Go, Team Norman Architecture

With a tip of the hat to The Naked Philologist, today’s post is all about Norman architecture – which, ironically, gives me the opportunity to move the blog’s focus back from Great Britain to Austria. I say “ironically” because Norman architecture is first and foremost associated with England; indeed, ever since the first quarter of the 19th century, the term is frequently used as a synonym for Romanesque architecture in England. In a wider sense, though, the term is also used the describe the architectural style prevalent from c. 1000-1250 in countries/regions under Norman rule, i.e. Normandy itself, Southern Italy (which the Normans conquered in the first half of the 11th century) and England (which they famously conquered in 1066).

Romanesque buildings in these regions have some unique features which distinguish them from the architecture found elsewhere in Europe at the same time. The most palpable of these feature is the Normans’ apparent fondness for richly decorated mouldings on arches and doorways. Usually, they are carved with a rich variety of chevron patterns and other zig zag ornaments. This particular form of decoration is found all over England (and occasionally in Scotland and Wales),…

Richly decorated Norman arch at Norton Priory, Cheshire, England, early 13th century (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

… in Normandy, and also in Southern Italy:

Norman arches on the facade of Cefalù Cathedral, Sicily, Italy, completed 1240 (Image by Giovanni Crupi © Wikimedia Commons)

What is perhaps more surprising, however, is the fact that these Norman ornaments were also used in a handful of 13th century buildings in Austria. The most prominent among them is certainly the main gate of Vienna’s Stephansdom [St. Stephen’s Cathedral], the so-called Riesentor [Giant Gate], begun c. 1237.

The Riesentor of the Stephansdom, Vienna, Austria, mid-13th century (with surprisingly few tourists blocking the view)

Here, we find all kinds of chevron, double-chevron and whatnot ornaments, generally associated with the Norman style:

Riesentor, detail of tympanum and archivolts (with a rather annoying anti-pigeon-net impairing the view)

Riesentor, detail of carved mouldings

More examples survive in smaller churches and chapels within a 60 km range from Vienna. There’s the gate of the Cemetery Chapel in Mödling (begun 1252), the northern gate of the Benedictine abbey church at Klein-Mariazell (c. 1240), the Brautportal [Bridal Gate] on the south side of the Parish Church in Wiener Neustadt (c. 1240),…

The Brauttor of the Parish Church (now Cathedral) in Wiener Neustadt, Austria, c. 1240 (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

… and the gate of the Cemetery Chapel in Tulln (after 1241):

Gate of the Cemetery Chapel in Tulln, after 1241

All of these buildings in and around Vienna are connected by a complex web of interrelations, though it still isn’t entirely clear how exactly these connections work. For instance, some of the ornamental motifs only appear in Vienna and in Tulln, others only in Tulln and Klein-Mariazell, others only in Klein-Mariazell and Wiener Neustadt, and so on. To make matters more complicated still, even more examples of Norman style mouldings exist in Southern Germany (St. Emmeram in Regensburg, c. 1235), Moravia (Abbey Church at Třebíč , c. 1230) and Western Hungary (Abbey Church in Lébény, Abbey Church in Ják, both pre-1241), and these, too, show some striking similarities to the ones found in Austria. Similarities so striking, in fact, to lead to the conviction that the same gang of stonemasons must have been at work both in Ják and in Tulln.

The main gate of the Abbey Church in Ják, Hungary, before 1241 (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

The story behind this, most likely, goes like this: Begun c. 1214, the church of the Benedictine Abbey at Ják was still under construction when, in 1241, the Mongol invasion came over Hungary like a storm (and in German historiography it is actually known as the “Mongolensturm” – the Mongol Storm). Apparently, the stonemasons working on the abbey’s main gate hastily gathered their tools and their belongings and fled westwards, leaving their work unfinished. This, of course, brought them into Austria where it seems they soon found employment at the site of the Cemetery Chapel in Tulln, a building most probably erected under the patronage of the Duke of Austria, Friedrich II. of Babenberg, who also was a benefactor of Vienna’s Stephansdom and the abbey of Klein-Mariazell.

Detail of carved mouldings on the gate of the Cemetery Chapel in Tulln

So this accounts for the connections between Ják and Tulln and, probably, also for the connections between Tulln, Vienna and Klein-Mariazell. But it still leaves many questions unanswered: Where the Norman mouldings at all those other Central European buildings mentioned above carved by the same gang of stonemasons, too? And should we really assume that this actually was a coherent gang of masons rather than a loose group of individuals who would team up at one site but work separately on another? And who were they anyway? Were they actually Norman? Had they come all the way from Normandy or England to work for the dukes and abbots of Central Europe?

We do not know the answer to any of these questions, of course, but it may well be the case that those workmen really were English or Norman. After all, many medieval architects and stonemasons are known to have travelled far and wide. For instance, as Zsombor Jékely recently pointed out on his Medieval Hungary blog, even by the 1220s French stonemasons and architects versed in the Gothic style had made it not only to Germany and Austria but well into Hungary. This, of course, adds yet another fascinating aspect to this whole story: All these richly decorated Norman carvings in Central Europe were made at a time when other churches in the same regions, sometimes only a few miles away, were already being built in the “new” Gothic style. Indeed, for a few decades – roughly from 1220 to 1260 – Romanesque, Norman and Gothic architecture flourished side by side, providing us with a remarkable example of what Erwin Panofsky famously termed “die Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen” – the contemporaneity of the non-contemporaneous.

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9 Responses to Go, Team Norman Architecture

  1. highlyeccentric says:

    Oooh, these are so -gorgeous-. *envies*

  2. I love the Panofsky line too, something like discontinuous (historical) evolution that we should always be ready for. But yes: these are some of the best adverts for Team Romanesque there could be, especially the Ják and Tulln portals. They look like, well excuse the lame cultural imperialism but, an English ice-cream called Viennetta; the outer loops are too softly done to be stone really, surely…

  3. Nice examples! As your examples show, this so-called Norman style was quite widespread in Central Europe at the time. A few things to note: the church of Ják was only consecrated in 1256 (although it was probably largely completed by the time of the Mongol invasion). Its architecture and carving style is very closely connected to Bamberg (Romanesque Bamberg). So, international connections at the time were certainly many and complex. Thanks for mentioning my blog, also!

    • Thanks for your comment, Zsombor. I guess I have to plead guilty to presenting these matters in a (too) simplified way and hoping no one would notice ;-)

      You’re absolutely right, of course, to bring up Bamberg Cathedral in this context – its architecture and sculpture are closely connected not only to Ják but also to Vienna’s Stephansdom (that is to what’s still left of the 13th century Stephansdom). And while we’re at it, there’s also the Italian connection, i.e. the fact that some of the sculptures on the Riesentor seem to be related with sculpture in Lombardy and in the Veneto. Hm, a complex matter indeed…

  4. Pingback: Dragons, lions and whatnot | L'Historien Errant

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