The Gothic Experimenters of Morienval (Dennis Aubrey)


I know this title sounds like something from a Frankenstein movie with crazed professors and bodies stolen from the grave, but in actuality the words refer to something more benign. Benign, but also fairly radical for its day.

Clive Colin, Frankenstein (1931)

Clive Colin, Frankenstein (1931)

The Abbey of Our Lady of Morienval was a Benedictine abbey for women in the valley of Crépy-en-Valois on the edge of the Compiègne forest. In the 11th century, the abbey boasted a fine Romanesque church but a mere century later urgent repairs were needed. The first was strengthening the west façade with the installation of the Gothic bell-tower, and below it inside, a narthex leading to the Romanesque nave. While the tower itself is beautiful and of excellent proportions, it is not well-wedded to the rest of the façade.

Bell tower,  Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Bell tower, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Inside the tower is a narthex leading into the nave, which is clearly Romanesque. Notice the very thick wall from the bell-tower to the earlier part of the church.

Nave through narthex arch, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave through narthex arch, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Once in the original part of the church, we can see the round arcade arches of the nave and the thick walls. It is a fairly typical of the period and style, although the vaulting is 17th century.

Nave, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the reverse angle from the chancel crossing back into the nave we see the Romanesque elements quite clearly.

View from crossing, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise) Photo by PJ McKey

View from crossing, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise) Photo by PJ McKey

And the simple side aisle might be any number of Benedictine churches throughout France, prototypical Romanesque, covered with groin vaults.

Side aisle, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise) Photo by PJ McKey

When we get to the east end, we see the most significant experimentation. First, the choir is covered with a very early rib vault, probably from around 1122. We can see in the next photo that this was covered with a rib vault – primitive and unwieldy with rough stone courses, but still an example of that newly developing technology that channeled the stresses of the vault down to the pillars. This was not neccessary to support a heavy crossing tower because the twin Ottonian-style towers flank the apse just east of the transepts.

Choir, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

At the same time as the choir was vaulted, the builders added what is usually referred to as the ambulatory around the apse. There is a question as to whether or not this is an ambulatory although it was built about the time that the abbey received the relics of Saint Annobert. Ambulatories usually connect with side aisles in order to create a passage from the west to the east and then back out to the west again, but at Morienval, the structure does not connect at all. For this reason, some writers think that it was just a structural addition to shore up the east side of the church that was in danger of collapse from the sloped terrain.

Apse and ambulatory, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise) Photo by PJ McKey

Apse and ambulatory, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise) Photo by PJ McKey

It is, nevertheless, a very curious structure. Look carefully at the roof of the ambulatory – you will see curved ribs that follow the trapezoidal structure of each bay. This also dates from 1122 which makes it one of the earliest rib vaults in France, and almost certainly the first to used curved (as opposed to arched) ribs to span the uneven space. Again it is somewhat primitive and inelegant, but most experiments are not finished as beautifully as we might hope.

Ambulatory, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise) Photo by PJ McKey

Today, Notre Dame de Morienval is sober and uncluttered, home to some beautiful sculpture, an abbey no more but a parish church. It seems that the nuns of long ago were aware of the earliest trends in vaulting from Normandy and the Île-de-France and they were not averse to trying something new. And their little ambulatory is a lovely achievement, never repeated, keeping the memory of their experimentation alive.

Statue in Notre Dame de Morienval (Oise)

Statue in Notre Dame de Morienval (Oise) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 49.298110° 2.922147°

6 responses to “The Gothic Experimenters of Morienval (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Another interesting building revealed on this site! The age of the ribbed vault should send connoisseurs of early gothic vaulting back to their reference books and maybe even to visit this church. It’s a lovely simple structure with a very clear and satisfying design. And I must say that the capitals look very interesting too!

    • I have to admit that the development of the ribbed vault is one of my favorite subjects. I am particularly enamored with the vaults at the Abbaye aux Hommes and the Abbaye aux Dames in Caen. We did a post on the early pseudo-sexpartite and sexpartite vaults there.

  2. Pingback: The Gothic Experimenters of Morienval (Dennis ...

  3. Pingback: The Gothic Experimenters of Morienval (Dennis Aubrey) | Cercle de l'Europe

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