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An abbey, our guide said, is not just a place, but a history, a memory. At Jumieges, it is also a mystery.

We are standing in front of the Westwerk, the medieval façade of the great church of Notre-Dame. Built of white stone, bare, unadorned, masculine, it reflects the power of the Dukes of Normandy that ordered its construction. And then, the eyes are drawn upward. The stone wall gives way, without visible transition, to two elegant towers, their square base changing to an octagonal spire with arched windows, long and narrow, delicate, like a tribute to the Virgin Mary to whom the church is dedicated. Jumieges Abbey Facade

We enter the nave by the great porch. Construction of the church started in 1030. The chancel was built first, and was finished around 1050. Work on the nave and the façade started at that time, and the whole structure was completed in 1066, but it was not consecrated until the following year, when William came back to Normandy as King of England. When he stepped through this porch, he must have felt some of that same awe that strikes us today. Before him rose the highest nave ever built, brightly lit with tall windows. Stone vaults with painted ceilings covered the aisles. It was a church like no other built before that day, a true revolution in architecture. Jumieges Abbey Nave

The roof is gone, and the eyes embrace the sky above, white puffy clouds racing in the changing light. Like William, we walk down the nave, to where the chancel stood. It was blown up in 1803, after the French Revolution, so that its owner could sell the stones for new constructions, and only the outline remains. But high above, a single wall hangs from the sky, desperately suspended over the ruins of the transept. With the sunlight shining through its arched windows separated by narrow columns, it looks like a robe of lace hanging from the clouds. It is the only remain of the magnificent square lantern tower, over 150 feet high, that let the light bathe the chancel. Under its graceful arch, we glimpse back at the two celestial towers over the main porch. Jumieges Abbey Lantern Tower

Our guide takes us to the site of the former abbatial buildings. We look back toward the great church, beyond the huge yew which used to grow in the middle of the cloister and now stands all alone in a grassy field. The lantern tower wall echoes the towers above the facade, both rising precariously to the heavens, the long slender nave reflecting the soft September light, a ruin filled with silence, a spiritual image of the Middle Ages reappraised by the passions and the folly of Man, beautiful and mysterious. Jumieges Abbey

     

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