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18 September 2014
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The Early Church: Towards Gothic Splendour

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
Statements of power

Image of nave at Winchester Cathedral
Nave at Winchester Cathedral (rebuilt in 15th century) ©
The key element in the early Norman church-building programme was the expression of power through architecture. Winchester Cathedral provides a good example of this.

In 1079 the existing Anglo-Saxon building was demolished. The old irregular mosaic of compartmentalised spaces, which had grown up gradually, was replaced by a much simpler aisled, cruciform plan, representing the body of Christ on the cross. There was a generously sized choir for the monks, and a crypt for the shrine so that pilgrims could come and go without disturbing services.

'Norman architecture conveyed power through sheer size.'

The architecture was plain and simple, even severe, but provided large amounts of functional space inside. The style is known as Romanesque, and was typified by low, rounded arches, massive stone piers and simple nave  vaults.

Despite the limitations imposed by contemporary building technology, Norman architecture conveyed power through sheer size. Winchester Cathedral was only slightly smaller than St Peter's, in Rome, and it was only one of many such ambitious buildings throughout the country. The construction of a cathedral usually went hand in hand with the establishment of a castle, emphasising the dominance of the new Norman regime over the conquered people.

'... Norman masters increasingly employed the skills and building techniques of local masons and craftsmen ...'

The short space of time in which the Norman conquerors changed the face of English ecclesiastical architecture was breathtaking. Yet successive generations of Normans began, slowly, to mix with the indigenous population. The Norman masters increasingly employed the skills and building techniques of local masons and craftsmen, who in turn introduced the English love of rich ornamentation into later Norman churches.

The interiors of these buildings contained a high level of decoration, with both carved and painted ornament. These incorporated elements of regional styles, such as the chevron design and other pagan symbolism, which have their roots in Anglo-Saxon times, or even earlier.

Published: 2005-02-02

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