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, many of which can be seen on the VIA LUCIS website.

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 VIA LUCIS LLC. Thank you for respecting this notice.

A Mountain Masterpiece – Serrabone (Dennis Aubrey)


On an arid hilltop 2000 feet up in the region of the sacred Mont Canigou, there was a small 11th century parish church dedicated to Our Lady that served what could only have been the tiniest of communities. It was in the region of the eastern Pyrénées known as Aspres, derived from the Catalan word for “arid”, but was known by the name Serrabona, or “beautiful mountain”. Serrabona could only lend itself to the harshest life for the residents, and was indeed known as the desert. The hard life could only have been relieved by the trickle of pilgrims who came through on their way to Santiago Compostela. Things changed in 1082, however. Notre Dame de Serrabona was granted to a community of canons from the Order of Saint Augustine, who immediately began work expanding the church and creating a monastic community. Their new priory church was consecrated in 1151 by the Bishop of Elne.

North exterior view, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Most of the monastic buildings are long gone, leaving only the church and austere bell-tower. There is a wonderful fragment of the cloister on the south side, but the main architectural feature of the church itself is the ornate tribune, carved from the beautiful pink marble of the region. The tribune divides the nave into two parts, conventionally explained as one for the canons who resided at the priory, and the second for the faithful who came to the church for worship. It is also speculated that a choir would sing atop the platform.

The tribune is three arcades wide and two bays deep. The arcades are topped by a large cornice that creates a façade facing west. The sculpting on the façade is done in low relief and is similar to most of the religious sculpture in the region. The capitals supporting the cornice, however, are carved fully in the round.

Tribune, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

There are some questions about this tribune, however, that I am going to address in this post, having to do with asking why this ornate marble structure was placed in the remote, unadorned collegiate church frequented by a mere handful of canons.

The first question is whether or not the tribune was brought to Serrabone from another location. The ill-fitting way it is wedged into the nave is pointed to as evidence of this (notice how the right side is truncated against the north wall of the church). One school of academic research has even proposed that the original came from the abbey of Saint Michel de Cuxa. Stylistically the sculpture is very similar and was probably executed by the same school, but the marble is different. Both are made of the beautiful local pink marble, but Cuxa’s marble comes from the Babebany quarry near Conflent, which is forty kilometers distant from Serrabone. The marble for Serrabone comes from Bouleternère, a quarry only a dozen kilometers from the priory itself. It makes no sense that if the tribune was originally carved at Cuxa that the workers would go to distant Bouleternère for their marble when the rest of their famous abbey was made from the Babebany marble just twelve kilometers distant. This provides strong evidence that the carving was done in situ at Serrabone, or at least at the Bouleternère quarry.

Tribune panel, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second question is whether the tribune was originally installed in one place at Serrabone and then moved to the center of the nave. Some experts claim that the tribune was moved to the nave in the 17th or 19th century. However, I read an interesting mathematical analysis by Paul Lemonde that demonstrates that the church was modified in the 12th century to accommodate the large tribune and that it was designed to serve as an interior portal to the church.

Tribune capital, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The third question is whether or not the tribune was intended as a rood screen, or jubé, a symbolic barrier between the clergy and the lay worshipers. I am not convinced that this is the case. First, it is almost impossible to see the altar from any place other than the center of the nave beyond the tribune. Second, all of the carving on the cornice is on the west side, the “lay” side of the nave.

East view of tribune, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Taking a cue from Paul Lemonde’s theory that the tribune is an interior portal of the church, I believe that the structure divided the nave into two parts – a nave and a narthex. The western section served as a place to gather pilgrims during the times where the canons were celebrating their monastic offices. Like the narthex at Vézelay or Tournus or any number of other Romanesque churches, this narthex featured sculpted instruction in the mysteries of the faith for the pilgrims.

Whatever the reasons that this magnificent structure was placed in this remote church, the result is a superb ensemble, among the finest works of Romanesque sculpture remaining to us. Unlike most Romanesque work, however, the figures on the tribune are not narrative, but symbolic. Only one – Saint Michael contending with a demonic dragon – is an example of story-telling. Instead we see a profusion of angels, vegetation, and human faces. There are symbols from the text of the Apocalypse, symbols of the Evangelists and a fantastical bestiary consisting of birds, eagles, lions, centaurs, stags, bulls, griffins and monkeys.

Griffins and centaurs, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

A close-up of the bird capital contending with a snake shows the splendid sculptural technique that looks like nothing less than a jeweled mosaic.

Tribune detail, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the end, the remote harshness of life defeated the canons and the priory was shut down amidst great scandal. Once again the priory became a parish church and was eventually abandoned altogether. By the early 1900’s it was in private hands. The owner, to our eternal appreciation, began the restoration and today the church is a glory of the French patrimony.

Location: 42.598, 2.6226

A New Project for Via Lucis (Dennis Aubrey)


As regular readers of the Via Lucis blog know, our work has focused almost exclusively on European Romanesque churches with an occasional foray into the Gothic. We make a regular trip between six to eight weeks to France (and sometimes Spain and Italy) for the photography and then spend the rest of the year writing about the churches that we photographed. It is not unusual for us to leave the cameras unused in their cases for the rest of the year.

We have discussed a US project and have made occasional trips to photograph the Washington National Cathedral, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, and even New England Congregational churches, but have never settled on a full-blown program. That has changed with our new book project, “Frontier Faith – Land of Cross-Tipped Churches”. When we came back in June from France, we decided to do a book proposal and submit it to a publisher, and it was accepted. We started research immediately and last week we started photography.

The Land of the Cross-Tipped Churches is an area in western Ohio radiating 22 miles from the Maria Stein Convent in Mercer County. The region was settled in the early years of statehood by German immigrants drawn by the presence of the communal Society of the Precious Blood. These settlers bought land in the land of dense forest, swamp and marshland that was very difficult to transit. Despite these difficulties, they flourished and carved a rich farmland to sustain their communities. To sustain their enduring Catholic faith, they built the churches that today are known as the Cross-Tipped Churches. This land remains today a culturally and visually distinctive area that is easily identified by twenty-eight Gothic and Romanesque Revival churches that dominate the skyline of the rural, flat farmland.

The churches are identified in “generations” of their construction. The first generation was 1845-1865, the second 1865-1885, and the third 1885-1905. There was a fourth “transitional” generation from 1905-1925. Saint Augustine Church in Minster is an example of the first generation. The Gothic Revival-style building was constructed in 1848 and in 1874 the original spire was removed and twin Gothic spires designed by local builder Anton Goehr were added.

West facade, Saint Augustine Church, Minster (Ohio) Photo by PJ McKey

Saint Michael’s Church in Fort Loramie is an example of a second-generation construction, dedicated in 1881. Like most of the Cross-Tipped Churches, it is built of brick.

Exterior, Saint Michael’s Church, Fort Loramie (Ohio) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The present Saint Michaels Church building is fairly unique in this region because it has a chevet like we see in the churches in Europe.

Chevet, Saint Michael’s Church, Fort Loramie (Ohio) Photo by PJ McKey

The Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics was founded in 1875 which makes it a second genration church. After Father J.M. Gartner entrusted his collection of relics to the Sisters at Maria Stein, Ohio, a beautiful new chapel was built in 1892. The collection, with over 1000 relics on display, is the second largest collection of its type in the United States (after Saint Anthony Chapel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). The chapel and relic chapel are the only interiors we have photographed at this time.

Chapel apse, National Marian Shrine of the Holy Relic, Maria Stein (Ohio) Photograph by Dennis Aubrey

We are presenting two churches from the transitional generation today. Saint Francis Church in Cranberry Prairie was constructed in 1906 and is a brick building with a slate roof in the Gothic style with a 112-foot tower.

Exterior, Saint Francis Church, Cranberry Prairie (Ohio) Photo by PJ McKey

The construction of Saint Bernard Church in Burkettsville, Ohio, began in 1915 but was halted due to the beginning of World War I. Building resumed in 1922 and was completed in 1924. The church is Romanesque style with twin domes, an open belfry and elaborate round stone arches over the doors and windows. The brick is buff colored with a red tile roof and has beautiful stained glass windows.

West facade, Saint Bernard Church, Burkettsville (Ohio) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We will not, of course, abandon our beloved Romanesque churches, but this project will give us something to concentrate on here in our Ohio home. The project should be ready for peer-review next Spring and then for publication in late 2018 or early 2019.

Hikari33 Project


We have had our Via Lucis images used for many things in the past few years – we got a cover for a French magazine, a feature in a high-end fashion publication, academic books and journals, posters and exhibitions. We recently got a request from my long-time friend Harushi Tetsuka for something completely new – custom photo displays.

Harushi has developed a project called Hikari33, which features Limited Edition artworks by prominent artists printed on satin metal surface and mounted on weathered candle-lit display stands.

Harushi is an artist who I worked with for many years and he has always been the consummate craftsman. It is no wonder that his current project shows the hallmarks of his life’s work.

The Key Steps for crafting the HIKARI33 Candle Stands

Take a few minutes to look at the link provided and help out with his Kickstarter project. You can see a selection of five of our images that are available at this time.

A Catalan Master for the Ages (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I love the Pyrénées mountains, and especially the eastern portion straddling France and Catalonia. While staying the town of Prades, we had an interesting experience. Despite having been there before, we found ourselves in a new place – Occitanie, or in Catalan Occitània. This is one of the new administrative regions in France since September 28, 2016 with a name derived from areas that showed a historic use of the Occitan language. We didn’t think too much about this until we went to a Catalan dance festival in town. During the introductions, the compère made a disparaging comment – “This is Catalonia,” he said, and followed that statement with a disdainful gesture behind him, “Occitània is somewhere back there!” all to great applause from the audience.

On this trip we visited the marvelous Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute in Les Cluse, a small early Catalan church perched on the Col du Perthus, the last Pyrénéean pass between France and Spain. In the distance, one can see Vauban’s Fort de Bellegarde that once guarded the frontier. The church, located in La Cluse-Haute, was probably constructed in the 10th century and remodeled in the 11th, 12th and 14th centuries. The exterior of the church is simple and unadorned, with a 14th century bell-tower. An interesting vestige of the porch still exists in the form of the stone arch standing separated from the church itself. The portal itself is of white Céret marble.

Western façade and clocher, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The small interior consists of a central nave and two side aisles. The relatively massive piers support the round arches from which springs the barrel vault across the nave. The side aisles have half-barrel vaults supporting the nave arches and relieving the lateral pressure of the barrel vault. There are no transepts or a crossing tower.

Nave, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The tiny oven-vaulted apse is flanked by two small echeloned chapels, communicated to by means of the narrow passages on the side of the apse. One can see in the photograph how the scale of the apse is so small and delicate compared to the sturdy piers and arches around it.

Apse from north side aisle, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

But small though it may be, the glory of the church is in that smal apse. There are some fragments of frescoes dating from the twelfth century which are in the same hand as those of famous frescoes of nearby San Martin de Fenollar.

Apse with frescoes, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

In the center of the apse we see a Christ in Majesty accompanied by the symbols of the alpha and the omega. The works of the Maitre de Fenollar must have been astonishing at the time of their creation, but they have continued to fascinate and have actually change the courses of modern art. In June 1906 Picasso stayed ten weeks in the small town of Gósol and had his first intensive exposure to Catalan art. In 1911 Picasso and Braque spent time in Fenollar and Les Cluses studying the works, transfixed by the expressive power and dynamic use of color. Later many other artists made their pilgrimage to this area – Miro, Gris, Derain, and Dufy – and all walked away genuflecting at the altar of the distant Catalan genius.

Christ Panocrator, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Just to the right of the Christ is a wonderful figure of an angel. I think that the way the wings and the cloak follow the curve of the vault is simply brilliant in inspiration and execution. I have the same dumbfounded reaction to this as I did when I saw the “Temptation” capital at Plaimpied.

Angel, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

If there is any doubt that the work of the Catalan artists had an effect on Pablo Picasso, we only have to look at his work from the periods of his stay in the area and how it differed from the Blue and Pink periods that preceded it. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon see the same naive, schematic construction of the faces that we see in Les Cluses and Saint Martin de Fenollar, and even some of the same technical details, like the use of white accents around the eyes and other features. And it may just be my imagination, but the standing figure on the far right seems to be a mirror of the angel at Les Cluses.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso (1907)

But we don’t need Picasso, Miro, Braque or Dufy to appreciate the Maitre de Fenollar. His work stands among the finest of medieval painting, hidden in the smallest church in the most remote of villages in the Pyrénées.

Location: 42.482277° 2.843190°

Two Churches in the Cliffs (Dennis Aubrey)


The last four churches we have chronicled – the cathedrals of Embrun, Sisteron, Digne-les-Bains and Senez – have all been isolated and somewhat forlorn. They are tucked away in the extreme north of the popular Provence but off the beaten path. The next churches, are quite different. The town of Moustiers-Saite-Marie is near the famous Gorges du Verdon, one of the deepest and most beautiful river canyons in Europe, popular with cyclists, serious kayak enthusiasts and hikers. Moustiers itself is a popular little medieval tourist town, built on the face of a limestone cliff, and filled with boutique shops and ateliers. Part of its picturesque nature is created by a spring-fed waterfall that flows through the center of town.

In the center of the village is the church Notre Dame-de-l’Asspomtion, surrounded by restaurants and shops filled with faïence and other pottery. Tourists wander in, walk down the eight steps into the nave, stand in the center of the church, take a quick look around, flash a photo with a smartphone and quickly leave. But the church is worth much more than just a cursory glance.

Originally founded as a monastery in the 5th century, the monks were driven away by the Saracens and did not return until the 11th century. The church was rebuilt in the 12th century, and in 1336 the commendatory prior, Cardinal Pierre de Pratis (also known as Pierre Desprès), began rebuilding yet again. He only completed the choir before he died, which explains the extreme angle of the axis of the choir to the nave, inclining to the south. His plan was to rebuild the entire church at a slightly different angle, but the project was never completed, leaving us with the result that we see today.

The nave is actually quite long, five bays topped with an ogive barrel vault. As we quite often see in this area, the engaged columns rise up to support the bands of the vault.

Nave, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Pierre Desprès’ Gothic apse has a very unusual feature – a flat chevet with an ambulatory. It is also covered with a rib vault instead of the barrel vault.

Apse, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The altar is a re-purposed fourth-century white marble sarcophagus representing the passage of the Red Sea.

Altar, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The ambulatory is one of the most interesting features of the church, although these might be more accurately called extended side aisles since the two sides do not meet at the rear of the apse.

Ambulatory, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The church is wedged in among the surrounding buildings, but the glorious Lombard-style clocher is still easily visible. The tower is constructed in five levels. The top three levels consist of twin bays adorned with Lombard bands, the fourth level is a blind enclosure and the fifth and bottom, added in the 17th century, is an imposing buttress. The buttressing was added as additional support because the oscillations caused by the ringing of the bells threatened the stability of the clocher.

South facade with clocher, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is a second Romanesque church in Moustiers, the Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir, high up on the cliff that can be reached by a stone stairway of 262 steps (at one time this was 365 steps!). This chapel was built on the site of a 5th century Marian shrine, known prior to the 15th century as Notre-Dame de la Roche or Notre Dame d’Entre-Roches. There is a tradition that the first church was constructed by Charlemagne as fulfillment of a vow and then subsequently rebuilt in the 12th century. Notre Dame de Beauvoir was known for its suscitations – stillborn children were carried up and baptised there, at which time they would immediately come to life and would be granted a place in heaven. This was a well-known phenomenon in the region and also known at two neighboring churches.

Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence ) Photo by ICE-Marseille, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

I must conclude this narrative with a paean to our luncheon at La Treille Muscat right on the square of the church. PJ and I both had a first course of Poulpes en salad, cebettes, tomates et un peu de gingembre pour corser, émulsion de Yusu, a salad with octopus flavored with ginger and Yuzu emulsion. PJ, who never ate octopus before this trip, said it was the best salad she has ever had in her life. I would list all of the other courses that we had, but would sound like we have been too powerfully influenced by our dear friend Covetotop who we met the week prior to this meal!

Location: 43.847250° 6.222402°

Two Forgotten Cathedrals – Digne and Senez (Dennis Aubrey)


Today’s post is on two of the forgotten cathedrals of the Haute-Provence, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg in Digne-les-Bains and Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption in Senez. Both Digne and Senez lost their episcopal standing at the French Revolution, like so many other dioceses in the region. In fact, while we were shooting in this region of the Haute-Provence, we noted an abundance of former cathedrals. In what was known as the Province of Embrun (Alpes Maritimæ) there were cathedrals in Embrun, Digne, Glandèves, Grasse, Nice, Senez, and Vence. In the adjacent province of Aix (Narbonensis Secunda) there were cathedrals in Aix, Apt, Fréjus, Gap, Riez, and Sisteron.

They must all have administered to limited populations. Vence had a total of sixteen parishes, and when combined into one see with neighboring Grasse, they mustered only twenty-five together. Compare this to the diocese of Chartres which numbered 1,338 parishes. The reason for all these bishoprics in the area, so near each other, is because of a singularity – these correspond with the political divisions of the Romans, the civitates.

Digne’s Notre-Dame-du-Bourg suffered an earlier indignity. At the end of the 14th century, the population of Digne moved to higher ground to defend itself against attacks and they built a new church there, the Église Saint-Jérôme. In 1591, the Huguenot leader Lesdiguières (referred to in our article on Embrun) pillaged Notre-Dame-du-Bourg and the see was transferred to Saint-Jérôme in 1591. Now outside the walls, the Église Notre-Dame-du-Bourg was virtually abandoned and served as a necropolis. It was only in 1962 that she regained her status as co-cathedral with Saint-Jérôme.

Exterior from west, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

Of the two cathedrals, Notre-Dame-du-Bourg is by far more interesting to us. The first church was built in the 4th century around a baptistery, Notre-Dame de Consolation, and expanded a century later with a large church. The structure of the current church was built on this footprint in the 13th century and consecrated in 1330, and – except for a recent authentic restoration – has remained relatively unchanged.

When we arrived, the church was locked but the crypt, the former necropolis, was open as a museum for the archaeological digs that have been ongoing for a century. We talked to the two women who worked there and asked if there was a possibility of photographing inside the church. After some discussion, the senior staffer made a call and then told us to follow her. She unlocked the front door and let me in to the small vestry, which was separated from the church by a glass door. She said that I could photograph from that spot. She must have seen my disappointment because after about five minutes she opened the glass door from the inside and said that we could shoot inside “for a few minutes”. I told her that we would normally spend a minimum of two to three hours in a building like this, but she shook her head. She could only leave her colleague unsupervised for a few minutes.

Western portal, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

In the time allotted we took as many photos as we could manage. Notre-Dame-du-Bourg is basically a long hall church (164 feet) with a nave, no side aisles, and large blind arcades framing windows on the south. It is covered with a fine banded ogive barrel vault. There are two transepts with echeloned chapels in the east wall of each transept.

Nave, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave elevation shows the blind arcade leading to the cornice which hides the springing of the vault. Like her sister cathedral in Sisteron, Notre-Dame-du-Bourg has engaged columns topped by simple capitals that support the bands of the nave vault.

Nave from south transept, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The apse has a flat chevet pierced with three windows and is covered with a barrel vault. Above the crossing on the apse wall is a small oculus. The three windows are by the Canadian artist David Rabinowitch and were part of a 1998 ensemble replacing all of the windows in the church.

Apse, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

In the crypt, there is a Merovingian autel-cippe (funerary altar) dating from the 5th or 6th century on a mosaic platform that was preserved from the first church.

Autel paléochrétien et mosaïque (Source: Routard.com)

The superb 15th century fresco on the south wall represents the Last Judgment. The representation is quite complex, beginning with the top left that shows Christ in mandorla passing judgment. The top row shows the Seven Virtues – Humility, Liberality, Chastity, Patience, Charity, Abstinance, and Diligence. The second row shows the corresponding Seven Deadly Sins – Pride, Avarice, Lust, Anger, Envy, Gluttony, and Sloth. The bottom row shows the punishments in hell for each of the deadly sins above.

On the north wall of the nave is another century fresco of the Annunciation that we unfortunately did not have time to photograph.

Nave frescoes, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In discussing these small, remote cathedral towns, some mention must be made of Senez. Elise Whitlock Rose, one of my favorite observers of medieval cathedrals, wrote about this small village. “The hot sun of Provence, which ‘drinks a river as man drinks a glass of wine,’ shone on the long white route nationale that stretched out in well-kept monotony through a valley which might well have been named ‘Desolation.’ On either hand rose mountains that were great masses of bare, seared rocks, showing the ravages of forgotten glaciers; the soil that once covered them lay at their feet. Scarcely a shrub pushed out from the crevices, and even along the road, the few thin poplars found the poorest of nourishment.

Crossing a small bridge, there came into view an ancient village, a mere handful of clustered wooden roofs, irregular, broken, and decayed.

‘It was a city in the days when we were Romans,’ said the Courier, ‘and they say that there are treasures underneath our soil.'”

Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Senez (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence), Photo by Vida Hunt Francis (1906)

PJ and I wended our way down the same route nationale (albeit paved) and through the same unchanged bare, seared rocks, and crossed the same little bridge into what was probably the same little village with possibly the same chickens poking about the square. A young boy went by kicking a soccer ball and scattering the chickens. I hailed him and asked if it were possible to visit the locked church. He took me to a notice posted on a side door and pointed to a name, saying that this woman had the key, but she was not available right now. We would have to come back another day. He went down the small street kicking his ball and we were left in the quiet square in front of the ancien cathédrale. We would not shoot there this year, but will have to come back to Senez some other time. I think the patient Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption – and the chickens – will wait for us.

Note about the windows: One of the reasons that the we regret not being allowed more time to photograph at Notre-Dame du Bourg is that we could not photograph the stained glass windows by David Rabinowitch. Here is a wonderful article (in French) on these windows. The photographs alone are worth a perusal

Location: Digne 44.097253° 6.242990°
Senez 43.913174° 6.406927°

The Many-named Cathedral of Sisteron (Dennis Aubrey)


Sisteron is located on a deep defile, carved by the Durance as it rushes south out of the Alps. On one side is the town, clustering around the base of a commanding hill surmounted by a citadel. On the other side is the imperious Mont de la Baume, a precipitous rock casting its great shadow over the little town below. This strategic location controlled a major crossing of the Durance, described by Livy as “… of all the rivers of Gaul the most difficult to cross, and despite the volume of its waters, does not permit navigation.

Sisteron (Photo Mariano)

In this small provincial town stands one of the oldest cathedrals in France and a wonderful example of Provençal Romanesque, Notre Dame de Pomeriis, translated often to Notre Dame des Pommiers, Our Lady of the Apple Trees. Despite the fact that there are enormous apple and apricot orchards on the high plains just north of Sisteron, this is not the correct translation. Pomeriis refers to pomerium, the defensive space between the city and the ramparts where military regulations forbade construction. But the cathedral was built on the outskirts of town because there was no space within the walls and the topography left no choice for the builders – this was the only spot where the cathedral could see light between the two peaks. For this reason, the church is also known as Notre Dame hors-la-ville de Sisteron (“Notre Dame Outside-of-Town of Sisteron”)!

The official name of the church is the Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, but even this has changed over the years. The cathedral was built in the late 12th and early 13th century on the site of a chapel dedicated to the patron saint of the town, Saint Thyrse or, in the Latin form, Saint Thyrsius. Thyrsius was a Christian deacon of Smyrna, sent to Gaul in the second century with Andocheus to preach the Gospel in Gaul. They were both tortured and decapitated in Autun during the reign of Marcus Aurelius in 179. When the cathedral was built, it was renamed Notre Dame but preserved the name of the patron of Sisteron. We chose to label the cathedral “Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse” instead of “Notre Dame de Pomeriis”, “Notre Dame hors-la-ville de Sisteron” or even “Notre Dame des Pommiers” so as to not disparage on of the earliest Christian martyrs of Gaul.

Western façade, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

PJ and I know from personal experience that the cathedral is not in the center of town, although a neighborhood has certainly grown up around it. We passed by the cathedral without even seeing it and had to circle back. We found a parking place directly in front and had to go inside to make sure that it was the correct building. The front is simple but really gives no indication of the size of the cathedral within.

The plan of the cathedral shows a basilica form with a long nave and two side aisles terminating in a rounded apse. There are no transepts. On the outside of both side aisles are 1tth and 17th century chapels – five on the south and two on the north. On either side of the apse there is an echeloned chapel. The cathedral is 143 feet long, the nave is 25.5 feet wide and each side aisle is almost 14 feet wide. The height of the vault is meters long and 7.8 meters wide. The height of the vault is 52.5 feet.

Plan, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence)

In the shot of the nave, we can see the solid piers that support the banded barrel vault. Beyond the vault is the chancel crossing and finally the small, oven vaulted apse. There is very little natural light in the church – a small oculus in the crossing, a rose and two side aisle oculi in the western façade. For this reason it has been called a “beautiful, dark vessel”.

Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave elevation shows how the barrel vault springs directly from the nave walls with only a thin cornice disguising the liason. The engaged columns rise up to support the bands of the vault. Most of the capitals are simple and unadorned with the exception of a pair of figurative capitals in the north side aisle.

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The north side aisle is dark and shadowed, like the rest of the church. But high up on the middle engaged column, we can see figurative capitals at the cornice level.

North side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The first of these capitals is on the north wall of the north side aisle and shows a pair of figures with plants coming out of both sides of the mouths.

Capital, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second is on the opposite side of the north side aisle and shows a mysterious composition of two faces, with a single elongated face on the edge. These figures are barely visible, situated high up in the darkness of the side aisles, visible only upon study. PJ pointed them out to me and I needed to photograph them and look at the results to know what was carved on those capitals. Even our small spotting scope could not reveal the details.

Capital, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Back in the nave, we come to the crossing. In the shot of the crossing dome, we can see the octagonal cupola high up in the tower, resting on four squinches in the shape of scallop shells. There is a Saint Michael’s chapel accessed by the clocher stairway that opens onto the cupola, but we didn’t know about it at the time.

Crossing dome, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is one more history of Sisteron that is quite famous (or infamous). The Marquise de Mirabeau, Louise de Cabris, was the sister of the great Mirabeau. As a young woman she was married to the Marquis de Cabris. While the young Marquis alternated his time spitting into basins of water to gauge the circumference of the aquatic movements and recovering from periodic bouts of insanity, his wife indulged in worldly extravagances, amorous adventures, even becoming her brother’s mistress!

Her father recognized the danger to the family and sent her to the convent in Sisteron “to repent of her sins at leisure in the Convent of the Ursalines.” But her brilliant wit and extravagant morals were not to be checked by these religious women. In the words of the witty Elise Whitlock Rose, “On pretense of business, all the lawyers flocked to see her; and with no pretense at all the garrison flocked to her train.” She shocked the good people of Sisteron so much that she was soon returned to the family estates in Grasse to continue her adventures and, in all likelihood, laugh at the good people of Sisteron.

Marquise de Mirabeau, by Vigee Le Brun. Oil on canvas. 1774

But perhaps the Sisteronais had the last laugh. Scandals, intrigues, lawsuits, defamations, and even incarcerations attended the comely Louise during the pre-revolutionary period. Fleeing prosecution, she emigrated to Genoa, where she became a laundress, nursing her poor fool of a husband who she had dragged into her exile.

Location: 44.195744° 5.943825°