THE NOTRE-DAME OF SAVIGNY CHURCH
In 1165, the Notre-Dame of Savigny Church, whose apse has been dated 1128, was given to the Sainte-Barbe-en-Auge (Saint Barbara in the Auge Region) Collegiate Church. This community already owned the priory, founded in 1107 in Savigny, located a short distance away from the parish church.
Notre-Dame of Savigny is reputed for the richness of its sculpted Romanesque decor, as well as its equally important fourteenth century frescoes.
Although most of the church was built in the twelfth century, some of it has since been modified.
The layout of the church has but one Romanesque nave with panelled wooden-frame roofing. After the nave, there is bay, rebuilt in the early sixteenth century, covered with a cross-ribbed vault. This bay opens up onto two lateral chapels, forming the transept. The chapel on the north side, from the early sixteenth century, with its cross-ribbed vault, serves as the base for the bell tower. The south-side chapel was built much later, around 1826.
The choir and the apse were constructed during the Romanesque period. Today, the hemicycle of the apse, on the outside, has become part of a straight chevet, which can be seen from the sacristy (19th century). A groined vault covers the choir bay; the apse has a semi-cupola.
On the outside, a small porch was added to the western side of the façade of the church
in the 17th century. The upper levels of the bell tower on the northern side have been repaired
several times. There is a winding staircase in the turret. Three semicircular vaulted windows provide light on the north side of the nave; the windows on the south side were enlarged later on. The walls of the nave show examples of herringbone pattern work (opus spicatum), which sometimes re-uses shell stone slabs, probably taken from sarcophaguses of the early Middle Ages.
On the inside of the church, the sculptured decoration is located in the apse. It was discovered in 1888 by Abbot Joubin.
Both the vault opening onto the apse and the arc of triumph have semi-circular vaults, decorated with the broken sticks motif, a common decoration in Normandy. An arcature made of five round arches, supported by small coupled columns, decorates the sides of the apse. The central arch around the axial window is the most ornate (broken sticks and diamond mouldings).
Most of the capitals are historiated. Four have griffins as indicated in the inscription COCO-DRIAS on the abacus. The others have lions (see the inscription LEONES), a horse, two birds drinking from a bowl, snakes, fretwork, or network. What is left of an inscription may date the works: at the end of the 19th century, before the restoration began, it read HI. M.C.XX.VIII A. TURC, and has since been completed. It is noteworthy that the name TURCH, followed by barely legible letters, was found on the basket of the last capital on the right. Probably, then, the sanctuary was dedicated or decorated in 1128 by someone called Turchetillus or Toruldus (a name of Scandinavian origin). The first prior of the Saint Barbara Priory of Savigny was Turoldus.
The chevet of the apse is more ornate still. Today, from the sacristy, a big round arch around a sculpture of Christ in high relief and a hunting scene sculpted into a monolithic lintel can be seen. A stag being chased by dogs and a Sagittarian centaur can be made out.
The sculpture in high relief is of an excellent quality. The chevet was probably not its original location: either it came from another part of the church, or from another building. It is deeply carved out of six butt-jointed slabs of limestone. The images are religious and presented from a directly frontal viewpoint. Christ is shown bare-footed, sitting on a throne whose posts end in small globes. He would seem to be dressed in a bishop’s garb, the folds of which are perfectly symmetrical. He is shown giving a benediction with His right hand, while He holds a long-handled cross in His left hand. His young, bearded face stands out from a cruciferous halo.
The walls on the outside of the nave and choir are topped by a good number of interesting corbels from the 12th century. There are birds, grotesques, snakes, sculpting tools, and priests saying mass, as well as other characters or themes treated with wit.
A remarkable set of wall paintings was revealed in 1888 and in 1893 by Abbot Joubin, and restored by a man named Jacquier. The first cycle of paintings is dedicated to Saint Barbara; it can be found in the arches of the apse. A second cycle, representing the Last Supper, is painted on the northern wall of the nave. Both date from the 14th century.
The Saint Barbara cycle is to be read from right to left.
* In the first arch, Saint Barbara, who converted to Christianity, is praying on her knees in a garden. The place is indicated by means of the symbolic presence of a tree, whose leaf-laden boughs form elegant arabesques. The saint’s features are fine; her gentle face is raised upward in the arch. A part of her body was repainted in the 19th century.
* The second scene represents three men undressing the saint before torturing her. The three torturers are characterized by the vigour of their attitudes; their profiles are caricaturized (big, twisted mouths and hooked noses). The saint’s body was painted over several times; she is wearing a rumpled, red, multi-fold tunic.
* In the third arch, Barbara is pictured kneeling, her arms and face turned to the heavens. Her father is holding her hair in one hand, a sword in the other, as he prepares to cut off her head. Just at this moment, a divine intervention takes place (symbolized by the appearance of an angel in the upper part of the arch): lightening strikes him. The painter’s simple style uses yellow lines falling on the father to represent the lightening.
* The fourth scene showing Saint Barbara praying was both conceived and painted by Jacquier.
The Last Supper fresco is a vast, well-balanced, symmetrical composition organized around Christ. Saint Paul, identified by his sword and balding head, sits to the left of Christ. Judas sits across from Christ, isolated on the other side of the table. With his right hand he reaches out for a plate of fish, whereas his left hand tries to hide his purse, the salary for his betrayal. Although the features of Judas’ face here have been altered over time, they still recall those of Saint Barbara’s torturers.