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Lessay Abbey Architecture Programs

Abbey-Church of the Holy Trinity, Lessay (Normandy).
A magnificent expression of Romanesque.
Source : https://www.flickr.com/photos/martin-m-miles

Dotted across Europe are so many churches which are, or have been, attached to religious houses. This post concerns one such church which is almost a thousand years old attached to a former Benedictine Abbey in Normandy, France. The following description of the Abbey-Church of Sainte-Trinité (Holy Trinity) in Lessay, Normandy (France) is adapted from a brief essay found at this link.


This Benedictine Abbey was founded around 1056. By 1098 the choir of the abbey church had already been built and the nave was built in the first years of the twelfth century. The church was consecrated in 1178, but it was not fully completed at that date. It continued as a monastery until the French Revolution but became a Parish Church at that time, the monastery buildings passing into private hands.

The Benedictine plan in the form of a Latin cross is used in most of the large abbey churches of Normandy: apse with chapels to scale, abutting the aisles and the arms of the transept, and a long nave with aisles. The interior elevation is that of the Norman Romanesque churches : large arcades, an intermediate level of tribunes and high windows. The Lessay Abbey-Church features ceilings of tracery vaults : one of the earliest examples of such vaults and well before the development of rib vaults in Gothic architecture.

The church was almost totally destroyed on two occasions by war. In 1356 during the Hundred Years' War, Charles II of Navarre directed his army to destroy the Abbey and Church. The church was reconstructed between 1385 and 1420. In July, 1944, the German army, retreating after the D-Day Landing, blew-up the church, reducing large parts of it to piles of rubble. It was reconstructed with the greatest care and fidelity in the period 1945-1958 and continues to serve as a Parish church.

A more detailed history of the Abbey can be found here .


The austere nobility of Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture :
Nave and south transept, with the Crossing tower.

The rugged Crossing Tower
pierced by arcading and crowned with a pyramidal roof.
Source : https://www.flickr.com/photos/biron-philippe


The splendid ribbed vault of the nave
reconstructed faithfully after World War Two.

Source : https://www.flickr.com/photos/sgparry
The nave and crossing of Sainte-Trinité :
a perfect expression of the monumental and noble art of the Romanesque period.
A new timber sanctuary, constructed in the eastern end of the Crossing,
is indifferently furnished, but at least is all
easily removable without injury to the building.


The ruins of Sainte-Trinité in 1944 :
another sad victim of war.

This large Benedictine abbey of Cotentin was founded around 1056 by Turstin Haldup, Lord of La-Haye-du-Puits, foundation confirmed in 1080 by William the Conqueror. If the choir of the abbey church was already built at the end of the XIth century, the nave was built in the first years of the following century. If the building was almost totally destroyed on two occasions, in 1356 by Charles the Bad during the Franco-Navarrese war, and in 1944 during the Liberation combats, the reconstructions of Pierre le Roy, future abbot of the Mont Saint-Michel, in 1385-1420 and those of Yves-Marie Froidevaux in 1945-1957, respected the original arrangements.  It is therefore a monument of the purest Norman Romanesque style that we visit today.  

The Benedictine plan in the form of a Latin cross is used in most of the large Norman abbey churches: apse with chapels to scale, grafted onto the aisles and the arms of the transept, and long nave with aisles.  Externally the general balance is assured by revising the proportions: chapels, choir aisle, semi-circle of the apse (chevet), transept, central tower crowned with its hip roof.  The interior elevation is that of the Norman Romanesque churches (broadly outlined at Bernay and Jumièges): Large arcades, an intermediate level of tribunes and high windows. In the nave of Lessay however, the structure of the arcades with double archivolt and the profile of their cruciform columns are simplified.  The intermediate level (triforium) merely has small gemel windows opening onto eaves designed to buttress the vaults of the nave.

But Lessay, above all, innovates by introducing the revolutionary covering of tracery vaults so, here, from the end of the 11th century, is one of its first uses, well before the development of rib vaults by Gothic architects. The decoration of the capitals is sparingly reduced to simple crockets and flat leaves to promote unity, the regular rhythm of the columns and arches, the vertical nature of the spans, simple order and majesty.

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