William the Conqueror had the full support of Rome when he set out for England in 1066, for the Pope thought that the Church of England, then in a backward state, would be greatly improved by the settlement of Normans in the land.
The Normans, who were in closer touch with Rome, were, in many ways, more skilful and cultured than the English. They were notable builders. Both the Saxon and Norman styles are Roman in origin, but many authorities regard Norman as the noblest form of Romanesque, and Saxon or English as the meanest.
Norman architecture shows its Roman parentage very clearly. The Norman round arch supported on piers is seen in the great aqueducts the Romans built : the round-headed apse was a common feature of the Roman basilica ; the Norman triforium (first storey) and clerestory (second storey) are developments of the construction shown in such buildings as the Colosseum, where one arcade is placed above another.
Early Norman builders trusted much to the thickness and solidity of their masonry and little to their mortar, which was of poor quality. Thus their earlier buildings possess a general appearance of massiveness, which, when combined, as it is, with a certain austerity of decoration, produces a stern and impressive effect, typical of Norman pride and Norman strength.
Plan of Early Christian Basilica, Rome. By adding transepts to this the Cruciform plan was developed.
(Left) Apse. The elaborate use of the zig-zag ornament. (Right) Arcade. The intersecting round arches which may have suggested the use of pointed arches.
Norman Arches of the North Transept, Winchester Cathedral. This is an example of early Norman work and is distinguished by general massiveness (the central pier looks as if were built to carry three times the weight) and restraint of decoration. This building affords an excellent opportunity for comparing early and late Norman stone-laying. When the central tower felt about 100 years after it was built the transepts were somewhat damaged. The repairs were executed in fine-jointed masonry, which is joined up to the wide-jointed masonry of the earlier and original work.
The chief characteristics of Norman work are (1) round-headed windows ; (2) round-headed doors or square-headed ones placed under an arch ; (3) massive piers ; (4) cushion capitals ; (5) zig-zag, lozenge and beakhead ornament. Circular windows are common in late Norman work.
The sparseness and severity of decoration in early buildings was probably due to the fact that carving was done by the axe, the use of the chisel being uncommon. In early work decoration was confined to the use of the simple arcade and shallow zig-zag and lozenge ornamentation.
Later, as men returned from the First Crusade, a marked change came over Norman architecture. There was (one) a great improvement in the art of stone-laying itself, which permitted the use of less massive piers, and (two) a far freer use of decoration, the axe being replaced by the chisel. In some late, work, indeed, there is a somewhat inartistic profusion of ornamentation.
The West Front Iffley Church Oxfordshire. This church dates from about 1135 to 1160. The nave, west front and tower are Norman work: one bay of the chancel is of later date.The West Front is a good example of late, richly-decorated Norman work.