we can see that what was spared in Coutances is a Gothic marvel. The Gothic structure was completed in 1274 after a fire had damaged the existing Romanesque church (consecrated in 1056 in the presence of William, Duke of Normandy, afterwards “the Conqueror”). This shot of the nave shows the reliance on the elegant, unadorned vertical lines that characterize this Norman architecture.

Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Coutances, Coutances (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The shot of the choir shows the soaring verticals, the hemicycle in the apse and the ambulatory openings at the east of the two transepts. Again, the lack of adornment of Norman architecture brings the eye to the elegance of the lines and perfection of the proportions.

Choir, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Coutances, Coutances (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This plan of Coutances from Viollet-le-Duc shows the plan view of the previous shot, giving just a hint of the beauty of the structure.

Plan of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Coutances, Dictionary of French Architecture from 11th to 16th Century (1856) by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc

This detail of the north side aisle (looking west through the transept) again shows the reliance on the purity of lines to create the beautiful proportions that characterize the Cathedral.

Transept to north side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Coutances, Coutances (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

If we turn around from the position of that last photo, we see the view captured by PJ in the next shot, the north aisle of the ambulatory.

North aisle of ambulatory, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Coutances, Coutances (Manches) Photo by PJ McKey

PJ was doing some extraordinary work in the ambulatory which would require a post of its own to do justice. But here is one of my favorites, a view back toward the choir from the ambulatory chapel.

Ambulatory west towards choir, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Coutances, Coutances (Manches) Photo by PJ McKey

But the final extra bonus of our trip to Coutances was the opportunity to meet Vivian Blake, author of VivinFrance, another WordPress blog. She lives nearby and offered to meet us for “a cuppa” in the parvis of the Cathedral and we were delighted to spend about an hour with her before we regrettably had to return back to our hotel nearby. It was Viv who pointed out the fact that Coutances was almost completely rebuilt after World War II and had none of the characteristic charm of other towns in that region. She did point out one area to the northwest of the Cathedral that still had some of the old houses and from those remnants it was possible to see that Coutances was once the most charming of Norman towns. We follow Viv’s blog and her poetry and it was a delight to meet her in person. Next time we return to the region, we’ll make more time for a visit with our new friend.

South transept, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Coutances, Coutances (Manches) Photo by PJ McKey

29 responses to “An English Friend in Norman Coutances (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Great post, D. I look forward to the day when I can visit Coutances. (Just an aside; I never cease to marvel that during war time, some of mankind’s greatest architectural achievements are spared, while entire populations are annihilated. Is it because we think man himself can be replicated, but not his art?)

    • Thanks, Ann. I think sometimes the symbol is perceived to have more value than the person. There are a billion humans but only a handful of these churches. But when those humans are your own and threatened, the symbol will inevitably come crashing down. Think about the bombing of Monte Cassino in 1944. This priceless abbey was flattened because we thought the Germans were using it in the defense of the hill. We were wrong and the founding abbey of the Benedictine’s was a pile of rubble.

  2. These photographs are simply breathtaking, Dennis and PJ!
    On my first travel through Normandy, I was just as inspired by Coutances as St.-Etienne, Caen. I look forward to your upcoming posts with great eagerness. Jong-Soung

    • Thanks, Jong-Soung, so nice to hear from you. We were hungry for a great church like Coutances after a week in Brittany where the Romanesque churches are decidedly more modest. We had hoped to get to the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre and Église Notre-Dame-en-Saint-Mélaine in Rennes, but just didn’t have the opportunity. Next year, most likely. So Coutances was like a tonic to us and PJ just went to town on the ambulatory.

    • Tom, it is one of the great design ideas of the era, the curving ambulatory surrounding the choir. It nests the most sacred area of the church, giving a path around the church without violating the areas for divine service.

  3. OK, was in that very area and missed it – so thank you, thank you, just stunning. Amazing that all the vibration from the bombing didn’t do damage. Nice to know that there was consideration amidst all that carnage and devastation. I understand the Ponte Vecchio in Firenze was purposefully spared as well. And many others.

  4. Dennis and PJ, I’ve missed a big chunk of your posts, so I’m glad to have found you again (having re-followed), though am blushing mightily at the mention! You have certainly done justice to our lovely Cathedral. The ambulatory is one of my favourite parts. The pictures of the wartime devastation were heartbreaking – as is a similar collection of photos of the destruction of Saint Lô, chef-lieu of our department of Manche. Next time you come you are welcome to stay here.

  5. Dennis and PJ, Your post gave me a lift this morning. Such grandeur. I am so weary of campaign television ads, phone calls, and internet solicitations that reduce the human spirit to its smallest prolportions. I need the height, the soaring arches, the clean lines – and the reminder that sometimes even barbarity recognizes something else worth preserving. Beautiful shots and great commentary. And, so glad you had the hour with Viv.

    • Gordon, it is so hard to maintain any kind of balance in this world. This election is particularly dismal and I’m working on a post that references this. Here is a preview: “To see a symbol degraded by politicians means that we lose a way to communicate our deepest feelings. Those who decry the loss of patriotism are those who are most responsible, because they have trafficked in the most revered symbols for political gain and therefore debased the symbols themselves. They have substituted the symbol for the sacred and are surprised when it no longer carries the power that it once did. No television ad of a politician is complete unless there is a waving American flag in the background. The symbol has been converted to a cliché.”

      This is debasement for gain and is depressing. It is no surprise that PJ and I stick to our churches and cathedrals while gazing in wonder at the accomplishments of these medieval builders.

  6. Pingback: An English Friend in Norman Coutances (Dennis Aubrey) | VIEWS from the EDGE

  7. My wife and I visited Coutances last year–marvelous cathedral, and such a magnificent town square setting. We just happened to get the second floor hotel room across the square facing the facade (I sat in a hot bath drinking wine and looking at the cathedral illuminated at night…not something one gets to do very often!). I am surprised you did not post photos of the lovely painted chapel at the back of the choir. Other than small details, I found it a perplexing thing to photograph in a way that would reveal the effect of the painted stone. I’d love to see how you handled it. -George

    • George, thanks so much for this comment. We probably did shoot the chapel (at least PJ, since she spent her time in the ambulatory). But we have only begun to process the 15,000 photos that we took in September and October. I’ll check, though, and get back to you.

  8. Happy memories of singing the Brahms Requiem here for 50th D-day celebrations with the Orchestre de Basse Normandie. A melange of English and French choirs sang it in German for healing..

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