Welcome to the Via Lucis Blog for Romanesque Photography


Via Lucis Photography is about the art and architecture of Romanesque and Gothic churches in Europe. This blog highlights those photographs but also features the written word to characterize and give context to the images.

Photographers Dennis Aubrey and PJ McKey have photographed approximately 850 of these churches and captured over 100,000 images. We have created a library of more than 5,000 high-resolution images for licensing on the VIA LUCIS website.

If you are interested, here is a post that lists some of our personal favorite articles on Via Lucis.

Please note that all images and text on this Via Lucis blog are copyrighted by the photographers and authors. Thank you for respecting this notice.

The Benedictine Abbey of San Godenzo (Dennis Aubrey)


A couple of days ago we headed to Florence to meet PJ’s brother Mark in the Tuscan capital for three days. We decided to take the old road between Ravenna and Firenze through the mountainous Parco Nazionale delle Foreste Casentinesi. This road took us across the Apennines mountains where we came across the Benedictine monastery of San Godenzo.

Nave, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We were desperate to shoot with our full equipment, including tripods, after the restrictions of Ravenna and we found the perfect place at the Abbazia di San Godenzo, a 12th century Benedictine abbey. The church was completely empty during our two hours there and we were delighted to be able to photograph to our hearts’ content. The structure of the church is quite familiar with a nave and two side aisles, but there is no transept. The structure is unvaulted, but covered with a wooden ceiling.

Side aisle, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana) Photo by PJ McKey

The elevation of the church is quite simple – the arcade arches are carried by sturdy piers and above the arcade is a series of clerestory windows. This is, as might be expected, a fairly dark church.

Tribune and nave elevation, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana)  Photo by PJ McKey

Tribune and nave elevation, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana) Photo by PJ McKey

The church had a couple of unique features, including a tribune dividing the crossing and an elevated apse above. Below the ape is a small dark crypt. There are stairs mounting to the apse on either side of the tribune.

Tribune from north side aisle, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana)  Photo by PJ McKey

Tribune from north side aisle, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana) Photo by PJ McKey

The highlight of the raised apse is the beautiful mosaic in the oven vault. This entire raised choir is a testament to the monastic origin of the church, since the altar used for normal services is below in the crossing.

Apse mosaic, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse mosaic, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The crypt is very interesting in itself, hidden behind the main altar and underneath the tribune.

Crypt, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana)  Photo by PJ McKey

Crypt, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana) Photo by PJ McKey

Inside we can see the darkened shrine with its groin vaulting.

Crypt interior, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crypt interior, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This post is just a small introduction to the church. We’ll do better justice to the Abbazia di San Godenzo when we return home in June. Meanwhile there will be plenty of other adventures to write about, including PJ’s ascent to the top of Brunelleschi’s dome above the Duomo in Florence.

Silenzio, per favore (Dennis Aubrey)


The people of Ravenna are justly proud of their great mosaic-filled basilicas. They were built fifteen centuries ago and still amaze us with their beauty and architectural perfection. When we visited with Angelico Surchamp last week, at the mention of Ravenna his eyes lit up and he said rapturously, “Ah, San Vitale”.

A sign of this local pride is that the churches are filled with school children of all ages on field trips. The younger ages all wear baseball caps of a certain color to identify them as a group. The older groups are less formal. As can be expected, the groups enter the church quietly, but the noise steadily mounts to almost deafening levels until a stentorian male voice speaks, greatly amplified electronically. Silenzio, per favore!

Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by PJ McKey

Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by PJ McKey

The noise level drops for awhile and then rises steadily again, only to be reminded again, Silenzio, per favore!

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by PJ McKey

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by PJ McKey

The crowds of the children and their bustle are two of our fondest memories of the Basilica di San Vitale and the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. Even if they make it harder for us to shoot.

A Brief Look at Ravenna (Dennis Aubrey)


Last Thanksgiving, PJ and I were dining with our good friend Diane Quaid, a hardy solo traveller who ranges across oceans and continents without a concern. Italy, China, Tibet, and Scotland are among her most recent adventures. At dinner that evening, Diane was talking about all the places she plans to see before she’s through.

Nave,  Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ asked me where I wanted to go – I responded “Ravenna, to see the Byzantine churches.” Well, here it is about seven months later and we are in this lovely Adriatic town.

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by PJ McKey

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by PJ McKey

The delay in our trip due to my father’s health meant that we are only spending three days instead of the seven we had originally scheduled, and We tried to get permission to photograph with tripods, but the Italian bureaucracy was not forthcoming. So we basically have two days to photograph eight or nine sites, all without benefit of tripods. We agreed that this was really a scouting trip.

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by PJ McKey

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by PJ McKey

Today we went to the Basilica di San Vitale and the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo as well as the Battistero deli Ariani and the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia.

Mosaic, Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Mosaic, Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The churches were filled with people and we tried our best with our hand-held camera techniques. This is especially difficult with tilt-shift lenses, but we each managed a few shots that we can show, just to give you an idea of the extraordinary architectural riches here.

Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by PJ McKey

Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by PJ McKey

We’ll follow-up with more detailed posts, but just wanted to give you a taste of Ravenna while we are still here.

Mosaic, Battistero degli Ariani, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Mosaic, Battistero degli Ariani, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Naked Man, a Cathedral, and a Small Monk (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I have finally have arrived in France and are busy photographing our beloved churches. But we delayed the trip because we got news a couple of weeks ago that my father was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that has attacked his brain stem. So everything that has happened on this trip seems fraught with significance.

After our arrival in Paris, we drove immediately to Troyes. When we finally hit the A5 highway about 40 miles from Troyes, I sighted something extraordinary in a clearing in the woods next to the highway. I saw a man, about 45-50 years old, totally naked, standing motionless facing the highway. It was such a jarring sight that PJ thought perhaps I was suffering from jet lag. But no, he was there, en plein vu.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by PJ McKey

From there, we were just a short way to the Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul in Troyes, where we were able to stop for a few photos, even though we had flown all night. We were both doing quite well when the officious guardien brusquely closed the church for his lunch hour. C’est fermé, monsieur! We could have shot for hours more, but settled for the light appetizer instead of a full meal.

Choir, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Finally we arrived at the Crispol hotel outside of Vézelay, had a wonderful dinner and woke the next morning for our visit to the monastery of La Pierre Qui Vire and a visit with Angelico Surchamp. As always, Surchamp was a delight. We heard him walking down the hall toward the lobby where we waited, his cane tapping on the stones. As we rose to greet him, his face lit up and we were so warmed by his greeting. I’ll describe the visit in detail later, but suffice it to say that our visit with this self-described petit moine was simply extraordinary, warmed by his complete and total faith in God.

Side Aisle, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side Aisle, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by PJ McKey

Last night I lay awake wondering about the confluence of these three things – the naked man, the cathedral in Troyes, and Surchamp. I could make sense of the last two – Surchamp was born in a house on the parvis of the Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul. But nothing could bring the naked man into the picture.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by PJ McKey

This morning, PJ and I attended the mass introducing the week of Pentecost at the Basilique Saint Madeleine in Vézelay. As always, we were tremendously moved by the church, but today’s high mass was different. During the service, my thoughts were on my father and his deep and abiding Catholic faith, a faith I have always envied and that has sustained him throughout his long life. I found myself talking to Mary Magdalene, asking for her help. I dared not address God himself for I have not been a believer, but I asked her to intercede on my father’s behalf, to help him find his peace, to be able to end his life with his faculties intact, knowing my mother, his self, and his faith. During the mass, sunlight streamed in from the south clerestory windows toward me, and I recoiled in fear, as if the rays might burn me. But concentrating on my conversation with la Madeleine, I realized that I was praying. I have not prayed for fifty years, but on this day in Vézelay, I turned to PJ and said, “I think I was praying”. We both had tears rolling down our cheeks.

Side aisle, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by PJ McKey

My father was a soldier and it is too often the soldier’s duty to die. We have witnessed the losses in their thousands and tens of thousands. Each of them, man or woman, was someone’s father or mother, husband or wife. The tragedy of their loss is magnified by the enormity of their numbers. But still I am moved more by the loss of this one old soldier who has been the rock of my life.

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

During our visit with my family last week, I told my father that during my career, I have often met, conversed and negotiated with people who are famous, rich, and powerful. My secret weapon was always to ask myself “Is this person a better person that my father?” Inevitably, the answer was “no” and that gave me the strength to say and do what I needed to do.

Stained glass, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Stained glass, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Only once in recent years has the answer to that question been “Yes.” That person in question was Anglelico Surchamp. During the mass, I thought of my father and of Surchamp who I consider a second father. I thought of soldiers and their passing. And then, out of nowhere, I thought of a naked man on the side of the road. At that moment it seemed that in a way, we are all that man, unadorned and exposed; that when our time is finished on this earth, each of us must stand naked before our God and accept His judgment.

My Favorites of PJ’s Photos (Dennis Aubrey)


We had a wonderful visit with our young friend Nathan Mizrachi who has documented his extraordinary 20 month journey throughout Europe on this site Life is a Camino. Regular readers might remember that we met Nathan for a week in the Ardeche last year. He just concluded his European trip and landed in Boston, so he took a short ride down to visit us in Cape Cod for the weekend.

Nathan has a great appetite for travel, food, and art history and used his long journey to excellent advantage, from walking the Camino from Vézelay to Santiago Compostela and then hitching throughout Europe. As we were talking about his trip, he asked if we’ve ever done a post on our favorite shots among the 500+ posts on Via Lucis. It turns out that we haven’t, so for you, Nathan, here is a selection of some of my personal favorite shots of PJ’s.

The first has become my front-runner in any competition, a shot that shows her stylistic affinity with the work of Angelico Surchamp. She is able to see and capture the abstract and artistic qualities of the architecture, in the process creating a work of art of her own.

Side aisle, Cathedrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Cathedrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

This next shot is a wonderful evocation of the feelings that the Romanesque churches create in the viewer. Technically, I love the light reflecting on the seats in the nave, bringing what would be an otherwise dark floor brightly to life.

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

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

PJ is a master of juxtaposition. The next shot from Paray-le-Monial demonstrates that she sees the relationships not only among forms and volumes, but of content and context.

Basilique Notre Dame, Paray-le-Monial (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Basilique Notre Dame, Paray-le-Monial (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

The shot from the Basilique Saint Hilaire in Poitiers is another fine example of the juxtaposition of the elements giving meaning and context to the architecture. But the attentive composition means that every individual element is framed on its own – notice the arch over the head of the crucified Christ, the angle of Jesus’ gaze to the Madonna and Child, the retreat of the nave arches in the distance and the wonderful touch where the heavy column on the right with the capital is echoed and framed by the lighter nave column beyond.

Side aisle of Église Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand, Poitiers  (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle of Église Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

I love this next shot of the Saint Trophime because of its simplicity – a long shot down a narrow side aisle, revealing layer after layer in the distance, each perfectly exposed and balanced. PJ is seldom interested in purely technical details, but in this particular case, the shot is masterful.

South side aisle, Cathédrale Saint-Trophime, Arles (Bouches-du-Rhône)  (Photo by PJ McKey)

South side aisle, Cathédrale Saint-Trophime, Arles (Bouches-du-Rhône) (Photo by PJ McKey)

I could select dozens more shots, but I will settle for one final choice, this one from the Monastir de Santa Maria de Ripoll. The framing of this photo is extraordinary – unpredictable and elliptical at the same time with fleeting diagonals and intersecting and disappearing arches.

Monastir de Santa Maria de Ripoll (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

Monastir de Santa Maria de Ripoll (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

So Nathan, thanks for the recommendation. This was so much fun. It was necessary to work fast, or else I would have been looking through her images for days. How lucky I am to have a partner like PJ. Not only is she the love of my life, but a wondrous artist whose work delights me in every way.

Candles for Vézelay (Dennis Aubrey)


Trish Worth has been a long-time member of the Via Lucis congregation, and one of the regular voices in the choir. A couple of years ago she brought up a question of whether it was possible to photograph a church at night by candlelight, specifically the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay. She wanted to understand how the church looked to those who built it.

Trish wrote, “I did an experiment with a candle and a painting of mine yesterday, and my husband took a photo. The painting completely changed in candlelight. I only had one candle, but pre-electric artists probably had a number of them lighting a studio, nevertheless my painting was shadowed all the time, never wholly illuminated. Anyway, the exercise reminded me of a scene in “The English Patient” where the nurse was hoisted up towards the ceiling, holding a candle, to see the old frescoes. I tried to imagine you and PJ being given permission to enter a completely dark church with your candles and cameras.”

Painting by Candlelight, Photo by Brett Worth

Painting by Candlelight, Photo by Brett Worth

This prompted a fairly long-discussion that of the subject in the comments section that led to the difference in modern illumination and candles.

I wrote, “At a targeted illumination of 15 lumens per square foot (the approximate illumination for a hotel corridor) for us to light the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay would require about two hundred 100 watt incandescent lamps producing 1650 lumens each, spaced six feet apart. This would leave the upper reaches of the church almost dark. To accomplish the same lighting with candlelight at 13 lumens each would require approximately 24,000 candles. Using long exposures, we could achieve results with about 20% of these candles, but that is still would require 4,800 candles. Now admittedly, Vézelay is quite a grand church, but it goes to show what it would take. Now, maybe we could use torches …”

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

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

Trish wrote back “I’ve been wondering how monks would light the church when they went several times a night for offices. Did they hold one candle each? Were there candelabra continually burning? I discussed your 24,000 candles with a friend and she reminded me that the first few thousand would have melted by the time you’d finished lighting the last one. Perhaps a small church, with a few candles providing very low lighting, is an option … I’ve since looked at a couple of YouTube videos of monks in night offices. They seem to hold a candle or lamp each. The camera doesn’t pick up much architecture.”

I replied, “Exactly. A few cameras will allow us to pick up almost no architectural detail, even to the naked eye, much less to the camera. And since the video camera only has an exposure of 1/24th or 1/30th of a second, even less for video.”

Nave capitals at twilight, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave capitals at twilight, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I then told her that we had shot at night, but not by candlelight and then described something extraordinary that happened many years ago in the Dordogne.

“As you surely know, Europe (especially France and Spain) are filled with caves decorated with paleolithic art. Lascaux, Chauvet, Font-de-Gaume, Altamira and so many others are filled with extraordinary prehistoric images, and these are of special interest to me. About twenty-five years ago I went to one of the smaller caves in the Dordogne region to see the carvings. I was the only visitor (oh for those times again) so the guide gave me special consideration. He shined his flashlight on a section of wall that was filled with lines. Closer examination showed that there were images carved on top of each other in a seemingly random manner. It was chaotic and confusing – why would the artists do this? Then the guide lit a candle and turned off the flashlight. By the dancing of the candle flame, a whole other world emerged. Instead of superimposed images, it was clear that they were animated images. Animals moved in the light.

This was an extraordinary discovery for me, that 20,000 years ago our ancestors were sophisticated enough to create movement on the walls of their holy places. I recently found this link that shows the concept clearly, but with originals that were painted and not incised. Extraordinary.

The point of all of this is that we are constantly astonished by the creative impulses in human beings. We are so fond of thinking that history is linear and progressive, that today is better than yesterday (except for certain people who are convinced that a few years ago is always better than today). We always feel that we are at the summit of human history. I was long ago convinced that this was a foolish thought and that other ages, while perhaps less technologically advanced, had significant advantages over us in matters that count. The fact that artists from 20,000 years ago were able to see movement in lines and created animations on the walls of their caves demonstrates this.

That the masons who created Vézelay were able to visualize a space that changed with the hours and days of the year, constantly renewing our appreciation of its structures and volumes, is more proof, if an ounce more were needed.

Teresa of Avila chapel, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Teresa of Avila chapel, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We won’t be lighting thousands of candles in the Basilique Sainte Madeleine to see how the church looked so many hundreds of years ago. We will, however, light a candle for my brother Steve who passed away a year ago, a second for my father who has been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, and a third for my mother who has to struggle with loss of those she most loves. May Madeleine show mercy.

Cognoscenti Travel


Mary and John McKean have founded a company called Cognoscenti Travel. John is an architectural historian who has been part of the Via Lucis community for several years now. Having followed the setup of their company, we are pleased to see that their offerings are public now. They describe Cognoscenti as follows: “We are a small company set up by enthusiasts and experts in architectural and cultural history. We only travel to slightly ‘out of the way’ places which we know well and love personally, and want to share with others. We exist because we have a passion for cultural travel and love our destinations.”

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Their latest tour is The Renaissance City scheduled for 23 – 29 September 2015 (7 days, 6 nights). The tour features the two greatest exemplars of the Renaissance ‘ideal city’, Ferrara and Urbino, both remaining magical and unspoilt today. John says that they have a couple of places still available. PJ and I would love to attend but our trip to Europe ends in June. We could not imagine a more knowledgeable guide than John and encourage any of our readers to take a look at the Cognoscenti site to see if the tour is appropriate for them.