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 Christmas Letter to My Father (Dennis Aubrey)


My mother and father have given me so many gifts that I don’t know how to ever repay them. By their example they imbued their family with a home filled with love and inspiration. For me, they encouraged a love of travel, of culture, and of history. When we lived in Europe they made sure that we knew the French, that we experienced their life and culture. That encouragement opened my eyes, heart, mind and soul to influences that mark me indelibly to this very day. I was so lucky to have them in my life for so song, but as the years passed, thoughts of mortality intruded into the conversation.

On February 7, 2013, I wrote to my father,

Dad, I know in my heart of hearts that some day I will lose you both, but refuse to believe it and try to convince myself that you will live forever. It is so hard to know that one day my life will go on and you will not be there. All that I can do is to cherish the fact that you are both in good health and part of our life. PJ loves you both – you have filled a void in her life, a corner of her heart that has been empty since she was seven years old. I am so proud to be your son.

Chateau d’Harcourt, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Cosmos (CHAUVIGNY DANS LA VIENNE)

Later that year, on June 11, 2013 at 8:13 pm, my father wrote a comment on a post that I had just published on growing up in Chauvigny, France. He wrote:

Dennis: Your mother and I recall another incident in Chauvigny. You remember that dinner time was when we all talked about what had happened that day. It was our time for stories from school or work or car repairs, as when Lucille took our Corvair station wagon to the local mechanic to have the carburetor repaired (it was the alternator). One evening it was obvious that you had something important to share. After we said grace you said, “Mom, Dad, do you realize we live where the Battle of Poitiers was fought?” We recognize that day as the one that began your love of history.

That note meant the world to me, reminded me of so much personal history and so many memories, but I never wrote him back.

Side aisle looking at apse, Église Notre Dame, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

We did lose him two years later, on July 6, 2015 in the same town – Santa Barbara – where he was born on January 14, 1928. In the intervening years he traveled the world over; the Middle East, New Zealand, Viet Nam, Japan, Korea, Africa, and almost every country in Europe, almost always accompanied by his beloved wife, my mother Lucille. She just turned 90 this month and is a force of nature, but she longs to be reunited with her husband of almost 70 years.

Donald Richard Aubrey (1928 – 2015)

So now, perhaps it is about time to write back to him:

Dad, no question that Chauvigny was a turning point for me. I had forgotten about Mom taking the car to get the carburetor repaired! Sounds like something I would do. But I remember the Battle of Poitiers at that time was the Charles Martel victory over the Saracens, and then later, the English defeat of the French and Jean II in the Hundred Year’s War. Later it also included the battle of Vouillé where Clovis defeated Alaric II – the same Alaric who was supposedly buried in the Champs d’Alaric near Vivonne on the Gayet’s property. The Église Saint George in Vivonne was where Ravaillac had his dream to assassinate Henry IV of Navarre. Just up the road from Vivonne is Lusignan, home to Guy de Lusignan, king of the crusader state of Jerusalem during the Crusades. It was as if oceans of history washed over us. And if that was not enough, from the Poitou we moved to Verdun!!!

I think it would have been impossible for me not to love history as I do. I have always cherished the way you encouraged me in this, walking the battlefields and talking to me. I love you and miss you so.

Your son,

Dennis

The Infinite Interior (Dennis Aubrey)


The subconscious is ceaselessly murmuring, and it is by listening to these murmurs that one hears the truth. ― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie

Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

There is a conceptual difference between Gothic and Romanesque churches and cathedrals. While the Romanesque builders paved the way for the Gothic, there is a deep and wide chasm between the two worlds. It starts on the outside – Gothic cathedrals make you want to sit on a bench and admire the exterior. One enters later and experiences the wonders of the soaring internal architecture.

The exterior of Romanesque church architecture is different, much simpler. It is dominated by three features – the clocher, west front, and the chevet. The clocher (or belltower), like the contemporary church steeple, identifies the structure from the distance as a church.

Église Saint-Révérien, Saint-Révérien (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

Église Saint-Révérien, Saint-Révérien (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The west front is usually the decorated main entrance to the church and sometimes contains one or two towers. And the chevet is the extreme end of the chancel or choir, usually dominated by the rounded ambulatory chapels. Other than these elements, there is little else that distinguishes the outside of the church, because the goal of the medieval builder was not the exterior, but the creation of interior space.

Eglise de Mailhat, Mailhat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Eglise de Mailhat, Mailhat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Within the Romanesque church there are a multitude of elements that define the space. The groundplan alone yields a narthex, nave, side aisles, transepts, chancel crossing, apse, choir and ambulatory. The vertical elements include arcades, tribunes, triforia, clerestories, and vaults, all combined in harmonious order creating rhythms of arches and bands the length and breadth of the church.

Abbaye Saint Pierre de Beaumont, Beaumont (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Abbaye Saint Pierre de Beaumont, Beaumont (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The careful arrangement of these elements represents the artistic struggle to define the architecture of belief in an architecture of stone. While they share many of the same structural elements, the Romanesque and Gothic styles reflect different worlds. The Gothic churches speak to our minds, hearts, and aspiring imagination. We admire the achievement of the architecture and are transported by the beauty, elegance, and sophistication. Inside and out, they remind us of the medieval glory of God and a universal order explained by the Christian faith.

Looking west from apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Looking west from apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Romanesque churches don’t inspire admiration for the exterior; they invite you immediately within. And in these shadowed interiors with their unlit corners, we sense a space that reflects an understanding of the human soul and a darker human imagination.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

We sense a faith that does not illuminate brightly like a torch, but acts like a flickering beacon in the distance. We sense the distance we must travel and the dangers we must overcome in order to reach that light. We acknowledge the fear of evil and the terrors of the dark. In the protective embrace of the Romanesque church, we hear the murmuring of subconscious phantoms and sense the truths of which they speak.

Eglise Saint Pierre, Saint Gilles (Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

Eglise Saint Pierre, Saint Gilles (Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

Happy Holidays to all


The holiday season is time to be thankful, and PJ and I have much to celebrate. We are so pleased and proud to have found friends, colleagues, and fellow Romanesque enthusiasts from around the world here at Via Lucis. We would like to celebrate with this photo of Santa Eularia d’Unha in the Val d’Aran

Thank you all, best wishes and blessings to you all.

Guest Photos of Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues – Albert Pinto


PJ and I have been shooting Romanesque churches in France for so long and so intensely that we sometimes think we’ve seen them all. Recently our good friend Albert Pinto sent us three photographs of frescoes that have somehow been preserved at the Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues in Aveyron, about 20 miles south of Figeac. For all the times we have been in that region, we had never heard of the church.

Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues (Aveyron) Photo by MOSSOT, Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The church is quite ancient, quite possibly 10th century, which makes it pre-Romanesque. For centuries it served as a small priory but was abandoned and fell into disrepair. The church was only classified by the Monuments historique in 1988.

Saint with halo, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues (Aveyron), Photo by Albert Pinto

The survival of the frescoes in almost miraculous, as described by Pinto. At the time of his photographs, “that was used as a barn and devastated during centuries (same case as Fenollar). The Monuments historiques have since undertaken a restoration, but the frescoes seem to be in the same state as I found them.”

Eve at the Tree of Knowledge, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues (Aveyron), Photo by Albert Pinto

Thanks to Albert, we have another place to visit in one of our favorite areas of France, and can use it as another excuse to return to the Basilique Sainte Foy de Conques.

Two doves, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues (Aveyron), Photo by Albert Pinto

Location: 44.404371 2.027088

A Triumphant Madonna – Amuse Bouche #41 Dennis Aubrey


Saint-Aventin is a small town in the Larboust Valley in the Pyrénées, not far from Bagnères-de-Luchon. The eponymous church is located on a side road outside of town, actually a small lane rising to terrace partway up the hill. The church is a magnificent Romanesque structure which we will show in a later post and is distinguished by magnificent exterior sculptures. The most elegant of these is the Sedes Sapientiae virgin next to the door.

Regular readers of Via Lucis know our love of these figures, mostly carved in wood, but this one is unique. Most representation of the virgin are sorrowful, a mother knowing the doomed fate of her child at the hands of man. The child is normally seen as a small adult with a serious face looking straight out at the viewer (as does the Mother here). But here, the child Jesus looks up and shares with his mother a look of triumph, the conquest of temptation and evil.

Vierge Romane, Église Saint-Aventin, Saint-Aventin (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Beneath Mary’s feet are the heads of two demons, trampled into submission. The figures of birds and serpents are held at bay by the power of the Mother and Child, threatening but impotent.

I wish that I could translate the inscription but have not worked it out. Perhaps one of our readers can help?

And of course our readers came through – both Yuri de la Pena and Evelyne Clerc found the text: RES MIRANDA NIMIS MATER DEI ERAT VI NIMIS. This translates to “Thing worthy of admiration, the Mother of God is all powerful”. however, Project Gutenberg states, “In translating RES, avoid at all costs the word THING, or THINGS, and let the context guide you to the appropriate English word.” I will essay the following translation, “Of all who are worthy of admiration, the Mother of God is omnipotent.” This certainly fits with the triumphant Madonna.

Vierge Romane detail, Église Saint-Aventin, Saint-Aventin (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

A Holiday Recommendation


Gordon Stewart visiting our home in Ohio, 2017

For those who might be looking for something calming during this holiday season, I recommend a book written by our great friend here at Via Lucis, Gordon Stewart.

Gordon has been a long-time contributor to the Via Lucis world and his magnificent sermon based upon one of my posts about Vézelay still moves me to tears. Hearing him, it is hard to remember that these are my words. This sensitivity to language and ideas is embodied fully in his blog, Views from the Edge.

He brings this magic to his new book, “Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness” is such a collection of sensitive, deeply felt essays. This link will connect you to his publishers page where the book is available for a discount, a perfect gift for the holidays.

The Divine Rain of Sainte-Engrâce (Dennis Aubrey)


Sainte-Engrâce is a tiny commune in a small pass deep in Basque country on the French side of the border with Spain. We made our way there on a slightly overcast day wending our way deeper and deeper into the the Pyrénéean foothills through the old pass between the Aquitaine and the Iberian peninsula. It was here that Duke Arimbert of the Franks was ambushed and defeated by the Basques in 635, just as the rear guard of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne was ambushed and defeated by those same Basques fifty miles west at the pass of Roncesvalles just 142 years later.

Today Saint Engrâce is literally a turnout from the road and has a population of 208, On the horizon loom the Pyrénées mountains feeding the cold rushing streams. Just to the south is the spectacular Gorges de Kakuetta.

Waterfall, Gorges de Kakouetta (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Ancalagon, Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

But for us, Sainte-Engrâce is home to a lovely 11th century Romanesque church in a spectacular setting, the Collégiale Sainte-Engrâce.

Exterior, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

Sainte-Engrâce (Urdatx-Santa-Grazi in Basque) is thoroughly Basque, as much as the Euskera language and the frontón where pelota is played in every town. The cemetery adjacent to the church is filled with Basque surnames and mysterious Hilarri, disc-shaped funerary steles, remnants of long-past pre-Christian Basque traditions.

Basque funerary stelae – Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

The church was built in the community of Urdaix in the late 11th century by a resident group of canons of Saint Augustine. The canons named their new church after a Lusitanian martyr of the 4th century. A young Christian girl from Braga, Engracia, was traveling with eighteen companions to marry a Christian noble of Roussillon. On the way through the town of Zaragosa in 303, Engracia learned of the persecution of Christians by the Roman governor Dacian. She attempted to persuade him to stop his persecution and she was martyred after the most brutal tortures, and her eighteen companions decapitated. Legend has it that thieves stole the arm of the martyred saint from her shrine in Zaragosa and fled to the mountains where they hid the arm in the hollow of an oak tree beside the Fountain of the Virgin Mother. A bull whose horns blazed “like two candles on the altar” knelt before the oak and the relic was discovered. The relic was placed in the sacristy of a nearby church but returned time and again to the oak. This was interpreted to mean that the saint wished a church to be built on this site and in 1085 the canons of Saint Augustine acceded to her wish.

Capital, Demon and priest, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Shortly after the construction of the church, a hospital was added to tend to pilgrims on their way to Santiago Compostela. About the same time as the completion of the church building, Sanche I, King of Navarre and Aragon, placed it under the suzerainty of the wealthy Benedictine monastery of Leyre in Navarre. This was not a pleasing result for the Augustinians, who finally arrived at an agreement in 1125. The collegiate was required to provide the monastery two river salmon each year and two cows on Ascension and the Feast of John the Baptist. This relationship continued until 1512.

South side aisle, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

The church is classic Romanesque, with a nave and two side aisles and an ornate side chapel on either side of the apse. The barrel vault is segmented by each of the three bays of the nave. The apse features a lovely painted oven vault featuring the Holy Trinity – Christ and God the Father seated with the Holy Spirit hovering above. This is almost certainly of a later date, probably early 15th century at the time that Sainte-Engrâce became a royal borough.

Nave, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One of the delights of the church are the superb capitals, found on the pillars of the side aisle and the altar. They vividly illustrate various stories from the Bible and the life of Jesus. One of my favorites is off the left side of the altar and depicts the Magi giving gifts to the infant Christ.

Capital detail, gifts of the Magi, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is another interesting legend about the martyrdom of Engracia, the Countless Martyrs of Zaragoza, Dacian wished to discover the extent of the Christian population and promised to allow them to practice their religion. But first they had to leave the city at a fixed time by a certain gate. As soon as they gathered to obey his order, Dacian ordered them executed. In order to prevent their veneration as martyrs, he burned the corpses and mixed their ashes with those of executed criminals. But a shower of rain fell and washed the ashes, separating them into two groups. The white ashes here those of the martyrs and were known as the “holy masses”, las santas masas. They were deposited in a church dedicated to Santa Engratia in Zaragosa where they are still preserved.

Apse from north side aisle, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

As outlandish as this legend sounds, I understand its power completely. Who does not look around and wonder why the evil and the haughty seem to prosper in this world while the meek and those who daily create the bounty of the world are doomed to suffer? Our martyrs aren’t decapitated for their faith, but we still have martyrs who advocate for compassion, rational discourse, and social justice. Who does not wonder why these multitudes are not protected by the divine power who calls them “blessed”? Who does not hope for a divine rain to wash through the world and separate the saints from the criminals?

Just as a footnote, my mother comes from a Basque family in Eibar who came to the New World in the 16th century, settling in what became New Mexico. He was part of the expedition led by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Luján in 1540 in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola.

Location: 42.995493° -0.809957°