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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
These sophisticated sculptures are more finely rendered and sophisticated than their Romanesque counterparts in the nave from three centuries earlier.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Location: 49.378645° -1.225462°
Note: for a follow-on post on the “Griffin” capital and its possible Norman reference, follow this link.