The slow development of church architecture before the beginning of the eleventh century is in stark contrast to the rapid changes which followed in the new millennium. This can be explained, at least in part, by the widespread belief throughout Christendom that the year 1000 would see the end of the world and the translation of the Church on earth. When this did not happen there appears to have been an awakening of a new enthusiasm for the temporal power and glory of the Church. When combined with the energy, determination and vision of the Normans this proved a fertile foundation for the glories of Church architecture, which were to follow throughout the medieval period.
But there was another ingredient, namely the organisation of he Church herself. Heir to the Roman empire, which had seen every phase of political life between the extremes of popular power and personal tyranny, the Church of Rome inherited a large measure of political acumen and wisdom. The hierarchy which it established combined the elements of wide democracy and unrelenting absolutism. Its officers (including the Pope) were men who had risen from lowest the ranks of life but yet, once in office, their power was supreme. She won here greatest triumphs by channelling the energies of those who yearned for change within into extending her borders and strengthening her cause with their pioneering vigour. Thus were born the great monastic orders.
Each of these was founded and led by a commanding personality who gathered an army of adherents and laid down strict rules by which the community was to live. One of the first was the order of St Benedict which was responsible for the unremitting spread of the Christian arts throughout all of Europe. As Imperial Rome sent her armies to plant her colonies in hostile lands, the Church sent here convents of disciplined clergy to become the outposts of the Church. The mission of the great orders was not only reflected in the achievements in conversion and proselytising, it was reflected immediately in their architecture as their buildings took on the grandeur and magnificence expected from the envoys of a conquering people.
In short, the Church was THE great power at this time and her buildings were to inspire reverence and admiration as well as instil allegiance and homage in the faithful. Mission statement of the early medieval Church was a claim to empire in which 2one rule, one life, one faith – the same in all nations – would conquer the anarchy and ferocity of barbarous warfare”. For eighty years there flourished, at the hands of the Benedictines, an imperial building art whose style of masonry was independent of nationality. Yet, in the 12rh century, thanks to the Normans, England became the centre of a great movement in architecture.
Plan of the benedictine priory of St Bartholomew’s the Great
The greatest Benedictine establishment in London was the Abbey of Edward the Confessor at Westminster. However, very little of the original building survives today. Much better survival is to be found in the church of the Augustinian Priory of St Bartholomew the Great at Smithfield. The Norman arcade and triforium of the choir are a striking example of the sturdiness of the Romanesque style. The reconstruction of its ground-plan demonstrates how the basilica plan was enlarged to the full Benedictine model. Here are the aisled nave and choir, the transepts forming the cross and the apse with a diameter equal to the width of the church. The latter allowed the aisles to surround the altar and form what is known as the ambulatory which is shown in the relevant image below.
It seems that there were two apsidal or side chapels which also had apses and a Lady Chapel was added at the east end at a later date. On the south side of the church lay the conventual buildings which surrounded the cloister. The latter was a direct descendant of the courts of the Basilica and the Roman house and was the scene of the daily life of the priory. The plan seen here was the standard Benedictine plan in which the domestic buildings followed the style of the church. The whole establishment was closely interrelated in all its parts and formed on harmonious and dignified whole. Even the dormitory was planned to enable the monks to reach the church easily at night for their prayers by passing over the entrance to the chapter house and down a stair to the south transept.