Norman Architecture came about in the Middle Ages and was named for its roots in Normandy. This era in architecture started in the early 11th century, following the Saxon architectural movement, then ending in the 12th century making way for the Gothic movement.
Norman Architecture is a form of the dominant Romanesque Architecture that sprang from the Normans (Vikings) who conquered England. Its growth brought about large, impenetrable cathedrals, monasteries, castles, fortresses and fortifications. The most typical monastery buildings were constructed during this movement. These structures were short and stocky, rectangular or circular in form. One of the most famous abbeys, Mont-Saint-Michel, was erected during the Norman era.
The majority of Norman Architecture was used in religious buildings such as grand cathedrals and churches that dotted the countryside throughout villages. The most symbolic feature of these Norman churches is the cross-like shape which was borrowed from the Roman basilica motif. These churches had bell towers, or campaniles which were erected nearby the main church building. A-typical medieval castles are very distinctively Norman designs and sprouted up throughout England, Scotland, Ireland, Normandy and Italy.
The biggest difference with the Italian architecture was the combination of Norman features along with Byzantine and Arabic styles. Unfortunately, this combination made for a very dark and gloomy atmosphere. Actually, Norman Architecture is an offshoot of Romanesque Architecture which borrowed most of its architecture from the classic Roman approach and began in Lombardy, Italy. These structures consisted of arches, vaults, columns and arcades. It most commonly used the rounded arch that was actually a creation of the Romans This style also used a variety of vault styles and most commonly the barrel and curved vaults which was broadly used in cloisters.
Building Materials & Adornments
Norman Architecture’s building materials mostly consisted of stones, for greater stability. These stones were rough and uncut because there were no mason cutters in the Norman era. Therefore, these stones were large and intermittently shaped which contributed to the building’s appearance as massive and bulky.
Like their Roman predecessors, Norman roofs were vaulted because the vaults made for a more balanced weight distribution across the entire roof.
Adornments were very minimal in Norman buildings, although some architects would chisel a series of carvings offering a trompe de l’oeil effect instead of an arch appearance. There were other architects that would carve moldings into the stone surfaces and a very small number who were so handy with their chisels, they would carve animals onto reliefs, over doorways or tympanums. Rarely were arches or columns decorated at all.
A tympanum was usually a space between an arch and the horizontal head of a door or window.
By the time the Norman movement hit its peak in the 12th century, adornments became more popular. These embellishments eventually climaxed with the first stained glass windows of the 12th century, directly before the progression of Gothic Architecture.
Norman To Gothic Windows
Another distinguishing feature in Norman Architecture were very small windows. Before the Gothic movement, architects steered clear of building large windows because there was a high risk of buildings collapsing. Those who lived in these buildings were in a very dark, dim environment, having to rely on candles for their only source of light.
Once the Gothic period took over, architects were able to safely install huge windows and finally bring in much needed sunlight. These large windows attributed to cathedrals having a heavenly aura about them.
The Progression of Buildings & Walls
Also, during this time period, both Romanesque and Norman Architecture started the development of taller buildings such as castles and cathedrals which were to become the largest structures throughout Europe. The buildings were generally square and housed guards who worked as night watchmen, scanning for intruders.
The walls of these taller buildings became a great deal thicker in order to provide a better support for the building’s height. The interior housed enormous columns that also provided much needed support. Eventually the walls became much thinner with the creation of the flying buttress, which came about through the Gothic movement. The flying buttress is considered one of the greatest architectural achievements in all of history. Though mostly Gothic now, the first Norman architectural achievement in England was London’s Westminster Abby, whilst Durham Cathedral is the largest and finest example of Norman architecture in England.
A lot of people are unaware that many Gothic structures started off as Norman buildings then later on were embellished upon by Gothic architects. This is also true in regards to castle towers and towers erected on cathedral grounds. These square, thick-walled buildings were used as dungeons and defense fortresses.
The world famous Tower of London, also known as the White Tower, served as a royal dungeon, imprisoning the likes of Anne Boleyn and Sir Walter Raleigh. This building is a next to last example of Norman Architecture. Considered extremely tall for its time, at 90 feet, The Tower of London had extremely thick walls that spanned approximately 15 feet in width in order to support it’s massive height. Like many Romanesque buildings, it offers fortress-like in design and structure.
While Gothic Architecture was known for its very tall, magnificent buildings, the overall structures were a continuation of Norman. Norman Architecture used rounded arches and ribbed vaults that formed barrel vaults, while Gothic Architecture used pointed arches. It is commonly believed that the Gothic Architecture, as we know it today, would not have existed if it were not for Norman Architecture.
The Dark Ages
Norman and Romanesque architectural styles have been long associated with Fairy Tale structures of the medieval era. Architects have since learned that most of these castles and cathedrals were not to house royalty as much as they were thickly armed fortifications. Unfortunately, many known Norman structures were the sites of extreme bloodshed and misery. The Dark Ages, also known as the, Middle Ages is believed to have taken on that name due to Norman buildings and their extremely small windows.
Most church architects have taken more inspiration from the Gothic period than any other period. That said, most architects regard the Norman movement as an architectural landmark.
Norman Architecture accomplished unsurpassed heights and renewed the magnificence of classical styles. Though manifested in the awakening of human greatness, during a very dark time, its legacy rests in human desires and imagination that is believed to have been responsible for the evolution of the Renaissance era.