Ename 1290 backstage – Reconstructing Saint Salvator Abbey

Dear friends,

In some past articles I talked about the project Ename 1290, which is a virtual 3D walk-through developed for the visitors of the Provincial Archaeological Museum of Ename, in order to allow them to experience interactively the medieval village and the Saint Salvator abbey. I think it is now the moment to describe the work that has been done for creating the 3D model of the abbey and its furniture starting from the archaeological evidences.

Historical Context

Map of Lotharingia (from: “Kaart van Lotharingen”. Credit: Algamene geschiedenis der Nederlanden, deel 1, p. 317.)

Ename was established as a trade settlement in the last years of 10th century by Godfrey and Matilda van Verdun, due to the strategic position of the site in a natural harbour on the river Scheldt, which at the moment was the border of the Holy Roman Empire. When the rivalry between the Empire and the Count of Flanders grew, at the beginning of 11th century, Baldwin IV of Flanders attacked Ename and destroyed its fortified keep. His son Baldwin V took possession of the settlement in 1047 and consecrated the territory to prevent any further military use. In 1063 his wife Adele, daughter of the king of France, founded the abbey with a dedication to Our Lady. The abbot and twelve monks were called from the abbey of Arras and used the old palace building as temporary monastery. The construction of a new abbey started immediately around the church of Saint Salvator that had been previously the church of the trade settlement. In 1070 the new abbey was founded a second time with a new dedication to Saint Salvator.

The abbey of Ename in the 4th quarter of the 13th century (From: Veil Rentier, Koninklijke bibliotheek Brussel. Credits: Visual Dimension bvba)

Although it hosted a small community of monks, the abbey was rich and over the centuries it became one of the major abbeys in Flanders. It maintained a strong link with the Count of Flanders during its entire existence over more than seven centuries, and its abbots played a strategic role in the political life of the country. The Saint Salvator abbey was confiscated by the French Republic in 1795 as a consequence of the French Revolution. It was sold and taken down before 1800.

Sources assessment

archaeological site
The archaeological site of Saint Salvator abbey and the Provincial Heritage Center of Ename .

The Saint Salvator abbey was excavated in two main archaeological campaigns, over a period of almost thirty years: from 1941 to 1946 by prof. Adelbert Vande Walle and from 1982 to 2004 by the team of Dirk Callebaut. A first major effort for the virtual reconstruction of the Saint Salvator abbey was undertaken by Visual Dimension in the period 1997-2004. The work was based upon the results of the excavations and on the extensive research both on the history of the settlement and the evolution of its landscape. Since 2012 new 3D models have been created to visualise the evolution in time of the abbey. All the 3D models are available on Europeana thanks to the 3D-Icon European Project and can be seen here.

The period that we have chosen to reconstruct is linked to Martijn van Torhout, a medieval monk working in the abbey of Ename who was one of the first to write in ancient Dutch, the language of the common people. His figure allowed us to emphasise the role of the scriptorium in medieval abbeys.

For the educational game we decided to visualise the interior of the abbey, thus we started a major work of research on the remains. All the available information about the site have gone through a new discussion and several details of the former 3D reconstruction have been modified and updated following better interpretations of the remains. Thus, the virtual reconstruction was the result of a better interpretation of all the knowledge today at our disposal on the abbey. Reconstructing the inside of the abbey has substantially improved our understanding of the architectonic structure of the buildings and the function and interrelation of each room.

Measurements on the archaeological site.

At first, the remains of the archaeological site have been carefully inspected, measured and compared with data from excavation reports. Keeping in mind the overlapping of the different phases of the buildings through centuries and the abbey spaces as they were prescribed by the Benedictine rule, we come up to a hypothesis of function of each space.

Interpretation of the archaeology

In order to produce a 3D reconstruction of the spaces, each building was investigated with layer and functional analysis. The layer analysis moves from the concept that, in medieval buildings, each constructive layer of walls was about 1,50 m in order to allow mortar to dry, thus all the architectural elements were fitting in this structure. Functional analysis, on the other hand, takes in consideration the rational displacement of architectonic elements in the environment. For example, the capital of a column in a vaulted room was placed above the eye level both to allow a better view inside the room and to avoid incidents, this consideration leads to an ideal position at about 1.70 m from the floor level. A combination of these two kinds of analysis allowed us to make an interpretation of the possible structure of each space.

Aerial view of the archaeological site during excavations (Credit: Wim Robberechts & Co). In the picture, chapter room and scriptorium are at the bottom side of the main cloister, on the right side of the church transept.

Representative examples of the methodology used in the reconstruction of the abbey are the chapter room and the scriptorium (see figure above), two spaces at the ground floor of the East-side building of the cloister. In their foundations are preserved several useful information about the structure of the two rooms that were both divided by central columns. Remains of a decorated splayed portal still preserved on site at the side of the chapter room entrance have been compared with coeval samples, resulting in a perfect matching both in dimension and style.

Chapter room. Remains of the entrance. The evidences of a splayed portal are preserved on site. (Credit: Visual Dimension bvba)
Some coeval examples of chapter rooms.
3D reconstruction of the chapter room.

The ground level in the two rooms was different: while the scriptorium was at the same level of the cloister, the chapter room was three steps (about 60 cm) lower. This information, in relation with a layer analysis of the building, led us to hypothesise that, while the chapter room was covered with a vaulted stone ceiling, the scriptorium had a wooden ceiling and thus we hypothesised the presence of a second floor with a library. This possibility was supported both by the position of the entrance door to the scriptorium, unusually narrow and placed as closer as possible to the southern wall of the room, by the non-central position of the columns and by the correspondence between the measures of the room with those necessary to have a stair to the second floor. A confirmation to this hypothesis was then found in Berings [1989], where it is quoted a fragment of a manuscript that attested the presence of a two floors library.

3D reconstruction of the ground floor of the library with the scriptorium.
3D reconstruction of the first floor of the library with the reading room.

The layer analysis of the building, in combination with the study of the plausible structure of the roof, determined the total height of the edifice. The same procedure has been used to reconstruct all the other building of the abbey. They include the refectory of monks, that was closing the cloister on the opposite side of the of the church, and the guests quarter, which occupied the remaining side of the cloister together with the kitchens. Of all the environments that were opened on the cloister, only the kitchen of the monks and the kitchen of the abbot were not reconstructed, due to the complexity of the interpretation of the overlapping phases in the archaeological remains.

3D reconstruction of the refectory.
3D reconstruction of the guests dining room.
3D reconstruction of the entrance room. The door on the left side is opened on the guests dining room, while the one in the front is opened on the cloister. The stairs lead to the guests lodging. The block on the right side was the private apartment of the abbot.

The archaeological evidence has been extensively used to determine the appearance of architectonic elements. All the capitals used as a support for the ceiling are the copy of an existing octagonal sample still preserved on site. A gothic architectonic element found at the archaeological site inspired the gothic windows of the guests dining room and the arches above the lavatorium. Those elements that, on the contrary, have not been found archaeologically, have been reconstructed on the basis of still existing coeval examples.

Octagonal capital preserved on-site (credit: Visual Dimension bvba). This octagonal capital has been used as a model for all the capitals of the abbey that support vaults and ceilings.
3D reconstruction of the gothic window of the guests dining room.
3D reconstruction of the cloister with the lavatorium, traces of which we have found near the entrance ot the refectory.
3D reconstruction of the cloister. Capitals recall coeval examples of still standing 13th century abbeys.



  • Geert Berings, Landschap, geschiedenis en archeologie in het Oudenaardse, Published in 1989 in Oudenaarde by Stadsbestuur


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