“Any thinking person realizes that the appearances of beauty are signs of an invisible loveliness” (Pseudo-Dionysius, The Celestial Hierarchy, I.3)
Today’s article is about the sublime Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor in Cerisy-la-Forêt, 25 miles due west of Caen. Saint Vigor is a fine example of the virile and energetic architectural style that emerged almost full-grown in the century following the grant of lands to Rollo and his Vikings after the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte in 911. Certainly this church showed how quickly Norman Romanesque art reached its peak.
As is common with so many of these churches, there is a legend to its foundation. Saint Vigor, an early evangelist in the region and the bishop of Bayeux was asked to rid the region around Cerisiacum of a “horrible snake that put to death men and animals”. Vigor struck the monster with his crucifix and imprinted the cross on the serpent’s forehead. He then tied it about the neck and presented it to his companion Theodomir, who drowned it at La Fosse-Soucy, a natural sinkhole where the river Aure disappears underground. Volusien, lord of the region, granted twenty-five villages as a reward and in 510 Vigor built the first hermitage on the site.
The current church was founded in 1032 by the Duke of Normandy Robert the Magnificent, but construction began later, after his death. The church was actually built by his son, William the Conqueror and is contemporary to the famed Abbaye aux Hommes in Caen. Saint Vigor was one of the most important abbeys in Normandy and was attached to the Benedictine order. The church was built with a cruciform ground plan with a rounded apse, short transepts, and no ambulatory. The nave as originally constructed between 1035 and 1087 consisted of eight bays, but the five western-most bays were demolished in 1811.
The nave elevation shows three levels; the side aisle arcades topped by the tribunes, and then finally finished with large clerestory windows. Both the tribunes and the clerestory feature doubled arches within each main arch. The rhythmic effect is elegant and sophisticated,
The apse of Saint Vigor is a unique construct. There is no ambulatory; this was not a great pilgrimage church but a working abbey. The apse is deep and topped by a ribbed vault. There are Gothic choir stalls that date from the very early 1400’s, the oldest in Normandy. There is, however, no denying that the dominant feature of the apse is the array of fifteen large windows on three levels.
The second level of the windows has a narrow arcade and walkway which gives a great view of the apse as a whole (and we can see PJ photographing there in the next shot). All of the windows are large and deep and as a set they create a magnificent backdrop for the altar.
In a closeup of the window area, we see narrow passage of the walkway and the beautiful stonework of the arches themselves. We can also see the little figurative corbels on the third level, one of the few examples of sculptural adornment that we found in the church.
From the vantage point of the apsidal walkway on the second level, we can see across to the tribunes above the nave arcades.
It is easy to appreciate the purity of the lines of the Norman churches like Saint Vigor of Cerisy-la-Forêt. These restless Viking conquerors spread their power and their faith and we see magnificence of the churches they created at the Sicilian cathedrals in Monreale and Cefalù, as well as the English masterpieces in Durham and Winchester. The Normans spread across the European landscape and were influenced by many other cultures, but for the churches in their new homeland on the west coast of France, they preferred a purity of form unadorned.
PJ and I have often discussed the various styles of Romanesque churches in France and how they differ from each other. Norman Romanesque is spare, elegant, and by comparison with other Romanesque styles, undecorated. There are few bright colors, no great iconographic programs of capitals in the naves, and none of the spectacular tympanæ that we see in the rest of the country. PJ’s take on this is that the purity of Norman architecture demands a response like modern art – we must bring our own thoughts and feelings into the architecture to understand it. The meaning of a Mark Rothko painting is not given to us on a platter; we must earn it with our own efforts.
In her own way, PJ is speaking about the same process that Thomas Aquinas described in art. He wrote that although we receive information from the senses, those senses cannot recognize beauty themselves. It is the mind that contemplates the form presented by the senses and discovers beauty. Appreciation of beauty is the result of the cognitive process. At the Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor in Cerisy-la-Forêt, we see that principal in action, and perhaps get a glimpse of that “invisible loveliness” which lies behind the simple stone of the churches and which belies the history of the bellicose Vikings who built them.
Location: 49.197202° -0.932525°