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.

The Benedictine Monastery Church of Sant Pere de Rodes, a Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm


The former Benedictine monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes is one of the important monuments of early Romanesque architecture which developed in the early 11th century in the Catalan region of Iberian Peninsula. Perched above the Costa Brava fishing and resort town of El Port de la Selva in the Verdera mountain, the partly restored monastery offers a breath-taking view of the bay of Llançà.

Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona)

Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona)

The beginning of the monastery is not known, and it is shrouded in legends. The first reference to a simple monastery cell dedicated to St. Peter is documented from around 880, but the founding of an independent Benedictine monastery under an abbot is recorded to have taken place in 945. It flourished in the 11th and 12th centuries, but slowly began to decline in importance, and it encountered sacking on several occasions in the 17th century. The Benedictines left the monastery altogether at the end of the 18th century.

As the monastery complex is constructed on a mountain site, different parts are built at varying levels on a terraced arrangement. The 12th century cloister occupies the fairly flat central terrain. The monastery church itself, sited at the northwest corner of the complex, was only partially completed at its consecration in 1022 by the archbishop of Narbonne. It is built on the Latin cross plan.

Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Sketch plan by Jong-Soung Kimm

Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Sketch plan by Jong-Soung Kimm

As a visitor enters the church through the fairly spacious narthex at the west, the most striking architectural features that come into view are the double-tiered “classical” columns set on very high plinths, which collectively form the T-shaped piers.

Nave piers, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave piers, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The nave is four bays long, and it is covered with barrel vault, each bay being defined by substantial transverse arches supported by the upper tiers of “classical” columns.

View of nave to west, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View of nave to west, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view looking up at the barrel vault of the nave bays illustrates the simple space of the monastery church well.

Vault, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Vault, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The aisles are rather narrow, and they are covered with half-barrel vault.

Side aisle, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Side aisle, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The arches defining the relatively short north and south transepts which open out from the crossing, are supported by columns on the lower tiers.

Transept arches, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Transept arches, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The chancel is defined by an egg-shaped, rather than a half round, apse with oven vault above, with ambulatory surrounding it, but without radiating chapels.

Chancel, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Chancel, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

It is probable that the columns supporting the entry arch to the chancel is the work of a master mason who restored Sant Pere at some later period than the original church: the columns have about the same diameter as the nave columns, but stand in one continuous shaft from the chancel floor to the springing of the chancel arch by stacking two pieces of marble one on top of the other, creating somewhat unexpected and dissonant, slender proportion for that pair of columns. The rectangular capitals above these columns, also, are deviations from classical design, reminiscent of Mozarabic capitals found at San Pedro de la Nave, for example.

The square crossing at the end of the nave is covered with barrel vault running in the same direction as the nave in one continuous barrel shape, so that the spatial progression from the western entry through the nave is cusped by the chancel with only a slight expansion of space at the crossing towards the transepts. Each transept, about the size of one nave bay in length, but with lower vaulting, has own apsidal chapel that fills the full width of the transept. The view of the south transept chapel indicates that the east facing window had been blocked by adjoining construction at some point later.

South transept chapel, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

South transept chapel, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The double-tiered columns on high plinths in the nave are placed facing each other at each pier supporting the transverse arches, while additional single-tier columns on plinths on either side of the piers placed in the longitudinal direction support the nave arches. A typical pier, because of the clustering of columns, comes across wonderfully sculptural in its presence. The view from the north transept toward the southwest across the crossing into the first bay of the nave illustrates this adequately.

View from crossing to nave, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View from crossing to nave, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view of the nave elevation with two piers which are missing plinths projecting toward the nave and lower tiers of columns, shows the scheme of nave elevation well, but also reminds the viewer how important and essential the clustering of columns is in the overall composition which the master builder would have envisioned for the original design of the church.

Nave elevation, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave elevation, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The columns which had been described as “classical” at the beginning of the article appear to be recycled from Roman ruins as the region of Girona is abundant with them, but with a caveat: while the capitals for columns have the proportion of Corinthian capitals, on closer inspection, the delicate carvings of capitals include designs of Byzantine and Moslem inspiration. Above the capitals are placed large square cushions with interwoven plant designs. Even with carvings of non-classical design on the capitals, the overall feeling of Sant Pere de Rodes is strongly Roman architecture in its ambience. Placing one order of columns on top of another immediately recalls the formal repertory of antique builders by which constituent elements in triumphal arches are deftly joined to create an architecture of powerful symbolism. There are two campaniles at the western edge of the monastery. The more elegant, Lombard design tower anchors the northwest corner of the partially restored cloister.

Campanile, Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Campanile, Monasterio de Sant Pere de Rodes, El Port de la Selva (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

A footnote to the importance accorded to Sant Pere de Rodes during its heyday: at the beginning of the 11th century, an illuminated bible was produced at the monastery, and it is preserved today at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris.

Location: 42.32361° 3.16667°

For more information about our guest writer, Jong-Soung Kimm, please see this link.

Reflections of light at the top of the World (Dennis Aubrey)


Sometimes I get so sad, so depressed at the state of the world. The antics of our politicians, the naked greed of our Wall Street masters of the universe, and the sadness at seeing the land of promise and opportunity turning into the land of baristas. Sometimes I just think it is my age, but looking back, I don’t see a golden time. We have always been troubled as a people, but now we have descended further into an abyss. I despair at emerging into the light.

But then something happens to change my heart – first it was PJ who came into my life like a warming beacon. Sometimes it is the generosity and kindness of my friends who I cherish more than I can ever express. And my family (and PJ’s) are a fertile soil that nourishes the seedlings of hope and faith. Today, however, one of member of that family, my nephew Scott, is in my thoughts.

Nepal vista

This young man trained as an engineer at Santa Clara University and immediately got a responsible and well-paying job in his field of civil engineering. But his work there was not fulfilling and he made the choice to change everything. He originally planned to get a master’s degree in Engineering for Developing Communities but decided instead to go to Nepal for a couple of months to help rebuild the country devastated by earthquakes.

Making bricks, photo by Marissa Reis

Making bricks, photo by Marissa Reis

He has now been there longer than two months and he is committed to the process and the country. He speaks conversational Nepalese, and his words glow with the belief that he – and we – can make a difference.

Building walls, photo by Scott Hanson

Building walls, photo by Scott Hanson

To read his own words on his mission, please read this link.

Nepal Scott

So thank you, Scott, from your perch high atop of the world, for sharing your light with this old soul.

Nepal sunset, photo by Scott Hanson

Nepal sunset, photo by Scott Hanson

A Madonna for Mariners – Amuse Bouche #33 (Dennis Aubrey)


En Avant de Guingamp

En Avant de Guingamp

Since the relegation of our beloved AJ Auxerre from Ligue 1, PJ and I have chosen another underdog, this time a tiny town represented in Ligue 1 by an over-achieving football club. The team we chose was En Avant de Guingamp, competing for the small Breton town with a population of 7,235 people. It would be inconceivable for a town the size of Devils Lake, North Dakota to field a major league baseball team, but this is the equivalent of Guingamp’s achievement. The home pitch, the Stade du Roudourou, has a capacity of 18,126, two-and-a-half times the population of the town. In 2014 they won their second Coupe de France competition against all other teams in French professional football! The Guingampais have good reason to be proud.

The Guingampais also have reason to be proud of their famed Basilique Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours. This structure is an amalgam of contrasting styles but is somehow harmonious. Inside the church we found the famous Black Madonna, Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours (also anciently known as Notre Dame du Halgoët). I believe that she is normally found in the Porche Notre Dame on the north façade of the church, which features a famous labyrinth on the floor. But when we were there, she was ensconced in the south side aisle.

Side aisle with Madonna, Basilique Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours. Guingamp (Côtes-d'Armor)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisle with Madonna, Basilique Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours. Guingamp (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Guingamp is just 20 miles from the sea, and for centuries the families of the mariners of the town prayed to Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours for the safe return of their loved ones. There was a pilgrimage to the Madonna on the Saturday before the first Sunday of July and records document her fame from the 15th century. The original, venerated for centuries, was torn down and destroyed in the French Revolution. The current Black Madonna was reconstituted in the 19th century from fragments of three different statues recovered from the broken pieces. The head, I have read, is from the original.

Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours. Basilique Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours, Guingamp (Côtes-d'Armor)  Photo by PJ McKey

Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours. Basilique Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours, Guingamp (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by PJ McKey

A final note – after our visit to Guingamp and her lovely basilica, PJ and I stopped at the small coastal town of Paimpol, where we enjoyed a late lunch of oysters and and a bottle of Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine sur lie at a seaside cafe. A perfect day.

Huitres avec mignonette, Photo par PJ McKey

Huitres avec mignonette, Photo par PJ McKey

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 Roadside Masterpiece – Amuse Bouche #32 (Dennis Aubrey)


In 2012 PJ and I spent some time in Burgundy exploring the regional churches there. At the limits of that exploration, we visited the small 12th century church of Notre Dame d’Avenas. This modest church sits literally on the side of D18E, a regional road that passes through the commune of Avenas, population 128.

Legend recounts that the 12th century builders came to Avenas to a church on the site of an ancient abbey destroyed by Saracens. “It was decided to rebuild a church on the ruins of the ancient monastery of Pelagius, destroyed by the barbarians. The work began, but every morning the tools of the workers were found scattered … The building owner, thinking God did not want that location, had an idea. He would throw his hammer and where it fell, that would be the future sit. He did so and the hammer fell 1200 meters away in a hawthorn bush, near the sacred fountain of Avenas.”

Église Notre Dame d'Avenas, Avenas (Rhône)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Notre Dame d’Avenas, Avenas (Rhône) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The church came under the rule of the monastery of Cluny and its Benedictine monks. The sculptors of Cluny III made one lasting contribution to the church, the limestone altar with its magnificent carving featuring Christ in Majesty, surrounded by the twelve apostles, each carrying a book.

Altar, Église Notre Dame d'Avenas, Avenas (Rhône)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Altar, Église Notre Dame d’Avenas, Avenas (Rhône) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The ensemble as a whole is excellent, including the other panels not shown in this view. But I am particularly struck by the figure of Christ. Though damaged, we can see Christ giving the sign of benediction with his right hand. He has a small, neat beard and his clothes are finely rendered. His face, however, demonstrates an almost surreal calmness. I can only wonder what the sculptor felt as he worked to free this figure from the stone.

Altar detail, Église Notre Dame d’Avenas, Avenas (Rhône) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Altar detail, Église Notre Dame d’Avenas, Avenas (Rhône) 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.

Anzy-le-Duc – the Great Survivor (Dennis Aubrey)


We have often remarked how astonishing it is that France still holds 5,000 Romanesque churches from the 11th and 12th centuries. They have survived war, accident, nature, religious strife, revolution, and age while standing proudly in the French countryside.

One of these survivors is the priory church in Anzy-le-Duc. The first church on this site was founded in Carolingian times, in 876, as a gift from the noble couple Letbald and Altaric. Their purpose was to establish a monastic institution dedicated to the revived Rule of Saint Benedict. The first prior was Saint Hugues of Poitiers, whose fame brought the priory into great repute. Hugues “died in great veneration” in 930 and was buried in the crypt of the church. His relics attracted many pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. This influx of pilgrims resulted in the construction of the Prieuré de la Sainte Trinité in the late 11th and early 12th Century.

This great priory church announces its presence from a distance with a stunning octagonal bell tower, one of the finest in Burgundy.

Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

However, the pious motivations behind the construction of the church have not protected it during the years. In the “calamitious 14th Century” (thank you, Ms. Tuchman) the furies unleashed by the Hundred Years War reached deep into southern Burgundy. In 1368 the troops of the Black Prince attacked and sacked the church.

In 1576, the religious wars that divided France made their mark when the Protestants desecrated the tomb of Saint Hugues and mutilated sculptures of the western portal. In 1594 the Catholics of the League, set the church on fire.

Crypt, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Not to be outdone, nature lent a hand. In 1652 lightning damaged the signature bell tower.

Mankind returned to its destructive ways during the Revolution when great scars were inflicted on the sculptures on the west portal. In 1789, almost out of exhaustion, the priory was dissolved and the church abandoned. About 20 years later, the citizens of Anzy-le-Duc bought the structure and converted it to the parish church, dedicating it to Notre-Dame de l’Assomption.

The church survived, and what remains is quite interesting. The nave is narrow, with three bays and rounded arches. Each bay is separated by a thick rounded diaphragm arch that helps support a groin vault above. The two side aisles are also groin vaulted. This is the same vaulting schema that occurs at the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay.

Nave, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The chancel crossing features a fine painted dome resting on squinches.

Crossing vault, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The west portal’s richly sculpted tympanum has, unfortunately, suffered greatly over the years. As previously mentioned, the Protestants mutilated some of the figures in 1576, but the greatest damage was done during the French Revolution. One of the citizens of Anzy-le-Duc, in his revolutionary fervor, invited his fellows to fire guns at the statuary.

The figures on the lintel, representing the Elders of the Apocalypse, various figures carved onto the archivolt, and the Christ and the angels of the tympanum were all mutilated by gunfire, which was rewarded by “a modest premium of three sous for each head shot.”

West portal, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The statuary inside, especially the fine historiated capitals, have survived much more successfully.

Nave capital, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Somehow, the Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption has withstood the assaults of history and changing currents of religion. It stands today as a monument to the faith of Hugues of Poitiers and the pious Benedictine monks who followed his footsteps.

Altar, Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Anzy-le-Duc (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 46.319335° 4.059574°°

✜If you are interested in seeing more of these Romanesque churches, select this link to see a list of those that we have featured in this Via Lucis blog.✜

La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) – A Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm


The small town of Puente la Reina is located less than an hour’s drive southwest from Pamplona. It is near the junction where the old French route (Camino Frances) from the historical Roncesvalles of the Chanson de Roland legend, and the Jaca route (Camino Aragones)  merged for the pilgrims headed toward Santiago de Compostela in the Middle Ages. Tradition has it variously  that either Dona Mayor, the queen to King Sancho el Mayor or his daughter Dona Estefania had the five-arched  bridge constructed over the Arga river for the pilgrims in the 11th century.

Bridge over the Arga, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Hence the name, the Bridge (of) the Queen. At the entry to the town stands the 12th century La Iglesia del Crucifijo (The Church of the Crucifix), which was originally built by the Knights Templar as a single nave church with an apse starting in 1146 during the reign of Alfonso I el Batallador who founded the town on the Arga river bank. The original Church was expanded with a second Nave in the 14th century, also with an Apse, by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, who took over the Church after the disbandment of the Templars in the early 14th century. The name of the Church derives from a 14th century wooden Crucifix now in the northern Apse of the Church whose origin is shrouded in mystery. During the time of the pilgrimage, sanjuanistas (the Order of St. John) operated lodging and a hospital for the pilgrims.

Chevet, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The covered passage on the south side of the Church, a gateway to the town, also serves as  Narthex to the Church itself. The east elevation of the Church presents an unusual double Apse composition. The bell tower was built mostly in the 14th century, but crowned in the 17th century with apparently Baroque ornamentation.

South Portal, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The South Portal, added during the 14th century expansion, has a slightly pointed arch with three layers of archivolts carved with beading, vegetal scrolls, as well as the human and beast figures, while the corresponding supports are arranged in three columns with capitals and three straight jambs.

12th Century nave, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The Nave has five bays of barrel vaults reinforced by the slightly pointed arches. The Chancel at the Apse has a modest Altar. The light source right at the Apse window basically makes it difficult to see what icon is placed at the center.  (It is made worse by not having been processed for HDR!)

View from the North Nave toward the South Nave, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The builders used octagon-shaped pillars with projecting brackets for springing of the arches, somewhat unusual regional style, not indebted to the classical architecture. At the time of the visit, the South Nave was being readied for a wedding with a red runner down the aisle.

View of the wooden Crucifix, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

On the Chancel wall of the North Nave is enshrined the mysterious wooden Crucifix laden with legends, which gave the Church its name. The sculpture is first referred to in a 1325  document, and is thought to be linked to the models of the German Rhineland through its Y that resembles a tree, although scholars also detect an Italian influence in the facial features of the Christ and the disposition of the feet. For our enjoyment of the magnificent Gothic work, a more charming legend comes down to us: a German pilgrim returning from Santiago de Compostela presented the Crucifix which had been in tow during his pilgrimage to the Church in appreciation for the hospitality and care he and his entourage received in Puente la Reina on the way to Santiago.

Detail of the wooden Crucifix, La Iglesia del Crucifijo, Puente la Reina (Navarra) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Only a modest bracket on the curving Apse wall in the  northern Nave of the Church supports the Crucifix. In looking at the stone work for the Apse vaulting, one can almost feel the dedication of the masons in trying to build a true and smooth curvature.

Photographic note: all pictures taken with Leica 28mm PC Super-Angulon on Canon 5D with an adapter.

✜ We are delighted to have another post from Jong-Soung Kimm on our Via Lucis site. For more information on Mr. Kimm, please see this link. ✜

Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire de Béziers (Dennis Aubrey)


Beziers has fallen!
They’re dead.
Clerks, women, children:
No quarter.

They killed Christians too.
I rode out,
I couldn’t see nor hear a living creature.
I saw Simon de Montefort.
His beard glistened in the sun.

They killed seven thousand people!
Seven thousand souls who sought sanctuary
In St. Madeline’s.
The steps of the altar were wet with blood.
The church echoed with their cries.

Guiraut Riquier, troubadour (Translated by Martin Best)

In 1130, the master builder Gervais built a Romanesque cathedral in the thriving episcopal town of Béziers. Built eighty years before Notre Dame de Paris, it had a comparable nave height as that Gothic masterpiece and was 50 meters long. Evidence given at the time indicates that it was a truly remarkable structure but it lasted only 79 years. The Cathedral of Saint Nazaire was burnt to the ground on July 22, 1209.

We went to Béziers in the hopes of finding what remained of Gervais’ masterpiece. Most commentators indicate that the Romanesque structure is completely gone and that Saint Nazaire is now a Gothic church, but we came into some luck. As we were setting up our cameras, a small energetic man approached us to talk. This can be bad news when an officious gardien sometimes takes it upon himself to investigate our activities. This time, however, was different. The man was Norbert Breton, who had recently published a book entitled Enquête Sur La Cathédrale Romane De Béziers, which translates into “Inquiry into the Romanesque Cathedral of Béziers”. Breton has studied the Gothic cathedral in detail and determined which parts of the destroyed Romanesque structure remain in place. He was kind enough to show us the elements in the Cathedral and even arranged for us to see the (usually closed) Eglise Saint-Jacques on the other side of town. He was informative, kind, and anxious to share his insights into the beloved churches of his Béziers. We gladly bought a copy of his book which took the Editions Zodiaque as a model, even to the box that the volume came in.

During the three days that we were in the region the weather was quite beautiful and the people hospitable, but we found the town unsettling. Perhaps it is the martial aspect of the cathedral with its crenellated towers and fortress-like appearance that dominates the town above the Orb River below. Perhaps it is the violence of the Transmontana winds that blow from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Or perhaps it is the violence that occurred on a July day eight hundred and two years earlier.

View of the Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

On July 21, 1209, a crusading army came to besiege Béziers because of the presence of a few dozen heretics. The forces were headed by Arnaud Amalric, the abbot of Citeaux and head of the Cistercian order.

Amalric’s own version of the siege, described in his letter to Pope Innocent III in August 1209 , stated, “While discussions were still going on with the barons about the release of those in the city who were deemed to be Catholics, the servants and other persons of low rank and unarmed attacked the city without waiting for orders from their leaders. To our amazement, crying “to arms, to arms!”, within the space of two or three hours they crossed the ditches and the walls and Béziers was taken. Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people. After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burnt.”

Nave of the Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The terrified citizens of the town sought refuge from the slaughter in the churches. At the Église Sainte Madeleine in the center of town, thousands were butchered by the rampaging routiers (the unarmed servants and camp followers who initiated the attack). As many as 6,000 more sought sanctuary in the great cathedral but were immolated when the structure was set afire. The intense heat of the fire caused the cathedral to explode “like a grenade;” it split in two and collapsed in an inferno on those sheltering within.

Transept corbel, Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The number of the dead has been reported as high as 60,000, but since the population of the town at that time was about 14,500, the number is an over-estimate. The Cistercian monk Pierre des Vaux-de-Cernay wrote the Historia Albigensis about the crusade and reported that 7,000 were slain in the Church of Saint Magdalene alone.

About twenty years later, the German Cistercian monk Cesar d’ Heisterbach in his Dialogus Miraculorum added a gruesome anecdote that has passed for fact for centuries because it fits the political agenda of many anti-clerical factions. “When they discovered, from the admissions of some of them, that there were Catholics mingled with the heretics they said to the abbot “Sir, what shall we do, for we cannot distinguish between the faithful and the heretics.” The abbot, like the others, was afraid that many, in fear of death, would pretend to be Catholics, and after their departure, would return to their heresy, and is said to have replied “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius – “Kill them all, God will know His own,” and so countless numbers in that town were slain.”

Gothic cloister, Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault) Photo by PJ McKey

Whether there is any truth to this is questionable; before Caesarius’ account there was no whisper of this horrifying phrase uttered by a Shepherd of the Faithful. The slaughter of men in a city that resisted siege was not uncommon, although normally women and children would be spared. But in this case, the siege proper had not even begun because the army had arrived only the day before. But the Crusaders did nothing to stop the slaughter and only went into action when the routiers started looting, an activity reserved for the knights themselves.

Cloister, Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault) Photo by PJ McKey

Béziers burned for three days and the massacre, called the “gran mazel” in Occitan – the “big butchery” – was infamous throughout the Christian world. For a century, a massive ruin crowned the hill where the town once stood. All that remained was a blackened heap of rubble and stones.

North transept arch, Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault) Photo by PJ McKey

Eventually the town was resettled, the Cathedral rebuilt into today’s large, aisle-less structure, beautiful and powerful, but still containing the bones of its violated predecessor. It is one of the great sadnesses of our work to find evidence of these horrible internecine slaughters. The religious wars of the 16th Century followed those of the 13th. The French Revolution followed those wars, and in all of them, Frenchman assailed and slaughtered other Frenchmen and destroyed the work of centuries as they killed. The 20th Century brought the mechanization of war and industrialized killing and destruction on a massively efficient scale. Yet the French have always recovered and found a way to make their land bountiful and beautiful. It is their great gift.

Choir windows, Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault) Photo by PJ McKey

In my imagination, the buffeting of the Transmontana winds is like the buffeting of history in Béziers, a reminder of violence and insanity committed in the name of the most sacred. Perhaps it is the rushing of the souls of the killers as they try to flee the torments of their hells and are sucked back into the maelstrom of darkness, fire and death that mirrors that which they created in July 1209.

Nave, Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault) Photo by PJ McKey

Today Riquier’s lament that “Bezier has fallen!” has been replaced by the more benign “Si Deus in terris, vellet habitare Biterris,” freely translated as “If God were on earth, he would live in Béziers.” Looking at this sunny hilltop city assailed by the force of the transmontana winds, I can only think that for the city to adopt this motto after the events of July 22, 1209 shows the resilience of the human spirit.

Or it might signify something else, something unsettling on its own. As I struggle to lose the sense of the present and seek a dim phantom of that terrible past, I find that it recedes in time and there remains only the faintest trace. That an act on this scale of horror can disappear in time perhaps shows the impossibility of human memory. And this means, of course, that we will never learn and that as a race we are doomed to repeat our abominations over and over until we destroy even ourselves.

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