Caen Abbaye aux Dames - Abbey of Sainte-Trinité - France
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Abbaye aux Dames

plain front of a church with small windows and two flat-topped towers
Caen - Abbaye aux Dames

Matilda of Flanders ordered her architects to build this Christian church about 1050 AD in her capital at Caen. (Find out why.) The Abbaye aux Dames is a great example of the Romanesque style of medieval European architecture. One thing that is typical of Romanesque churches is that the doors have round arches (not pointed ones as in later Gothic churches). Also, there is a lot of plain wall showing - the wall isn't all windows and decoration as in later churches.

Caen Abbaye doorway

The church was part of an abbey dedicated to the Trinity (Jesus, God, and the Holy Ghost) - a place for nuns to live and pray. Here you can see the doorway, which is decorated with a picture of the Trinity and the four beasts that are symbols of the men who wrote the Gospels - Matthew (the man), Mark (the lion), Luke (the ox), and John (the eagle). Can you see each of the animals? Underneath the animals, you can see a Chi-Rho, the symbol of Christ.

Abbaye aux Dames nave

Inside, the main nave of the Abbaye aux Dames (the Women's Abbey) rises in three storeys - one big round (Romanesque) arch at the bottom, then a blind (false) gallery, and above that a big glass window to let in the light, also rounded in the Romanesque style. But the thing that was new about the Abbaye aux Dames was its stone roof - most earlier churches had wooden roofs, because it was so hard to get a heavy stone roof to stay up, but the Abbaye aux Dames is one of the earliest churches in France to have a stone roof.

To allow him to put in the windows and let in some light, the architect built the stone roof as a groin vault. This is a very early example of a six-part vault. You can see later examples at the cathedrals of Laon and Notre Dame in Paris.

Learn by doing: build an arch
More about Caen - the Abbaye aux Hommes

Bibliography and further reading about medieval architecture:

Abbaye aux Hommes
Caen Castle
Romanesque architecture
Medieval architecture
Visiting France with Kids
Middle Ages
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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