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.

Charlemagne and the Buckwheat King (Dennis Aubrey)


The Église Saint-André-de-Sorède is in the town of Saint André but is named after the nearby town of Sorède two miles south. Just three miles to the west is the church at Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines. The Église Saint-André is actually a pre-Romanesque church dating from the 9th Century that was in a state of dishevelment by 1109 and was repaired and expanded and a new Benedictine community established there. The bones of what we see today, however, is that original Carolingian church.

The general plan is that of a Latin cross featuring a nave with three bays, two extremely narrow side aisles, a rounded apse, and an echeloned chapel in each transept.

Plan, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)

Plan, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)

The exterior view of the chevet gives a view of the layout of the apse and the large chapels protruding from the east wall of the transepts.

Chevet, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chevet, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The view down the nave to the apse shows the imposing piers that support the barrel vault. The transverse arches spring from pilasters and carry across the space to help support the weight of the stone vault. The vault is quite high and makes the church feel larger than it really is.

Nave, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

An interesting feature of the church is the narrow side aisle between the nave piers and the side walls. Most likely this is an artifact of the 12th century rebuilding campaign when the church was vaulted. The vault springs directly from the piers, which were probably added at that time as reinforcement to support the heavy weight of the stone vault, which well could have been too heavy to be supported solely by the outer walls. The piers were added and an arc rampant from the outer wall to each pier probably was added for support, creating the narrow, almost unusable, side aisle. Notice the barrel vault in the aisle running parallel to the nave.

Because the outer wall had no requirement to support the vault, it was possible for the builders to put fairly large windows in the side aisles. These provide a significant amount of illumination to the interior, far more than we would find in the sister church at Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines, which also dates from the Carolingian era but without the later modifications.

Side aisle arch rampant, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle arch rampant, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The flat western wall also has a large window above the portal. The amount of natural lighting at Saint-André-de-Sorède makes the church fairly unique in another aspect – there are no artificial lights on during the daylight hours and the church exists without intrusive modern lighting fixtures that we find elsewhere.

Nave from altar, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave from altar, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The apse is a simple semicircular structure covered with an oven vault, while the transept crossing is covered with a barrel vault. The three windows in the apse walls provide lighting adequate to the space, again without the intervention of electrical fixtures.

Apse, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

A highlight of the apse is the 11th century altar table made of marble with ornate carvings around the perimeter.

Altar, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

Altar, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

One of the most significant artifacts of the church at Saint-André is the lintel over the west portal. It has a great deal in common with the similar lintel found just 5 kilometers away at Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines. We have examined these two early Romanesque carvings in a previous article. It should be noted that the Saint-André lintel is the same dimensions as the altar table shown previously, and imitates the format and subject matter of Carolingian altar retables. This indicates that at one time it might have been used for this purpose.

Lintel, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Lintel, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There was once a cloister attached to the abbey church, but it was destroyed in the 15th century by troops of Philip II.

There is one very odd feature of the church. In one of the side chapels is a pierre tombale musulmane, a Muslim tombstone known under the Moroccan name of Mqabriya. This appears to be a sarcophagus cover and is carved with interlacing floral motifs and quotes from the Koran. One of these reads, “You are our Protector and give us victory over the disbelieving people.” Verse (2:286) The Mqabriya was found in the masonry of the church during restoration work.

Marble Mqabriya, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)

Marble Mqabriya, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)

In trying to find more information about the Mqabriya, I came upon an interesting story. The Tractatusde captione Gerunde from the 15th century refers to Charlemagne’s wars in the Pyrénées against the Saracens. There is discussion that after a victory by the Emperor, he dedicated a convent in a town called Milet, near Elne. Jules Coulet, whose text is the source of my information, writes, “Celui-ci s’était borné à mentionner, qu’après la victoire remportée à Milet, Charlemagne avait élevé une église, placée sous l’invocation de saint André, auprès de la quelle se trouvait un monastère,” (It had merely mentioned that after the victory at Milet, Charlemagne had erected a church, under the invocation of Saint André, which subsequently became a monastery.)

Coulet was unable to find the town of Milet that the Tractatus supposedly referenced and instead posits that the text refers to the church at Saint-André-de-Sorède. This is approximately contemporary to the conventional explanation that the Benedictine abbey was founded by a Spanish monk called Miron around 800 and consistent with the dates of the Frankish-Moorish Wars (779-812).

If the chronicles are correct, Charlemagne won a major victory over the Saracens on the site of Saint André and dedicated this church in remembrance of the victory. What this means for the Mqabriya, I don’t know. I would like to think that this was part of a sarcophagus of a great Islamic warrior who fell on the battlefield before the great Emperor Charlemagne and that his headstone was taken to the church as a sign of respect. But this is probably merely fancy; the Mqabriya is probably from a later time (I have read of datings from the 10th and 12th centuries, both based on the supposed common use of the texts carved into the stone) and certainly there were more pacific verses than the “give us victory over the disbelieving people” that I quoted earlier. But these are just late-night fantasies, pleasant to indulge in but ultimately of little import.

South transept, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

South transept, Église Saint-André-de-Sorède, Saint-André (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Finally, I should explain the title of this post, which is, of course, a jest. In researching Jules Coulet’s text from 1907, I ran across a paragraph that gave me trouble, so I translated it using an automatic translator. A line in that passage reads “A deux reprises encore, le roi sarrasin s’efforce d’arrêter les chrétiens, mais Charlemagne surmonte tous les obstacles,” which translates to “Twice again, the Saracen king tries to stop the Christians, but Charlemagne overcomes all obstacles.” The translation that was provided, however, read “Twice again, buckwheat king tries to stop Christians, but Charlemagne overcomes all obstacles.” Sarrasin, of course, means “buckwheat” as well as Saracen! I’ll never be able to eat a crêpe from Brittany without laughing at the “Buckwheat King’.

Location: 42.5525° 2.9711°

Destroyed by Moors, Normans and twice by Kings of France (Dennis Aubrey)


The exterior of the Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie in the Pyrenean town of Elne looks less like a church than like a medieval fortress and there is a good reason for this. As the site of the bishopric of Rousillon, which in medieval times was a border state between various kingdoms of Toulouse, Catalonia, Aragon, and France, Elne suffered inevitable conflict over the years. And while today the town stands about three miles from the Mediterranean Sea, in the Middle Ages it was almost a coastal town. As such it was prey to pirates and raiders of all sorts. In its history, the town was destroyed by the Saracens in the 8th century, by Normans in 10th, and twice by Kings of France. In 1285 the soldiers of Philippe-le-Hardi burned the town and massacred its inhabitants.

The vast Romanesque cathedral surrounded by protective walls that we see today was consecrated in 1069 and was built on a basilica plan with a nave and two side aisles, but no transepts. The nave consists of seven bays that terminate with an oven-vaulted apse. The space is covered with a banded barrel vault. This photograph is taken from the narthex, which fills the seventh nave bay in the west.

Nave, Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave elevation illustrates the great height of the arcade arches, carried and supported by massive piers with engaged columns. The barrel vault rises directly from the arcades without the intervention of either a tribune or a clerestory level.

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The superb side aisles show the true scale of the cathedral. They are high and wide, providing a magisterial path toward the apsidal chapels in the distance. Like the nave, these side aisles are covered with banded barrel vaults instead of the more frequently used groin vaults. This may be because the width of the nave arcades is so great that the volumes of the side aisle bays are rectangular instead of square.

Side aisle, Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisle, Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Elne possesses another of the superb cloisters found in the region. This one was begun by Bishop Guillem Jordà in the 12th century, but not finished for over a century. As a result, the cloister is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic elements. The south gallery is the oldest and the only one fully Romanesque, while the other three are 13th and 14th century.

Today the garth of the cloister is filled with plants and greenery, but it may not have always been so, because there is no break in the arcades for someone to pass through. Clearly it would have been easy for someone to climb over the low coping parapet, but usually there is a passageway.

Cloister gallery, Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister gallery, Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The cloister is not made not of stone but of Céret marble. The design follows the architectural pattern established in the twelfth century: each gallery has five solid piers and eight pairs of columns joined by arches.

Cloister columns and piers, Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister columns and piers, Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The capitals show a number of the expected biblical scenes, but also a profusion of exotic plants and animals including eagles, griffins, lions and peacocks. Of special interest are the intricately carved columns, no two of which are alike.

Carved cloister columns, Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Carved cloister columns, Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

In one gallery of the cloister are Merovingian sarcophagi. We have seen this many times, but seldom inside a church like this and never carved this ornately.

Merovingian sarcophagi, Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Merovingian sarcophagi, Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The church contains a lovely white marble baptismal font from the 11th century. Located in the north side aisle, the font was carved from a re-purposed Roman column.

Baptismal font, Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Baptismal font, Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Finally, I would like to draw attention to a modern, but immensely moving, sculptural element in the cathedral, the “Improperia” (outrages to Christ) crucifix. There are two in the church, one in the side aisle near the baptismal font, and another shown in the following photograph. The cross is composed entirely of physical elements found in the crucifixion, from the tools used to secure Christ to the dice the soldiers used to gamble for his garments.

Crucifix, Cathedrale Sainte Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

“Improperia” Crucifix, Cathedrale Sainte Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

We have only seen a few of these crucifixes in all of our travels. That there are two of these “Improperia” in the Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie is perhaps emblematic of the suffering endured by the town of Elne over the centuries.

Location: 42.599164° 2.972289°

The “Peace of God” and a Catalan Abbey (Dennis Aubrey)


If anyone reads the medieval history of the Catalan region, the name Wilfrid the Hairy always comes to the fore. His main achievement as Count of Cerdanya, Urgell, Girona, Ausona, Besalú, and Barcelona was the unification and repopulated of his devastated lands and the creation of the state of Catalonia. As for his name, the Gesta comitum barcinonensium only states that he “… was hairy in places not normally so in men…” I have spent far more time than it deserves trying to parse this description.

One of Wilrid’s descendents as Count of Cerdanya, Oliba of Besalù, was also the abbot of the monastery of Cuxa. Founded in 878 after a flood wiped out a nearby monastery in the gorge of the river Têt, the Abbaye Saint Michel-de-Cuxa rapidly gained importance in the medieval church. By the time Oliba came along in the 11th century, his abbey church (originally built 956-974) was in need of expansion. Oliba built an ambulatory around the choir, the crypt with a chapel, and a pair of bell-towers.

The years have been hard on Saint Michel-de-Cuxa, as they have been for so many other churches. There are only two remaining elements from Abbot Oliba’s 11th century renovations. The first is the masterful clocher, a four level castellated bell tower. The first two floors feature Lombard bands and narrow windows. Oliba’s northern bell tower collapsed in a storm in 1839.

Clocher, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Clocher, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second remaining element of Oliba’s expansion is the underground crypt which is essentially a series of passageways connecting different chapels.

Crypt, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Crypt, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The crypt’s Pessebre or Nativity rotunda is a spectacular circular barrel-vaulted chamber supported by a central pier. In this shot we can see the chapel of the Virgin of the Nativity just beyond the pier.

Crypt pillar and chapel, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crypt pillar and chapel, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

While Oliba’s 11th century additions to the interior of the church are gone, the original Carolingian nave remains largely intact. The simple structure has much in common with the interior of the Église Saint Etienne de Vignory, another pre-Romanesque survivor in France. The arcades are flat walls with arches that carry up to the wooden roof. The windows shown on the south side are an anomaly, I believe, probably constructed later in the church’s history, especially since they are only on the one side.

Nave, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The church has the two conventional side aisles, but notice the remarkable difference for its Romanesque brethren. The transverse arches are not round or ogive, but horseshoe (or keyhole) in shape. This is a reflection of the very early origin of the church since this shape shows Moorish and Visigothic influence. Also notice that the doorway in the center of the shot is not covered with an arch, but with a curved lintel.

Side aisle, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Oliba’s apse with its ambulatory is long gone. We are left with a simple raised apse with a flat chevet covered with a groin vault.

Apse, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Somewhere around the year 1130 a marble cloister was built under the direction of Abbot Gregory. The cloister is the largest in Pyrénées, despite half of it residing in the United States at the Cloisters Museum in New York. In situ, here at Codalet, we see the extent of this massive quadrangle. The half in New York has been reconfigured to make a square that is much smaller than originally intended, one quarter of the area of the one we see here.

Cloister, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cloister, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The cloister walkways are separated from the garth – the central enclosure – by arcades formed by narrow pillars, topped with capitals. The base of the arcades make a fine place to sit and were surely appreciated by the monks during the course of their studies and devotions.

Cloister, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cloister, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the cloister of Saint-Michel de Cuxa, we see the slender columns of pink Conflent marble supporting superb capitals. The man-made decoration was often supplemented in the garth with cloister gardens featuring herbs and flowers.

Cloister columns, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cloister columns, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The ornamentation of the capitals features foliage, animals and historiated capitals. What is unique about Saint Michel-de-Cuxa, however, is that these are not all stories from the Bible or the life of Christ; the preferred themes include delicately chiseled fantastic bestiary and plant motifs. One capital even features Gilgamesh, a character from Sumerian mythology.

Cloister capital, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister capital, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

In the chapel of the north transept is a charming 13th century polychrome Vierge romane. The statue has suffered a great deal of deterioration over the years, but we can still see why it has been revered for so long. The right hand of the Virgin, which is outstretched, would have held a flower or a scepter at one time. PJ and I both love the elongated fingers that are characteristic of these statues.

Vierge romane, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Vierge romane, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

As for Abbot Oliba himself? He served God and Mammon simultaneously as the Abbot of Saint Michel-de-Cuxa and as Count of Cerdayna, and unlike most, seemed to do both well. He was a powerful force in the church and was active in promoting the famous Pax Dei, the “Peace of God”, the first prohibition of violence among Christian nobles in the feudal world. At the Council of Toulouges in 1027, Oliba introduced the abuses that were punishable by the church and the prohibition of fighting on Sundays. Perhaps in the struggle over his own personal dual nature, the peace of the Church triumphed over the warring of his feudal state. That alone is worthy of remembrance.

Location: 42.594861° 2.417187°

The Prodigal Cloister of Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Dennis Aubrey)


The town of Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines is located in the flatlands of the Pyrénées-Orientales about ten miles from the Mediterranean. It is home to the Abbaye Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines and its church, the Église Saint Michel. The abbey was founded in the 8th century by un homme pieux named Sentimir and dedicated to Saint Genis, a martyr of Arles who died in 303. We know that Sentimir planted vines and olive trees and built many buildings. The abbey was ransacked by Vikings in 981 and then rebuilt. The Église Saint Michel we see today dates from 981 and was enlarged and vaulted in 1153.

Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines, Photo by PJ McKey

Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines, Photo by PJ McKey

The Église Saint Michel has a simple cruciform structure of a nave with narrow transepts and a rounded apse. There is an echeloned chapel in each arm of the transept. The revaulting of the church required significant alteration of the structure in order to support the weight of the stone. As a result, there are no side aisles, only blind arcade arches. The vault is interesting, slightly ogive but supported by round Romanesque arches.

Nave from choir loft, Église Saint Michel, Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave from choir loft, Église Saint Michel, Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The apse is covered with an oven vault and is dominated by a beautiful 17th century retable.

Side chapel retable, Église Saint Michel, Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side chapel retable, Église Saint Michel, Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The abbey church of Saint Michel is distinguished by possessing both the oldest dated Romanesque sculpture as well as one of the last expressions of Romanesque art in the south of France. The oldest is the carved lintel that adorns the otherwise plain and undistinguished west portal. We have done a fairly extensive review of this lintel in an article earlier.

West portal, Église Saint Michel Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West portal, Église Saint Michel Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

As can be seen from the detail shot of Christ in Mandorla supported by two angels, this is a superb example of early Romanesque sculptural art.

Lintel detail, Christ in Mandorla, Église Saint Michel, Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Lintel detail, Christ in Mandorla, Église Saint Michel, Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The last expression of Romanesque art in the Rousillon was the beautiful marble cloister that dates from the third quarter of the 13th century. The cloister is unique for the composition of its materials. It is built from the different colored marbles – 99% pure white from Céret, pink from Conflent, and black from Corbières. The history of this cloister is as sad as that of its fellows at ‪Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert‬ and Saint Michel-de-Cuxa which were dismantled and parts of them found at the Cloisters Museum in New York. When the abbey at Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines was secularized during the French Revolution, the cloister was sold to various individuals.

Cloister, Église Saint Michel, Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister, Église Saint Michel, Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

In 1924 a Parisian art dealer, antiquarian and forger named Paul Gouvert attempted to buy it. Gouvert was famous for exporting antiquities to foreign countries and helped to install the Saint Michel de Cuxa cloister at New York’s Cloister museum, to whom he also sold the chapter house of Notre Dame de Pontaut. Gouvert was not above doing business with those intent on pillaging the artistic treasure of his own country; he sold “the cloister of the Cistercian Abbey of Berdoues (Gers)” to Reichmarschall Hermann Goering and figures prominently on the “Art dealers involved in wartime trading in looted art in France” list. Gouvert’s invoice for December 1940 for the dozens of works he sold to Goering totals over four million franks.

Cloister, Abbaye de Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines, Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cloister, Abbaye de Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines, Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

At the time of Gouvert’s interest, three sisters had inherited the cloiser. Gouvert succeeded in acquiring the property of two of the sisters, leaving only a small portion in the southeast corner that the third sister refused to sell.

Chateau du Mesnuls

Chateau du Mesnuls

Deciding that it would be more profitable to sell two smaller cloisters instead of the single large one, Gouvert commissioned craftsmen to carve copies of twenty-three capitals in pink Conflent marble in the manner of Saint Génis sculpture. Three quarters of the original capitals and columns went to a banker named Nicolas Chrissoveloni at his Chateau du Mesnuls in Yvelines where it ornamented his sumptuous gardens.

Cloister, Chateau du Mesnuls (1978)  Photo by Jean-Pierre LeCerc 

Cloister, Chateau du Mesnuls (1978) Photo by Jean-Pierre LeCerc 

Of the remaining elements, two arches and three columns were donated to the Louvre, while the original central fixtures and copies of the columns and capitals were sold to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Scholars think that only two of the capitals in Philadelphia are originals.

Cloister, Église Saint Michel, Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister, Église Saint Michel, Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

In the late 1970’s, the town of Saint-Genis-des-Fontaines began a campaign to recover all the disparate elements and, after prolonged negotiations, succeeded in recovering the portions from the new Greek owner of the Chateau de Mesnuls and the Louvre. These were returned to their original location and joined to the fragment in the southeast corner. Thanks to the meticulous records and numbering system kept by Gouvert’s craftsmen, the cloister was reconstructed in its entirety, with casts from the Philadelphia capitals to fill in the blanks. This is the cloister that we see today, which has survived by a miracle.

Cloister, Église Saint Michel, Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister, Église Saint Michel, Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

As for the portion of the cloister that remained in place, it had a history of its own. As recently as 1968, that small corner was incorporated into the home of a M. Joud and decorated his salon, kitchen, dining room and hallway!

Arcades of the southwest corner incorporated into the house of M. Joub, Jully 1986, photo by Géraldine Mallet

Arcades of the southwest corner incorporated into the house of M. Joub, Jully 1986, photo by Géraldine Mallet

In preparing this article, I spent a great deal of time researching Paul Gouvert. In particular the dozens of pages of invoices and details of the work that he sold to Goering for millions of francs over many years disturbed me greatly. I have heard all of the arguments why the sale of the artifacts to various museums benefited both the artworks and the museums, but the fact that the transactions were often conducted by people like Gouvert undermines the validity of that argument. The photocopies of his invoices list his address in Paris as 18-22 Rue Fourcroy in the 17th Arrondissement. Today that address is occupied by L’Atelier du Sourcil, a boutique devoted exclusively to the beauty of the eyebrow. I wonder if they realized just who their predecessor was, would they collectively would raise those beautified eyebrows?

Nave, Église Saint Michel, Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint Michel, Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But at the time we visited Saint Genis, we had no idea of these deeper undercurrents. PJ and I had a wonderful day, including enjoying a pichet of the local rosé at the café while we waited for the village to finish a parade down the streets of the town. The occasion? The Fête de la Saint Michel, patron saint of the church.

PJ at Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines

PJ at Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines

Location: 42.543063° 2.921820°

Note: the photo of the cloister incorporated into the house of M. Joud comes from “Le cloître de Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales). Historiographie” by Géraldine Mallet in Archéologie du Midi médiéval, 1987, Volume 5, Issue 5

Updating our Via Lucis site (Dennis Aubrey)


As Via Lucis grows, we add more information to the site and every once in a while, we just have to clean house. The latest attempt we are making is to consolidate the top banner on the site. We now have six headings.

Commerce

Commerce – Via Lucis provides commercial access to our photography in three ways. You can select one page to see books that we have for sale, a second page for information on licensing images, and the third provides an interesting link for purchasing Via Lucis framed and matted prints through ImageKind.

Information Resources

Information Resources – Via Lucis has by necessity a great deal of technical information on the churches and it can be valuable to provide resources to help readers navigate the articles. This section consolidates old and new material into a single tab, again with three choices. The first selection takes you to pages where you can see illustrations of church structure (in plan view or in elevation), a helpful tool in following our discussions here.

The second page is something that our readers have asked for in the past, a lexicon. In this we have lexicons of terms describing medieval architecture in English, French and Spanish. In addition, we have English/French and English/Spanish translations.

And finally, we have our library of out-of-print research books on Romanesque and Gothic architecture that have been made available through Google Books.

Guest Posts – The Via Lucis community makes an enormous contribution to our site. This is a compendium of all our guest posts with short bios of the contributors.

Translations – a compendium of Via Lucis articles translated into different languages with short bios of the translators.

Featured churches

Featured Churches – this is the exhaustive listing of all articles that Via Lucis has published on specific single churches with links to those articles and to a map that shows the location of each church. There is a page each for France, Spain, Germany and the United States.

About Via Lucis – a general listing with our mission statement, bios of Via Lucis principals, testimonials about our work, descriptions of the camera and computer equipment that we use, and a contact page.

As a rule we try not to have information that changes rapidly or is unreliable (like information the hours that churches can be visited. We encourage you to explore the wealth of information that is contained here and we always appreciate suggestions for resources that you might find helpful.

Treasures of the Chapel – Prunet-et-Belpuig (Dennis Aubrey)


As French villages go, they don’t get much smaller than Prunet-et-Belpuig, which tops out with a population of 59. As the name indicates, the town is a combination of two adjacent villages; Prunet appears in a text from 869 as Prunetus, from the latin pruna, meaning “plum”. Belpuig is a Catalan word for “beautiful hill” and probably refers to the eminence on which a 12th century castle was built.

In the Belpuig portion of the village is a small church, the Chapelle de la Trinité, originally known as San Pere de la Serra, Serra meaning “mountain” in Catalan. In the 17th century the church was renamed the Chapelle de la Trinité. This church is unique for Via Lucis because, while its form is pure 11th century Romanesque, we came for the remarkable collection of medieval artifacts housed inside.

The church has a simple rectangular exterior made of shale and sandstone with a small chevet decorated with Lombard bands and two windows surmounted by a round stone arch. There are no transepts.

Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The interior features a barrel-vaulted nave featuring a fine Retable de la Trinité (1698 but recently restored).

Nave and apse, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave and apse, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is also a single side aisle to the south covered with a half-barrel vault. This side aisle runs the entire length of the nave and apse. At the end of the side aisle is the finest treasure of the church, the magnificent Romanesque crucifix from the 12th century.

Side aisle, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

In the 17th century, the crucifix was subjected unfortunately to an “abusive” restoration when it was painted and gilded, but was recently restored to its original condition. The life-sized Christ on the cross is known as the Santa Majestat.

Romanesque crucifix Santa Majestat, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Romanesque crucifix Santa Majestat, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There are several unique features of this work – Christ wears a sleeved tunic, has open eyes, and no crown of thorns. This would seem to indicate that this crucifix was not about the suffering Christ but the triumphant Christ. The Santa Majestat is one of the finest works of Romanesque art in a region rich with them.

Closeup of  Santa Majestat, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Closeup of Santa Majestat, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is an unusual 14th century crucifix in the nave just to the left of the Retable de la Trinité (it can be seen in the photograph of the nave above). This is a stylized wooden cross painted on both sides which was originally the property of the church in Prunet. This image is clearly an example of Christ suffering on the cross.

Gothic painted cross, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet- et- Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Gothic painted cross, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet- et- Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

It seems that no self-respecting Romanesque church in the Pyrénées is without a vierge romane, and Chapelle de la Trinité is no exception. The side aisle features the beautiful 14th century Vierge de Prunet.

Vierge de Prunet, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Vierge de Prunet, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The main door of the church has spectacular metal fittings. Some people think of these fittings as decoration, but there is a fundamental structural purpose. This is the original Romanesque door and is composed of three thicknesses of wood, the first laid vertically, the second horizontal, and the third vertical again, exactly like plywood. The fittings actually hold the three layers together, especially since the medieval glue has lost its effectiveness.

Metal door fixtures, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet- et- Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Metal door fixtures, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet- et- Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

After World War II, a Dutch priest from Perpignan settled in the chapel and made it a place of meditation and contemplation. He lived there for over 50 years until 1998. As a side note, the other part of the village, Prunet, has its own Romanesque church – the Église Saint Etienne. We didn’t photograph there during our trip to the region, so we have another reason to return to this fertile area of exploration.

Location: 42.562406° 2.625663°

The Three Virgins of Corneilla-de-Conflent (Dennis Aubrey)


Today’s post is inspired by conversations we’ve been having with Trish who is going to the Pyrénées in a few weeks, conversations that made us realize that we had not done this area nearly enough justice. So we will discuss the small village of Corneilla-de-Conflent nestled at the foot of the iconic Mount Canigou in the Pyrénées-Orientales, not five miles as the crow flies from the Abbey Saint Michel-de-Cuxa. The village has only 425 inhabitants, so it is hard to realize that in the Middle Ages, this was the summer capital of the counts of Cerdanya. The pride of the town is the spectacular Église Sainte Marie, first mentioned in 1018 as a priory church entrusted to the Order of Saint Augustine.

This is one of the best-preserved of the early Romanesque churches in France and has a simple cruciform plan with a nave, two side aisles, two transepts each with two echeloned chapels and a simple rounded apse.

Plan,  Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales)

Plan, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales)

The 11th century nave has four bays covered with a barrel vault supported by massive piers. This vault is the earliest form of the barrel vault with no bands at the arcade piers for strengthening. It is a straight passage from the western facade to the apse, passing even through the transepts. With this unabated weight of stone from the vault, it is no wonder that the walls and piers are so solid.

Nave, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent,  Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We can see quite clearly in the nave elevation that the vault rises directly from the arcades, separated only by a cornice. In the distance we can see the echeloned chapel in the north transept.

Nave elevation, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent,  Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave elevation, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The side aisles are covered with half-barrel vaults and are pierced by small windows in each bay. This is the most significant source of light in the dim and somber interior. At the end of each side aisle is a chapel in the east wall of the transept. In this shot, we cannot see the second chapel on the south side which is just to the right of one we see here.

Side aisle, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The 12th century apse is covered with a short barrel vault that terminates in an oven vault. There are three narrow windows lighting the altar.

Apse, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent,  Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One highlight of the apse is the stunning red porphyry altar with marble columns topped by small capitals featuring carved lions, eagles, and griffins.

Porphyry altar, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Porphyry altar, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The church is named for the Virgin Mary and her image is found throughout the church. She is featured in the west tympanum and there is an inscription reading HEREDES VITAE : DOMINAM : LAUDARE : VENITE : PER QUAM VITAM DATUR : MUNDUS PER EAM REPARATUR, which translates approximately as “The heritage of the Lord, we praise the Lady from whom life is given and by whom the world is restored.” But the real sign of devotion to the Virgin is the presence of three vierges romanes on the altar. The Sedes Sapientiae(“Throne of Wisdom”) is an icon of the Mother of God in majesty and was found throughout Romanesque Europe. Most of these are small (30 inch/76 centimeters) polychrome wooden statues from the 12th and 13th centuries.

The most famous one in this particular church is the 12th century Notre Dame de Corneilla, known in Catalan as la Mare de Déu de Cornellà. Prior to restoration and retouching, Notre Dame de Corneilla was known as a vierge noire, a black madonna.

Notre Dame de Corneilla, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Notre Dame de Corneilla, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The second of these vierges is Notre Dame de la Crêche (la Mare de Déu del Pessebre), a 14th century statue that came from the abbey of Saint Michel de Cuxa.

Notre Dame de la Crêche, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Notre Dame de la Crêche, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The third of these marvelous Virgins in Majesty was a 13th century Catalan donation from Barcelona. This vierge has unfortunately lost her right arm.

Vierge Romane, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Vierge Romane, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

To find even a single vierge in a church is a remarkable find, but to find three is extraordinary. Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent is often closed but we were fortunate enough to find her open, empty, and available for us to photograph for hours unimpeded.

South side aisle, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

South side aisle, Eglise Sainte-Marie à Corneilla-de-Conflent, Corneilla-de-Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

While we were able to shoot for some hours at Corneilla-de-Conflent, we did not do justice to the magnificent exterior with its clocher, its beautiful chevet with its Lombard bands, or the sculpture, including the tympanum. The exterior capitals are exquisite and well-preserved because they are made with the local marble instead of regular stone. We had hoped to return last year, but will have to wait for another trip in the future to continue photographing this magnificent Romanesque church.

Location: 42.566928° 2.381777°