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.

Worldly Grandeur and Presumption (Dennis Aubrey)


“Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. “ Genesis 11 (King James Version)

The priory Church of Notre Dame de La Charité-sur-Loire was founded in 1059 by the powerful Benedictine order of Cluny. It was one of the five “eldest daughters” of Cluny, a description of the most important daughter houses of the Benedictine order.

Chevet, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chevet, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The builder of La Charité was same builder of the Abbey Church of Cluny known as Cluny II. At the time, La Charité was actually the largest church in Christendom, but three decades after construction began, the monks of Cluny started work on their own new church, Cluny III. This superseded La Charité and became the largest church in Europe at the time.

Ambulatory, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The eastern end of the Prieuré Notre-Dame was originally built with seven apses in echelon, but by the end of the construction in the 12th century, the example of Cluny III resulted in a change. A new apse was constructed with an ambulatory and radiating chapels.

Prieuré Notre-Dame,  La Charité-sur-Loire  (Nièvre)

Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre)

At its height in the 12th century, La Charité was the second largest church in the Christian world (after Cluny), housed 200 monks, and possessed 45 dependencies of its own. The church was a inspiration to the builders of the great Romanesque pilgrimage churches throughout Europe. Notre Dame de La Charité-sur-Loire was 120 meters long, had ten bays in the nave with a vault 27 meters high.

Side aisle, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

Romanesque architecture was fully capable of worldly grandeur and presumption; why else would Bernard of Clairvaux move his Cistercian brethren to the wilderness and build communities where worldly simplicity was the path to spiritual salvation? Why would he rail against the pomp and ornament of Cluny? The great abbeys of Cluny and La Charité were the spiritual predecessors to the Gothic. Their purpose was to demonstrate the power and glory of Cluny as much as the power and glory of God. In the same way, the great Gothic cathedrals soared to greater and more daring heights, until even those structures could not stand.

Nave, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In some ways, medieval architecture reminds me of the story of the Tower of Babel. For awhile in the 11th and 12th centuries in western Europe, it was as if the world was of one language – Benedictine Christianity. The Romanesque world reflected that homogeneous outlook. And then the Benedictines started building their churches larger and higher, more imposing than ever and with more adornment. And those imposing churches created a sense of distance among believers to whom modesty and simplicity were the key to their religion.

Ambulatory, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

This sense of excess brought forth reform movements and the monks became divided into reforming factions that in turn needed reform themselves – Benedictines, Cistercians, Augustinians, Carthusians, Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Premonstratensians. The churches grew higher and higher, and more secular, and then the faith itself split into Catholic and Protestant. Protestantism fragmented into Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist, Anabaptist, Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and more.

Christianity became a babel.

Choir and hemicycle, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir and hemicycle, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

As much as we may decry the resulting fragmentation, at least there was a continuing effort to find the simplicity and purity in the practice of religion. It is an admirable endeavor for any institution to continually purify and reform itself. Certainly no government does so.

Hemicycle, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

Hemicycle, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

There is almost a sense of fate in the subsequent history of La Charité and Cluny. The destruction of the great abbey of Cluny is too depressingly well-known to dwell on – in 1793, the archives were burned and the church was plundered. The abbey was sold in 1798 for 2,140,000 francs and until 1813 the abbey served as a stone quarry. The new owner used explosives to topple the great structure to provide stone to build houses in the town. Today only a small fragment of the greatness remains.

Ambulatory, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Prieuré Notre-Dame, La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

La Charité fared somewhat better. In 1559 a huge fire devastated the nave; almost a century later it was rebuilt with four bays instead of the original ten. Standing outside the west portal, we see the north walls of the nave still standing in places and get a sense of how massive this church really was. Today, after several campaigns of restoration, it is still imposing, but it is hard to believe that this was the second largest church in Christendom.

Location: 47.177515° 3.017533°

The Early Gothic Cathedral – Notre Dame de Laon (Dennis Aubrey)


Notre Dame de Laon is one of our favorite Gothic cathedrals, but it has a reputation for being, well, unreligious. Viollet-le-Duc likened it to a civic hall where people “could unite and enjoy spectacles more or less profane.” The great writer Huysmans felt that nobody could pray there, and that “its soul has fled forever”. Dorothy Noyes Arms, who loved the cathedral, felt that even when full for a celebratory mass, the cathedral would never generate the spiritual ferment of Chartres nor be filled with flickering devotional candles.

La cathédrale de Laon, (Aisne, France) vue depuis la branche sud est de la ville haute, Photograph by Pline (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

La cathédrale de Laon, (Aisne, France) vue depuis la branche sud est de la ville haute, Photograph by Pline (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

On the other hand, Notre Dame de Laon is a superb early Gothic construction started around 1155 during the period of time that the cathedrals of Sens, Noyon and Senlis were being built. The builders were still feeling their way around this new form of architecture. The eleven bays of the nave progress in a stately manner down the impressively long nave. There are another ten bays in the choir. This gives the impression of great length, especially when compared to the relatively low vault height.

As a matter of comparison, Notre Dame de Paris (416′ long, 110′ high) has a length to height ratio of 3.8:1. Notre Dame d’Amiens (438′ long, 141′ high) has a ratio of 3.1:1. Notre Dame de Laon (362′ long, 79′ high), on the other hand, has a ratio of 4.6:1.

Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame has many indications of being early Gothic – most noticeably there are still tribunes over the rather short side aisles. Because there are four levels to the elevation – the arcade, the tribune, the triforium, and the clerestory, the only direct lighting in the nave comes from the clerestory windows.

Another indication that this is a transitional church is that there are both round and pointed arches in the structure. The nave arcades are ogive and the tribune, triforium and clerestory arches are round. Notice how the single arcade bay yields a double bay in the tribune and a triple bay in the clerestory. This gives a wonderful rhythm to the structure.

It is interesting to note also that there is no balustrade in the tribune arcades. The passages open unobstructed straight out to the nave. My suspicion is that this was to allow light from the tribune windows to penetrate more fully to the nave. This gives an open visual impression even if it must be a bit harrowing to stand on the open edge.

Choir elevation, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Choir elevation, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by PJ McKey

The nave vault is also transitional – a sexpartite vault spans two bays instead of a quadripartite vault that spans a single bay. It is interesting in this shot to see the effect of all the round arches. They seem to somehow pull the vault lower, to keep it more earthward.

Sexpartite vault, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sexpartite vault, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The choir is quite interesting for a number of reasons – first, the east wall is flat and adorned with a magnificent rose window. There is no chevet, there are no radiating chapels, and there is no ambulatory. Instead, there is a long ten-bay arcade with side aisles, just like the nave. This is truly a cruciform church with short transept arms to make the cross.

Choir, looking west, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir, looking west, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The straight side aisles in the choir show clearly the solid, powerful columns and the flat east wall in the distance. We can see here more evidence of the early nature of the Gothic – there are no windows in the side aisles.

Side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by PJ McKey

In the flat east wall of the choir, there is a stained glass ensemble consisting of the rose and three lancets. The early 13th century lancets lancets are from the school of Chartres and feature the Annunciation, Visitation, and the Nativity. The visual effect from the nave is quite interesting because the windows occupy most of the space in that wall. It quite literally appears as a light at the end of a tunnel.

East rose window, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

East rose window, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ and I are quite fond of these early Gothic cathedrals where the builders found their way to the new architecture that would soon culminate in the masterpieces of Amiens, Chartres, Bourges and Reims. In those structures, the nave arcades would rise higher and be fitted with window ensembles, the tribune level would disappear and the clerestory rounds would change into a rose with two lancets. And the crowning achievement, the structures would be covered with the quadripartite vaults. This would allow for greater wall space dedicated to windows, more elongated piers and pillars and give the sensation of stone climbing to the heavens.

View from choir side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by PJ McKey

View from choir side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by PJ McKey

Laon, Senlis, Auxerre, and Sens may not have the same soaring effect as their more famous successors, but they paved the way. It was here that the earthbound Romanesque gave way to the heaven-soaring Gothic.

Location: 49.564374° 3.625100°

Saint Etienne de Nevers (Dennis Aubrey)


The Église Saint Etienne in Nevers is an 11th century church that was constructed between 1068-1097. The structure, built with ocher limestone, is one of the finest and best preserved Romanesque churches in France, but surprisingly is not well-known. It was consecrated in 1097 as a priory church attached to Cluny and used for the offices of its community. Despite its hemicycle and ambulatory, it was not a pilgrimage church.

From the plan it can be seen that there are six bays in the have, groin vaulted side aisles, a crossing covered with a dome, two transepts each with an echeloned chapel, and an apse with an ambulatory and three radiating chapels.

Plan, Saint Etienne de Nevers (Viollet-le-Duc)

Plan, Saint Etienne de Nevers (Viollet-le-Duc)

The high nave is topped with a wonderfully preserved banded barrel vault, supported by engaged columns rising from the piers supporting the arcades. This is the first medieval church to rise to three stories under a stone vault.

Nave, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The six bays of the nave have three vertical levels – the rounded arches of the side aisles, the tribunes, and the narrow clerestory windows. These clerestory windows, the first to be raised above a tribune level in a wall supporting a vault, let in an enormous amount of natural light into the nave.

Nave elevations, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave elevations, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The tribunes feature double bays and are covered by half-barrel vaults. We can see in this shot that the first bay of the nave is covered by a transverse gallery, creating a narthex-like space below. Today, a great organ occupies that gallery.

Nave looking northwest, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave looking northwest, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The side aisles feature groin vaults that permitted large windows in the thick exterior walls. As with the rest of the church, the lines are clean and spare.

Side aisle, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisle, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The transepts feature a stunning five-windowed diaphragm arch leading to the crossing, just before the opening to the ambulatory. This arch lets the light from the windows in all three walls of the transept shine into the chancel.

Transept, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by PJ McKey

Transept, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The crossing has a fine cupola supported by pendentives and we can see the diaphragm arches clearly.

Cupola and vaulting, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cupola and vaulting, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

For a church that was not on the pilgrimage route, Saint Etienne has a superb ambulatory surrounding the hemicycle. The paving stones of the walk are beautifully laid in a pattern radiating outward from the hemicycle.

Ambulatory, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The ambulatory is covered with groin vaulting and has three radiating chapels.

Ambulatory, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Église Saint-Etienne, Nevers (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The first time we went to Saint Etienne, we were with my parents. The visit happened to coincide with the Journées du patrimoine, the weekend where all French monuments are opened for visiting. A group of school children approached Don and Lucille and asked if they could tell them about the church. Of course my parents agreed and received a multimedia lecture from the group. I always loved this moment and how excited the children were to talk to the Americans.

Lucille and Don learning the history of Saint Etienne de Nevers  (Photo by PJ McKey)

Lucille and Don learning the history of Saint Etienne de Nevers (Photo by PJ McKey)

Saint Etienne de Nevers is one of the few Romanesque churches in France to survive without major alterations of its original internal structure despite being deprived of its two western towers and central octagonal tower of the crossing by the French Revolution. From the inside, however, we can appreciate the intent of the original builders and their skill in building this wonderful church. They chose to concentrate on proportion, volume, and balance instead of formal decoration, and the result is a pure example of French Romanesque architecture.

Location: 46.991806° 3.164585°

Three Weeks from La Madeleine (Dennis Aubrey)


Three weeks from today we will be in Vézelay and photographing the Basilique Sainte Madeleine. This is when we know we are in France; we have dinner at the Crispol hotel overlooking the valley with the basilica in the distance. We drive up the back roads to the basilica, carrying in our equipment and photographing the most beautiful Romanesque church in the world.

The sunset view across the valley to the Basilique Sainte Madeleine atop the hilltop village of Vézelay

The sunset view across the valley to the Basilique Sainte Madeleine atop the hilltop village of Vézelay

Every trip begins the same way and every time we feel the same deep relief and happiness to be back among our beautiful churches.

Side aisle to ambulatory, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle to ambulatory, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

I have written before of the extraordinary sensations that we have experienced at the Basilique Sainte Madeleine. PJ has described emerging from a crypt into the lighted church and experiencing the sensation of birth, or rebirth. In Vézelay, we sense much the same thing in the anticipation of leaving the narthex and entering into the “paradise” of the church itself.

Narthex,  Basilique Sainte Madeleine,Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Narthex, Basilique Sainte Madeleine,Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

We have seen over and over how many of the people we meet have a profound attachment to their church and to the saint for whom the church is named. PJ and I feel this; we refer to the basilica as “Madeleine” and we have a close attachment to her. We feel her presence as a person, not as a church. Except for her intervention, I am not sure that PJ and I would be together today.

North side aisle, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

North side aisle, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Madeleine is beauty to the eye, a perfect combination of a Romanesque nave finished with a beautiful Gothic apse. The builders who merged these two different styles created a unique structure where the rounded Romanesque arcades covered with their groin vaults lead us inexorably to the ogive-arched hemicycle arcade, tribunes and clerestory with their ribbed oven vault. In the wonderful words of Sartell Prentice, the Basilique Sainte Madeleine is “twilight beneath the groin vault of the Romanesque nave; midday in the Gothic apse”.

Apse, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Every evening the Franciscan community celebrates a vespers mass. This is the only church where I attend mass, and it is surely because of the beauty of the music in the great stone interior, where the sound seems to caress the stone.

Afternoon mass in Vézelay

Afternoon mass in Vézelay

The church is filled with the most magnificent sculpture – the capitals are world-famous and the narthex tympanum is a masterpiece. The Christ of that tympanum is unique; this is not the stern and forbidding symbol of the Last Judgment but a welcoming Christ, arms open, embracing the pilgrims of the world.

Narthex, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Narthex, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Finally, if you want to know what Vézelay means to us, you might be interested in watching this extraordinary sermon by Gordon Stewart where he reads from our post “Elle Chante, Pere.” The segment begins exactly at the 3:00 minute mark.

Location:  47.466317° 3.749021°

The Woods of Our Lady (Dennis Aubrey)


So often we find glorious Romanesque churches in the smallest villages of France, often remnants of a remote abbey with a village that grew up around it. Sometimes we see modest parish churches that have survived a thousand years. And other times we find something a little more surprising, a small village that once had a more distinguished past, and a church that gives testimony to that past.

The town of Bois-Sainte-Marie in the Brionnais is one of those. Today there are only 199 residents, but there has been a settlement here at least since Roman times and in the Middle Ages Sancta Maria de Bosco was an important town, important enough as a royal property to be walled and fortified. Evidence of that can be seen from a contemporary satellite photo.

Satellite view of Bois Sainte Marie (Google Maps)

Satellite view of Bois Sainte Marie (Google Maps)

The Brionnais region in Burgundy is rich in Romanesque churches, and the 12th century Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité is among the finest. There is evidence that the church was begun around 1050 and finished in the 11th century, but there was also a major restoration in the 19th century, mostly because of destruction by the Armagnacs in 1420 and the Calvinists in 1567. By 1678 the church was in miserable condition and much of the vaulting had collapsed. Finally, in 1845 the Monuments Historique assigned the architect Eugène Millet, pupil of Viollet le Duc, to begin a six-year campaign of restoration. During this extensive restoration, the vaults and upper levels of the church were almost completely reconstructed.

View from ambulatory, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

View from ambulatory, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Like most of the other churches in the region, the 12th century has four bays and is covered with a banded barrel vault rising from the clerestory level. The clerestory is pierced by fairly large windows which allow a great deal of natural light into the central passage. But Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité differs significantly from most of the other churches in the region. There are two transepts flanking the crossing, but they don’t project outwards, so the church does not have the conventional cruciform plan common to most medieval churches.

Nave,Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave,Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the nave elevation, we can see the massive cruciform pillars with the engaged columns to carry the arcade arches and the fine capitals on all of the nave columns.

Nave elevation, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave elevation, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The side aisles are covered with groin vaults, intersect with the non-protruding transept, and terminate in the apse in a much lower ambulatory. This variation in the height is another significant point of differentiation from most of the other churches in the region.

South side aisle, transept and ambulatory, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

South side aisle, transept and ambulatory, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The entire apse is raised up two steps from the nave, but there is a singular feature in the ambulatory – there are no radiating chapels. The passage continues around the choir uninterrupted, not even separated by a low retaining wall. The entire raised apse is one single level. The ambulatory is defined architecturally by the sets of triple columns for each arcade of the hemicycle.

By the way, the red image over the central window is a Coca-Cola sign on the outside. There was an orange Fanta sign on another window. We think that they were in place because the windows had been either broken or removed for restoration and these signs were strong and waterproof. It made for an interesting contrast with the church interior.

Apse, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The ambulatory is covered with groin vaults, supported on the outside wall by engaged double columns, which is also a unique feature in Burgundian churches. We can also clearly see the triple columns of the hemicycle.

Ambulatory, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité has an extensive and important set of capitals featuring allegorical biblical themes, the conflicts between virtue and vice, good and evil. Many of these were rebuilt during the 19th century restoration, but the work was done so well that it is almost impossible to tell them from the originals that remain in place. In the crossing, there are pairs of capitals facing each other across the open space, including this one featuring the mask of a cow between human heads.

Capital, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Capital, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

One of the most moving of the capitals shows two people weeping, holding their heads in their hands, representing despair.

Despair, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Despair, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Perhaps the most famous capital represents the punishment of the talkative, presumably by excising the tongue with tongs. I don’t know if this condemns lying, calumny, or verbal abuse, or if it is a more generalized censure of chattiness or language in general. While this punishment somehow seems fitting for the slanderers who fill our public lives, I would prefer these thoughts of Voltaire, … les anges m’ont tué par leur silence. Le silence est le just chatiment des bavard. Je meurs, je suis mort. “The angels have killed me with their silence. Silence is the just punishment for the talkative. I’m dying. I’m dead.”

Punishment of the talkative, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Punishment of the talkative, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is much to admire at this lovely church, including the sculpture, but I am most fascinated by the unique architectural features, certainly the non-protruding transept, but most of all the ambulatory – the change in heights between the side aisles and ambulatory, the engaged columns supporting the groin vaults, and the lack of radiating chapels. As far as I can find, none of these features occur anywhere else in a region brimming with Romanesque churches.

Nave from transept, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave from transept, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Today, the town’s small population supports the church through the very active Association pour la restauration de l’église du Bois Sainte Marie. The chief occupation of the town is agricultural, raising of the famed Charolais cattle, but the glories of the Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité remind the residents of their former position as a royal demesne, protected by stout walls and gates.

Location: 46.329614° 4.355039°

The Archbishop’s Palace (Dennis Aubrey)


When PJ and I visited the famous city of Angers a couple of years ago, we had the good fortune to be hosted by the gentleman man in charge of the patrimoine for the Conseil Général of the Maine-et-Loire. We could not have hoped better for both access and knowledge of the history of the city. He made it possible for us to spend a full day shooting the cloister and the refectory door in the Abbaye Saint Aubin. At the end of that session he told us that he had arranged for us to photograph the next day at the Archbishop’s palace, the Palais du Tau.

When we arrived at the episcopal residence the next morning, there was a great deal of activity in the famous salle synodale. Preparations were being made from a reception that would prevent us from photographing in that room. We were introduced to the Bishop of Angers, Monseigneur Emmanuel Delmas, and then climbed Bishop François de Rohan‘s winding Renaissance stairway to meet our guide for the day, Monsieur l’Abbé Pierre Pineau. This kindly man spent much of the day showing us the details of the various rooms and explaining the iconography of the capitals. We got to shoot in two chambers, the Salle de Justice and the Bishop’s Library.

The Salle de Justice was really the ceremonial gallery, the aula palatii or the “hall of the palace”, marked by the magnificence of its style and the grandeur of its dimensions.

Salle de Justice, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Salle de Justice, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

While the Palais du Tau was built in the 12th century, it has undergone almost constant modification over the years and was completely restored in the second half of the 19th century by the noted architect Charles Joly-Leterme, who we know from his work on the Abbaye Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe and the Église Notre Dame de Cunault.

Joly-Leterme’s work at the Palais is of a completely different type, characterized by bold colors and geometrical patterns painted on almost every surface. The floor is composed of beautifully fitted tiles with a cool palette that contrasts with the wall and ceiling treatments.

Entry, Salle de Justice, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Entry, Salle de Justice, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

In the shot of the windows of the Salle, we can see that there are narrow columns that carry the round arches for each of the doors. These are topped with fine capitals.

Windows, Salle de Justice, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Windows, Salle de Justice, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Most of the capitals in the Salle are not illustrative of biblical themes, but images of a legendary and secular nature. This capital, for example, features beasts and birds of prey.

Capital, Salon de Justice, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Salle de Justice, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In contrast to the scale and grandeur of the salle de justice, the library is modest in size. But the fittings of this room are opulent almost beyond belief. Certainly the archbishops who built this palace were more concerned with demonstrating worldly glory rather than Christian virtues.

Library, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Library, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The centerpiece of the library is the grand fireplace. The arms of Bishop Hardouin de Breuil, one of the early builders of the Palace, can be seen in the arch above the mantle.

Fireplace detail, Library, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Fireplace detail, Library, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The detailing throughout the room is exquisite, from the painted columns, the parquet floor, and the decorated arches of the doors and windows to the gilded fleur-de-lys pattern of the mantle.

Library detail, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Library detail, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The painted roof beams add a particularly elegant dimension to the look of the room.

Ceiling detail, Libary, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Ceiling detail, Libary, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

While the intent of the chamber was the display of power, there are constant reminders of the religious purpose of the episcopal office. There are capitals on all of the doors and window pillars, most of which have a religious subject. They present a complex iconographic story that was presented to us by Monsieur l’Abbé, but any explanation would require a post of its own.

Entry, Salle de Justice, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Entry, Salle de Justice, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The capitals in the library are gilded, which is something that we had not seen before. I don’t think that this would have occurred in churches and cathedrals themselves, but would be something that featured in the episcopal residence of a powerful prelate. And of course PJ and I were delighted to find a column-swallower in the library.

Column swallower, Library, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Column swallower, Library, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Palais du Tau is an unusual subject for us to photograph; it has little of the Romanesque and it is not a church or a cathedral, but we could not pass up the opportunity to shoot there. It is a reminder of the power of the Church in France before the Revolution, and of a time when the princes of the Church lived in a style that rivaled the princes of the realm.

Location: 47.471° -0.55422°

This article is part of a series on the Romanesque wealth of the city of Angers. Located on the Loire River, this city was the seat of Angevin power during the Middle Ages. That power and prestige are visible in many of the monuments that remain here. We document three of them – the cloister and porte du réfectoire of the Abbaye Saint Aubin, the Cathédrale Saint Maurice d’Angers, and the Palais du Tau. There is nobody who better understands this power and prestige today than our guide from the office of the Conseil Général of the Maine-et-Loire, an intelligent and passionate advocate for the medieval arts of Angers and its surrounding areas. This man took a great deal of time to introduce us to the wealth of sumptuous Romanesque art in the region.

The Barbarians have breached the gates


There are no words.