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.

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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.

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.

In Seclusio at Thines (Dennis Aubrey)


During our second visit with Dom Angelico Surchamp, he discussed how certain remote churches were originally approachable only by mountain paths but now can be reached by roads accessible to any automobile. “We lose the essential setting that was the purpose of the church in the first place,” he stated. At the time I thought immediately of Saint Martin-du-Canigou and Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert, but it also seems to apply to Notre Dame de Thines in the Pays Cévenol region of the Ardèche.

This 12th century church is in the remotest area of the region, in a lieu-dit, not even a hameau, and there is nothing around except a wilderness even today. In the photograph taken from a distance, the only elements that mark it as 21st century are the rickity power poles and the monument to the Resistance on the rock wall.

Thines (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Thines (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

At times like this, and in places like Thines, it is still possible to get the sense of what the medieval world was like in France. It is well-known that many monasteries were built in the “wilderness” by the communities of worship. They wished to have a site in seclusio, secluded, far from the bustle of commerce and the world, in order to preserve their life of contemplation. In this town, we get a sense of that peace and quiet. Life would have been harsh, particularly during the coldest winters, but the solitude must also have been a comfort.

Apse exterior, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche)  Photo by PJ McKey

Apse exterior, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

But it is perhaps a romantic view that insists that the Benedictines built the abbey at Thines solely as a remote site of contemplation. Was it a pilgrimage stop, like so many other monasteries? It is tempting to suppose so because Notre Dame de Thines is so close to Le-Puy-en-Velay, but there is no mention of pilgrimage until the 19th century. Père Bernard Nougier wrote, “It is especially important to remember several favorable conjunctions: in the twelfth century, this was an active valley producing wine, honey and chestnuts, surprisingly able to pay heavy taxes; the presence of a feudal castle site owned by the dominant family of Châteauneuf, the Randon, who needed to develop a religious building near the tower that flattered his power; the dependence of the Abbey of Saint-Chaffre Monastier; and monastic priory Langogne that dotted the Ardèche with beautifully constructed churches. A nearby ridge path served as an important line of communication between the Rhone valley and the Massif Central, used to bring gifts sealing friendships among such personages as the lords of Anduze and the Count of Toulouse related to Randon, and the close proximity of mines in the region between Thines and Chassezac where materials will come from to build.”

Nave capital, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave capital, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

While Père Bernard may be correct in showing why there were resources to build the monastery at Thines, it is still likely that it was, in the Middle Ages, as remote and secluded as it is today. The silences and darkness would have been just as profound. The bells of matins and complines would have sounded across the valleys and have been heard for miles.

Altar, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche)  Photo by PJ McKey

Altar, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

What was at the heart of this monastic consecration? It was a life of contemplative prayer, hard work, asceticism, and penance. The goal was to create a rich spiritual life by which the congregation might sanctify themselves so that they could help their neighbors. And above all, theirs was a life hidden in God and lived in solitude within a community of silence.

Apse, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche)  Photo by PJ McKey

Apse, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

How disturbing it must have been when the outside world intruded on the quiet site of the abbey, particularly the violence of religious conflict. To see Huguenots troops pillage the tiny village, imprison the old curé and deface the precious sculptures of the church must have made even the most the most callous of the residents weep. What had they to do with the tumult of that other world and why were they set upon so fiercely?

Exterior sculpture, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Exterior sculpture, Église Notre Dame de Thines, Thines (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The violations of those distant years continue in our own time. Notre Dame de Thines possessed a fine 14th century Vierge à l’Enfant, but it was stolen in 1973 and has never been recovered.

Notre Dame de Thines

Notre Dame de Thines

In our travels, PJ and I have often seen the active monastic life being practiced in our modern world. We have seen black-robed Benedictines walking in their cloisters just as their predecessors did when they rebuilt Europe a thousand years ago. But we also hear the echoes of sandaled footsteps in lonely churches long deprived of their monastic communities. And in our imaginations, we listen for the distant murmurs of prayer.

Location: 44.493163° 4.050451°

Le Pegase (Dennis Aubrey) Translation by Albert Pinto


This article is the first in a series translations by Albert Pinto. This is a translation of Pegasus, a post from July 2014. To see other articles translated into French and Italian, follow this link.

“Il y eut, dans le Moyen Age un cinéma en couleurs dont rien n’est resté, comme il y eut, dans la rapide fortune de ce monde qui n’avait pas oublié sa misère d’hier, et où surgissaient les cathédrales qui semblaient les symboliser, une exaltation assurée, parente de celle de l’Amérique” .
(André Malraux, “Les voix du silence”)

André Malraux émet l’idée, dans ” Les voix du silence”, que les artistes, au Moyen Age, ne créaient pas des images ou des statues représentant simplement la Vierge Marie, mais entendaient susciter la réalité même de la Madone. Ils ne disaient pas : “ceci est une image de Marie”, mais: ” J’offre la Vierge Marie à votre contemplation”.

Notre Dame d'Estours, Monistrol d'Allier (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame d’Estours, Monistrol d’Allier (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Qu’était donc la vie, en ces temps, pour permettre une telle compréhension ? Je crois que tout au long de ces dernières années, le présent blog a bien souligné que ces artisans médiévaux, loin d’être primitifs et ignorants, étaient au contraire capables d’une vision du monde très élaborée et de l’ expression particulièrement pénétrante des convictions qui les habitaient profondément. J’en suis arrivé à penser que s’ils avaient pu accéder à un tel aboutissement, c’est parce qu’ils avaient pressenti les promesses d’une foi qui rejoint cette ” splendide confiance dans l’avenir” exprimée par Malraux. A ma propre mesure, mon esprit s’est ouvert à une telle compréhension le 9 décembre 1977…

Cette nuit-là, un rêve d’une puissance et d’une vivacité énormes m’a envahi, jusqu’à provoquer, dans ma vie jusque là égocentrique et limitée au repli sur soi, l’irruption d’une foi durable . J’ai conservé, dans mon journal daté du 9 décembre de cette année, la transcription, faite en plein milieu de la nuit, de ce rêve mémorable :

” Des rêves de violence par douzaines ces temps derniers – mais le songe de Pegase les a résolus . Ayant capturé deux hommes se transformant en deux chevaux blancs par lesquels je me sentais menacé, le premier cheval ayant sauté par dessus une barrière pour m’atteindre, je prends conscience qu’il me faut relâcher le second – il est en fait en mon pouvoir. Ce second cheval escalade un grillage d’une grande hauteur et, prenant son élan, s’élève vers le ciel – un magnifique Pegase blanc – vision argentée dans la lumière de la lune qui transperce les nuages. On ne peut qu’être transfiguré par tant de beauté – Je sais que je peux la percevoir parce qu’elle est bien là. Les passants qui rient de mon extase ne peuvent pas la voir, pourtant elle est bien réelle – une vision de beauté . Donner, l’un des personnages de la fosse en béton, me poignarde dans le dos – il devait le faire – peut-être parce que j’avais vu Pégase – mais c’est sans malveillance. Sachant que je vais bientôt mourir, je dis – laisse-moi vivre encore une semaine afin que je puisse voir mes parents. La mort commence à me saisir physiquement, comme un effondrement intérieur. Je vais voir mon père à la cuisine. Je pleure en l’embrassant et en lui disant combien je l’aime. Ah! ce sentiment d’avoir vu Pegase et de devoir mourir pour l’avoir aperçu…et pourtant, l’ayant vu, je peux accepter d’en mourir. Pegase vient de quelque chose qui est de l’ordre de la punition…quelque chose qui relève, me semble-t-il du mal ou de la faute, mais qui n’est en réalité que le réceptacle de Pégase” .

Picasso-Guernica-Horse_big

Une telle révélation me fait encore frissonner lorsque je relis ces lignes après lesquelles je n’avais plus rien relaté dans mon journal pendant 17 mois.

Lors des nuits suivantes, ce rêve puis des bribes de ce rêve sont revenus me hanter. La première nuit, il se répéta en entier et les nuits suivantes j’en ai revécu des fragments , comme si je refaisais les prises d’un film, expliquant et soulignant telles séquences du rêve original ; rien n’était modifié, seulement amplifié. Dans une de ces séquences, alors que le deuxième cheval blanc franchissait la barrière grillagée, je voyais comme en gros plan le fil barbelé lui meurtrir les chairs et j’en étais si proche que je pouvais sentir son souffle sur mon visage.

Cependant, tout au long de ces rêves s’est imposée à moi une conviction, une certitude absolue que tout cela était comme une promesse qui m’accompagnerait durant toute mon existence, la promesse que j’aurais la vision de Pegase avant de mourir et que, l’ayant vu, je serais prêt à accueillir la mort. Telle aura été, durant toute ma vie, la source de ma foi dans cette ” splendide confiance en l’avenir “.

Réfléchissant parfois à mon existence, je me demande comment un être sensé peut accepter que sa vie repose sur de tels rêves ? Y a-t-il une explication rationnelle à cette voix désincarnée qui m’interpelle ? Je l’entends clairement, mais elle n’émane d’aucune source visible. S’agit-il vraiment d’une vision ou seulement d’un songe ? Toujours est-il qu’à ces moments, je comprends le sens de la ” Lakota Vision Quest ” cette quête à laquelle se livrent les Indiens Lakota pour susciter une vision (*) .

Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus,  Santa Maria del Popolo (Rome)

Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Santa Maria del Popolo (Rome)

J’ai toujours aspiré, sans y parvenir, à avoir un signe, une vision personnelle de Dieu qui me guiderait. A être transfiguré par la lumière sur un chemin de Damas où d’autres pourraient la percevoir sans entendre la voix. Je voudrais être dans cet état de béatitude dans lequel je ne prendrais pas de photos des églises mais créerais ces églises.

(*) La “Lakota Vision Quest” est une cérémonie purement individuelle dans laquelle le sujet entre dans une sorte de transe pour obtenir la vision d’un esprit tutélaire dont il sollicitera des conseils pour mieux mener sa vie.

Weeping for Zion (Dennis Aubrey)


By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. Psalm 137:1 (King James Bible)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was quoted as saying, “Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’ Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’” Edward E. Ericson, Jr., “Solzhenitsyn – Voice from the Gulag,” Eternity, October 1985, pp. 23–4

It is not just that men have forgotten God. Humanity has placed so many restrictions on how we can approach the mystical side of life, the crucial part of the divine that cannot be explained in merely rational terms. Catholics have created a God that can only be perceived as part of a dogmatic Trinity. Calvinists attempt to abandon the mystical in religion completely. Modern rationalism has embraced a form of primum movens as the first cause of existence and then dismisses the divine from any further role. It is as if a creator set in motion a celestial algorithm that plays out forever in its own private fractal dimension.

How is possible to limit the illimitable? Humanity has imbued rocks, trees, waters, winds, the sun, moon, stars, statues, emperors, and contemplatives with divinity. The divine has embraced war, love, death, rebirth, beauty, fertility, justice, and evil. All of these are attempts to define that which cannot be defined.

Notre Dame d'Heume, Heume l'Eglise (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame d’Heume, Heume l’Eglise (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Although not a practicing Catholic, there is a sense in which I am profoundly moved by the concept of the Virgin Mary as expressed in the Middle Ages. To touch and handle Throne of Wisdom madonnas like Notre Dame d’Heume or Notre Dame de Vassiviéres links me to the fervor of veneration for the Mother of God that led to the creation of the great cathedral of Chartres as her home on earth. It moves me when I see the simple beauty of the Sedes Sapientiae madonna with her implied knowledge of the sacrifice of her son and it is possible to sense the deep feeling and kinship expressed by the artist. This is no simple idol, but the most human response to the most human of the venerated saints. God used a human being to create his son and Mary is the mystical link between our own humanity and the divine.

Notre Dame d'Estours, Monistrol d'Allier (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame d’Estours, Monistrol d’Allier (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Solzhenitsyn said further, “Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive.” In a world exhausted by intolerance, war, polarized politics, economic greed and criminal manipulations by those in power; in a world dominated by the material, finding no solace in science or or learning, people look for answers in the secret places within.

Side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Among the things that we might find when we do so is the spiritual or the religious. We might settle for a simple dogma or belief that justifies our personal desires, prejudices or wishes, or we can look again, but deeper within. We can look to what is right for all of humanity, for all people. We can seek justice and follow the path of those who have defined the best in the human spirit.

Side aisle of Église Saint-Pierre , Parthenay-le-Vieux (Deux-Sèvres) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle of Église Saint-Pierre , Parthenay-le-Vieux (Deux-Sèvres) Photo by PJ McKey

The articles in Via Lucis describe the churches that we photograph, sometimes as architecture, as reflections of the age that built them, and often as survivors of the tumults of the thousand violent years through which they have passed. But Via Lucis also expresses what PJ and I are trying to personally capture with these photographs, the sensation of the ineffable. Sometimes the writing is a meditation and sometimes a personal vision of faith.

North side chapel, Église Saint-Laurent d'Auzon, Auzon (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

North side chapel, Église Saint-Laurent d’Auzon, Auzon (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

And once in a while it all seems so complicated and perhaps we regret having tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that prevents us from trusting the yearnings of our heart. Perhaps we yearn for a time when the sacred seemed always to surround us, hoping for a concrescence of human knowledge and the divine.

Perhaps we are simply weeping for the Zion that was the pure and deep faith that we possessed as children.

Note: The music at the beginning of this post is the “Lachrymosa” from “Requiem for My Friend” by Zbigniew Preisner. The piece was written after the untimely death of his friend, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Lacrimosa is, of course, Latin for “weeping”.

Grave of Krzysztof Kieslowski (Warsaw) Image by Krzysztof M. Bednarski, published under GNU Free Documentation License.

Grave of Krzysztof Kieslowski (Warsaw) Image by Krzysztof M. Bednarski, published under GNU Free Documentation License.

Joseph Pearce. “An Interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn.” St. Austin Review 2 no. 2 (February, 2003)is reprinted here.

Zodiaque, Making Medieval Modern by Janet Marquardt


Professor Janet Marquardt’s long awaited opus, Zodiaque, Making Medieval Modern, 1951–2001 is ready for release!

The description of the book at the Penn State University Press states:

Begun in 1951 by monks at the abbey of La Pierre-qui-Vire in Burgundy, the Zodiaque publications consisted of a triennial journal and multiple series of books, including the most famous: La Nuit des temps. The editors’ goal was to renew sacred art for twentieth-century viewers by making connections between the direct, “primitive” character of pre-Gothic religious art and an emerging modernist aesthetic. Focusing almost exclusively on Romanesque architecture and sculptural decoration, Zodiaque revived the style’s richness and variety, bringing to light monuments lost to popular currency and visually shaping their reception with a new eye to graphic forms. What captured the public imagination and brought the Zodiaque books to international attention was their primary feature: striking black-and-white photogravures. These powerful images went beyond documentary photography to become collectible graphic prints, shaping the plastic form seen by the camera into a fresh two-dimensional artwork. In Zodiaque, Janet Marquardt explores the motivations, philosophies, and workshop practices of Éditions Zodiaque and how they affected the scholarly discourse on medieval art and architecture.

The pre-release reviews have been stunning, epitomized by this selection by Guy Lobrichon of the Université d’Avignon.

“The French avant-garde monks who created the publishing house Zodiaque in Burgundy thought they were shaping the inner world that post–WWII societies were lacking. How was picturing, framing, printing, and publishing on Romanesque art a way to a better world? And why Romanesque rather than Gothic? Thomas Merton, Albert Gleize and the Cubists, Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Focillon, André Malraux, and Jacques Maritain were the scouts and witnesses of a fifty-year venture that made the medieval modern. The brilliant medievalist Janet Marquardt is our guide, the one we need for a journey that begins as a monograph on a sacred aesthetic experience and finally turns into global history.”

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Via Lucis is so lucky to have Professor Marquardt as one of our guest writers. She is also the person who put us in touch with the great founder of the Éditions Zodiaque, Angelico Surchamp. Congratulations to you, Janet. We can’t wait to order our copy.

War and Reconstruction – Saint Remi (Dennis Aubrey)


We have written much about the damages done to churches by war, in particular the destruction of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Reims in World War I. One of the most famous photographs of that war was taken as an artillery shell exploded on the cathedral on September 20, 1914.

German shell bursting against Reims Cathedral on September 20, 1914

German shell bursting against Reims Cathedral on September 20, 1914

The town of Reims was nearly leveled in the conflict, especially during the closing stages of the war during the intensive artillery shelling that inflicted the worst damage to Notre Dame. At this time, the nearby 11th century basilica dedicated to Saint Remi, in use as a hospital since the Napoleonic Wars, was badly damaged as well.

Basilique Saint Remi (1918).  Source:  Bibliothèque nationale de France

Basilique Saint Remi (1918). Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Henri Deneux (1874-1969)

Henri Deneux (1874-1969)

It would take nearly 40 years of meticulous labor under the direction of architect Henri Deneux to restore Saint Remi to its medieval splendor. Deneux worked simultaneously to restore the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Reims, the église Saint-Jacques de Reims, and the Basilique Saint Remi. For his efforts, he was awarded the chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 1927.

The basilica dedicated to Saint Remi is an integral part of the central theme of the creation of the state of France. In AD 496 Clovis I, the King of the Salian Franks, desperately needed a victory over his enemies, the confederation of Germanic tribes from the Upper Rhine known as the Alemanni. During the course of the Battle of Tolbiac, the King was dismayed at the deaths of so many of his warriors and prayed to the God of his Christian wife, Clotilde, for victory. He vowed to convert to Christianity if his forces were victorious. After his victory at the Battle of Tolbiac, the Alemanni formed part of the Frankish dominions and Clovis was baptized in Reims by Saint ‪Remigius‬, known in France as Saint Rémi, on the site of the current basilica.

West façade, Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West facade, Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

At his death, the venerated ‪Remigius‬ was buried on site where he baptised Clovis. The small oratory dedicated to Saint Christophe that sheltered his tomb became a renowned site of pilgrimage and in the late 8th century a monastery for a community of Benedictines was built here. In 852 a new church was constructed, but it was torn down in 1000 to build a larger, grander church. This work began in 1007 and was consecrated by Pope Leon IX in 1049. Work continued for two centuries and eventually the church was finished with an 11th century Romanesque nave and transepts and a massive 12th century Gothic choir.

Nave, Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The church is constructed on the basilica plan with a nave, two side aisles, transepts, an apse with radiating chapels, and a choir surrounded by an ambulatory. Saint Remi is enormous, 120 meters long and 58 meters wide. The nave ceiling is 28 meters high. In the nave elevation, we see the arcades with their rounded arches and the tribune level surmounted by the clerestory windows. The fine quadripartite vaulting covering the nave is a product of a 16th century reconstruction.

Nave elevation, Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave elevation, Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

Despite the fact that the church took so long to construct and resulted in a combination of Romanesque and Gothic elements, the result is exceptionally harmonious, much like the same combination found at Mary Magdalene’s basilica in Vézelay. Sartell Prentice’s description of that church is applicable here as well: “… twilight beneath the groin vault of the Romanesque nave; midday in the Gothic apse”.

Side aisle, Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

The original Romanesque choir was fairly small and was rebuilt in the Gothic style in the late 12th century in order to create a grander space for the tomb of Saint Remi. This central choir surrounded by an ambulatory was necessary to accommodate the large number of pilgrims who came to venerate the relics of Saint Remi.

Ambulatory, Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

At the center of the enormous four level choir is the tomb of Saint Remi containing his relics. The tomb we see today was created in 1847 to replace the 16th century version that was destroyed during the French Revolution in 1793. The new tomb incorporated sculptures from the original, which were somehow not destroyed. There was a scene of the baptism of Clovis and a series of statues of the 14th century ecclesiastical peers who assisted in the coronation of the Kings of France at the Cathedral: The Archbishop of Reims, the Bishop of Laon who held the Sainte Ampoule, the Bishop of Beauvais who carried the royal mantle, the Bishop of Langres who held the scepter, the Bishop of Chalons who carried the ring, and the Bishop of Noyon who carried the King’s baldric.

Most of the stained glass windows are from the 17th and 20th centuries, but there are a few above the tomb that have survived from the 12th century. We can see those panels embedded in the newer glass in the tribune level.

Tomb of Saint Remi, Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Tomb of Saint Remi, Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Saint Remi is one of my favorite churches in France, remarkable for its elegance and harmony, despite the violence perpetrated over the ages. Sometimes I get so upset over the destructions done to these churches. In my mind, they are emblematic of the best in human striving and we seem to be able to destroy them without a second thought. But then again, perhaps we would not have the opportunity to witness the greatness of men such as Henri Deneux who dedicated himself to bringing them back to life.

Hanging in the crossing is a large chandelier with 96 candles that pays homage to Saint Rémi, who died at the age of 96. It is only fitting that the restorer of Saint Remi, Henri Deneux, also died at that advanced age, and for some of us, the chandelier is a reminder of his accomplishments as well. His true memorial, however, is the great church that we see on the site of Remigius’ baptism of the first Christian king of France.

Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 49.243094° 4.042122°

The Destruction of Sint Jan de Doper (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I have never had the opportunity to photograph the Romanesque and Gothic churches in Belgium. One of the most famous, the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Tournai, calls to us like a siren. There are not many Romanesque churches in the country; most of them were replaced by Gothic successors over the years. My preliminary research indicates that they number in the dozens.

Today, however, one of those few is no longer with us. The church Sint-Jan-de-Doper has graced the town of Flemish town of Anzegem for about 850 years.

Sint-Jan-de-Doper à Anzegem

Sint-Jan-de-Doper à Anzegem

We heard from our friend Marie-Thérèse Faidherbe the disastrous news that Sint-Jan-de-Doper has burned and is completely lost.

Disasters such as these are reminders that we are lucky to have the churches that remain to us.

Spiritual renewal and a church in Vinezac (Dennis Aubrey)


The medieval cartulary of the nearby Abbey of Viviers written in the 8th century refers to the existence of a church in Vinezac. The current church, at least the Romanesque portion, dates from the 12th century. Over the years the church has changed significantly, partly when it was integrated into the fortified walls protecting the village during the Hundred Years War and partly because of the liturgical demands of the organization of penitents that were housed by the church.

A significant characteristic of the Christian churches was the continuous demand for spiritual renewal, not merely of individuals, but for the church itself. These demands encompassed everything from the founding of new and more strict monastic orders to complete reformation of the church. One of the more interesting was the founding of the Penitent orders, associations of the laity gathered for a charitable purpose. These organizations began in the twelfth century by embodying the concept of “penitence” in the sense of “gift of self to the other,” which is totally different from the spirit of mortification and redemption of sins.

The Confrérie des Pénitents Noirs de la Miséricorde et de la Fidélité was created in 1329 during a virulent outbreak of cholera. These secular brothers dedicated themselves to helping the dying. Later they changed their mission to provide spiritual and material support to prisoners and accompany them at their executions. In recognition of these efforts, on September 8, 1596 Pope Clement VIII granted the Confrérie the right to commute the death sentence of one prisoner a year on the day of the liturgical feast of the beheading of John the Baptist.

Une procession de pénitents noir, à Perpignan (© DR)

Une procession de pénitents noir, à Perpignan (© DR)

The Pénitents Noirs were particularly active in this region; the Confrérie des Pénitents Noirs de Saint-Sébastien de Vinezac was founded in 1612 and was granted the church at Vinezac for its home.

The town of Vinezac set one of the best preserved medieval towns in France. The walled enclosure is almost intact with its three gates, and it looks like a town in the Middle Ages with its narrow ruelles and alleys winding through the old stone houses. The church granted to the Confrérie, Notre Dame de Vinezac, is a strange mélange church today, what PJ calls a “pudding church“.

There is a nave of three bays terminating in a semi-circular apse in the east, which was entirety of the Romanesque church. In later years, there were additions, of course, the most prominent being the addition of the long side aisle/chapels on either side of the nave by the Pénitents Noirs in the 19th century. In addition, a painted cupola was superimposed on the crossing.

Nave, Église Notre Dame, Vinezac (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave, Église Notre Dame, Vinezac (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

The chancel crossing supports the painted dome, probably from the late 17th or early 18th century painted in an Italianate style. Both the style and the opulence of the decoration is surprising in a small rural church, but most likely stems from the importance of the Confrérie. The triangular pendentives at the base of the dome represent the four Evangelists – Saint Mark with a lion, Saint Luke and the bull, Saint John and an eagle, and Saint Matthew showing a book to an angel.

Crossing, Église Notre Dame, Vinezac (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

Crossing, Église Notre Dame, Vinezac (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

One of the most unusual features of the church is the visual impact of the barrel vault in the third bay of the nave. We can see a polychrome decoration formed by the alternating bands of gray sandstone and reddish limestone.

Nave with decorated barrel vault, Église Notre Dame, Vinezac (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave with decorated barrel vault, Église Notre Dame, Vinezac (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

The sculptural decoration of the church is unusual as well – there are five corinthian-style capitals decorated with foliage and a couple of others featuring animal motifs filled with aggression and fantasy. One is an image that we have seen in Chauvigny and other places where two animals share the same head.

Capital, Église Notre Dame, Vinezac (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Église Notre Dame, Vinezac (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second is a theme that reminds me of the great trumeau at Souillac where animals are depicted devouring each other. In this case, one animal eats another and is in turn eaten by a third.

Devouring beasts, Église Notre Dame, Vinezac (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Devouring beasts, Église Notre Dame, Vinezac (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

On the south wall of the church there is a bas-relief depicting the story of Daniel in the lion’s den. The carving is primitive and has led some to ascribe it as a 9th or 10th century Carolingian remnant from the earlier church. Many scholars now believe that it was carved no earlier than the end of the eleventh century, however the Centre de recherche des monuments historiques classifies it as Epoque mérovingienne, which would date it much earlier, possibly as early as the 7th century. There is no indication anywhere of the original placement of the fragment.

Bas-relief - Daniel in the lions' den, Église Notre Dame, Vinezac (Ardèche)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Bas-relief – Daniel in the lions’ den, Église Notre Dame, Vinezac (Ardèche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Église Notre Dame de Vinezac is a lovely reminder of the Pénitents movement of the church during the Middle Ages. Even the secular believers committed themselves to good works in order to provide for the poor and underprivileged. These organizations still exist – my father has been very active in the Knights of Columbus for decades and both my father and mother are still active in the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, whose mission is to “End poverty through systematic change”.

Nave to side aisles,  Église Notre Dame, Vinezac (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave to side aisles, Église Notre Dame, Vinezac (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

A church whose goal is spiritual, not material, must by necessity renew itself in order to thrive. These secular societies have been – and are today – part of that never-ending process.

Location: 44.539090° 4.325280°