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.

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