Romanesque styles originated in Normandy and became widespread in northwestern Europe, particularly in England. Norman architecture is a style of Romanesque architecture developed by the Normans in the lands under their dominion during the 11th and 12th centuries.

The Normans were descended from Norse raiders and pirates from Denmark, Iceland, and Norway, who in the 10th and 11th centuries gave their name to Normandy, a region in France. The Norman dynasty had a major political, cultural, and military impact on medieval Europe. In particular, the term “Norman architecture” is traditionally used to refer to English Romanesque architecture. The Normans introduced large numbers of castles and fortifications, including keeps, monasteries, abbeys, churches, and cathedrals. These structures were constructed in a style characterized by Romanesque rounded arches (particularly over windows and doorways) and massive proportions compared to other regional variations of the style.

The Normans descended from Norse raiders from Denmark, Iceland, and Norway. The distinct cultural and ethnic identity of the Normans emerged in the first half of the 10th century and continued to evolve over the succeeding centuries. Norman invaders arrived at the mouth of the river Seine in 911. Over the next century, Norman Barons built timber castles on earthen mounds, beginning the development of motte-and-bailey castles; they also produced great stone churches in the Romanesque style of the Franks. By 950 they were building stone keeps.

The Normans were among the most travelled peoples of Europe and thus exposed to a wide variety of cultural influences, including those from the Near East, some of which were incorporated into their art and architecture. They elaborated on the Early Christian basilica plan, making it longitudinal with side aisles, an apse, and a western facade with two towers. This elaboration can be seen in the Abbey of Saint-Étienne at Caen, begun in 1063, which formed a model for the larger English cathedrals whose construction began twenty years later.



The Abbey of Saint-Étienne: The Abbey of Saint-Étienne is a former Benedictine monastery in the French city of Caen, Normandy, dedicated to Saint Stephen. It was founded in 1063 by William the Conqueror and is one of the most important Romanesque buildings in Normandy.

The Church of Saint-Pierre is another prime example of Norman architecture. This Roman Catholic church dedicated to Saint Peter is situated on the Place Saint Pierre in the center of Caen in Normandy. The construction of the present building took place between the early 13th and 16th centuries. The spire was destroyed in 1944 and has since been rebuilt. The eastern apse of the church was built by Hector Sohier between 1518 and 1545. The interior choir and the exterior apse display an architecture that embodies the transition from Gothic to Renaissance. Balustrades of Gothic letters, which read as part of the Magnificat, run along the top. Its west portal, the decoration of the tower spire, and the stained glass are among the features which make it one of the finest churches of the Rouen diocese.



Church of St. Pierre: The Church of St. Pierre is a good example of Norman architecture.

Norman Architecture in England

In England, Norman nobles and bishops had influence even before the Norman Conquest of 1066, and Norman influences affected late Anglo-Saxon architecture. Edward the Confessor was raised in Normandy, and in 1042 he brought masons to work on Westminster Abbey, the first Romanesque building in England. In 1051 he brought in Norman knights who built motte (raised earthwork) castles as a defence against the Welsh. Following the Norman invasion of England, Normans rapidly constructed more motte-and-bailey castles, and in a burst of building activity constructed churches, abbeys, and more elaborate fortifications such as Norman stone keeps.

The buildings show massive proportions in simple geometries. The masonry is decorated only with small bands of sculpture, perhaps used as blind arcading. The restrained decoration is seen in concentrated spaces of capitals and round doorways and in the tympanum under an arch. The Norman arch is round, in contrast to the pointed Gothic arch. Norman mouldings are carved or incised with geometric ornaments, such as chevron patterns (frequently termed “zig-zag mouldings”) around arches. The cruciform churches often have deep chancels and a square crossing tower, which has remained a feature of English ecclesiastical architecture. Hundreds of parish churches were built, and the great English cathedrals were founded during a period from about 1083.



Guiting Power, Gloucestershire: A Norman arch with zig-zag mouldings above the church doorway at Guiting Power, Gloucestershire.

After a fire damaged Canterbury Cathedral in 1174, Norman masons introduced the new Gothic architecture. Around 1191, Wells Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedral brought in the English Gothic style, and Norman architecture became an increasingly modest style seen only in provincial buildings.

Norman Art Forms

Norman painting, like other Romanesque painting of its time, is best demonstrated by illuminated manuscripts, wall paintings, and stained glass.

Manuscript Illumination

In the visual arts, the Normans did not have the rich and distinctive traditions of the cultures they conquered. However, in the early 11th century, the dukes began a program of church reform, encouraging the Cluniac reform of monasteries and patronizing intellectual pursuits, especially the proliferation of scriptoria and the compilation of lost illuminated manuscripts. The chief monasteries taking part in this “renaissance” of Norman art and scholarship were Mont-Saint-Michel, Fécamp, Jumièges, Bec, Saint-Ouen, Saint-Evroul, and Saint-Wandrille. These centers were in contact with the Winchester school, which channelled a pure Carolingian artistic tradition to Normandy. From roughly 1090-1110, Normandy experienced a brief golden age of illustrated manuscripts; however, the major scriptoria of Normandy ceased to function after the midpoint of the 12th century.

An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript in which the text is supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders (marginalia), and miniature illustrations. Romanesque illuminations focused on the Bible and the Psalter. Each book of the Bible was prefaced by a large historiated initial; major initials were similarly illuminated in the Psalter. In both cases, more lavish examples had cycles of scenes in fully illuminated pages, sometimes with several scenes per page in compartments. The Bibles, in particular, often had very large pages and were sometimes bound into more than one volume.



Depiction of the Three Magi in the lavish Romanesque style.
Illuminated Manuscript, The Three Magi from the St. Albans Psalter, Norman English, 12th century: The typical foci of Romanesque illumination, such as this one pictured, were the Bible and the Psalter.

Wall Painting

The large wall surfaces and plain, curving vaults of the Romanesque period lent themselves well to mural decoration in Normandy and other Norman lands. Unfortunately, many of these early wall paintings have been destroyed by dampness over the years, or the walls themselves have been re-plastered and painted over. In Normandy, such pictures were systematically destroyed or whitewashed in bouts of iconoclasm during the Reformation.

A classic scheme for the painted decoration of a church had, as its focal point in the semi-dome of the apse, Christ in Majesty or Christ the Redeemer enthroned within a mandorla and framed by the four-winged beasts (symbols of the Four Evangelists). If the Virgin Mary was the dedicatee of the church, she might replace Christ here. On the apse walls below were saints and apostles, often including narrative scenes. On the sanctuary arch were figures of apostles, prophets, or the 24 “elders of the Apocalypse”, looking in towards a bust of Christ or his symbol, the Lamb, at the top of the arch. The north wall of the nave contained narrative scenes from the Old Testament, while the south wall contained scenes from the New Testament. On the rear west wall was the Last Judgment with an enthroned and judging Christ at the top.

One of the most intact schemes in existence is at Saint-Savin-Sur-Gartempe in France. The long barrel vault of the nave provides an excellent surface for fresco and is decorated with scenes of the Old Testament. One of these shows a lively depiction of Noah’s Ark, complete with a fearsome figurehead and numerous windows through which Noah and his family can be seen on the upper deck, birds on the middle deck, and pairs of animals on the lower deck. Another scene shows the swamping of Pharaoh’s army by the Red Sea. The scene extends to other parts of the church, with the martyrdom of the local saints shown in the crypt, the Apocalypse in the narthex, and Christ in Majesty. The range of colours is limited to light blue-green, yellow ochre, reddish-brown, and black.

Norman Stained Glass

Stained glass was a significant art form from the Norman empire throughout both France and Norman-controlled England. At Le Mans, Saint-Denis, and Chartres Cathedrals in France as well as Canterbury Cathedral in England, a number of panels of the 12th century have survived. Most of the magnificent stained glass of France, however, including the famous windows of Chartres, dates from the 13th century. Far fewer large windows remain intact from the 12th century.

Glass craftsmen were slower than architects to change their style, and much Norman stained glass from the first part of the 13th century can be considered Romanesque. Especially fine are large figures from around the year 1200 from Strasbourg Cathedral and Saint Kunibert’s Church, both in France. Glass was both expensive and fairly flexible (in that it could be added to or rearranged) and was often reused when churches were rebuilt in the Gothic style.

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, is a medieval Catholic cathedral of the Latin Church located in Chartres, France. The current cathedral was mostly constructed between 1194 and 1250. The cathedral is in an exceptional state of preservation, and the majority of the original stained glass windows survive intact. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Chartres Cathedral is the extent to which its architectural structure has been adapted to meet the needs of stained glass. The use of three-part elevation with external buttressing allowed for far larger windows than did earlier designs, particularly at the clerestory level. Most cathedrals of the period had a mixture of windows containing plain or grisaille glass and windows containing dense stained glass panels; the brightness of the former tended to diminish the impact and legibility of the latter. At Chartres, nearly all 176 windows were filled with equally dense stained glass, creating a relatively dark but richly coloured interior in which the light filtering through the myriad narrative and symbolic windows was the main source of illumination.

The majority of the windows now visible at Chartres were made and installed between 1205 and 1240; however, four lancets preserve panels of Romanesque glass from the 12th century that survived the fire of 1195. Perhaps the most famous 12th-century window at Chartres is the so-called Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière, found in the first bay of the choir after the south transept. This window is actually a composite; the upper part, showing the Virgin and child surrounded by adoring angels, dates from around 1180 and was probably positioned at the center of the apse in the earlier building. The Virgin is depicted wearing a blue robe and sitting in a frontal pose on a throne, with the Christ Child seated on her lap raising his hand in blessing. This composition, known as the Sedes sapientia (“Throne of Wisdom”), is based on the famous cult figure kept in the crypt. The lower part of the window showing scenes from the Infancy of Christ dates from the main glazing campaign around 1225.



Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière, Chartres Cathedral, France (c.1180 and 1225): Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière is perhaps the most famous window in Chartres, depicting the Virgin Mary as the throne of wisdom.

Each bay of the aisles and the choir ambulatory contains a large lancet window roughly 8.1 meters high by 2.2 meters wide. The windows were made between 1205 and 1235 and depict stories from the Old and New Testament and the Lives of the Saints as well as typological cycles and symbolic images such as the signs of the zodiac and labours of the months. Most windows are made up of 25–30 individual panels showing distinct episodes within the narrative; only Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière includes a larger image made up of multiple panels.

Because of their greater distance from the viewer, the windows in the clerestory generally adopt simpler, bolder designs. Most feature the standing figure of a saint or Apostle in the upper two-thirds, often with one or two simplified narrative scenes in the lower part. Unlike the lower windows in the nave arcades and the ambulatory that consist of one simple lancet per bay, the clerestory windows are each made up of a pair of lancets with a plate-traceried rose window above. The nave and transept clerestory windows mainly depict saints and Old Testament prophets. Those in the choir depict the kings of France and Castille and members of the local nobility in the straight bays, while the windows in the apse hemicycle show those Old Testament prophets who foresaw the virgin birth, flanking scenes of the Annunciation, Visitation, and Nativity in the axial window. The cathedral also has three large rose windows: the western rose, the north transept rose, and the south transept rose.



Image of south transept rose window, which is dedicated to Christ, who is shown in the center with his right hand raised, surrounded by angels. There are two outer rings of twelve circles each.
South transept rose window, c.1221-30: The Cathedral at Chartres contains three rose windows from the 13th century, including this south transept rose window.

Le Mans Cathedral

Le Mans Cathedral is a Catholic cathedral situated in Le Mans, France. Its construction dates from the 6th through the 14th century, and though the cathedral itself features many French Gothic elements, it has a notable collection of Romanesque stained glass. The nave at Le Mans retains around 20 stained glass windows from Bishop Guillaume’s mid-12th century rebuilding, though all but one have been moved from their original locations. All were extensively restored in the 19th century. The great western window, depicting scenes from the Life of St Julian of Le Mans, dates from around 1155. The Ascension window toward the western end of the south aisle of the nave has been dated to 1120, making it one of the oldest extant stained glass windows in France.

Unlike the earlier Romanesque windows, the 13th-century glazing program in the upper parts of the choir is largely intact. It presents a diverse range of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, the Lives of Saints, and various miracles of the Virgin. These windows are notable for their variety of artistic styles and their lack of coherent program (there is no obvious pattern in the distribution of subjects, and some episodes, such as the story of Theophilus or the miracle of the Jewish boy of Bourges, are repeated in different windows). The windows in the radiating chapels have fared less well over time, and most of the surviving panels have been reassembled out of context in the axial chapel.



Le Mans Cathedral: View of the north elevation of the choir from the south aisle, showing the triforium and clerestory windows.

The Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux tapestry is the best-known example of Romanesque architecture. This embroidered cloth is nearly 70 meters (230 feet) long and 50 centimetres (20 inches) tall and depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England. Images in the cloth include depictions of William, Duke of Normandy; the coronation and death of the English King Harold; the Battle of Hastings; and even Halley’s Comet.

The tapestry consists of some 50 scenes with Latin tituli, or inscriptions, embroidered on linen with coloured woollen yarns. It was likely commissioned by Bishop Odo, the half-brother to Duke William of Normandy, and made in England—not Bayeux—in the 1070s. The hanging was rediscovered in 1729 by scholars at a time when it was being displayed annually in Bayeux Cathedral. The tapestry is now exhibited at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Bayeux, Normandy, France.

The designs on the Bayeux Tapestry are embroidered rather than woven, so it’s not technically considered a tapestry. The tapestry can be seen as the final and best-known work of Anglo-Saxon art, and though it was made after the Norman Conquest of England, historians accept that it was created firmly in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Such tapestries adorned both churches and wealthy houses in England, though the Bayeux tapestry is exceptionally large.

The tapestry is embroidered in crewel (wool yarn) on a tabby-woven linen ground using two methods of stitching: outline or stem stitch for lettering and the outlines of figures and couching or laid work for figure interior. Nine linen panels between 14 and 3 meters in length were embroidered and sewn together, and the joins disguised with subsequent embroidery. The design involves a broad central zone with narrow decorative borders top and bottom. Later generations patched the hanging in numerous places, and some of the embroidery (especially in the final scene) has been reworked.



Tapestry image shows a man on a horse.
Bayeux tapestry: Detail of stem stitching and laid work.

The main yarn colours are terracotta or russet, blue-green, dull gold, olive green, and blue, with small amounts of dark blue, black, and sage green. Later repairs are worked in light yellow, orange, and light greens. The tapestry’s central zone contains most of the action, which sometimes overflows into the borders either for dramatic effect or to allow extra space for depictions. Events are each depicted in a long series of scenes separated by stylized trees. The trees are not placed consistently, however, and the greatest scene shift (between Harold’s audience with Edward after his return to England and Edward’s burial scene) is not marked.

The tituli are normally located in the central zone but occasionally use the top border. The borders are otherwise decorated with birds, beasts, and fish, as well as scenes from fables, agriculture, and hunting. These don’t necessarily complement the action in the central panels. The picture of Halley’s Comet, which appears in the upper border (scene 32), is the first known depiction of this comet.



Bayeux Tapestry: The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth—not an actual tapestry—nearly 230 feet long, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England.

The Opus Anglicanum

Opus Anglicanum, Latin for “the English work” refers to the elaborate needlework produced in England during the Middle Ages. Embroidered pieces were used in religious and secular settings on vestments, clothing for the wealthy, and heraldic tapestries. England gained a reputation for needlework as early as the Anglo-Saxon period prior to the Norman conquest; however, it was in the 13th and 14th centuries that the Opus Anglicanum really flourished.

This work combined silk and gold or silver-gilt threads worked on linen and later velvet. The motifs used in needlework followed the trends in other art forms of the time, such as illuminated manuscripts and architecture; some motifs included the use of scrolls, spirals, and foliage. Embroidered pieces also depicted figures of kings and saints as well as the Gothic arches popular in European architecture.

London was the primary center of production for Opus Anglicanum. While often associated with certain convents, a professional group of male craftsmen produced a great deal of the work. The Worshipful Company of Broderers was a craft guild incorporated in 1561 to represent these workers. There is some evidence that the group first incorporated as early as 1515, but those records were lost.

Opus Anglicanum consisted primarily of popular luxury items that spread across Europe. Pope Martin IV, for example, ordered custom pieces after admiring the vestments of English Priests. As the 14th century progressed, however, demand for luxury goods decreased as funds were redirected toward military expenditures. As a result, the style of the work was scaled back, and much of the richness and storytelling of these pieces were lost. The needlework was relegated to small applique pieces that could be added to clothing or tapestries.

Few pieces have survived due to the delicate nature of the work. Some were repurposed as they aged and others were buried with their owners. One surviving piece is a cope, or a type of vestment, owned by the Butler-Bowdon family. Thought to have been made in 1330-1350, the Butler-Bowdon Cope is an example of a piece that was cut up for reuse, as it was reconstructed in the 19th century.



Cope is embroidered with silver, silver-gilt thread and silk, on a rich crimson velvet.
Butler-Bowden Cope: This picture is one of the few examples of Opus Anglicanum that has survived. It was reconstructed in the 19th century.

Key Takeaways

  • The Normans were among the most travelled peoples of Europe and were thus exposed to a wide variety of cultural influences, including those from the Near East, which were incorporated in their art and architecture.
  • England was influential in the development of Norman architecture and has the largest number of surviving examples.
  • At Le Mans, Saint-Denis, and Chartres Cathedrals in France as well as Canterbury Cathedral in England, a number of panels of the 12th century Norman empire have survived.
  • The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England, including scenes of William, Duke of Normandy; the coronation and death of the English King Harold; the Battle of Hastings; and even Halley’s Comet.
  • England gained a reputation for needlework as early as the pre-Norman conquest during the Anglo-Saxon period; however, it was in the 13th and 14th centuries that the Opus Anglicanum flourished.
  • Embroidered pieces were used in religious and secular settings on vestments, clothing for the wealthy, and heraldic tapestries.

Adapted from

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