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Lessay Abbey Architecture Degree

Norman churches were violently treated in the great Battle of Normandy in 1944, but few more so than the 11th century Abbaye Sainte Trinité de Lessay. The town of Lessay was bombed by the Americans on June 7 and 8th but the church was not seriously damaged. During the subsequent fierce battle, Lessay was the western anchor of the German line of resistance in the Contentin and was subject to three weeks of desperate fighting. On July 11, the retreating German army mined the structure, placing 25 anti-tank mines around the abbey church. These explosives were set off by American shells during the battle and the building was grievously damaged.

Abbaye Sainte Trinité, Lessay (Manche), July 1944

The people of Lessay were determined to repair the structure and preserved everything that they could. Later, the abbey was restored by the chief architect of historical monuments, Yves-Marie Froidevaux, in an exacting reconstruction of the original. The restoration was completed in 1958. This was the second restoration; the first followed the destruction by the forces of Charles le Mauvais in the 14th century, restored by Pierre le Roy, future abbot of Mont-Saint-Michel.

The Benedictine abbey was founded in 1056 by Richard Turstin Haldup the baron of La Haye-du-Puits and his son Eudes de Capel, Seneschal of William the Conqueror. Construction began in 1064. The choir, transept and the first two bays of the nave were completed in the 11th century while the apse, crossing tower, and the last four bays of the nave are early 12th century.

First bay of nave and crossing, Abbaye Sainte Trinité, Lessay (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

The original abbey was built of local materials; limestone was obtained from nearby Valognes and was used in certain visible parts of the abbey, while granite and shale made up the bulk of masonry and roofing. The abbey was constructed on a massive scale for its time and is one of the masterpieces of Norman Romanesque architecture.

Crossing piers, Abbaye Sainte Trinité, Lessay (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

I have often wondered at the formal perfection demonstrated by these Norman builders. The churches eschewed decoration for proportion and symmetry while creating spaces that were severe, elegant and formal. This is a far cry from the image of blood-thirsty Viking adventurers who terrorized Christians in the 9th and 10th centuries, burning innumerable churches and monasteries. Just a century and a half later, these new Christians were building such sophisticated and beautiful structures.

Side aisle, Abbaye Sainte Trinité, Lessay (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

At Lessay, the nave elevation shows a typical Norman configuration – high arcades, a doubled triforium, and a clerestory level with a narrow walkway. This pattern is on the same order as the Benedictine churches of Jumieges and Bernay.

Nave elevation, Abbaye Sainte Trinité, Lessay (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave developed an interesting variation during construction. Notice in this shot how the triforium has three arches in the first two bays and two arches in the last five. This is because of the different time spans in which the sections of the church were built, as noted earlier.

Crossing, Abbaye Sainte Trinité, Lessay (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The vaulting in the choir and crossing is perhaps the earliest use of groin vaulting anywhere, likely pre-dating even that in Durham, often considered the first. This was about the same time that the Abbaye aux Dames and the Abbaye aux Hommes in Caen were using sexpartite vaulting, so it was clear that Normandy at time was engaged in great architectural experimentation in rib vaulting.

Apse vaulting, Abbaye Sainte Trinité, Lessay (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The side aisles are topped with groin vaults separated by lovely transverse arches. In the distance on the back wall we can see a Gothic sculptural fragment that was recovered from the 1944 ruins and embedded in the wall.

Side aisle, Abbaye Sainte Trinité, Lessay (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

In September last year, we planned to visit Lessay on our way to Valonges to our next hotel. But we received a piece of advice from our new friend Viv Blake who we met for “a cuppa” in Coutances. She said that the large local fair would be crowded and we would not be able to get to the church. We thought we would give it a try but we completely underestimated the «millénaire de la Sainte-Croix» created in the 11th century by the Benedictine monks and confirmed by King Louis XIV in 1671. The fair takes place the second weekend of every September, bringing 400,000 visitors to this town of 2,000.

Abbaye Sainte Trinité, Lessay (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

When PJ and I finally returned southward to photograph the church the next day, we had no idea of the damage done to the structure in World War II. In the course of my researches for this article, especially Yves-Marie Froidevaux’s account of the restoration, my blood ran cold realizing how the abbey had suffered. But nothing prepared me for the photograph at the beginning of this article. My admiration for the Abbaye Sainte Trinité de Lessay is even greater for the suffering endured, and the resurrection at the hands of a great architect.

Location: 49.220042° -1.532801°

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Abbey-Church of the Holy Trinity, Lessay (Normandy).
A magnificent expression of Romanesque.
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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.
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The splendid ribbed vault of the nave
reconstructed faithfully after World War Two.

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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.