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.

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.

The Mason of God (Dennis Aubrey)


In a world where what passes for news are articles about the megalomaniac Donald Trump, the Kardashians, and the Jenners, we occasionally find something worth consideration.

On August 25 a funeral mass was celebrated in the Italian town of Montefortino at the chiesa della Madonna dell’Ambro. The recipient of the mass was a Capuchin friar, Padre Pietro Lavini who lived as a hermit in the Sibylline Mountains near Rubbiano Montefortino and along the Gola dell’Infernaccio, the Gorge of Hell. A thousand people attended the service of the man who died two weeks prior, on August 9, 2015.

Why did they come to this mass? What did Padre Pietro accomplish with his life as a hermit?

Padre Pietro Lavini, photo from Santuario Madonna dell'Ambro

Padre Pietro Lavini, photo from Santuario Madonna dell’Ambro

In 1971, Padre Pietro discovered the ruins of the Eremo di Santo Leonardo, an abandoned 12th century Benedictine monastery in the wilds of the Sibyllines. All that remained of the church were fallen stones and a single standing Romanesque arch. Pietro received permission from his monastic superiors and walked into the wilderness with the goal of single-handedly restoring the church. He spent the next 43 years working alone and by hand and rebuilt the church. When asked how he managed it alone, he responded that there were two in service of the restoration. God was the designer and he himself was the mason. He became known, in fact, as the muratore di Dio, the builder of God.

L'Eremo di Santo Leonardo

L’Eremo di Santo Leonardo

I’m pretty sure that Trump would characterize the small monk as a “loser” because he didn’t spend his life inflating his own reputation, sleeping with beautiful women and living in a gilded palace. There is no room in the Trump brand for someone who lives a life of sacrifice and renunciation, a life with values that run deeply in the search for the truth of the human soul. Trump lives in a tiny narrow band of reality that inflates its own importance by belittling the rest of the world. I’m sure that if he saw the abandoned meadow in the Sibyllines, all Trump could imagine would be an exclusive golf resort for his rich friends. Padre Pietro imagined an entire world in the fallen stones, and built it with his two hands.

Thanks to our friend Diane Quaid who brought the life of Pietro Lavini to our attention via this article in the Economist.

Doubting Thomas – Amuse-bouche #6 (Dennis Aubrey)


But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.

The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.

Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

John 20:24-29 King James Version

The story of “Doubting Thomas” is one of the most popular in the iconography of medieval churches. The first known example is in the 6th century Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna and the motif shows up continuously thereafter. One of my favorite versions is that of the Basilique Saint Benoît in Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire where Thomas graphically inserts his fingers into the gaping wound in Jesus’ side.

Capital - Doubting Thomas, Basilique Saint Benoît, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire (Loiret)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – Doubting Thomas, Basilique Saint Benoît, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire (Loiret) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The same iconography has shown up time after time in western art. In the painting “The Increduloity of Saint Thomas”, Caravaggio shows Thomas inserting his fingers in the wound, exactly in the same way as our medieval sculptors did.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (Caravaggio)

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (Caravaggio)

This display of the wounds of the crucifixion, known as the ostentatio vulnerum, uses reality to bolster faith. Jesus recognized that he would not always be around to allay doubt, but he must have also known that we would continue to doubt. And that doubt may be important to faith; Nora Gallagher wrote that “doubt is the handmaiden to faith.” Her experience with life-threatening illness described in “Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic” argues that doubt is essential to faith by keeping it honest. It has long been my contention that faith without doubt devolves into fanaticism, and the story of Thomas reminds us that even those who knew Jesus intimately experienced that test of belief.

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

Saint Braticus – Amuse-bouche #5 (Dennis Aubrey)


This amuse-bouche needs a little personal background. As a little girl, PJ was an eager, attentive and successful student. If she was anything like she is as a teacher when she was a little girl, she must have been a delight. But I must tell you about her first day in kindergarten. Prior to the Big Day, her father Hank taught her to spell her name.

When the class was seated that first day, the teacher asked “Is there anyone who can spell their own name?” PJ’s hand shot up eagerly and she was called on. She stood up (this was a Catholic school after all), she recited proudly, “B-R-A-T”!

PJ remembers the brief look of confusion on the nun’s face as she tried to decide if this child was trying to be difficult, but clearly saw from PJ’s pride that she was the victim of a prank. She hid her smile and said, “That’s very good, Patty.”

Since PJ and I have been together, it has been my contention that she is watched over by Saint Braticus, a little-known but omnipresent figure in Romanesque churches. One of our favorites is this version from the Collégiale Saint-Pierre in Chauvigny.

Capital, Collégiale Saint-Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Collégiale Saint-Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I never got to meet Hank and from his family I know that he could be a difficult man, but this story makes me wish that we had a chance to sit and discuss little Patty’s first day at school.

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

Column Swallower – Amuse-bouche #4 (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I have decided to do a series of posts, perhaps once a week, featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture.

We’ve seen ample evidence of the imagination of the Romanesque sculptors, but one of our favorites is the Column Swallower, known in French as the engoulant. According to the limited research that I’ve been able to find on the subject, they are found mostly in the Aquitaine and in England. This example is from the Église Saint-Nicolas in the Vienne town of Civray

"Column Swallower" at Église Saint-Nicolas, Civray (Vienne)

“Column Swallower” at Église Saint-Nicolas, Civray (Vienne)

These clever figures serve as capitals, usually, and are among the many apotropaic figures found in medieval churches. Some French observers believe that the figures represent the dangers that threaten the building, which reflect the dangers that threaten the Church itself. Some observers also believe that the creatures are not swallowing, but spewing, the columns. Whatever the purpose, they demonstrate the free-ranging imagination of the medieval sculptor.

To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

M.R. James and the ghost of Saint Bertrand de Comminges (Dennis Aubrey)


My great life friend Peter Brown sent me a link today to a wonderful recording from the Guardian Short Stories Podcast. The story is ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’ by M.R. James, published in 1895. The story is read by author Ruth Rendell.

M.R. James (1 August 1862 – 12 June 1936)

M.R. James (1 August 1862 – 12 June 1936)


Montague Rhodes James was an English medievalist who is remembered today for his non-scholarly contributions, his ghost stories. He wrote one story a year which he read each year at Christmas to his friends. The full text of the story can be found here.

So please take the time to spend twenty or so minutes listening to this wonderful Victorian ghost story set in the town of Saint Bertrand-de-Comminges.



James certainly captures the fascination of these old churches and cathedrals and the sense of mystery that often pervades them. This ghost story is a perfect little reminder of the medieval world that still lingers in the old stones of the church of Saint Bertrand-de-Comminges and her sisters throughout France.

Cathedrale Sainte Marie, Saint Bertrand-de-Comminges (Haute-Garonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cathedrale Sainte Marie, Saint Bertrand-de-Comminges (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Peeker of Conques – Amuse-bouche #3 (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I have decided to do a series of posts, perhaps once a week, featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture.

Our choice for this week’s amuse-bouche features a wonderful detail from the tympanum at one of our favorite churches, the Basilique Sainte Foy in Conques. The tympanum is justly famous and we have written about it before.

Tympanum of the Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques  (Aveyron)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Tympanum of the Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But if you look carefully at the outermost archivolt of the tympanum arch, you will see a series of small figures, almost hidden amidst all of the other detail crowding this ensemble. These are small carvings of human faces peeking through the stone.

Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

What I love about this more than anything else is the way that the sculptor toyed with reality in a way that we can only see as modern – turning stone into paper or fabric. Not to mention the piercing blue eyes!

To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

Lamech and Cain – Amuse-bouche #2 (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I have decided to do a series of posts, perhaps once a week, featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture.

Today’s amuse-bouche is another capital from the basilica of Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay. This nave capital represents the slaying of Cain by Lamech, one of the most obscure stories I have ever found illustrated in medieval sculpture. What interested me in this photo was the figure immediately next to the bowman, so I did some research.

Capital - Lamech and Cain, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – Lamech and Cain, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The entirety of the story of Lamech is found in one passage of Genesis 4:19-24.

And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah.
And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle.
And his brother’s name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ.
And Zillah, she also bare Tubalcain, an instructer of every artificer in brass and iron: and the sister of Tubalcain was Naamah.
And Lamech said unto his wives, Adah and Zillah, Hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech: for I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt.
If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.

Early exegetes in Armenia wrote the following passage:

And Lamech, having mounted a horse and gone Cain came
in sight from afar with his horns and skin; Lamech, on seeing him
thought it was a stag, and letting an arrow fly from his bow, he killed
Cain.

Apparently the Armenian story was the basis for the medieval parable of Lamech, Cain’s progeny to the seventh generation, who was elderly and blind. In order to impress his son with his hunting skills, he went into the woods with Tubalcain. Tubalcain pointed out what he thought was an animal and Lamech shot and killed Cain, who was wearing his horns and skin as the “mark of Cain” of his own murder of Abel.

Lamech and Cain detail, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Lamech and Cain detail, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

When Lamech found that he had killed Cain, he slew his son in anger. Thus the verse in Genesis, “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.” Some interpret the “seventy and sevenfold” as a boast, but since the killing of Cain was forbidden by God, I think that it is a lament. The tale of Lamach and Cain illustrated by this capital in Vézelay, though almost unknown today, was known widely and in many variations throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. What lesson we were to glean from the story of this bigamist, murderer and filicide, however, is completely beyond my understanding.

To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.