Our Lady of Bernay (Dennis Aubrey)


The abbey church Notre Dame de Bernay is one of the earliest examples of Norman Romanesque architecture that remains to us. It is no longer a consecrated church and currently serves as a community exhibition hall and tourist attraction in the center of the town of Bernay. It was empty when we shot there in September, which made it possible to appreciate the simplicity and elegance of the architecture.

Notre Dame de Bernay was dedicated in first decade of 11th century by Judith of Brittany, wife of Richard II of Normandy. The abbey church was constructed by the the abbot William of Volpiano of Fécamp who created the great church of Saint Benigne in Dijon, his own abbey church in Fécamp, and the Mont Saint Michel. This accomplished monk died in 1028 and Vital of Creully finished the church. Vital became the first abbot of the monastery after it became self-governing.

Transept and nave, Abbatiale Notre Dame de Bernay, Bernay (Eure) Photo by PJ McKey

Transept and nave, Abbatiale Notre Dame de Bernay, Bernay (Eure) Photo by PJ McKey

The structure of the church gives evidence to its early construction – there are three apses, the central and two echeloned apses on the side, visible from the side aisles. Notice the wonderful ogive crossing arch. It is argued both that this is an example of Byzantine influence on the church and a slight collapse from the weight of the crossing tower. Whatever the source, it is a stunning arch.

Apses, Abbatiale Notre Dame de Bernay, Bernay (Eure) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apses, Abbatiale Notre Dame de Bernay, Bernay (Eure) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave has seven bays that terminate in the crossing and transepts. In this shot the orders of the nave arcade are seen; the high arcade arches are topped with a double-arched triforium separated by blind arches. Above the triforium, we see the single clerestory windows. An interesting feature of this early Romanesque architecture are the engaged pilasters on the east and west sides of the compound pillars. These lead up to the capitals and the soffit, from which spring the arcade arches.

Nave arcades, Abbatiale Notre Dame de Bernay, Bernay (Eure)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave arcades, Abbatiale Notre Dame de Bernay, Bernay (Eure) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

It is likely that the church always featured a wooden vault, which we see today. But the side aisles are both vaulted differently. The north side aisle has groin vaults throughout their course.

North side aisle, Abbatiale Notre Dame de Bernay, Bernay (Eure) Photo by PJ McKey

North side aisle, Abbatiale Notre Dame de Bernay, Bernay (Eure) Photo by PJ McKey

But the south side aisle has a wonderful and rare feature – each bay is domed.

South side aisle, Abbatiale Notre Dame de Bernay, Bernay (Eure) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

South side aisle, Abbatiale Notre Dame de Bernay, Bernay (Eure) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is a rich sculptural decoration at Notre Dame de Bernay, which is also unusual, as most of the larger Norman churches are in a large part unadorned with sculpture. This probably is due to its origin from William of Volpiano, who was influenced by the Cluny abbey church. Even more unusual than the sculpture is the signed capital, Me Fecit Isembardvs.

Signature capital, Abbatiale Notre Dame de Bernay, Bernay (Eure) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Signature capital, Abbatiale Notre Dame de Bernay, Bernay (Eure) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Like so many others, the church of Bernay suffered many indignities. It was greatly damaged in the Hundred Years War and the wars of religion, and even in a peasant uprising called Les Gauthiers in the 16th century. This “uprising,” one of many that presaged the Revolution, took the form of a war of mutual extermination between the peasants and the aristocracy. During the Revolution, the church was sold off as private property to a merchant who used it as a source of stone. Eventually the north transept was destroyed to make way for a road and the apse was walled off. The building was subsequently used as a prison, a warehouse, and a town hall.

The apse has recently been reconstructed and the building is now recognized as the masterpiece of early Norman Romanesque architecture.

Nave arcade pillars, Abbatiale Notre Dame de Bernay, Bernay (Eure) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave arcade pillars, Abbatiale Notre Dame de Bernay, Bernay (Eure) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: Click this link to see the location on our custom Google Map.

18 responses to “Our Lady of Bernay (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Lovely as always Dennis. You know I always think of you two when I think of France, because i associate your wonderful project so strongly with all the great churches, monasteries and abbeys there. Now i am going back, in 3 weeks, not to Paris or Brittany this time, but to nearby Carcasonne in the SW. I was looking and wondering if there some way on your site here to seek out church-architecture, by region? Are they tagged by area, for example? I shall continue exploring here, but if you have any tips, whether for site-navigation, or for individual churches, I would love to get the benefit of your expertise. My very best regards, as always. -Arran.

  2. Sorry Dennis, obviously i had not explored enough when i left my first (the previous) comment. I have now located the featured churches section, and the map link. Seems excellent, and a very generous. Just trying to teach myself how to use it now, all the map references etc … I always was a lousy geographer!

    • Arran, Robert Consoli of SquinchPix has given me some great ideas. He has done a wonderful job georeferencing his materials. I’m thinking about a Google Earth database for these churches. I’ll keep you posted.

      • Thanks Dennis, These things are far easier said than done of course, but I have to say, a map of France or western France, with all the church architecture sites marked, with a star or with cross, and then a click to bring the reader into that entry, would be a useful, powerful research tool, on what is, already, an incredible educational resource. As i say these things are much easier said than done of course. Even with my own humble little blog, which is nothing like as evolved or as sophisticated as yours, even I am getting to the stage where I’d love to include such tools, but don’t have the first idea how to set about it! On an entirely separate issue, I am utterly demoralized by my own lousy geographical knowledge of French regions, departments and general place names. Would you believe, I am sitting here right now, using the map from your link to try improve, making lists and trying to learn the key locations? (especially in the NW & SW) and learn how they all fit together and get of the basic names and basic spacial knowledge off by heart! Wish me luck. very best as always- Arran.

      • Thank Dennis, I won’t! I just wish I was more technically adept. I will certainly follow your progress with interest, the idea of a plug-in sounds most intriguing. I am barely at the stage of organizing business cards here. (or indeed even turning my passion for local history into anything even faintly resembling a business, much as I’d love to) Lamentably disorganized, but we shall continue to fight the good fight! Thanks very much again. -A.

  3. Even with your amazing photography, I still find it difficult to comprehend the ancient nature of this and other Romanesque structures. I marvel at the engineering of that distant time. The longevity of these churches is the real miracle!

    • Vann, there is no question that the builders truly built astonishing structures. To wield stone like they did, with such artistry … it was not unprecedented, of course, but the pace and energy with which they built – so many churches in so short a time. And built to withstand all of the wars and disasters so that 5000 Romanesque churches remain in France today. That is, as you say, the real miracle. Thanks for posting on this.

  4. Dennis, I am happy and delighted to report that your new mapping and location/locating system works perfectly. !) :)) Well done, that was quick work. Total triumph. With some trepidation, I even have another, additional suggestion, for what its worth. I wonder if In time, could it even be possible to add another, a single map that shows all your amazing church locations on just one map? A sort of master-map, if you know what I mean? It would complete the package. because that way readers/ subscribers to your blog, who were journeying to France, (and there must be dozen who do every year) – could consult the “master map” before they travel and plan trips before they travel. Like me, I am sure many others wish to follow in your footsteps and adventures! But this stage already is brilliant, it will make it, it does make it, so much easier to identify and find these amazing places. Thank you very much for keeping me informed. I have to say I feel rather privileged! Much obliged. from a very happy Arran.

    • Arran, if you opened up the map to a wider view, you would already seen four churches on the map. I am going to put all of the churches about which we’ve done a post (those on the Featured Churches page) on that map. Should have it done tomorrow.

      • Dennis, my profuse apologies, you are quite right, and i really must learn to pause & look properly before i fire off various messages and e-mails. (my only excuse is that I’m quite enthusiastic and excited about the whole thing, so I hope you’ll take int in that spirit. I did actually see the first 4 churches, but just a bit too late, only after I sent that message. This is an exciting development anyway, it will be a fantastic resource for all your readers, and. I’d suggest will even help in your larger mission of increasing knowledge and awareness of these terrific places. My congratulations in short. Thanks again- Arran.

      • No problem at all, Arran. It’s fun to get the feedback and make the information more practical for people. If you want to know how truly geeky I’m getting on this – I may be using QR codes at some time. I’m doing a test this evening, and I’ll post to let you know.

      • to my shame, I don’t even know what a QR code is. But I look forward to finding out! Yes, indeed please keep me posted, I am finding this all quite educational. Thanks Dennis.

    • You’re welcome, PHyllis. Most of the time a de-consecrated church looks forlorn, but Bernay did not. It is well kept and was stunning, despite the newer additions in the east end.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s