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.

Restoration in Miniature – Notre Dame du Pilier (Dennis Aubrey)


The Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres is in the middle of a restoration process that has engendered a great deal of controversy, most of which has fortunately died down. The major source of this was Martin Filler’s article in the New York Review of Books and the subsequent rebuttal by Jeffrey Hamburger and Madeline Calviness. Much of Filler’s objection is that he does not agree on the precise period of history that is the target of the restoration and that it will somehow remain the Chartres of Henry Adams Mont Saint Michel and Chartres or Joris-Karl Huysmans’ La Cathédrale.

We will cover more of this restoration debate later, especially after a discussion of the purpose and the discoveries with Gilles Fresson who works at the cathedral. But it was not only the restoration of the church that was castigated by Filler. The restoration of the famed Black Madonna Notre Dame du Pilier aroused his wrath.

Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

“Observant Catholics,” Filler writes, “whose primary interest in the cathedral is religious rather than aesthetic, have been particularly appalled by one aspect of the program: the repainting of Our Lady of the Pillar, the early-seventeenth-century devotional statue of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child familiarly known as the Black Madonna … Whenever and however Chartres’s Black Madonna acquired its mysterious patina — through oxidation or smoke from candles and incense — it was familiar as such to centuries of the faithful until its recent multicolored makeover, which has transformed the Mother of God into a simpering kewpie doll.”

Post-restoration, Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Post-restoration, Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We can see in the pre-restoration version of the vierge that Notre Dame du Pilier was indeed black. Her “patina” was the result of years of soot accumulation from the devotional candles lit in her honor, dirt, and other accumulations. She was dressed in regal robes and crowned in order to remind us of her special status.

Pre-restoration, Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Pre-restoration, Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The restoration removed the accumulation of soot and revealed the traces of the earlier, if not original, polychrome paint. The decision was made to restore these colors, including the clothes, so that there was no need for the robes and crown.

Post-restoration, Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Post-restoration, Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Filler finished his tirade with “We know that ancient Greek statues were painted in vivid polychrome and adorned with earrings, spears, and other metal accouterments. But the idea of actually adding such long-lost elements to, say, the Parthenon Marbles would be even more controversial than the longstanding debate over where those sculptures should be housed. Officials in charge at Chartres now are engaged in a pursuit as foolhardy as adding a head to the Winged Victory of Samothrace or arms to the Venus de Milo.”

Post-restoration, Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Post-restoration, Notre Dame du Pilier, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Filler seems very fond of using the term patina to refer to the process of aging in both the cathedral and in the status. Just to give you an idea of what “patina” really represents at Chartres, we offer the following photograph.

“Patina”, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notice that there are three levels of restoration here. To the left, the columns show the cleaned columns with no subsequent treatment. These columns feature lighter areas that are the paint from the original construction of the cathedral, especially in the lower regions. The center, the choir, shows the restored apse with the restored windows above at the clerestory level. This section has been repainted according to the best information available from the cleaned columns. Finally, the dark, almost black band on the right, is the uncleaned, unrestored south transept. In real life it is easily this dark, perhaps even darker. The cathedral was dark and mysterious, which offered a certain charm and certainly for Huysmans, was the fitting look for his Chartres.

Ultimately, we are faced with a choice of which version of Christianity the cathedral should represent. Should it be the joyous Christianity of 13th century Chartres, or the dour, post-rationalist Christianity of the industrial age?

We would love to hear from our readers about this restoration, in particular that of Notre Dame du Pilier.

Two Churches in Chauvigny (PJ McKey)


Chauvigny is a small market town in the Vienne. It is a business center for the region and its weekly outdoor marché fills the square in the center of town. I’ve visited the town four times and Dennis lived here as a boy and loves it like his home. What makes the town unique are its two Romanesque churches. On the hill dominating the town is the Collégiale Saint Pierre, a star in the Romanesque world. This church is one of the reasons that we have come here so often, famous for its capitals and interior. People come to photograph it and to enjoy the view of the surrounding town and countryside from its stately position on the highest point of the city in the charming medieval old town. It is beautiful, stunning.

Ambulatory, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

But we recently discovered the second church in Chauvigny, hidden in plain sight at one end of the town square. Notre Dame de Chauvigny is the parish church, a place where the locals come to light candles, visit for prayers, attend mass on Sunday and have their life events. It is as much a part of the daily life of the people as the square filled with busy cafes across from the Hotel de Ville, shops, beauty parlors, and a driving school. The church is modest and time-worn, a place few tourists would visit.

The two churches are similar in structure; they are in the form of a Latin cross with a nave and side aisles, transepts, and an apse. In Notre Dame de Chauvigny we see the simple apse with the altar.

Apse, Église Notre Dame, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Apse, Église Notre Dame, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

In Saint Pierre de Chauvigny we see the justly famous ambulatory and the capitals of Gofridus which are marvelous for their inventiveness and whimsy.

Hemicycle columns, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Hemicycle columns, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

But their similarity masks enormous differences in the two churches. In the following shots, I tried to match at Saint Pierre the shots that I took at Notre Dame, just to see what the differences might be.

Side aisle looking at apse, Église Notre Dame, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle looking at apse, Église Notre Dame, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Each of the following pairs shows the modesty of Notre Dame compared to its more famous sibling, but we see also that Saint Pierre has fewer mementos of worship. The Collégiale is not a living church, but a museum.

Ambulatory and choir, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory and choir, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

I have always loved Chauvigny because of Dennis’ connection, the work of Gofridus; it has the beauty of architecture and the sculptural decoration is unique. Every time we go there is wonderful and we love to photograph it. But as a church it does not move me.

Nave elevation, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave elevation, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Notre Dame lacks the elegance and perfection of Saint Pierre, but there is another beauty at work here; time’s chapters are visible. We feel the history of the town and the people who have worshiped here for nine-hundred years. It is a tangible sensation.

Nave elevation, Église Notre Dame, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave elevation, Église Notre Dame, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

While we were in France, Dennis wrote a light-hearted take on the capitals of the two churches and we have each written articles on Saint Pierre in the past. Dennis wrote about growing up in Chauvigny while I wrote about Gofridus, who created the inimitable capitals of Saint Pierre.

Nave and transept, Église Notre Dame, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave and transept, Église Notre Dame, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

But I am always moved by the parish churches that are alive in the world of the parishioners; there is no attempt to doll the church up, they don’t need to keep up appearances. It is what it is and it is loved for what it represents, its age and its history. I am always moved by the candles and ex votos. People came in while we were there photographing and said a prayer and lit candles. This church belongs to the inhabitants of Chauvigny, not to tourists or scholars. That moves me. There is a certain humility to those places that has continued for almost a 1000 years.

North side aisle, Église Notre Dame, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

North side aisle, Église Notre Dame, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Chauvigny is lucky to have two such churches. In a town with a population of only 7,000, this is an embarrassment of riches (and in fact there is a Carolingian church at Saint-Pierre-les-Eglises just a mile south of town on the Vienne River). They are fortunate to have them and that they are both in good condition.

North side aisle, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

North side aisle, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

So next time we visit Chauvigny, we will have lunch in the square, and Dennis will tell me about the barbershop with blue doors and shutters in the center of town where he learned to love the Asterix and Obelix comic books and I will act like I’ve never heard the story before. And then we will visit both churches, loving them equally for their different beauties, like parents who dote on their children.

Location: Église Notre Dame, Chauvigny 46.569105° 0.645516° Collégiale Saint Pierre 46.570431° 46.570431°

Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris (Dennis Aubrey)


In all the years that I have traveled to France and all of the times spent in Paris, I never heard of the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in the Palais de Chaillot at Place du Trocadéro. Courtesy of the outstanding Travel to Eat blog run by Dr. Buzard, I saw an article on the facsimiles of the great French tympana from Romanesque churches.

Reproduction of tympanum, Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne)  Photograph from "Travel to Eat" blog

Reproduction of tympanum, Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne) Photograph from “Travel to Eat” blog

The blog post shows castings from Moissac, Souillac, Conques, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, Saintes, Aulnay, Carennac, La Charité-sur-Loire, Avallon, Autun, and Cluny – all names familiar to regular readers of Via Lucis. In addition, there is a copy of the tympanum at the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay created by the aptly-named Jacques-Ange Corbel in 1881.

Reproduction of tympanum, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron)  Photograph from "Travel to Eat" blog

Reproduction of tympanum, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photograph from “Travel to Eat” blog

Here is a link to the full article on “Travel to Eat.”

For those lucky enough to get to Paris and want to visit the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris, here is the information:

Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine
Palais de Chaillot
1 place du Trocadéro 75116 Paris
Switchboard: 01 58 51 52 00

These reproductions are found in the Galerie des moulages.

Les Precurseurs ( 3e. partie ) : Dom Angelico Surchamp (Dennis Aubrey, translated by Albert Pinto)


The following is a translation of “Those who precede (Part 3), Angelico Surchamp“, an account of our meeting with Dom Surchamp in Burgundy in 2012. It has been translated by Albert Pinto.

Ceux qui nous connaissent bien à travers le site Via Lucis sont au courant de l’affection et du respect que nous portons à Dom Angelico Surchamp, fondateur et maître d’oeuvre des Editions Zodiaque, une collection riche de 200 volumes de textes et photographies consacrés aux églises romanes d’Europe. Nous avons nous-mêmes écrit sur les Editions Zodiaque et l’an dernier, nous avons publié un article après avoir eu le plaisir de passer une journée avec lui en Bourgogne. En mai dernier, le Dr Janet Marquardt a rédigé un texte sur la collection Zodiaque, pour traiter de certaines des photographies réalisées par Dom Angelico lui-même et son équipe.

Surchamp photo

Il n’était que justice que notre article de Noël 2012 soit consacré à cet artiste : son oeuvre, qui est celle d’une vie tout entière, a été notre source d’inspiration pour Via Lucis.

Nous lui avons de nouveau rendu visite en septembre et avons passé une journée presque complète en sa compagnie. Et ce fut une satisfaction supplémentaire de faire rencontrer cet homme dont nous leur parlions si souvent, à mes parents Don et Lucille qui nous accompagnaient pour ce voyage.

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

Nous l’avons “récupéré” au couvent de Notre Dame de Venère, près de Tournus, où il exerce son ministère. Il nous a chaleureusement accueillis, PJ et moi-même, puis s’est intéressé à mes parents. Ceux-ci ont été immédiatement frappés par la profonde humilité que professe Dom Surchamp, tant en ce qui concerne sa personne que sa vie et ses oeuvres. Il est certes fier de tout ce qu’il a réalisé et aime à parler de ses travaux, mais décline systématiquement tout éloge personnel… Cela m’a rappelé une anecdote qui s’était produite lorsque notre visite de l’année précédente ; à un visiteur qui voulait le prendre une fois de plus en photo, il répliqua avec un sourire ” eh quoi ! Suis-je un monument national ?”. PJ dit que cette humilité est due à la largeur du champ mental que possède le Père Surchamp : aussi grande que soit son oeuvre, elle n’est qu’un petit fragment du spectacle que nous offre le monde.

Nous avons emmené déjeuner le Père Surchamp à l’Hostellerie Bressane de Cuisery, à 8 kilomètres de Tournus,qu’il avait fort appréciée l’année précédente. Nous avions demandé à Mme. Nathalie Beaufaÿs, qui dirige cet établissement ( son mari Jean-Francis y officie en cuisine ) une jolie table près de la fenêtre du fond et nous nous y trouvâmes fort bien tous les cinq. Les Français ont une réelle culture de l’art de vivre et les plaisirs de la table en sont un élément majeur. Partager un repas avec lui est une des clés permettant de bien comprendre un Français…fût-il un moine voué à la simplicité et à la prière. Ainsi Don Angelico reste bien Français et sait apprécier un repas de qualité. Et s’il a un peu moins mangé cette fois que l’année précédente, il l’a fait avec le même plaisir. D’ailleurs les conversations ont cessé pour ne reprendre ne reprendre qu’après les choses sérieuses du déjeuner !

Restaurant of the Hostellerie Bressane, Cuisery

Restaurant of the Hostellerie Bressane, Cuisery

Au cours de la conversation, en compagnie de mes parents alors âgés de 84 ans, nous lui avons dit combien nous étions heureux de le revoir en bonne santé. ” Je vais bien, nous répondit-il, mais après 80 ans, chaque année supplémentaire coûte cher !”. Et mes parents d’opiner…Quant à moi, j’approuvai aussi, mais en corrigeant mentalement les 80 ans en soixante.

Après déjeuner, nous sommes allés visiter ensemble la basilique Saint Philibert de Tournus. Je dois dire en toute franchise que visiter aux côtés de Surchamp ce monument capital de l’architecture romane a été l’une des expériences les plus lumineuses de ma vie. Et de le faire, de surcroît, en compagnie de PJ et de mes parents a apporté un parfum de perfection à ce moment privilégié.

Dom Angelico Surchamp and PJ McKey, Église Sainte Marie Madeleine, Le Villars (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Dom Angelico Surchamp and PJ McKey, Église Sainte Marie Madeleine, Le Villars (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nous sommes entrés dans l’église par l’imposant narthex aux volumes massifs. Bien entendu, Dom Angelico se souvient du moindre détail de l’édifice et il nous a fait découvrir les marques de maçons et autres inscriptions gravées sur les murs de la basilique.

Comme nous traversions le narthex, nous avons observé,dans le prolongement du portail occidental, la nef centrale de l’église abbatiale. Notre discussion a notamment porté sur voûtes transversales en berceau, caractéristiques de Saint Philibert et que l’on retrouve à un seul endroit dans le monde, au Mont Saint Vincent, à une cinquantaine de kilomètres à l’ouest de Tournus.

Nave and transverse barrel vaults, Basilique Saint Philibert, Tournus (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave and transverse barrel vaults, Basilique Saint Philibert, Tournus (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nous avons longé attentivement l’aile latérale sud, admirant au passage Notre Dame La Brune, la célèbre vierge romane qui fait écho aux splendeurs architecturales du lieu. Il était possible, en suivant le regard de Surchamp, de repérer les détails qui attiraient son attention.

PJ a parfaitement compris sa démarche artistique : ” Il perçoit, dit-elle, les interactions entre la lumière et les plans qu’elle affleure, les formes et les ombres. Il ne se contente pas de faire des prises de vues : la plupart des photographies que l’on voit ne sont que des images de l’église. Mais Surchamp, lui – et nous procédons de la même manière – photographie autre chose, au delà de l’image muette. Il essaie d’appréhender la réalité profonde de l’édifice plutôt que d’exposer simplement : “voici à quoi il ressemble”. Ce qu’il cherche à exprimer et transmettre se situe ailleurs, dans l’interaction de l’architecture et de la lumière, laissant place au sentiment que nous pénétrons dans un univers complexe et pluridimensionnel.”

Paray-le-Monial from Bourgogne romane, La Nuit des Temps I, 1974 (6th ed.), pl. 50

Paray-le-Monial from Bourgogne romane, La Nuit des Temps I, 1974 (6th ed.), pl. 50

” Il photographie, poursuit PJ, à la manière d’un véritable artiste, sans se laisser enfermer dans la seule dimension religieuse de l’édifice. Certes, le résultat est tout à fait réaliste : rien n’est plus réel que l’architecture , et sa photo de Fontenay, que j’aime beaucoup, en est un excellent exemple; cette représentation est parfaitement concrète, mais elle est aussi merveilleusement abstraite Vous pouvez, en la regardant, ne voir que les bandes lumineuses, qui la strient et cela, c’est de l’abstraction…”

Dans le déambulatoire, le Père Surchamp nous a raconté la découverte du pavement de mosaïques qui était demeuré enfoui pendant si longtemps.

Ambulatory mosaic, Basilique Saint Philibert, Tournus (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory mosaic, Basilique Saint Philibert, Tournus (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Ensuite, les trois hommes de l’”expédition” ont emprunté précautionneusement les marches abruptes conduisant à l’admirable crypte. De voir Dom Angelico, vêtu de sa robe noire, circuler les mains derrière le dos dans cette crypte était comme remonter de huit siècles dans le temps. Je pouvais presque entendre le plain-chant des prédécesseurs Bénédictins de Dom Surchanp foulant le sol de pierre entre les piliers massifs.

En remontant dans l’église, j’ai pris la photo de ” mes deux pères”. Cette photo est horrible ( que peut-on attendre d’un téléphone portable en basse lumière ?), mais elle est néanmoins le témoignage de cette si émouvante visite.

Mes deux pères - Angelico Surchamp and Don Aubrey

Mes deux pères – Angelico Surchamp and Don Aubrey

Nous nous sommes finalement rendu compte que Surchamp commençait à être fatigué l’avons reconduit au monastère. Il a portant insisté pour que nous prenions le thé avec lui. Nous nous serrions autour de la table, dans sa petite chambre, tandis qu’il préparait le breuvage. Ensuite nous avons encore bavardé dans cette belle après-midi d’automne. Je me souviens de ce qu’il nous a dit de son amour pour l’art roman et de la manière dont le temps et les époques successives modifient la perception de ses éléments et la compréhension de ses structures. Il a notamment évoqué le cas de certaines églises qui n’étaient accessibles, lors de leur édification, que par des sentiers montagnards et que des routes carrossables mettent aujourd’hui à la portée de tout le un chacun. ” Nous avons perdu la notion essentielle de ce que fut la fonction originelle de l’église” : ce constat du P. Surchamp m’a aussitôt fait penser à Saint Martin du Canigou et à Saint Guilhem le Desert, cette dernière église se confondant surtout aujourd’hui avec un site touristique.

Bien qu’à regret, Il fallait bien enfin nous quitter. A la grille du portail, Surchamp m’a énergiquement étreint l’avant-bras, en évoquant notre intention de lui rendre ànouveau visite l’année suivante. Mais il pensait qu’à ce moment, il ne résiderait plus à N.D. de Venière, mais serait de retour à la Pierre-Qui-Vire. Quelle belle trajectoire que celle d’un cercle si fécond se refermant…

South side aisle, Basilique Saint Philibert, Tournus (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

South side aisle, Basilique Saint Philibert, Tournus (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

En reprenant la route, mes parents exprimèrent le bonheur qu’ils avaient éprouvé à cette rencontre avec Dom Angelico. ” Il est exactement conforme à tout ce que tu nous avais dit de lui ” a remarqué Lucille. Certes, mais bien plus encore, parce que mes mots ne pourront jamais rendre justice à la personnalité de ce moine bénédictin qui a acquis tant d’importance dans notre vie. ” La beauté n’est accessible qu’à travers l’amour, et l’amour requiert du temps et de la liberté.”

Back in the USA (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I have arrived back in the USA, library swollen with an additional 11,000 photos of 44 churches in 37 towns and cities. We have just loaded the images into our Lightroom database and will begin processing in earnest, but thought we might give you a preview of some of the churches that we documented.

The shot of the oven vault at the Église Saint Martin in Polignac is one of the most difficult to take in any manner that makes it comprehensible. The oven vault is a half-dome that covers the apse in a Romanesque church. The center blank section is part of the oven vault, but has lost its fresco covering. The white band at the top is the segment of the crossing arch that separates the apse from the crossing in this small church.

Oven vault, Église Saint Martin, Polignac (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Oven vault, Église Saint Martin, Polignac (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We returned to the colorful Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat which we had not photographed since 2007 and it was even better than we remembered. We got the gigantic key from the Mairie across the street and spent a wonderful few hours there. There is a famous vierge romane on the altar which we will feature again later.

Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Saint-Julien de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Église Saint-Martin de Besse in the Dordogne is a wonderful small church in a hilltop village. The interior is much compromised from rebuilds and restorations of dubious quality, but the sculpture, particularly that of the west facade, is extraordinary. This will also get significant attention in a later article.

Église Saint-Martin de Besse, Besse  (Dordogne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Saint-Martin de Besse, Besse (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One of the most important venues for us was to photograph the churches of the Limousin, which we have missed on so many other trips to France. The churches of Benevent-l’abbaye, Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche, Le Souterraine, Saint-Léonard de Noblat, Vigeois, and so many others are high on the list of great Romanesque monuments. Two of the most important are the magnificent Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens in Le Dorat and the Église abbatiale Saint-Pierre in Solignac.

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

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

These Limousin churches were worth the trip all by themselves and we managed to photograph over a dozen.

Église abbatiale Saint-Pierre, Solignac (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église abbatiale Saint-Pierre, Solignac (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We look forward to providing more detailed information on these and the many other churches that we photographed. Many of the churches that we worked in possessed beautiful sculpted capitals and portals and there will be much to be said about those. This was the most productive tour in years for me personally because I did not combat health issues, and PJ was as active and prolific as ever. All of these shots are mine, but only as a matter of convenience. Her work was simply superb.

Bubbles loves Bourges (Dennis Aubrey)


Long-time followers of Via Lucis might know that PJ names everything. We don’t have lenses with conventional references like “24mm tilt-shift” or “17mm tilt-shift”. We have “Shifty” and “Bubbles”. Bubbles is so named because of the convex lens for extreme wide angles.
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Canon EF TS-E 17mm f/4L

Canon EF TS-E 17mm f/4L

The 17mm lens is a superb piece of equipment but can sometimes be overkill in the smaller churches that we shoot. The 24mm tilt-shift is better for those structures, but in a cathedral, Bubbles is king.

Nave, Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, Bourges (Indre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, Bourges (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This is my lens of choice and the default whenever we arrive at a church. One of the shots that works the best is to photograph the vaults, in this case the nave vaults. Saint Etienne features fine examples of early Gothic sexpartite vaulting. Each segment of the vault covers two bays to create a square volume. Ribs extend diagonally across from the arcade pillars and are intersected by a transverse vault from the center pillars. These ribs divide the area of the vault into six parts, which is why it is called “sexpartite.” This form of vaulting originated in the Abbaye aux Dames in Caen and was the first form of Gothic vaulting.

Nave vault, Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, Bourges (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave vault, Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, Bourges (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This shot of the choir gives a great sense of the scale of the church with its immense choir and large double-aisled ambulatory.

Choir, Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, Bourges (Indre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir, Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, Bourges (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Finally, from the ambulatory behind the choir we can see the twin side aisles extending all the way to the western end of the nave. This is a stunning view of the forest of columns lit by the superb stained glass windows that fill the entire space.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, Bourges (Indre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, Bourges (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ and I shot a thousand exposures in our single day at the Cathédrale Saint-Etienne de Bourges. This is just the smallest sample of the interior, all photographed with the 17mm tilt-shift lens. We’ll follow up with a full post (or more) at a later date.

Location: 47.082032° 2.399566°

The Temptation of Christ (Dennis Aubrey)


Once in a while in our travels, PJ and I find something so extraordinary and unexpected that it takes awhile for the gift to register. Today we had such a moment. Yesterday we had a long-awaited day at Bourges and we made the most of it – over a thousand shots between us of this great cathedral. But we expected the wonders that we found there; they are well-documented and known to the world.

This morning, however, on our way to Chartres we decided to stop to visit a small church in the town of Plaimpied-Givaudins just a few miles south of Bourges. We found a lovely Romanesque church with some unfortunate reconstruction in the 17th century, but the sculpture was remarkable. In particular, the capital representing the Temptation of Christ is one of the most amazing Romanesque works we have ever seen, all the more so because we had never even heard of it.

Temptation capital detail, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins  (Indre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Temptation capital detail, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Our ignorance of art history meant that we had never heard of the Master of Plaimpied or the possible relationship with the famous Nazareth capitals found at the beginning of the last century. Julianna Lees has written a monograph on the subject that can be found on her “Green Man of Cercles” site.

The story told by the “Temptation of Christ” capital is extraordinarily complex but the composition created by the sculptor captures it completely. After he was baptized, Jesus spent forty days and nights fasting in the Judaean desert. It was then, in his weakened state, that Satan tempted Jesus.

In the capital, there are two demons, a furred one and a naked one, each on one side of the central figure of Jesus. The naked demon on the right holds an apple, symbolizing the first temptation, food to break Jesus’ fast. Above the figures are cities representing both the temple – the site of the second temptation to jump from a pinnacle and rely on angels to break his fall – and the kingdoms of the world, .

Temptation capital detail, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins  (Indre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Temptation capital detail, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the third and final temptation, Satan transported Jesus to a mountain where he could see all kingdoms and offered the dominion of the world; “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” All of this story is encompassed in the simple composition of the capital.

Jesus is shown with his eyes to heaven, importuning his Father to help him resist the temptations of Satan. The great swath of hollowed-out space surrounding Jesus emphasizes his isolation in the barren desert, except for the two creatures on either side of him that seem to defend him against the demons.

Temptation capital detail, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins  (Indre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Temptation capital detail, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This is an astonishing piece of storytelling and the quality of the sculpture is as fine as anything we have ever seen from this Romanesque world. PJ compares it to the Jeremiah at Moissac or the Isaiah from Souillac. The dance-like movement of the demons, Jesus’ anguish, and the ferocity of the beasts work in a deeply-incised, fully realized space filled with movement and passion. This Master of Plaimpied was an artist of the highest order and we are stunned to find that there are no other undisputed works known by this hand. It is like a miraculous bolt of genius that struck a piece of stone and left us a masterpiece.