Welcome to the Via Lucis Blog for Romanesque Photography


Via Lucis Photography is about the art and architecture of Romanesque and Gothic churches in Europe. This blog highlights those photographs but also features the written word to characterize and give context to the images.

Photographers Dennis Aubrey and PJ McKey have photographed approximately 850 of these churches and captured over 100,000 images. We have created a library of more than 5,000 high resolution images for licensing on the VIA LUCIS website.

In addition, Via Lucis images are available for academic or research purposes through ARTstor.

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If you are interested, here is a post that lists some of our personal favorite articles on Via Lucis.

Please note that all images and text on this Via Lucis blog are copyrighted by the photographers and authors. Thank you for respecting this notice.

Paul Abadie and the Restoration of the Cathédrale Saint Pierre d’Angoulême (Dennis Aubrey)


The French adore their history and patrimony and it should come as no surprise that they initiated the first national program of preserving their monuments. The government established the Commission des Monuments Historiques in 1837 and poet and writer Prosper Mérimée, author of Carmen and other works, was appointed the first Inspector General of Monuments. Many of the finest French architects of the day were commissioned to evaluate and restore France’s great architectural heritage.

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente) Photo by PJ McKey

But from the beginning, there emerged a dualism that has never been resolved. Should a restoration program merely take the building as it exists and repair it so that it will continue to exist in the form to which it has evolved over the years? In other words, should the building look like it did yesterday, only in better condition? Or should, for example, the restorer remove additions that were made to a structure in the years since it was originally built? Often these additions are disastrous failures and aesthetic blunders. Should the restorer attempt to understand the minds of the original builders and re-create that structure?

The first choice does little to improve the building, and the second can lead to irremediable damage and loss to the church. In some cases, the “restoration” creates something that never existed; indeed, Viollet-le-Duc wrote that restoration is a means to return a building to “a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time” (Dictionnaire raisonné). In either case, there is little possibility of recovering from the changes made once they are begun.

Nave and pulpit, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave and pulpit, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente) Photo by PJ McKey

Paul Abadie, Bibliothèque nationale de France (Image in the Public Domain)

Paul Abadie, Bibliothèque nationale de France (Image in the Public Domain)

In the history of French architects who worked for the Monuments Nationale, few are as controversial as Paul Abadie (1812-1884), who is best known for the church that he designed for Paris, the Basilique Sacré-Coeur on Montmartre. Abadie was a gifted architect, of that there is no doubt. Grandson of a Bordeaux plasterer and son of a famous architect, Abadie worked with Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc on the restoration of Notre Dame de Paris and later directed the restoration of the four great domed churches of the French southwest – the Abbatiale Sainte-Marie in Souillac and the three cathedrals of Saint Front in Périgueux, Saint Etienne in Cahors, and Saint Pierre in Angoulême. They became his specialty and his passion.

The church in Angoulême that Abadie was selected to restore, the Cathédrale Saint Pierre, was built in the first half of the 12th century, consecrated in 1128 during the episcopacy of the legate Girard d’Angoulême. The church has a cruciform plan with an aisleless nave of three bays, a transept, and choir with radiating apsidal chapels. The nave and crossing are spanned by large domes supported by pendentives while the transepts and choir are covered with barrel vaults.

Nave, Nave, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Nave, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is an extensive sculptural program on the west facade, which we will talk about in a later post. This magnificent facade was, unusually, in the form of square, but that did not agree with Abadie’s concepts and he completely changed the profile by adding a gable and bell towers.

This is the crux of the matter with Paul Abadie’s work. His fine understanding of Romanesque architecture and his own artistic gifts meant that he seemed to have little patience for work that did not meet the standards of his refined and somewhat classical sense of beauty. His obituary in “The Builder”, Volume 47 (August 16, 1884) puts a positive spin on this by writing that his works “… indicate sincere research and a profound feeling for the architecture of the Middle Ages, imitated in its principals and broad lines, but wisely M. Abadie has repudiated whimsicalities and capricious exaggerations.”

While to the rest of us, whimsicalities and capricious exaggerations are often integral to Romanesque architecture, Abadie sought to remove them. But, in addition, he often did worse. In an edition of The Ecclesiologist from October 1855, there is a commentary of his restoration of the transitional church of Rioux-Martin in the Charente: “M. Abadie restores the apse, moves the sacristies from the east end to the new quasi-transepts, and adds angle-pinnacles to the tower at the base of an octagonal spire. This restoration seems to us less satisfactory than might have been wished.”

This tendency to re-create instead of restore is illustrated by two photographs taken by members of the Mission Héliographique, Gustave Le Gray and Adolphe Braun. The first photograph was taken immediately prior to Abadie’s restoration of Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème and the second soon afterwards.

Gustave Le Gray. La cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème, France. 1851. Épreuve argentique à l’albumine à partir d’un négatif sur papier ciré, 31,6 x 24,0 cm. Collection CCA. PH1999:0094

Gustave Le Gray. La cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème, France. 1851. Épreuve argentique à l’albumine à partir d’un négatif sur papier ciré, 31,6 x 24,0 cm. Collection CCA. PH1999:0094

In the first, we see the west facade of Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème as a square surface, with some rather unpleasant structures above the cornice, clearly unsuccessful later additions to the cathedral.

Abadie’s solution to the restoration was to remove these additions, but that was not enough for him. In order to meet his own conception of Romanesque architecture, he added the gable and the two towers, topped with his famous pine cone pinnacles that were featured in the clocher at Saint Front. He completely altered the original design of the cathedral.

Adolphe Braun. La cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème, France. 1859 ou après. Épreuve au charbon, 50 x 38,9 cm. Collection CCA. PH1981:0441

Adolphe Braun. La cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème, France. 1859 ou après. Épreuve au charbon, 50 x 38,9 cm. Collection CCA. PH1981:0441

However – and this is an important however – the resultant church that Abadie created in his restoration of Saint-Pierre d’Angoulême is certainly a finer structure than the one that submitted to his ministrations. I don’t think anybody would argue that fact. His removal of the ugly porch of the west portal and opening up of the doorway is much more faithful to the Romanesque intent. When I showed the “before” and “after” photos to PJ, she immediately noted that the “after” version was better.

But the additions of the gable and towers, while faithful to other Romanesque models, had nothing to do with this specific cathedral and the structure lost much of what once made it unique. Saint-Pierre d’Angoulême was changed to fit the conception of what was medieval by a 19th century restorer with refined classical tastes. There is no chance that Abadie would have indulged in the re-creation of medieval painted interiors as did some of his colleagues; his was the severe purity of white stone and elegant structure. Abadie was better served building his own church on Paris’ Mount of Martyrs.

Dome, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Dome, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The cathedral of Angoulème is a fitting successor to many religious structures sited in the same place in the past – a temple dedicated to Jupiter in Gallo-Roman times (almost certainly on the site of an even earlier shrine), a 4th century cathedral (subsequently destroyed by the Clovis shortly after he defeated the Visigoths at Vouillé in 507), a successor rebuilt in the 6th century (destroyed by Normans in 981), another consecrated in 1017 but only lasted a century because it was too small, and finally, the cathedral we see today dedicated to Saint Peter, which has lasted longer than all the others combined. Saint-Pierre d’Angoulème remains one of the great churches of France, one of a group of domed churches that are distinctive and elegant. The tides of history wash back and forth creating and destroying, and I guess that restoration is just one of those surges.

Nave to chancel crossing, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave to chancel crossing, Cathédrale Saint Pierre, Angoulême (Charente) Photo by PJ McKey

But there is mystery to great art and the contemplation of that mystery is one of the ways we examine our own lives. No man or woman ever penetrates the mystery completely. What is valuable is the contemplation, not the explanation. To recast the mystery into our own vernacular is like a translation of Shakespeare or Molière – we can understand the plot, but we lose the poetry. The mystery is lost. When we remove that mystery, for ourselves or more devastatingly for others, we remove the call to examine our lives. The church becomes merely an exhibition, cold and still. We have removed the life from the stone.

Location: 45.648920° 0.151790°

Lunch and a Chapel at Saint Pantaléon (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I seldom have a full lunch while traveling in France, but on the rainy day that we were wending our way along the back roads of the Vaucluse in Provence we were feeling a bit peckish. We arrived in the small wine-growing village of Saint Pantaléon. The commune is one of the smallest in Provence, both in size (78 hectares/193 acres) and population (193). I’m not sure if it is a legal requirement that the population stays in a 1:1 ratio with acreage but the density of population is obviously low, in fitting with an agricultural community.

We decided to find a place to eat and saw a tiny sign attached to a wall saying “Auberge Saint Pantaléon” with no indication of direction. Somehow we wended our way down the hill below our objective, the Chapelle Saint Pantaléon and there it was, a hand-painted sign half-hidden behind a hedge, the indication that we had found the Auberge. We went in and found that we had followed close on the heels of a group of American tourists who did not speak French. We joined them in the tiny dining room and hoped for the best.

Auberge de Saint Pantaléon

Auberge de Saint Pantaléon

The reason we hoped for the best was the decor – what can only be described as “French rural recycled” – everything was repurposed, including the body of a grand piano turned into an shelf. Nothing matched – the furniture, cutlery, glassware or table settings were all mismatched. The elderly proprietress brusquely informed us that the plat du jour was Fricassee de volaille à l’ancienne avec pâtes, roast chicken with mushrooms, served with pasta. We ordered, squashing our misgivings and amused ourselves listening to the other Americans trying to make out the fare, clearly a bit distressed by the unsophisticated look to the restaurant. The proprietress spoke no English and we thought to help them out, but one of the group insisted that she spoke French and could understand and we didn’t want to intrude.

After about 20 minutes, she came in with our plates and, as we have come to expect in small restaurants like this, the meal was absolutely delightful. The meal, wine, and the bottle of Badoit was about $30.

West facade, Église Saint Pantaléon, Saint Pantaléon (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West facade, Église Saint Pantaléon, Saint Pantaléon (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sated by the meal, we went back up the hill to the Église Saint Pantaléon, which is actually a 12th century chapel, or more accurately, a conglomeration of chapels. There are later additions to the main church on both sides of the original. Both the church and the village are named after the saint known as Sant Pantalí in Catalan, so called from his Byzantine name Panteleimon (“all-compassionate”).

Nave and apse, Église Saint Pantaléon, Saint Pantaléon (Vaucluse)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave and apse, Église Saint Pantaléon, Saint Pantaléon (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

The nave is a single bay arrangement with a raised chancel and a tiny apse. On the other side of the nave we can see a reproduction of the famous icon of Saint Pantaléon from the Monastery of Saint Katherine on Mount Sinai.

Nave, Église Saint Pantaléon, Saint Pantaléon (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave, Église Saint Pantaléon, Saint Pantaléon (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

From the apse, we can see how small the church really is – a single bay for the nave. We can also see how the flanking chapels and side aisles were added to the original structure. None of the arches are properly centered and the structure is a hodgepodge, what PJ calls a “pudding church“.

Reverse angle from altar, Église Saint Pantaléon, Saint Pantaléon (Vaucluse)  Photo by PJ McKey

Reverse angle from altar, Église Saint Pantaléon, Saint Pantaléon (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Each transept arm shelters two chapels – one echeloned to the east and a side chapel. There are also side chapels in the short side aisles, which means that there are six adjunct chapels in this tiny structure.

Transept chapel, Église Saint Pantaléon, Saint Pantaléon (Vaucluse)  Photo by PJ McKey

Transept chapel, Église Saint Pantaléon, Saint Pantaléon (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

There is a minimum of sculptural decoration, mostly small capitals at about eye height in the transepts. There are a number of fine oil paintings, however, including the “Vierge à l’Enfant entre la décapitation de saint Pantaléon, saint Clément et sainte Catherine, cadre” that dates from 1635.

Tran in sept capitals, Église Saint Pantaléon, Saint Pantaléon (Vaucluse)  Photo by PJ McKey

Transept capitals, Église Saint Pantaléon, Saint Pantaléon (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Outside of the church on the east is a necropole with tombs carved out of the rock. We have seen these at the Église du Chatel in Saint Floret in the Puy-de-Dôme. The tombs on this site date from the 10th century and were considerably endangered by restoration of the church early in the 20th century. The cemetery and the church was acquired by the state in 1906 and were subsequently classified as a historical monuments in 1907.

Rock necropole, Église Saint Pantaléon, Saint Pantaléon (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Rock necropole, Église Saint Pantaléon, Saint Pantaléon (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The quiet village of Saint Pantaléon is a bit of a throwback in the Provence. Just a short distance from the tourist centers of Gordes and Roussillon with their crowds and high prices, it is a different world altogether. As for the Auberge, it is almost invisible in every way, from the road and especially on the internet. There are no hotels and only one restaurant listed in TripAdvisor, for example, and this little gem is not to be found. But this is the France we love and next time in the area, we’ll come back for both the Auberge and the chapel.

Side chapel across nave, Église Saint Pantaléon, Saint Pantaléon (Vaucluse)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side chapel across nave, Église Saint Pantaléon, Saint Pantaléon (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 43.882301° 5.214340°

From Mithra to a Missionary (Dennis Aubrey)


The Ardèche town of Bourg-Saint-Andéol has a well documented history going back for two millenia. The town itself was a Gaulish settlement called Bergoiata and was a place of great religious significance. In the late second century the Romans built a temple on the site of two sacred springs and dedicated it to Mithra, the Zoroastrian divinity. The Mithraic cult was restricted to men only and even today there is a remnant of that temple, a large relief carved into a stone escarpment just to the west of town.

Drawing of Mithras relief, Bourg Saint-Andéol (Ardèche)

Drawing of Mithras relief, Bourg Saint-Andéol (Ardèche)

About the same time as the image of Mithra was carved into the rock, a missionary was sent to bring Christianity to the Gauls and Romans of the region. Andeolus was sent by Saint Polycarpe, the Bishop of Smyrna, around 177 to the Roman province of Helvia, the region now known as the Vivarais. He settled in the town of Bergoiata and preached there until caught up in the Roman persecutions of Christians. In the year 208, Septimius Severus came to the region to visit the Mithraeum. The emperor heard that Andeolus was preaching to large crowds and had him arrested. The missionary was compelled to renounce his faith, but refused to submit to threats or blandishments, was tortured and then executed by a sword thrust that split his skull.

His body was thrown into the Rhône river but was collected and buried in Bergoiata. In the book Album du Vivarais, ou itinéraire historique et descriptif de cette ancienne by Albert Du Boys the story becomes further developed. He claims that the body of Andeolus, thrown into the Rhone, was later found and buried by a rich Roman woman, Amycia Eucheria Tullia.

In 858, when the Saracens were ravaging the Vivarais, the Bishop of Viviers reburied the body in a Gallo-Roman sarcophagus, placed in the church in Bergoiata. That church, the nearby Saint Polycarpe, became a place of pilgrimage. In the 15th century, the town took the name of its patron and became Bourg-Saint-Andéol.

North transept, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

North transept, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

The church named after this saint, the Église Saint Andéol was built in the late 11th and early 12th centuries by Léodegaire, Bishop of Viviers, and is one of the most important in this part of the Rhone Valley. It was constructed on the site of the Carolingian church built-in the 9th century but nothing remains of that structure. About the time of the completion of the church, the sarcophagus with the relics of Andeolus were brought to the Église Saint Andéol. The church that we see today is a superb example of the Romanesque, despite extensive renovations between 1862 and 1868, renovations that mostly followed the original construction.

The nave has four bays and is covered with a banded barrel vault. The extremely wide transverse arches of the bands are carried by thin pilasters attached to the powerful piers. There is a clerestory window on each side of the nave in every bay.

Nave, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The apse is a beautiful semicircular structure with a blind arcade topped by large clerestory windows and covered with an oven vault. In the transverse chancel arch there is a large oculus to light the crossing. There is an echeloned side chapel on either side.

Apse, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The current altar is in the crossing but we can see the side chapel in the distance under the arch on the north side of the choir. That chapel is also covered with an oven vault. We can see the oculus in the transverse arch here as well as the main choir.

Apse, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

Apse, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

The chancel crossing is covered with an audacious dome, seven meters across and almost 24 meters high at its apogee. It is carried by scallop-shell squinches and features a blind triple arcade in each face.

Crossing, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crossing, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The piers separating the side aisles from the nave are massive cruciform structures. We can sense the great height of the church and the boldness of its construction.

Nave piers, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave piers, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

The clean lines of the church are emphasized by the lack of sculptural decoration. The towering arches lead us down the line of the nave to the magnificent crossing and the small but elegant apse beyond.

West end of side aisle, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

West end of side aisle, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

The area of Bourg-Saint-Andéol has been a sacred site for millennia. The two springs at the Mithraeum are famous in themselves as “Vauclusian” in reference to the Fontaine de Vaucluse, source of the Sorgue, near Avignon, which in ancient times was a place of ritual offerings. These springs are known as the Goul de La Tannerie or Petit Goul and the Goul du Pont, or Grand Goul. Since 1953, divers have explored these springs to the depth of 209 meters and have discovered a wealth of caverns and passages without finding an end to them. They remain as mysterious today as they did two thousand years ago. Since the famous Chauvet caves are just 15 miles away and contain Aurignacian era paintings from 32,000 years ago, we can assume that the Église Saint Andéol is just the tip of a spiritual iceberg that goes back to the time when humans first inhabited this plateau above the powerful Rhône.

Location: 44.371109° 4.646811°

Go Home Stonehenge, You’re Drunk: Why Salisbury Cathedral Merits Your Attention Instead (Guest Post by Nathan Mizrachi)


Stonehenge, photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Stonehenge, photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Probably one of the most famous monuments from the ancient world, Stonehenge is the subject of countless poorly-thought out bucket lists, cheesy picture calendars, and is partly responsible for spawning this History Channel “ancient aliens” meme.

An unfathomable number of tourists swarm this 4,000 year-old stone circle sandwiched between pasture and a busy expressway.

Stonehenge, photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Stonehenge, photo by Nathan Mizrachi

There’s a huge parking lot for tour buses that haul around these gawking apes before they’re driven off to the next of God knows how many “must-see” destinations on their whirlwind tour of England. Presumably they’ll show off their instagram-ized shots of Stonehenge and boast to their friends about how there is so much more to England than London.

Bitch, please.

Stonehenge, photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Stonehenge, photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Given the immense crowd of visitors milling about, the noisy construction of an additional visitors’ center nearby, and the extortionate cost of nearly 15 pounds for a ticket (I didn’t pay and dodged the security cordon, but that’s a story for another blog post), you won’t catch even a glimmer of the ageless pagan spirit out there amidst the hills of Wiltshire.

The hair on my skin crept up just a tiny bit, but not much more—unfortunately, Stonehenge has been swallowed up by the beast known as tourism, and just like Notre Dame in Paris or the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, a once-sacred monument has been profaned by idle chatter, the ceaseless clicking of cameras, and innumerable selfies by people who are only there because their guidebooks tell them to go.

Stonehenge, photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Stonehenge, photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Only 8 miles away from Stonehenge is Salisbury, or Sarum during the Roman days, home to a monument that is much more imposing than Stonehenge yet with a fraction of the visitors. In fact, I’d say the word is towering — by some measurements Salisbury’s cathedral has the tallest Medieval tower in Europe.

Cathedral Tower, Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Salisbury (Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Cathedral Tower, Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Salisbury (Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

I came to Salisbury to see Stonehenge, but first on my list was this spectacular Gothic cathedral constructed here in just 40 years, which is lightning-fast by 13th century standards. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s about the same amount of time it took for the majestic cathedral of Bourges — arguably my favorite in all of Europe — to be built.

A hallmark of these quickie cathedrals is that because they are built rapidly, they feature an extremely unified design.

Crossing, Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Salisbury (Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Crossing, Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Salisbury (Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

There are two main reasons for the uniform look: architectural and aesthetic tastes and/or innovations rarely happened overnight and took many decades to implement; also, it was possible that the original architect may have lived long enough to preside over the entire construction, or most of it, ensuring no alterations of his master plans.

The façade of Salisbury features mostly 19th century neo-Gothic statues of your garden variety Old Testament giants such as David and Moses, random minor saints and anonymous clergymen holding scale-model churches in their hands, and a run-of-the-mill Virgin and child scene over the central portal, flanked by an Annunciation scene straight out of the Art History textbooks.

West facade, Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Salisbury (Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

West façade, Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Salisbury (Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

There are a few holdovers from the original sculptors who decorated the façade, but for the most part the original pieces are lost to history.

Since this is a post for Via Lucis and I know you all want to learn something, a few comments about the façade at Salisbury and how it’s typically English Gothic: First, note the three lancet windows in the central bay of the façade, corresponding with the nave. Unlike French Gothic, English churches usually feature lancet windows instead of rose windows. This was probably an aesthetically-driven choice on the part of the architect, rather than an indictment on the English stone carvers’ ability to carve complex bar tracery in the shape of a circle.

Facade sculpture, Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Salisbury (Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

façade sculpture, Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Salisbury (Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Second, despite the contemporary introduction of gables into French Gothic, Salisbury hardly features them. In this case, the lack of rose windows is probably part of the reason why there is little gabling — apart from the 19th century annunciation scene—at Salisbury. Gables were used in France to feature sculptural scenes that usually were set into portals. However, as the century progressed the French became more and more addicted to placing rose windows in as many places as possible (see Reims cathedral for an example of this), whereas the English never got into it, rendering gables relatively useless.

These days you enter the cathedral via the cloisters, which lead to the immaculate chapter house (sadly, it was closed when I was there) that holds one of the original copies of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta was signed in 1215 and is acknowledged to be a cornerstone document in the progression to representational democracy by thousands of trivia players who know nothing else about it.

Cloister, Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Salisbury (Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Cloister, Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Salisbury (Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

I won’t get into the meat and potatoes of the Magna Carta, but it was signed by the hapless King John — of Robin Hood lore — who was, in the words of my immortal medieval history professor William Kapelle, “a creep.” Ultimately he pissed off the barons in his court to the point that they forced him to sign a pact that checked a monarch’s powers for the first time in modern history and ensured certain basic rights to subjects, including a prohibition against arresting someone without a valid cause for suspicion. It didn’t matter too much in the short term because John asked the Pope to annul this earthly document, and the Pope, glad to uphold the Divine right of the monarchy, complied.

If you’re still awake, let’s get back to Salisbury.

King John from De Rege Johanne

King John from De Rege Johanne

Upon entering the nave, one notices the linear quality of Salisbury. A hallmark of English Gothic is that unlike its French counterpart, English Gothic emphasizes horizontal length rather than vertical height.

The difference boils down to aesthetic preference more than any sort of lack of architectural know-how; indeed, we know of more than one case where the master architect in an English Cathedral was a Frenchman.

Here’s a great comparison for you to understand what I mean:

Nave elevation, Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Salisbury (Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Nave elevation, Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Salisbury (Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

View from the tribunes, Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure)  Photo by PJ McKey

View from the tribunes, Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure) Photo by PJ McKey

The top image depicts the nave elevation at Salisbury; the bottom depicts Chartres. Immediately apparent is that Salisbury’s height is much less than that at Chartres, but also that the visual effect of the architecture draws the eye forwards more than upwards. The opposite is true of Chartres. This isn’t hocus pocus; the reason why Salisbury has a lateral effect is because the gallery is separated from the arcade below and the clerestory above with an uninterrupted sequence of horizontal stone bands. At Chartres, we see the same unbroken band hugging each massive column as it soars upwards to the vaults. In both instances, the lines formed by these bands create a movement which our eyes follow; to the choir in Salisbury and the vaults in Chartres.

Nave columns, Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Salisbury (Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Nave columns, Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Salisbury (Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

I would go on, but I think you get the point: Salisbury Cathedral is an incredible holdover from the Middle Ages, doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to enter (donations optional), and isn’t flooded with oblivious tourists. So if you do make it out to the neighborhood, by all means pay Stonehenge a visit and whet your appetite, but save Salisbury for the main course.

Note: Nathan Mizrachi is a fellow blogger and lover of medieval art and architecture. To read his “About” page on his blog, Life is a Camino, follow this link.

Postscript: Nathan, my own experience with Stonehenge occurred many years ago, probably around 1961 or 1962. My family went to visit near dawn on the day of the Summer Solstice. Even at such an auspicious time, there weren’t more than a hundred visitors on the chilly morning and there was nobody there to charge admission. Many of the visitors were faux druids, dressed in various togas and shifts. There were the usual assorted bearded priests and barefooted pagan worshippers, but one woman I remember particularly, a wild looking thing with very pale skin and long, undressed red hair flying all over, a white sheet as a shift of some kind, and enormous bare feet. It all seemed very silly to me, even at that tender age of 13.

Our Lady of the Lake (Dennis Aubrey)


blason-thorLegend says that Notre Dame du Lac in the small Vaucluse town of Le Thor was built at the request of the Emperor Charlemagne in the ninth century to commemorate a miracle that occurred in the town. I have found two versions of the miracle. In the first, it appears that there was a local boy and his bull, both very pious. The bull, when brought to a particular pond to drink, would drop to his knees before drinking. Astonished at the piety of the animal, the villagers dragged the pond and discovered a statue of the Virgin in the mud. In the second version, a bull, guided by a star, scratched the ground with his hooves and unearthed the statue. This appears to be the version commemorated in the town blazon, although the first would seem to be more in keeping with the name of the church, Notre Dame du Lac. In either case, the town is ostensibly named after the bull, Le Thor being a variation of taureau, French for bull.

There is, however, a less romantic origin of the name. Thor might be a derivative of Thouzon, a fortified Benedictine monastery on a nearby hill that was created as a safe haven for residents. But whatever the origins, we know that the current church was built in the late 12th century. There is a reference from Bermond, Bishop of Cavaillon who donated to the Abbe of Saint André de Villeneuve-les-Avignon in 1202 the ecclesium novum Sactæ Mariæ, the new church of Sainte Marie, in Le Thor.

Exterior, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Exterior, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

The church dedicated to Notre Dame du Lac is distinguished as much by what is missing as by what exists – she lacks side aisles, side chapels and transepts. The church consists of a large nave with three bays covered with Gothic rib vaults, a square crossing under the octagonal cupola, and a small apse covered with a ribbed oven vault. The interior height of the church is notable, sixteen meters.

Nave, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The elevation shows that each bay is supported by massive piers with pilasters climbing up to carry the transverse arches. There is a clerestory window high up on the wall in each side of the bay. Notice that there are cornices for decoration and no capitals in the nave. In this elevation we can also see the arches that support the cupola and the scallop-shaped squinches supporting the dome.

Nave elevation, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave elevation, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

One interesting feature of the church is the tribune over the first bay in the west. This was conceived of for the original church, but was constructed of wood. That original wooden structure was replaced by this stone tribune in the 1950’s.

Tribune, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Tribune, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

The apse is simple but quite elegant. It features a seven-arched hemicycle with alternating windowed and blind arcades. The oven vault is ribbed, which we have not seen too often in Romanesque churches.

Apse, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Apse, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

The spare interior does feature some wonderful sculptural touches. The finest are the capitals on the arcade pillars in the apse, most of which feature foliated subjects. There are also some wonderful decorations on the corbels supporting the apse cornice. The first is a wonderful smiling angel.

Angel cornice decoration, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Angel cornice decoration, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second is this charming figure squatting and supporting the weight of the heavy stone load above him. These are seen often in the Romanesque churches, but this is one of the more amusing of them.

Cornice detail, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cornice detail, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One of the glories of the church is the superb south portal. There is a combination of the decorated columns with their fine capitals, the three carved archivolts, the double door of the entrance with a tympanum, and the 17th century fresco above the doorway arch. This fresco is in very poor condition and did not photograph well. The portal area itself is covered with a ribbed vault.

South portal, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

South portal, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

The portal features wonderful carvings, far more in keeping with the Romanesque style than the spare interior. We can see how the elements have caused deterioration of the wonderful sculpture, but that is typical of churches throughout Europe.

Exterior capital, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Exterior capital, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

These churches are the property of the French people, not the Catholic Church, and their representatives are charged with keeping this religious and architectural patrimony intact. In 1834, the writer Prosper Mérimée was appointed the first inspector-general of historical monuments, a fortuitous choice. A man of learning and sophistication, he had a deep appreciation for the beauty and historical significance of the monuments in this care.

In 1837, following the request of Mérimée, the departmental prefects were asked to list the monuments of their department that they consider for priority restoration. In 1840, this led the Historic Monuments Commission to establish a list of a thousand monuments “for which relief was sought”. The importance of Notre Dame du Lac is demonstrated because it was classified in this first list of 1840.

Location: 43.929897° 4.994711°

A Traveling Companion in the Ardèche (Dennis Aubrey)


A year ago in June we saw a reblog of one of our posts by a new blogger named Nathan Mizrachi. It read: “Reblogged this on Life is a Camino and commented: I stumbled across this while ogling the beautiful photographs on this brilliant website, Via Lucis. The comparison between the athleticism of a footballer like Zidane and Romanesque/Gothic architecture is so true: power, grace, beauty. No coincidence I love them both.”

This started a series of blog conversations like we have had with so many of you in the past. These conversations have become one of the highlights of our blogging experience – and we have visited with several correspondents and have plans to visit more. Through these conversations we have had so many guest posts that enriched the site immeasurably. In the case of Nathan, we discovered that he was going to embark on the most monumental of adventures – a year-long walk on the Camino de Santiago and in Europe. After we made our plans for our spring trip to France, we decided to ask Nathan if he would be interested in pursuing his love of Romanesque and Gothic churches by visiting with us for a week in the Ardèche. He accepted – although I’m sure with some trepidation.

Lunch at Bourg Saint Andeol (Ardèche)

Lunch at Bourg Saint Andeol (Ardèche)

When we picked him up at rail station at Valence, we had no real idea of what he would be like in person. Certainly his blog persona was attractive – intelligent, educated, fiercely passionate about medieval art and architecture and certainly adventurous. We saw him immediately in the disembarking crowd and we began our sojourn in the beautiful Ardèche. We stopped for basic groceries at a number of stores and then settled to our gite near the town of Berrias-et-Casteljau. The next six days were spent visiting and photographing churches, picnicking and spending the evenings cooking and drinking the fine wines from Hermitage that PJ and I had picked up the day before we met Nathan.

Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche)  Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche) Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

During our travels with Nathan, we were not surprised to find him curious and interested in just about everything. He was indefatigable in the churches and he would make a habit of disappearing for a walk in whatever town we visited. If we needed anything, he always knew where we could go to find a boulangerie, charcuterie, or anything else.

Street arch, Ruoms (Ardèche)  Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Street arch, Ruoms (Ardèche) Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

There was time for adventure as well. We took a long drive to visit the natural arch at Vallon Pont d’Arc. I think that seeing the folks far below swimming and kayaking resonated with both PJ and Nathan, because a few days later they both went kayaking on the local Chassezac river. The tale of their perilous adventures on the rapids is one that they need to tell in person, if only to see Nathan blush!

PJ and Nathan at Vallon-Pont-d'Arc  (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

PJ and Nathan at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

Nathan spent a great deal of time photographing with his small camera, but we also encouraged him to try his hand with our equipment, especially the tilt-shift lenses. He has talent, as you will see in the last picture of this post, the altar at Chassiers.

Countryside near Ailhon,  Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Countryside near Ailhon, Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

What astonished the two of us most about Nathan, though, was his mode of travel – couch surfing, hitchhiking, walking, and using the internet to find incredibly cheap flights and train fares. The world has changed since we were young and Nathan was absolutely comfortable navigating this wired world. And he has the time and energy to regularly post on Life is a Camino.

Street view in Ailhon (Ardèche)   Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Street view in Ailhon (Ardèche) Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

On our last evening together, we decided that instead of cooking we would go out to a local restaurant. We found a nice little place and settled in on the patio. Nathan, who is a good cook and very interested in food in general, surprised us by ordering steak tartare. His meal arrived, about a pound of raw ground meat with an egg on top, surrounded by small saucers with spices. When the dish was set before him, Nathan looked at it sceptically and said, “I thought it was going to be more like carpaccio.” We told him he could order something else, but he smiled gamely and said he would eat this. He then proceeded to mix the meat with the egg and all the spices into one giant melange and finished it all off. I was truly impressed, even though it probably was not his favorite meal in Europe. Afterwards, we all sat comfortably, sated, until Nathan saw the gentlemen at the table across from us served their dessert, a giant chocolate sundae called a liégeois. He ordered it and polished it off to the last dollop of whipped cream. Ah, youth!

Chapelle Saint Benoit, Chassiers (Ardèche)  Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

Chapelle Saint Benoit, Chassiers (Ardèche) Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

At the end of the six days, we left Nathan off at an intersection in Orange from which he was going to hitchhike to Carcassonne. PJ and I were both wistful at the parting; we would miss this kind, interesting, adventurous, and well-educated young man who shares our love of the Romanesque.

However … he still owes us a guest post on Via Lucis.

9/11 Anniversary Reflection


Dennis Aubrey:

A post from Gordon Stewart reflecting on Robert Oppenheimer. The clip of Oppenheimer is amazing.

Originally posted on VIEWS from the EDGE:

“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” [Bhagavad Gita XI.32]

We live under the reign of death – under the threat of death, the fact of death, the fear of death, the practice of death, the way of death. We are reminded of it on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, the day after President Obama’s speech about ISIS.

One might suppose J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the United States’ World War II program to develop the first nuclear weapons, thought he and his colleagues were taking humanity higher up the ladder of human progress. Whatever he may have thought at the beginning, he sensed a fall into the arms of the destroyer of worlds while watching the first nuclear explosion in 1945.

Twenty years later, during a visit to Japan, Oppenheimer reflected on his immediate reaction watching the Trinity explosion at Alamogordo that unleashed…

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