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.

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

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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.

Sainte Marie of the Marshes (Dennis Aubrey)


There are many churches in France that we admire and appreciate, but there are a few that we love. The Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay, Notre Dame la Grande in Poitiers, and Sainte Marie de Souillac are three that come immediately to mind. PJ and I have written so many articles about the sculpture at the abbey church Sainte Marie de Souillac that it came as a shock to us today that we have never done a post on the church itself.

In the 12th Century, the town was known as Souillès, a name that evolved from the Occitan word Souilh meaning a marshland where boars wallow. Benedictine monks drained the surrounding marshland and built their priory church between 1075-1150. Sainte Marie was granted the status of abbey at the end of the 15th century but suffered badly from the Hundred Years War when everything except the church dedicated to the Virgin was destroyed.

That surviving church is a beautiful example of a domed structures found in southwest France in Périgueux at the Cathédrale Saint Front, Cahors at the Cathédrale Saint Etienne, and in Angoulême at the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre.

Nave, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac  (Lot)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Souillac’s large open nave is covered with two domes set on pendentives, which serve as a transition between the heavy square pillars and the circular dome itself. There is a third dome covering the crossing at the transepts. The nave has no side aisles and is directly lit by large clerestory windows set in the frame of the pendentive arches. Notice the walkway at the window level.

Nave elevation,  Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave elevation, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

The apse is a lovely semicircular structure covered with an oven vault. The arches surrounding the side chapels and the apse windows give the appearance of an ambulatory, but in reality there is no circulating walkway around the choir.

Apse, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The exterior shot of the east end shows the superb chevet and the cupola over the chancel crossing. We can clearly see the echeloned chapel on the left and the large chapel at the east axis. Between the two, on each side, is a small radiating chapel.

Chevet, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac  (Lot)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chevet, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In this interior shot of the apse, we see the echeloned chapel and the radiating chapel. Notice how these open directly to the choir without an ambulatory. This would seem to indicate that the Benedictine abbey was not a major pilgrimage church, since there was no need to funnel pilgrims around the choir in order to see the relics in the chapel. This photograph also shows the effect of the light on a church like Sainte Marie de Souillac. All of the interior photographs used in this article were taken during rainy weather except for this shot of the apse. We can see the extraordinary difference the light makes on the interior stone.

Apsidal chapel,  Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

Apsidal chapel, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

As beautiful as the church may be, however, the sculptures are the crown jewels of this – or any other – Romanesque church. All of these pieces once adorned the western portal, but during the destruction of the Wars of Religion, they were salvaged and placed inside the church on the western wall. This is one of the greatest acts of artistic preservation in history. The grouping is dominated by the carved tympanum that depicts the legend of Theophilis of Adama, a disappointed cleric removed from his post by a vengeful bishop. Theophilis sold his soul to the Devil and renounced Christ and the Virgin Mary. Later, fearing for his soul, he repented and prayed to the Virgin who came to his aid.

Nave from east,  Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave from east, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

The two figures on the left depict Satan striking the bargain with Theophilus for his soul. The deal is sealed with his bond. On the right hand side, Satan redeems his bond and lays his hand on Theophilus’ wrist, taking possession of his claim. Above, the prostrate Theophilus is rescued by the Virgin Mary, who returns the bond. The detailing of the tympanum sculpture is superb – notice the chain mail garment worn by Satan.

Tympanum detail, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac  (Lot)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Tympanum detail, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

To the south of the tympanum, at the level of the base, is a fragment of sculpture with remarkable energy and power, a male and female lion tearing at the flesh of a goat. The curves of the feline bodies and the vegetation that entwines them is a masterful, yet it is just a small detail that is easily missed among the rest of the work.

Portal detail, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac  (Lot)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Portal detail, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This tympanum ensemble alone would be a treasure for any church in the world, but there are two additional works that make this one of the centers of the Romanesque universe. The first is a large statue of the prophet Isaiah, dancing in an intoxicating swirl of robes. We believe that this is carved by the same sculptor who created the Jeremiah on the trumeau at the nearby abbey church of Moissac. What was intended originally as a portrait of a biblical prophet is simply a a miracle of movement and ecstasy captured in stone.

Isaiah, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac  (Lot)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Isaiah, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second extraordinary work is the detached trumeau, once the center pillar from a set of double doors that led into the church but now set into the interior west wall of the church. Where the Theophilus tympanum is a religious narrative told for pedantic purposes, the trumeau is one of the most wildly imaginative and evocative works I have ever seen.

Cut from a single block of stone, some of the figures are so deeply incised that they seem independent of the rest of the carvings.  What we see is a vision of writhing, twisting, ravening beasts and fantastic monsters, coupled with the story of the sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac.  This image embodies the mystery of art and its ability to express our deepest fears and doubts.  That this expression has been chiseled out of that great block of stone is proof of the greatness of the artist and the beliefs that motivated him.

Trumeau and tympanum, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac  (Lot)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Trumeau and tympanum, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sainte Marie de Souillac is one of the reasons that we were moved to start this photographic record of the Romanesque churches that eventually became Via Lucis. Every visit reveals a nuance or detail that magnifies the whole. I remember the first time that PJ and I sat down to analyze the imagery of the trumeau and realized the rhythmic patterns of the sculpture. We began to understand the depths of the genius of these anonymous builders who could not only execute, but conceive, such extraordinary works.

View from east end of choir,  Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

View from east end of choir, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

It is one thing to sculpt for the glory of man, the glory of victory, or to memorialize the sacrifice of the lost. But a sculptural conception that explores the mysteries of the human soul and the darkest imaginings of our fears represents a completely different ethos. It is that world that we explore at Via Lucis.

In a month we will be back in Souillac to “visit with Isaiah” and see one of our favorite churches. There are seldom any people there and we are able to spend hours admiring Sainte Marie de Souillac in blissful contemplation.

Location: 44.893972° 1.477482°

“Discovery and Reconstruction – Prieuré Sainte-Gemme” – A Guest Post by Andreï Vlad


This is an English translation of the article “Relevé et Restitutions – Prieuré Sainte-Gemme” – A Guest Post by Andreï Vlad.

Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme, Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Andreï Gheorghe Vlad

Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme, Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Andreï Gheorghe Vlad

Damaged old buildings, or those in ruins, often present an aspect different from their original appearance.

Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme, Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme, Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

In a world dominated by images, the need to visualize and reconstruct these monuments is indispensable. Since the end of the 20th Century, the graphic representation of old buildings has expanded dramatically. This is due to the development of audiovisual media and the advance of new technologies.

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (End of XIth Century)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (End of XIth Century) Model by Andreï Vlad

Restitution (Reconstruction) is “a representation by drawing or a model of the alleged appearance of a mutilated or destroyed building. It is often hypothetical construct a building or part of a vanished building, but also the recovery of an alleged original state.” Pérouse de Montclos J.-M. Architecture. Méthode et vocabulaire, éd. du patrimoine, Paris, 7e éd. 2009

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Beginning of XIIth Century)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Beginning of XIIth Century) Model by Andreï Vlad

Old texts have preserved the record of the major donations for the Prieuré Sainte-Gemme, but the history of the construction of the monastery is blank. Modern graphic representations of the church’s history are rare and only approximations.

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (First Half of XIIth Century)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (First Half of XIIth Century) Model by Andreï Vlad

This description of the remaining parts of the monastery began in the early 2000′s and was designed according to two principles: the pursuit of accuracy and understanding of the monument. Reading and study of existing buildings allowed for the representation – plan, sections, elevations and perspective – of the current state of the church and buildings of the old monastery. A numerical 3D model was created by modeling existing structures. These modeled structures are presented in the form of a video virtual tour or as panoramic still images.

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (End of XIIth Century)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (End of XIIth Century) Model by Andreï Vlad

By modeling existing buildings, we can create reconstructions of Sainte-Gemme as both drawings and animations. The original model was developed based on surveys and studies of the building itself. Missing structures from the past are found in reports of archaeological excavations and a few old photographs. The architectural inferences are clarified by detailed comparison with nearby monuments of the same type and of the same era.

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (End of XIIth Century)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (End of XIIth Century) Model by Andreï Vlad

In our renderings and animations, the missing parts of the buildings were represented by simple volumes – only the estimated proportions are displayed. These estimations are presented as pencil sketches or as a wash, requiring further investigations to complete and refine.

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Before the Wars of Religion XVIth Century)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Before the Wars of Religion XVIth Century) Model by Andreï Vlad

Three periods of the evolution of the monastery have been reconstituted: the first half of the twelfth century (the building of the old church, that, though adapted, is still used); the end of the century (when the monastery was finished); and before the destruction of Wars of Religion (when the monastery was at its maximum extent).

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Before the Wars of Religion XVIth Century)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Before the Wars of Religion XVIth Century) Model by Andreï Vlad

The video animations allow us to move through the reconstructed buildings and to visit the most important spaces inside the monastery; the church, the cloister, and the chapter house.

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Today)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Today) Model by Andreï Vlad

The images are created for a general viewer, above all the public. The reconstructions constitute a teaching tool and a means of instruction for those who intend to study the architectural heritage.

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Today)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Today) Model by Andreï Vlad

These reconstructions are intended to support for investigations: the virtual representation of the monument will be a tool for future research and investigations that may support or challenge the historical proposals already made.

Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme, Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme, Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

Video animations:

The monastery today : http://youtu.be/t_rtSs5rv2U
The reconstruction of the Prieuré Sainte-Gemme at the end of the 12th century: http://youtu.be/AZAC6u5g2Qk
Internet website : http://prieurestegemme17.jimdo.com

https://www.facebook.com/prieure.saintegemme

Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme, Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme, Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 45.771668° -0.888539°
French version of the article

“Relevé et Restitutions – Prieuré Sainte-Gemme” – A Guest Post by Andreï Vlad


“Relevé et Restitutions – Prieuré Sainte-Gemme” is a guest post in French by Andreï Vlad. The English version of this article can be found here.

Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme, Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Andreï Gheorghe Vlad

Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme, Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Andreï Gheorghe Vlad

Les bâtiments anciens mutilés, ou en en ruines, nous renvoient souvent une image altérée de leur aspect d’origine.

Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme, Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme, Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

Dans un monde dominé par l’image, le besoin de visualiser et de restituer ces monuments, devient indispensable. Depuis la fin du siècle passé, la restitution graphique des édifices anciens, à connu un essor spectaculaire, ceci s’explique aussi par le développement des medias audiovisuels et par l’avancée des nouvelles technologies.

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (End of XIth Century)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (End of XIth Century) Model by Andreï Vlad

La restitution est «la représentation par le dessin ou par une maquette de l’aspect présumé d’un édifice mutilé ou détruit. Elle est la construction souvent hypothétique d’un édifice ou d’une partie d’un édifice disparu, mais aussi le rétablissement d’un parti primitif présumé» Pérouse de Montclos J.-M. Architecture. Méthode et vocabulaire, éd. du patrimoine, Paris, 7e éd. 2009.

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Beginning of XIIth Century)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Beginning of XIIth Century) Model by Andreï Vlad

Pour le prieuré de Sainte-Gemme les écrits anciens ont conservé le souvenir des principales donations, mais l’histoire de la construction du monastère n’y est pas renseignée. Les documents graphiques modernes le concernant sont rares et approximatifs.

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (First Half of XIIth Century)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (First Half of XIIth Century) Model by Andreï Vlad

Le relevé des vestiges restants a été commencé au début des années 2000 et il a été conçu selon deux principes : la recherche de l’exactitude et la compréhension du monument. Le relevé et l’étude du bâti existant ont permis la représentation – en plan, coupes, élévations et en perspective – de l’état actuel de l’église et des bâtiments claustraux de l’ancien monastère. Une maquette numérique a pu être réalisée en modélisant les structures existantes. Les structures modélisées sont présentées sous la forme d’une visite virtuelle ou sous forme de vues panoramiques.

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (End of XIIth Century)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (End of XIIth Century) Model by Andreï Vlad

La modélisation des bâtiments existants à permis de proposer des restitutions virtuelles du prieuré de Sainte-Gemme : des dessins et des images animées.
Les hypothèses de restitution du monument ont été élaborées sur la base du relevé et de l’étude du bâti. Les structures disparues nous sont renseignées à travers les rapports des fouilles archéologiques, les quelques photographies anciennes, et précisées par la comparaison approfondie avec les monuments proches, de la même typologie et de la même époque.

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (End of XIIth Century)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (End of XIIth Century) Model by Andreï Vlad

Dans nos dessins et animations, les parties de bâtiment disparus ont été figurés par des volumes simples, seules les proportions primitives y sont recherchées. Les restitutions sont présentés comme des croquis au crayon, ou des lavis, dans l’esprit du document de travail, que des nouvelles investigations devront compléter et affiner.

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Before the Wars of Religion XVIth Century)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Before the Wars of Religion XVIth Century) Model by Andreï Vlad

Trois époques de l’évolution du monastère sont restituées : la première moitié du XIIe siècle (quand une église ancienne, adaptée, est encore utilisée), la fin du même siècle (quand le monastère est fini), et avant les destructions des guerres de religion, (moment ou les bâtiments sont à leur étendue maximale).

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Before the Wars of Religion XVIth Century)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Before the Wars of Religion XVIth Century) Model by Andreï Vlad

Les animations vidéo permettent d’évoluer autour des bâtiments restitués et de visiter l’intérieur des espaces les plus prestigieux du monastère : l’église, le cloître, la salle capitulaire.

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Today)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Today) Model by Andreï Vlad

Ces images s’adressent à tous, d’abord au grand public. Les restitutions peuvent constituer une solution pédagogique et un moyen de formation pour ceux qui se destinent aux métiers du patrimoine.

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Today)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Today) Model by Andreï Vlad

Les restitutions ont pour but d’être un support pour une nouvelle réflexion : la représentation virtuelle du monument sera un outil pour les futures recherches et investigations qui pourra étayer ou remettre en question les propositions historiques déjà formulées.

Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme, Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme, Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

Les animations vidéo:

Le monastère aujourd’hui : http://youtu.be/t_rtSs5rv2U
La restitution du prieuré à la fin du XIIe siècle : http://youtu.be/AZAC6u5g2Qk
Site internet : http://prieurestegemme17.jimdo.com

https://www.facebook.com/prieure.saintegemme

Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme, Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Prieuré de Sainte-Gemme, Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 45.771668° -0.888539°

A Distant Collaboration – the Prieuré Sainte Gemme


PJ and I have remarked over and over how we have had the honor and pleasure of meeting people throughout France (and indeed the world) through the Via Lucis project. Two years ago we were in the Charente-Maritime region of France and stopped by the Prieuré Sainte Gemme, a lovely Romanesque church on an open square in the small commune (population about 1270). The church was closed but as we looked around, a man exited from an attached building and started to mount a bicycle. We introduced ourselves and asked about the church. He was on his way to a meeting, but took time out to show us the church and to open the small museum that he maintained in the adjacent monastic building. We did not have as much time as we would normally take, but were delighted to have been on time to see the church at all.

That man was Andreï Vlad, who subsequently contacted us through Facebook on his site Prieuré de Sainte Gemme.

Andreï Gheorghe Vlad

Andreï Gheorghe Vlad

Since we have been following his work, we have noticed that he has been developing 3D models of the Prieuré de Sainte Gemme and its development through the centuries. In the course of our conversation, we agreed to collaborate on some articles on the the Prieuré de Sainte Gemme using his models and descriptions. PJ and I will append some of the photographs that we took on our too-short visit.

Le Preiuré de Sainte-Gemme (Today)  Model by Andreï Vlad

Le Preiuré de Sainte-Gemme (Today) Model by Andreï Vlad

The article, “Relevé et Restitutions” will be published in French and then in English, with my feeble translation. The article describes how 3D modeling and visualization of the history of the structure reveals the changes made to the site that we view today.

Andreï Gheorghe Vlad

Andreï comes from Roumania where he trained as an architect. He lives and works today in the former monastic buildings of the priory of Sainte-Gemme, where we met him in Fall 2012. He is dedicated to the restoration of the site and to understanding the history of this superb medieval monument. He has also opened the small museum in the adjacent monastic building.

Andreï has published numerous articles and publications on medieval architecture in the Saintonge:

• A. Gh. Vlad, Le prieuré de Pont-l’Abbé d’Arnoult. Etude architecturale (Roccafortis n° 32, septembre 2003, p. 215-224)

• A. Gh. Vlad, Une maison Renaissance à Saint-Jean d’Angle (Roccafortis n° 36, septembre 2005, p.91-99)

• A. Gh. Vlad, Le prieuré casadéen de Sainte-Gemme (Roccafortis n° 38, septembre 2006, p. 199-203)

• Du nouveau au prieuré de Sainte-Gemme : le bâtiment claustral Sud et l’église priorale (Roccafortis n° 40, septembre 2007, p. 332-334)

• A. Gh. Vlad, Le presbytère de Pont-l’Abbé d’Arnoult, une maison urbaine du Moyen-Âge (Roccafortis n°41, janvier 2008, p.23-28)

• A. Gh. Vlad, L’église prieurale de Sainte-Gemme (Roccafortis n° 42, septembre 2008, p. 72-81)

• A. Gh. Vlad, Observations concernant le développement de la ville de Pont-l’Abbé-d’Arnoult (Le bulletin de la Société d’Histoire et d’Archéologie en Saintonge maritime n° 33-2012, p. 23)

• article : « L’implantation casadéenne en Saintonge et le prieuré de Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime) » dans Monastères entre Loire et Charente, PUR édition, 2013 (le site de l’éditeur, Presse Universitaire de Rennes:

• A. Gh. Vlad & Nathalie Soline, Le prieuré de Sainte-Gemme, histoire, architecture, sculpture, restitutions, 1ere (2011, 50 pages) et 2emme (2013, 64 pages) éditions de la brochure, épuisées, en cours de réimpression

The Prieuré Sainte-Gemme website is an excellent resource on the priory church and features models, photos, text, research and videos.

The Monsters of Echillais (Dennis Aubrey)


The small commune of Echillais in the Charente-Maritime sits about seven miles inland from where the Charente River joins the part of the Bay of Biscay called the Pertuis d’Antioche, almost at the Ile d’Oleron. This is a quiet town of 3,000 with Romanesque church that is typical for the Saintonge region. fIt has suffered damage and restoration over the years from wars, predation, and revolution. But it preserves the hallmark signature of these churches – the magnificently decorated western façade. It also preserves a monster to protect and defend the church, the Grand’Goule.

West facade, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West facade, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The interior of the nave was rebuilt after it was mostly destroyed in 1577 during the Wars of Religion, and then restored in 1970 and 1971. What remains is simple – a central passage composed of three bays covered with a banded barrel vault. The bands are sprung from pilasters along the nave walls.

Nave, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

The nave is flanked on each side by a wide, raised side aisle. Each side aisle is covered with a half-barrel vault.

Side aisle from the nave, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle from the nave, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

The choir is a simple elegant hemicycle covered with an oven vault. There is a central window along the central axis of the church and two windows on each side of the chevet. The windows are beautifully framed by slender pillars topped with carved capitals. A narrow decorated frieze connects these windows.

Choir, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Choir, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

The interior of Notre Dame d’Echillais is clean, elegant and spare, but does not compare to the bejeweled western façade. The carved portal and façade is an extraordinary and rich example of the Saintonge architectural style.

The sumptuously decorated central portal was recently restored and today the original limestone is once again white and pristine.

So, where is this great eponymous monster of Echillais that claimed the title to this article? The Grand’Goule can be found just to the left of the main entrance of the western portal. It is one of our beloved column-swallowers, gorging himself in full view of everyone.

West portal, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

West portal, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

For the ghoulish, the discoloration on the stone just below the mouth looks like a trail of blood dripping from the maw for the feeding goule.

Le grand'goule, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Le grand’goule, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is another, far more rare, cousin to the Grand’Goule, just to the north. It is not a column swallower, but a column spewer! He is upside down and the column emerges from his mouth.

Column spewer, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Column spewer, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Unfortunately, there are other monsters in Echillais. A few years ago a band of moto-riders from the village decided to convert Notre Dame de Echillais into a medieval moto-cross. They brought their motos inside and raced by slaloming through the nave arcades. The sacristan came in the following morning to find cigarette butts everywhere, tire tracks on the floor, and damaged fittings – the vandals smashed the font and shattered a 17th century crucifix. Perhaps the Grand-Goule was too outraged to stop his fellow monsters from their profanations.

West door, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

West door, Notre Dame de Echillais, Echillais (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 45.898437° -0.952764°

Église Saint-Léger in Ébreuil (Dennis Aubrey)


When Charlemagne was raising his son Louis (soon to be known as Louis the Pious, Louis the Debonaire, and Louis the Fair), he settled the kingdom of Aquitaine on him as his inheritance. He also settled four gallo-roman villas as palaces and required him to live in each of them for three months of the year, except when he was off on his wars in service of the Kingdom of the Franks. One of those palaces was in the town of Ébreuil, today in the department of the Allier about 35 miles north of Clermont-Ferrand.

Chancel crossing, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil  (Allier)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chancel crossing, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Ebreuil today is a small commune with a population of about 1270 and has little to indicate that in Charlemagne’s empire it was a place of such importance. It is situated on the left bank of the Sioule River at the intersection of two ancient Roman roads. The Roman settlement was called Eborolacum. Saint Léger, for whom the church was named, was a Merovingian bishop of Autun, raised at the court of Clotaire II. He was martyred by a bitter political rival, Ebroin, Mayor of the Palace under Theodoric III.

South side aisle from east, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

South side aisle from east, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The original Carolingian abbey was founded by Louis the Fair in 806 and his son Lothaire donated the palace to the monks after his father’s death. The monks adopted the Benedictine rule. In 898, the monks of Saint-Maixent in the Sarthe fled from Norman incursions and took refuge in Ébreuil. They brought with them the relics of both Saints Léger and Maixent, which were popular with pilgrims and subsequently brought great wealth to the abbey. The current church was built in the 11th century and later updated with a 12th century Gothic choir.

Crossing from transept, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Crossing from transept, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The long narrow Romanesque nave of six bays has very tall arches supported by massive piers. The lighting in the nave proper comes from the large clerestory windows. The church is covered with a wooden vault. Notice the remnants of the fine Gothic frescoes adorning the pillars on the south side.

Nave, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil  (Allier)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

These Gothic frescoes include Saint George in combat with the dragon and the Annunciation on the pier of the south side of the nave as we face east.

Pier frescoes, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Pier frescoes, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

On the other side of the same pier, as we face west, are two sets of saints. The two top figures are Saint Anthony and Saint Léger.

Pier frescoes, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Pier frescoes, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The earlier and more important of these frescoes, created around 1125, are found in the tribune above the narthex opening onto the nave. They represent Saint Austremoine, the martyrdoms of Saint Pancrace and Saint Valerie of Limoges, and other scenes. Unfortunately, it was not possible to gain access to this tribune for photography when we visited.

Narthex tribune frescoes, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Narthex tribune frescoes, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The choir is a 13th century Gothic update to the church and features a fine hemicycle befitting an important pilgrimage church. The shrine of Saint Léger, still venerated, is at the rear of this passage.

Choir, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil  (Allier)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir, Église Saint-Léger, Ébreuil (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The day we were in Ébreuil we were unfortunate victims of photo interruptus. We could not photograph the large and unique narthex in the west and our time inside was cut short because preparations were being made for a grand event. Tables were being unloaded in the narthex and the church was a hive of activity. We will be required to go back to do justice to this superb church in the Allier.

Location: 46.114783° 3.088388°

For pilgrymes are we alle – Part 2 (Dennis Aubrey)


For pilgrymes are we alle.
William Langland, Piers Plowman

This is part two of For pilgrymes are we all.

The intent of pilgrimage was clear to all. Amery Picaud wrote in the Codex Callixtus “The pilgrim route is for those who are good: it is the lack of vices, the thwarting of the body, the increase of virtues, pardon for sins, sorrow for the penitent, the road of the righteous, love of the saints, faith in the resurrection and the reward of the blessed, a separation from hell, the protection of the heavens. It takes us away from luscious foods, it makes gluttonous fatness vanish, it restrains voluptuousness, constrains the appetites of the flesh which attack the fortress of the soul, cleanses the spirit, leads us to contemplation, humbles the haughty, raises up the lowly, loves poverty. It hates the reproach of those fuelled by greed. It loves, on the other hand, the person who gives to the poor. It rewards those who live simply and do good works; And, on the other hand, it does not pluck those who are stingy and wicked from the claws of sin.”

Église Saint Genès, Chateaumeillant (Cher)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Saint Genès, Chateaumeillant (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The reality, of course, was often quite different. Even in the 12th century, Honorius of Autun stated that the pilgrimage only made sense when it was undertaken for a penance for serious sin. Any reason beyond that was merely one of vanity: “the only profit which they draw from it is that of having seen pleasant places or fine buildings, or of winning the fine name they desired.”

Cathédrale Saint Trophime, Arles (Bouches-du-Rhône)  Photo by PJ McKey

Cathédrale Saint Trophime, Arles (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by PJ McKey

The behavior of pilgrims could be scandalous as well. Lechery, venality, and many other vices made their appearances among the masses. William Langland’s poem “Piers the Plowman” contains fierce criticism of the majority of those who visit ‘holy places.’ Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales mirror the real-life behaviors of pilgrims who amused themselves en route with songs, musical instruments and story-telling, Chaucer’s tales cover the gamut of the real pilgrimage with everything from the lives of saints and serious treatises to baudy stories. The lines relating to the Pardoner and his false relics are worth quoting:

There was no pardoner of equal grace,
For in his trunk he had a pillow-case
Which he asserted was Our Lady’s veil.
He said he had a gobbet of the sail
Saint Peter had the time when he made bold
To walk the waves, till Jesu Christ took hold.
He had a cross of metal set with stones
And, in a glass, a rubble of pigs’ bones
And with these relics, any time he found
Some poor up-country parson to astound,
In one short day, in money down, he drew
More than the parson in a month or two.

Église Saint-Paul de Châteauneuf, Chateauneuf (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Église Saint-Paul de Châteauneuf, Chateauneuf (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

These “pardoners” who sold indulgences eventually became one of the great scourges of Christianity. The problem was so general by the 15th century that indulgences were granted by the Popes themselves.

The reality of pilgrimage was a long way from the original intent, which could not have been nobler. The medieval pilgrimage was a metaphor of the spiritual journey towards the Heavenly city of Jerusalem. This was both a personal journey and part of a ritualized passage of the church.

Église Saint-Léger, Ebreuil (Allier)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Saint-Léger, Ebreuil (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Pilgrimage, like that testament to Christian charity, almsgiving, had begun as an accessory to the moral teaching of the church. And like almsgiving, it too often ended up as an alternative.