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.

Saint-Pierre de Carennac (Dennis Aubrey) Traduction française d’Arnaud Sergent


This article is part of a series translations by Arnaud Sergent. This is a translation of Saint-Pierre de Carennac, a post from January 2012. To see other articles translated into French and Italian, follow this link.

Au bord de la Dordogne, non loin du centre de pèlerinage de Rocamadour, dans le Lot, se trouvent trois églises d’abbaye en l’espace de 40 kilomètres, et toutes trois comportant de magnifiques tympans sculptés. Il s’agit de Sainte-Marie de Souillac, Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu sur Dordogne, et enfin Saint-Pierre de Carennac.

The location of the three Saint Pierre Abbeys (map from Google Earth)

La localisation des trois abbayes (cartographie Google Earth)

Carennac est un petit village pittoresque au centre duquel trône son église du 11ème siècle. On s’en approche depuis la route principale en pénétrant sous un passage vouté donnant sur une rue pavée conduisant à l’église.

West face through arch, Église Saint Pierre de Carennac  (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

Façade ouest vue depuis l’arche, Église Saint Pierre de Carennac (Photo de Dennis Aubrey)

De même que pour les 2 autres Saint-Pierre, le tympan 12ème de Carennac est une pure merveille de sculpture, montée sur le portail au-dessus de l’entrée du narthex, représentant le Christ en majesté dans une mandorle, entouré des quatre évangélistes et des apôtres. Une superbe bordure figurative entoure le tympan. Les traces subsistantes de peinture colorée montrent qu’il fut brillement peint.

Tympanum, Église Saint Pierre de Carennac  (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

Tympan, Église Saint Pierre de Carennac (Photo de Dennis Aubrey)

A l’intérieur, on découvre une église abbatiale bénédictine classique à la nef voûtée en berceau, et deux bas-côtés conduisant à l’abside.

Nave, Église Saint Pierre de Carennac  (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

Nef, Église Saint Pierre de Carennac (Photo de Dennis Aubrey)

Il n’y a pas de déambulatoire dans l’abside, ce qui laisse à penser que ce n’était pas une église de pèlerinage traditionnelle comme Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu ou Saint-Pierre de Souillac. Mais j’ai pu lire que les rénovations effectuées dans l’église au 16ème siècle résultèrent dans la démolition de l’abside hémicycle et remplacèrent les chapelles situées là par deux chapelles en échelon de part de d’autre de l’autel et deux autres chapelles sur le bas-côté nord.

Altar, Église Saint Pierre de Carennac  (Photo by PJ McKey)

Autel, Église Saint Pierre de Carennac (Photo de PJ McKey)

Cette photo montre la chapelle de Marie dans le bas-côté nord. Il est également possible d’y voir l’amorce de la voute en berceau et l’achèvement peu orthodoxe de la « colonne » soutenant la voute. Je suis relativement convaincu que ceci est le résultat de la rénovation du 16ème siècle.

View across nave to side chapels, Église Saint Pierre de Carennac  (Photo by PJ McKey)

Vue depuis les bas-côtés vers les chapelles, Église Saint Pierre de Carennac (Photo de PJ McKey)

La chapelle elle-même est une délicieuse petite addition gothique à l’église romane. La voute de la chapelle est particulièrement belle.

Chapel, north side aisle, Église Saint Pierre de Carennac  (Photo by PJ McKey)

Chapelle, bas-côté nord, Église Saint Pierre de Carennac (Photo de PJ McKey)

Nous avons passé pas mal de temps à l’église Saint-Pierre de Carennac, mais le village lui-même a beaucoup à offrir, en particulier le cloitre gothique adjacent et une superbe mise au tombeau de Jean-Claude Ayrolles.

Notes personnelles sur Saint-Pierre de Carennac : il faut arriver à Carennac en fin d’après-midi, quand la lumière du couchant embrase le merveilleux tympan de l’église. La lumière rougeoyante y fait alors ressortir les détails de ces extraordinaires sculptures. Le Christ et les apôtres s’animent et surgissent de la frise du tympan une collection de petits animaux miniatures (un chat, un poisson, un sanglier, une perdrix, etc…), qui n’est pas sans rappeler le « curieux » de la frise de Conques. La petite rue pavée et fortifiée est un vestige de l’ancien quartier canonial, et le château à l’entrée, transformé en lieu d’exposition mérite également votre visite. – Arnaud Sergent

Location: 46.214124° 1.082369°

A Patron for Prisoners – Saint Léonard of Noblat (Dennis Aubrey)


He has liberated those sitting in darkness and shadow of death and chained in beggary and irons,
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them out of their distresses,
He brought them out of the path of iniquity,
For he hath broken the gates of brass, and cut the bars of iron in sunder,
He hath liberated those in bindings and many nobles in iron manacles.

Song of Saint Leonard, quoted by Aymeri Picaud, translated by Richard Hogarth

Aymeri Picaud’s famous Codex Calixtinus was a guide for pilgrims setting out on the Way of Saint James, filled with advice and background information on the great medieval pilgrimage path. The opening quote refers to the famous Saint Léonard of the town of Noblat in the Limousin, who was famed as the patron of the imprisoned. The story is told that Léonard was a 5th century devout who lived in the town of Nobiliac and that he wished to emulate the sanctity of Saint Remi, who was granted the right to release all prisoners when the king came to Reims. Clovis granted the request, that he would release every captive that Léonard visited. Soon, the miracles started accumulating; any prisoner, invoking his name, was freed from his chains and went free with nobody daring to oppose the release. The prisoner was required to go to Nobiliac and present the chains to his patron and many of them remained with him as fellow devouts.

Nave, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

By the time Picaud’s Codex was written in the 12th century, Léonard’s fame was almost universal. Picaud wrote,

“Now, divine mercy has spread the fame of St Léonard the Confessor of Limousin throughout the length and breath of the world; of how his powerful goodness led countless thousands of captives from prison. Their savage iron chains, more than one can describe, join together in their thousands, around and around his cathedral, to the right and the left, inside and outside, hanging testimony to all his miracles.

Often Christians were passed in chains into the hands of the pagans, like Bohemond, and were enslaved by those who hated them, and their enemies demanded payment, and humiliated them, but this man often liberated them. And he led them from the darkness and the shadow of death, and shattered their chains. He said to those in fetters, ‘Go forth to be revealed to those in darkness’.”

Transept, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Transept, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

The shrine of such a famous saint deserved a great church and the college of canons responded with the magnificent structure we see today. Primarily constructed in the late 11th century, the Collégiale was laid out in the form of a Latin cross. It features four massive barrel-vaulted bays in the nave with thick exterior walls. There are partial side aisles in the easternmost bays leading to the transept, created to funnel pilgrims coming from the western entrance into the large ambulatory.

Side aisle, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisle, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the nave elevation we can see the formidable transept piers in the foreground, the side aisle receding to the west, and the tall arcade arches leading directly to the vault. There is no clerestory level in this early church – the only interior lighting comes from the side aisle windows. One of the most interesting features is the uneven width of the nave spans.

Nave elevation, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave elevation, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

The transept piers are unusually wide and narrow but very elegantly formed. We can see here how well they carry the springing for the cupola dome in the crossing. I think that one of the reasons for the width of the transepts is that they also carry the arches that support domes over the transepts as well as the crossing dome.

Transept piers, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Transept piers, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

The dome under the giant clocher over the crossing is supported by pendentives carried by these large piers. This dome is contemporary with the First Crusade and contains eight windows in the drum to illuminate the interior space below.

Crossing dome, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crossing dome, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The choir and apse are later additions to the church, probably mid-12th century. The apse is covered with an oven vault and contains three windows for illumination. There was a partial collapse of the choir in the 16th century that necessitated some brutal buttressing of the exterior. This collapse also resulted in some of the hemicycle columns being subsumed by ungainly piers.

Apse, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The apse features a large ambulatory with seven radiating chapels. It was most certainly constructed because of the demands of the popular pilgrimage. In this shot we can also see the square pier that replaced a hemicycle column in the 16th century reconstruction of the choir.

Ambulatory, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

In the exterior view of the chevet, we see clearly the arrangements of the radiating chapels and can appreciate the magnificent staged clocher built by the community of canons responsible for the shrine. This tower is seven stories with the stone spire rising to a height of 52 meters. We can also see the unsightly choir buttressing that was added in the 16th century.

Chevet and tower, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chevet and tower, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the 13th century, the western portal was constructed and this was where many ex votos were displayed, the chains and irons from prisoners who had been liberated through the intercession of Saint Léonard. Again we have the testimony of Picaud; “It is beyond saying, how you would marvel if you could see the wooden racks weighed down with so many and such great barbarous irons. For hanging there are metal handcuffs, neck yokes, chains, shackles, fetters, crowbars, yokes, helmets, sickles, and so on, from which the most powerful Confessor of Christ has liberated his captives through his powerful goodness.”

Western portal, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Western portal, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The fame of the shrine of Saint Léonard the Confessor is demonstrated by the open narthex on the north side of the church. The narthex served as a place of shelter for large numbers of pilgrims waiting to enter the church and venerate the relics. As can be seen in the groundplan, the narthex abutted an interesting circular chapel.

Plan, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne)

Plan, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne)

The narthex opens directly onto both the church and the rotunda chapel, seen in the distance in this shot. The large engaged columns that support the groin vault are topped with rough granite capitals including some interesting tableaux of contending animals and warriors.

Narthex, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Narthex, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

The rotunda building now known now as the baptistery has been used for this purpose since the major restorations performed in the the 1880’s. But this was originally known as the Chapel of the Sepulchre and features a central altar surrounded by an ambulatory with four chapels. I have read that this chapel was built in honor of the many Crusaders who invoked the aid of Saint Léonard during their captivity. The most famous of these was Bohemond I of Antioch. He was taken captive by the commander of the Turks, Kumushtakin, after an ambush on the way to relieve the siege of Malatia. In 1103, Bohemond made his way to Saint Léonard de Noblat to make his offering to the saint who effected his release. It is said that he gifted the church with silver fetters as a remembrance.

Chapel of the Sepulchre, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Chapel of the Sepulchre, Collégiale de Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Saint-Léonard de Noblat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Picaud’s description of “Noblat” also includes a violent diatribe against the church in Corbigny in the Nièvre near the town of Clamency. Corbigny was one of the first stops on the Via Lemovicensis from Vézelay. The church there, it seems, claimed to shelter the relics of Saint Leonard which Picaud described as being “immovable” from Noblat and went on to excoriate the deception.

“First they made St Leonard of Limousin the patron of their basilica, then they put another man in his place, like jealous slaves who take their master’s inheritance by force and grant it shamefully to his enemy. They’re like a wicked father who snatches his daughter from her legitimate bridegroom and gives her to another. They have changed his glory, says the psalmist, to the similitude of an ox. A wise man rebukes such behaviour, saying, ‘Give not your honour away to strangers‘.”

Picaud’s words had some effect, I imagine, since Corbigny has passed into history while Saint Leonard-de-Noblat is celebrated even today on the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostella.

Location: 45.837104° 1.489751°

L’église du Saint-Sépulcre de Torres del Rio (Navarre) – (Jong-Soung Kimm) Traduction française d’Arnaud Sergent


This article is part of a series translations by Arnaud Sergent. This is a translation of La Iglesia del Santo Sepulcro, Torres del Rio (Navarra) – A Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm, a post from December 2013. To see other articles translated into French and Italian, follow this link.

Torres del Rio est un petit village isolé situé à quelques kilomètres au nord de la route de Pampelune à Logroño. Au moyen-âge, cependant, non seulement Torres del Rio se trouvait directement sur la route du pèlerinage à Compostelle, mais elle jouait un rôle important, servant de point de ralliement pour les pèlerins grâce à son clocher situé au sommet d’une colline. Il est documenté que le village avait déjà un monastère en 1109 avant l’invasion musulmane. Le site sur une colline a pour conséquence un plan de ville irrégulier, et proche de l’entrée de la ville se trouve l’église du Saint-Sépulcre, construite par l’ordre des chevaliers du même non à la fin du 12eme siècle. Invoquer le nom du Saint-Sépulcre impose naturellement un plan centralisé.

A Torres del Rio, le maitre d’œuvre a choisi un plan octogonal, mais avec une originalité. De manière à créer une abside assez spacieuse pour le chœur, l’architecte semble avoir délibérément créé le côté est de l’église plus grand que les autres côtés. L’entrée de l’église se trouve sur le côté sud, essentiellement au milieu de la façade la plus large, encadrée par l’abside à l’extrémité orientale et la tour d’escalier cylindrique sur la face opposée du volume octogonal.

La Iglesia del Santo Sepulcro, Torres del Rio (Navarra), View from south   Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

La Iglesia del Santo Sepulcro, Torres del Rio (Navarra), Vue du sud. Photo de Jong-Soung Kimm

On peut être certain que le travail de maçonnerie n’est pas le travail d’un groupe dévoué de fidèles amateurs, mais bien celui d’un atelier de maçons professionnels. Ils ont exécuté une excellente maçonnerie d’une conception finement proportionnée. La lanterne, également de forme octogonale, est placée directement sur le dôme.

La Iglesia del Santo Sepulcro, Torres del Rio (Navarra), Main Entrance  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

La Iglesia del Santo Sepulcro, Torres del Rio (Navarra), Entrée principale Photo de Jong-Soung Kimm

La conception en trois étages de l’extérieur est embellie avec juste la bonne dose d’ornementation, coiffée par une corniche avec modillons.

La Iglesia del Santo Sepulcro, Torres del Rio (Navarra), Interior View of the Apse and the Dome  Photo be Jong-Soung Kimm

La Iglesia del Santo Sepulcro, Torres del Rio (Navarra), vue intérieure de l’abside et du dome. Photo de Jong-Soung Kimm

L’élément le plus significatif de l’intérieur est la voûte de la coupole de style islamique avec les nervures croisées, rappelant la Mezquita de Cordoue, mais visuellement plus liée à l’Aljaferia de Saragosse. L’espace intérieur est aussi haut sous la coupole qu’il est large entre les parois opposées.

La Iglesia del Santo Sepulcro, Torres del Rio (Navarra), View of the Apse Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

La Iglesia del Santo Sepulcro, Torres del Rio (Navarra), Vue de l’abside Photo de Jong-Soung Kimm

Un petit Christ en Croix orne le Chœur. La perception des visiteurs de la direction de Jérusalem est accentuée par l’axe visuellement renforcé par l’abside dans un espace par ailleurs organisé centralement.

La Iglesia del Santo Sepulcro, Torres del Rio (Navarra), View of the Dome  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

La Iglesia del Santo Sepulcro, Torres del Rio (Navarra), Vue de la coupole Photo de Jong-Soung Kimm Kimm

Entre les nervures de la voute de la coupole, il y a 8 petites ouvertures avec des grilles ouvragées de motif étoilé. Bien qu’elles ne soient pas très visibles, les nervures ont été peintes et y sont inscrites les noms des apôtres.

Location: 46.214124° 1.082369°

Notes personnelles sur Torres del Rio : l’église est vraiment de proportion harmonieuse et de très belle facture. Il faut s’adresser à une dame vivant à proximité dans le village pour pouvoir en obtenir la clef. Son numéro de téléphone est inscrit sur la porte. La dame est vraiment charmante et fière de pouvoir faire visiter « son » église. L’immense surprise, pour qui y entre pour la première fois sans savoir à quoi s’attendre, est la merveilleuse voute ouvragée de nervures entrecroisées (voir les photos de l’article). Un des aspects fascinants de l’art roman espagnol est de constater l’interpénétration des traditions architecturales maures et chrétiennes au fil des échanges entre les royaumes chrétiens du nord et Al-Andalus. Ils sont autant de témoignages des artisans et maitres d’œuvre Mozarabes, qui soit par choix, soit par hasards de l’histoire sont venus contribuer à l’édification « du blanc manteau d’église » qui a fleuri le long du chemin de Compostelle dans le nord de la péninsule aux 11 et 12ème siècle. (Arnaud Sergent)

Saint Peter in Chains at Le Dorat – Dennis Aubrey


One of our main objectives for the 2015 trip to France was to photograph the Romanesque churches of the Limousin, a region through which we pass almost every year but have never photographed despite its well-known riches. We planned to do so two years ago but it didn’t work out. Last year it was scheduled but my illness prevented us from shooting there. So finally we decided to make it the centerpiece of our work in France this last June. We spent six days there, staying in a farmhouse in a hameau called Vedrenne, seven miles north of Limoges. We identified eleven “must photograph” churches for those six days, but top of the list was the 12th century Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens in Le Dorat, built on the site of one of the oldest Christian monuments in France, gifted by Clovis I in 507. After the Battle of Vouillé near Poitiers where he defeated the Visigoths under Alaric II, Clovis, the first Christian king of France and founder of the Merovingian dynasty, stopped at the town of Scotoriac to give thanks. An oratory was founded in remembrance of his victory.

Crossing tower, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne), Photo ©chollet-ricard Photo provided by Panoramio is under the copyright of their owners

Crossing tower, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne), Photo ©chollet-ricard Photo provided by Panoramio is under the copyright of their owners

I had studied the church in photographs and in descriptions, but nothing prepared us for what we found when we stepped inside. Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens is one of the most imposing churches we have seen in France, 77 meters long, almost 40 meters across the transepts. The fact that it was fortified in the 14th century lends to its massive appearance, but the interior itself is gigantic. When we first walked into the church, PJ remarked that it was easy to understand how the massively constructed church had survived the centuries of turmoil in the region.

The shot from the raised narthex (a feature shared with the nearby Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul in Solignac) shows the extreme length of the church. Made of grey granite and laid out as a latin cross, the church is classic Romanesque – a vaulted nave with two side aisles, large transepts and crossing, and a raised apse with an ambulatory and three radiating chapels. The barrel vault in the nave is slightly ogive with bands springing from engaged columns on the arcade piers. These columns are topped with decorative capitals. In the foreground we can see the large Carolingian baptismal font, although “font” is probably the wrong word. This is a large pink granite tank that was used for baptism by immersion.

Nave, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The narthex at street level opens on the nave below. In this case, the narthex is quite high – twelve steps in a monumental staircase from the western portal down to the nave.

Narthex from nave, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Narthex from nave, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

The length of the church is emphasized in the narrow side aisles, seen here from above in the narthex. These aisles are covered with groin vaults and lit by windows in each bay. These side aisle windows provide the only light in the long nave since there are no clerestory openings.

South side aisle, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

South side aisle, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The crossing supports a dome below Le Dorat’s signature octagonal staged lantern tower. The dome is supported by pendentives that spring from the cluster of pillars at each corner of the crossing.

Crossing dome, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crossing dome, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The apse is covered with an oven vault and features a fine ambulatory with a hemicycle of three large arches and two smaller ones separating the altar from the radiating chapels. The altar is currently in the center of the crossing and not in the apse as would have been the case originally. The large 19th century organ can be seen on the south side.

Apse, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the ambulatory we see the radiating chapels that project from the apse. We can also see the fine capitals that decorate the hemicycle columns. The curved groin vaulting that tops the ambulatory was apparently one of the most difficult feats of engineering in Romanesque times and was the result of intuition and approximation rather than following a formal pattern of construction. The example we see here at Le Dorat is one of the most elegant, eschewing the clumsy vault intersections that flaw so many others of this style.

Ambulatory, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

PJ’s photo from the center of the ambulatory looking west to the transept and nave gives a wonderful sense of scale and precision that are hallmarks of this fine church. It also gives a good view of the windows in the drum of the crossing dome that flood that section of the church with natural light. This natural light is a feature that we as photographers treasure – there is little that we detest more that gigantic modern lighting fixtures that dominate the visuals in other churches, as our next post of Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat will amply demonstrate. In Le Dorat, there are almost no modern fixtures at all – only the small unobtrusive speakers on the pillars.

Crossing and nave from ambulatory, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Crossing and nave from ambulatory, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

There is some fine sculpture in the church as well. The capitals are carved in a mix of white limestone, granite and green serpentine (a volcanic stone from the region). One of the granite capitals features beasts and snakes devouring a man who is suspended upside down.

Beasts and snakes devouring a man, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Beasts and snakes devouring a man, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This capital with the leafed mask shows how the sculptors were successful in working the hard granite stone. There are no fine details but instead there is a bold repeating design.

Leafed mask capital, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Leafed mask capital, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In this shot of the ambulatory looking back at the north side aisle, we can see the steps that lead down from the raised choir to the side aisles and nave. Notice the superb stonework in the walls and windows, further indications of the great care taken in building the church.

Ambulatory to side aisle, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory to side aisle, Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens, Le Dorat (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

The Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens was all that we had hoped for and more. It would have been nice if we could have photographed the exterior with some success,but there was a flat grey sky with some drizzling rain and we had no luck. We were also not able to gain entrance to the interesting 11th century crypt with its own ambulatory giving access to a central altar. This just means that we have another reason to return to Le Dorat and photograph this magnificent structure once again.

Location: 46.214124° 1.082369°

Solignac – Ashes in the Wind (Dennis Aubrey)


L’abbaye est livrée aux flammes, les tombeaux profanés, et les cendres des grands, qui étaient venus y dormir leur dernier sommeil en compagnie des moines, sont jetées au vent.

“The abbey is given to the flames, the desecrated tombs, and the ashes of the old, who came to sleep their last sleep in the company of monks, are thrown to the wind.”

Notice Historique et Descriptive sur L’Abbaye de Solignac, L’Abbé Texier, 1860

The Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul in Solignac is lucky to have survived a turbulent history. It was part of an abbey originally founded in 632 by Saint Eloi who petitioned the Merovingian King Dagobert I for the town of Solemniacum as the site of a monastery. By the eighth century, Saint Ouen wrote that the abbey was so prosperous that it supported a community of 150 monks who subscribed to the rule of Columbanus. In 820, Abbe Aigulf imposed the rule of Saint Benedict.

But the monastery was not to have a peaceful existence; it was destroyed and rebuilt ten times. The monastery was sacked multiple times during the 8th century Arab incursions. After a series of repairs the church was sacked and burned by the Normans around 860 and perhaps again at the end of the 9th century. In 922, King Charles the Simple favored Solignac with a gift of sixteen daughter churches, a gift that ushered in a period of prosperity for the Benedictine community. The abbey was reconstructed in the 12th century and the current church was completed in the beginning of the 13th century.

View of Abbaye de Solignac, drawing by Jules de Verneilh (c. 1860)

View of Abbaye de Solignac, drawing by Jules de Verneilh (c. 1860)

But the abbey and the church were still not safe. The Hundred Years War resulted in damage to the church and in 1388 the choir was set ablaze by the English. In 1568 a Huguenot army pillaged and looted the abbey yet again. The site was used as a porcelain factory after the French Revolution for more than a century, from 1817 to 1932, and it was not until the 1950’s that the church was restored and became home to a monastic community again. The survival of the church that we see today is very likely due to its granite construction. Laid out as a Latin cross, Saint Pierre et Saint Paul de Solignac is covered with a series of domes instead of vaulting. The raised narthex at the street level in the west is distinctly out of plumb with the rest of the church.

Plan, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne)

Plan, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne)

The photograph from the narthex shows the great scale of the church and we can see the domes covering each of the two enormous bays of the nave. These domes are carried by pendentives on massive piers engaged directly to the side walls. The pendentive arches are slightly ogive. These domes place this Limousin church in the same framework as the famous domed churches further south in Perigueux, Cahors, Angoulême, and Souillac. As in these churches, Solignac possesses no side aisles, but the tradition is given token remembrance by the engaged arcades down either side of the nave. Notice that all of the arcade arches are round and not ogive.

Nave, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Like the nave and north transept, the crossing is also covered with a dome while the apse is covered with an oven vault. Like the collégiale in Saint Paulien, the church at Solignac does not have an ambulatory but features three large radiating chapels. I would imagine that this lack of side aisles and an ambulatory meant that Solignac did not have an important presence in the pilgrimage route that passed directly through Limoges. It may be that the close presence of the great Basilique Saint Martial de Limoges was the focus on all the pilgrimage activity in the area. Saint Martial was one of the five major pilgrimage basilicas in France but was completely demolished in 1791.

Crossing and apse, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crossing and apse, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

During the restorations of 1951, a large 15th century painting of Saint Christopher was uncovered on the south-west pillar of the transept crossing. It reminds me of the 14th century monumental 36-foot tall painting of Saint Christopher at another Abbatiale Saint Pierre-et-Saint Paul, this time in Wissembourg in the Alsace.

Transept pillar with painting of Saint Christopher, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Transept pillar with painting of Saint Christopher, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

PJ’s shot of the transept crossing leading back to the nave shows the scale of the piers and pendentives that carry the domes. These massive works are the skeleton of the church and allow relatively thin walls for the nave. This resulted in the pairs of large windows in each arch of the nave and one in each arch of the transept. The result is a well-lighted interior space.

Transept crossing, Abbatiale Saint Pierre Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Transept crossing, Abbatiale Saint Pierre Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

This shot of the south transept shows that the motif of the blind arcades continues from the nave along all of the exterior walls.

South transept through chancel crossing, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

South transept through chancel crossing, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

The entrance to the nave is from an elevated narthex which raises the church to the level of the street outside the west entrance.

Narthex entrance, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Narthex entrance, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

There are a number of capitals in the church on the pillars of the blind arcades. Some appear more primitive than others but that is likely because they were carved in granite like the church itself, and granite is very hard to work. This example shows a highly stylized variation of the “green man” theme.

Capital, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Other capitals are carved from softer stones and are more complex and sophisticated. This particular example features two men assailed by dragons and snakes, able to defend themselves only with their hands. I am not at all sure what this means, but they are having a difficult time of it.

Capital, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

It is fitting to mention the 15th century wooden choir stalls with their evocative sculpted details and misericords. A misericord is a small wooden shelf under the folding seat of the choir stall which gave a degree of support and comfort during the long hours of prayer. Their apt name derives from misericordia, or “act of mercy”.

Choir stall details,  Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Choir stall details, Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

The Abbey church of Saints Peter and Paul in Solignac is one of the marvels that we discovered in exploring the Romanesque churches of the Limousin. We identified fourteen “must-see” churches in the region and not one disappointed us. In Solignac we were able to see and photograph one of the most impressive of these, undisturbed and unhurried by crowds of visitors. We had the church and its echoes to ourselves.

Location: 45.75472° 1.27528°

A Massive Collégiale in Saint Paulien (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I spent three wonderful days in the Haute-Loire region of the Auvergne when we returned from Italy in May. We stayed in Polignac, the chateau-town about five miles from the cathedral town of Le Puy-en-Velay. Three times we tried to visit the church in the nearby town of Saint Paulien, but it was locked. They key was available in the Office de Tourisme and on our last morning, we were able to get in and shoot. What we discovered was amazing, and completely unexpected from the modest exterior. We found a mostly 12th century church with some 16th century modifications, but we were completely unprepared for the scale of the interior. To put it simply, this collegiate church is enormous.

The church nave consists of two large bays covered with a gigantic unsegmented barrel vault supported by huge pillars. One of the most significant features of the church is the extreme angle of divergence of the nave axis and the choir axis. This can be seen clearly in the low angle shot of the center aisle of the nave; the center axis of the apse is the window and oculus just to the left of the crucifix!

Nave, Église Saint-Georges, Saint-Paulien (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint-Georges, Saint-Paulien (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I have read that this divergence of the two axes is responsible for the massive barrel vault covering the nave and transepts. The vault was built in the 13th century and covers a span of 16 meters without any bands for support, making it one of the largest in the Christian world. As a measure of its enormity, the banded ogive barrel vault at Cluny III, the largest church in Europe, covered a span of about 14 meters. Saint Peter’s in Rome spans 27 meters, but it is segmented as well.

In this shot we can also see the north transept, just under the barrel vault at the intersection with the band of the oven vault. This transept is the oldest section of the church and was built in the 11th century.

Nave from chapel, Église Saint-Georges, Saint-Paulien (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave from chapel, Église Saint-Georges, Saint-Paulien (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The choir is covered with an equally imposing oven vault spanning the same width. Notice again that the center axis of the choir is the large window and oculus to the right of the photo, just behind the crucifix.

Choir, Église Saint-Georges, Saint-Paulien (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir, Église Saint-Georges, Saint-Paulien (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The open choir is surrounded by radiating chapels approached by a narrow ambulatory. This ambulatory does not have hemicycle columns and is really more of an aisle than what we normally consider an ambulatory.

Choir from chapel, Église Saint-Georges, Saint-Paulien (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir from chapel, Église Saint-Georges, Saint-Paulien (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

At about the same time as the vault was built, the nave was fortified with the battlements in the west. In this photograph we can also see the south transept that was rebuilt in the 19th century, though modeled directly on the 11th original in the north.

Nave from choir, Église Saint-Georges, Saint-Paulien (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave from choir, Église Saint-Georges, Saint-Paulien (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The church is in a fine square in the middle of town, right in front of the Office de Tourisme. The exterior is marked by the fine chevet with four radiating chapels and windows surmounted by arcs of black and white stones. From the outside, it is almost impossible to sense the size of the space within.

Chevet,  Église Saint-Georges, Saint-Paulien (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chevet, Église Saint-Georges, Saint-Paulien (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Église Saint George was a magnificent discovery for us, but it is extremely difficult to photograph. The large windows in the apse meant that the morning light was pouring into the structure as we tried to shoot towards the altar from the rear. The contrast was so great that the photographs suffered, which is why we have so many photographs taken from the altar toward the west. We plan on returning next time we are in this beautiful area, this time to shoot in the late afternoon.

Location: 45.134209 3.813033

A California Church (Dennis Aubrey)


On Tuesday, I sat in a church in Santa Barbara, California. Saint Raphael’s is a large parish church, modern and modest. It has a simple narthex leading to a large open nave with stained glass clerestory windows. There are no side aisles or nave arcades and the transepts are low and functional. The altar is quite attractive with a flat eastern wall – no ambulatory, no hemicycle, no choir stalls. There is no real transept crossing at all.

But this is a church that taught me much on the single day that I was there, because it was here that I sat with my mother, brothers, sister, PJ, and the rest of my family to hear the funeral mass for my father. The large crowd in the church showed me how much he was loved and respected by those who knew him. My father was not an elected official or a public figure. He was a private man who spent his entire life in service. First he spent 24 years in the US Army, serving. He spent the rest of his life serving his church, his community, and his fellow soldiers.

Eglise Abbatiale Lavaudieu, Lavaudieu (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Eglise Abbatiale Lavaudieu, Lavaudieu (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ told me of an uncle of hers whose funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners, to the complete surprise of his family and friends. The church was filled with people who this man had helped in life, helped without telling anyone, not his wife and children, not the neighbors or friends. He had simply helped those in need and when he died, those who had been helped came to pay their respects. My father’s funeral was like this.

I learned the depth of the love his family had for him, from the granddaughter who sobbed uncontrollably at his loss, my sister and brothers who tried to bravely accept his passing, to my mother whose partner, companion and lover of 68 years was taken from her. All of this I knew, but somehow the service showed me the depths of this love.

And finally I learned something completely unexpected. During the services which were beautifully and personally conducted, I discovered myself tugged by something, like being pulled by a river current or an outgoing tide. I felt part of a great stream of faith that tied my father to his church for his entire life, to the history of those who had preceded him in the church, in life, in sanctity and even in death. His death was part of this massive Orinoco flow streaming to the sea beyond, carrying him inexorably to his God. We mourners were witnesses standing mute in the shallows as he passed, the water tugging at our legs as if to remind us that our time was coming and to mark his passing closely, not to forget. For the briefest moment I felt in my heart the faith of my father, something I sought for my entire life. But like his passing, it continued on and could only feel the lapping of his wake.

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

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

Someday in the small quiet room where my services will be held, I expect that I will still be a bystander in that river of faith, pretending in my pride that it does not matter. But here at Saint Raphael’s church my father reached back to give me one last parting gift. He made me feel that faith of my childhood, the certainty of God’s grace.