Signs of Invisible Loveliness (Dennis Aubrey)


“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.

Exterior of the Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Exterior of the Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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,

Nave elevation, Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave elevation, Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Choir, Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir, Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Apse windows, Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse windows, Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Apse windows, Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

Apse windows, Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

From the vantage point of the apsidal walkway on the second level, we can see across to the tribunes above the nave arcades.

Tribune, Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

Tribune, Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Nave from tribune, Eglise Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave from tribune, Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

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°

27 responses to “Signs of Invisible Loveliness (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Helen, two of my most pressing destinations are Ravenna and Sicily for the Norman churches. We are going to Ravenna for a week in May – we’re now talking about a Norman trip (Sicily/France/England) for next year. We’ll see, but that would be something!

  1. The ease with which you and PJ move between French Romanesque/Aquinas/Rothko/sensory and cognitive experience of beauty enlivens the spirit. Continue the multi-dimensional dialogue and keep posting! Best wishes to you both.

    • Anne, so nice to hear from you, hope all is well. It was an interesting conversation, because I had already selected the Aquinas quote for the post and when PJ and I began our conversation, she immediately went to the comparison to modern art. It is one of the reasons we love doing the Via Lucis project, these conversations and the discoveries that we continually make. Can’t wait for May and our return. We’ll be in Chartres for three days in June – the restoration should be nearly complete by then.

    • Margarita, PJ and I were looking at some of our library shots and realized that we hadn’t done a full post on Saint Vigor. It was wonderful to look at the shots again and remember the enjoyment we had when we first saw the church, which was the first day of our photo trip in 2008. We drove to our hotel in Rouen and first thing next morning went to Cerisy-la-Forêt.

  2. How wonderful to have such a beautiful set of photographs from both of you. It has been a while & I have missed them. What a typical PJ shot at the end. I love her corners and angles.

      • I wish I could send you some of our Arizona weather. It has been a tough winter in the east and northeast. Take care of your self. K. >

  3. Dennis and PJ,
    What a wonderful set of pictures for the Abbatiale St. Vigor! The double-shelled apse is very beautiful and unusual, and the master builder(s) appears to have had an intuitive sense of the structural workings of masonry in arranging fifteen generously-sized windows on three tiers. A single wall for the apse would have limited the sizes of window openings seriously.
    The high level of workmanship is certainly worthy of the patronage of William the Conqueror. Jong-Soung

    • Thanks, Jong-Soung, so nice to hear from you again. We are continually astonished at how quickly the Romanesque style in Normandy developed and matured! Perhaps it was a form of penance for the destruction of all of the Carolingian predecessor churches a century earlier!

  4. I agree with PJ–I love the combination of old buildings and sacred architecture with modern and contemporary art. Sometimes I find it frustrating how the medieval lovers all want to trash contemporary art. Once HOB and I met the famous Gothic specialist Malcolm Miller, and of course he was fascinating and brilliant, and then out of nowhere he started denigrating contemporary art, as if everything made now is exactly the same.

    • WOB, thanks for this – Malcolm Miller is very opinionated, it is true. A real treat listening to him “read” the windows at Chartres, though. PJ loves modern art and continually surprises me with her observations. I think she is very much of the same sensibility of Angelico Surchamp who stated, “Don’t you think, gentlemen, that abstract art, by transferring the sense of reality, promotes access to the sacred?”

  5. The apse is wonderful. There is something to be said for the stark simplicity. It is harmonious with the double arches of the tribune and clerestory. I would enjoy seeing this gem.

    • Aquila, the apse is one of the only of its kind anywhere – there were, at one time, nine daughter churches of Saint Ouen in Rouen, but Cérisy is the only surviving one. It is possible that more than just this one contained a similar apse.

      • I have a big book of photographs of Romanesque churches of Europe and another of the Gothic churches and I can’t remember ever seeing anything like that one. There are some obscure little Romanesque churches and chapels in the book. It is esthetically pleasing, whoever the builder was had an incredible gift. Thankfully we do have the one to see and enjoy, it does make me wonder though if the others did have similar apses. Perhaps if the same builder was in charge of them.

      • Aquila, it is a shame that only the church of Saint Vigor survived in its Romanesque form. All nine of the daughter houses of Saint Ouren were all built about the same time and it makes sense that some of them at least had similar apses. The level of craftsmanship in this period of Norman architecture was extraordinary, and it is likely that there were a few master builders working on a number of structures.

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