Not Roman… Roman’esque’: The Abbey Church of Saint-Étienne, Caen

Château de Guillaume le Conquérant

Peering through a narrow view provided by an arrowslit atop the renovated ruins of William the Conqueror’s castle, you might see, somewhere far off in the distance and likely shrouded by a soft blanket of clouds which seemingly never depart the region, soaring towers rising triumphantly above the landscape.  As your gaze flits back and forth from the strikingly beautiful tower of white in the foreground to the twins in the back, you begin to understand why Caen is dubbed a “city of spires.”  For a moment, you feel like William himself, watching over your beloved city, your mind being whisked away from reality by a peaceful wind and the whispers of imagination.

The twins I am referring to belong to Saint-Étienne, a part of the Abbaye des Hommes and also the site of William the Conqueror’s tomb in the city of Caen in Normandie.  Although a good number of you have had the opportunity to see it in person, I wanted to share a little bit about my own interactions with this splendid church.  But first, we must leave the castle battlement to get a better view!

Saint-Étienne

With great symmetry and care, these spires were erected to crown this abbey church dedicated to St. Stephen (SaintÉtienne). The lofty peaks, accompanied by very intricate masonry work, are emphasized by a number of thin, rounded window slits and indentions.  Crafted out of local stone (also used in the creation of other renowned locations, such as Westminster Abbey), the building matches the landscape as well as William the Conqueror’s castle.  What is perhaps most intriguing about this building, however, is that it was constructed in the 11th century.

Set firmly in the time of the Romanesque period of art and architecture, Saint-Étienne proves to be a good example of a building which displays the capabilities and skill of “Dark Ages” architects.  Considering its strong resemblance to buildings that would be constructed centuries later, it displays a bridging of the gap between the heavy, bulky, and dark churches which typified Europe from the Roman to the (early) Romanesque eras, to the soaring, sky-scraping, spire-happy Gothic period.   A similar example constructed roughly a century later, which I am, by both personal experience and heritage, too fond to pass by is Stephansdom (or, St. Stephen’s Cathedral located in Wien, erm… Vienna, in Österreich, I mean Austria!).

Stephansdom

While many comparisons can be made between the two buildings (including the fact that they are both dedicated to the first martyr, Saint Stephen), they best serve to show the trend of architecture as “growing up” (that is, in height and stature) along with the growth of prestige, power, and wealth of their respective cultures.

Looking back to Caen, the proximity of the church to the castle as well as the fact that William the Conqueror was entombed there, also clearly reflects the important (and often precarious) relationship between political and religious spheres.  In fact, William was rumored to have been forced by papal decree to erect several monasteries on the grounds of Saint-Étienne after his consanguinous (of related ancestry) marriage to Matilda of Flanders.  Considering that William was also an illegitimate child, his rise to glory and power was likely perceived as uncouth by some people in the very church which housed his remains.  And yet, despite the great prosperity and power which he brought to France, William the Conqueror’s tomb was desecrated and destroyed by Huguenots in 1562 during the Wars of Religion, rumored only to have his femur left untouched (link here: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/france/caen-abbaye-aux-hommes).

And, though religion (or perhaps more accurately, spirituality) seemed to be great bonding forces for ancient cultures (such as Lattes or Lascaux), the combination of political and religious spheres was set for combustion throughout Europe.

So, on a final note, and to amend the wrongs of Protestants past, I give a final reverence to William the Conqueror and St. Stephen’s church in Caen, where I hope you, like me, have/will have a fond memory.

Tomb of William the Conqueror

HIC SEPULTUS EST
IN VICTISSIMUS
GUILLELMUS
CONQUESTOR.
NORMANIAE DUX.
ET ANGLIAE REX.
HUJUSCE DOMUS
CONDITOR,
QUI OBIIT ANNO
MLXXXVII

Ici a été enseveli le très invaincu Guillaume le Conquérant, duc de Normandie, roi d’Angleterre, fondateur de cette maison, qui mourut en 1087.

Here is buried the most unconquerable William the Conqueror, duke of Normandy, king of England, founder of this house, who died in 1087.

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