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, many of which can be seen 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 VIA LUCIS LLC. Thank you for respecting this notice.

Cagots; the Despised – Amuse Bouche #40 (Dennis Aubrey)


” … cannibal, heretic, and delivered unto all vices.”

The people thus described in the Middle Ages were of no specific ethnicity or religious affiliation. They spoke the same language as their neighbors and practiced the same religion. But they were treated as inferior, stigmatized, and segregated. They had their own doors to churches, their own fonts, and when receiving communion, the wafer was thrown to them, or, if the sacrament was being administered by a sympathetic priest, on a wooden spoon.

Cagot font, Église de Saint-Savin-en-Lavedan, Saint Savin (Hautes-Pyrénées) Photo by PJ McKey

Thee were the cagots, common throughout the Pyrénées, and they were despised. They lived in their own segregated communities, the cagoteries, were restricted to certain trades, were not allowed to marry non-cagots, enter taverns, hold cabarets, use public fountains, sell food or wine, touch food in the market, work with livestock, or enter a mill. They could only marry within the cagot community. Even to the 20th century they were required to wear a special badge featuring the foot of a goose or duck.

Mark of the cagot

These were “untouchables” in western culture and their segregation in a caste system persisted even into the 20th century. There are theories that the cagots were descended from lepers or cretins, that they were remnants of the Saracen armies that intermarried with locals in the 9th century, or even that they were members of a fallen medieval guild of carpenters.

But the truth is that the cagots – these “pestiferous people” – are a mystery, gone from history except for a few remaining descendants and the physical remnants in the local churches.

Postscript – PJ has made a very interesting observation in the figure on the font in Oloron-Sainte-Marie. It appears that his lips are disfigured, as in a herpes-type malady. There are two variants of the virus; one affects the genitals and the other the lips and is thought to be hereditary. Herpes is highly contagious in skin-to-skin contact, which might explain many of the prohibitions. Also, when the virus is contracted, that person is infected for life. Herpes was certainly known at the time; it appeared in Central and Eastern Europe in the 5th century.

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Detail of Cagot font, Église de Saint-Savin-en-Lavedan, Saint Savin (Hautes-Pyrénées) Photo by PJ McKey

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

Celebration in Chiomonte (Dennis Aubrey)


We are often traveling in Europe at the time of my birthday and every year that happens, PJ asks where I would like to celebrate. Usually it will be the Pont de l’Ouysse in the Dordogne or the Crispol in Vézelay, but this year I wanted to do something different. In 2015 when we went to Italy, we stopped halfway just on the Italian side of the Alps to stay at the Affittacamere Al Cantoun, a small hotel with a restaurant in the mountain town of Chiomonte, not far from Susa. We liked it so much that we stayed again on our return trip so that we could sample the wonderful cuisine of Paolo Aiello. So when PJ asked, this time I opted for a two-day stay in Chiomonte which we reached after a three hour run from Sisteron in the Provence through the Alpine passes. We stopped on the way to shoot the magnificent Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal in Embrun.

We arrived in Chiomonte and parked in a square across town after we determined that our car would not fit through the arch that led to the church parking lot we normally park in. As we hauled our baggage into the hotel courtyard we found Stefano, who runs the Afficamare, sitting at table with his parents Fernande and Gaspare.

Affittacamere Al Cantoun, Chiomonte

Stefano greeted us in English, which was a bonus. On our last visit, we spoke almost no Italian (and what I know comes from innumerable viewings of the Godfather trilogy) and what we did speak was cruelly corrupted with pidgin Spanish. The family spoke no English and we stumbled from one language to another trying to find a common tongue.

We had a lovely dinner that night, of course, with a bottle of the local Chiomonte wine to accompany. Paolo came out to talk and in the course of conversation I mentioned that we did not see his fabulous torre di polenta con funghi, a fabulous dish with alternating layers of polenta, wild mushrooms and a rich cream sauce. He apologised and said that was a spring dish when the mushrooms were readily available. He asked if we would like it for my birthday; he thought he could get fresh mushrooms the next day. I greedily replied to the affirmative.

The following day was my birthday and when we went down to breakfast, Stefano asked if we would like to shoot a church in a small village on the other side of the valley. PJ and I were eager to do so and we set a time. When we arrived at 2pm, Stefano, Paolo and their father were there to accompany us in the small car. We could see the church, just a few hundred yards away across the steep valley, but it took about 15 minutes to drive there. Stefano, used to driving in the area and knowing the secret protocols, drove much faster than I would have dared. It was possible he was trying to give me a thrill, because I have a fear of heights. We arrived in Ramats in good shape, though, and were met by a family friend, Giorgio, who opened the church for us. Giorgio made it easier to communicate because he spoke French (he has cousins on the “other side of the mountains”, meaning France).

Paolo, Giorgio, Gaspare, PJ, and Stefano

The church, the Chiesa Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, is mostly 15th century with a Romanesque apse. Unprepossessing on the exterior, it possesses vibrantly colored frescoes.

Nave, Cappella Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, Chiomonte (Piemonte) Photo by PJ McKey

There is some damage done to the 15th century frescoes, but for the most part they are in good condition, covering the vault, rear wall and sides of the apse.

Apse, Cappella Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, Chiomonte (Piemonte) Photo by PJ McKey

It astonished us to find frescoes like this in a tiny village perched on the side of a mountain in the Alps. This ensemble was created by an anonymous artist dubbed by art historians as the “Master of Cognet and Ramats”, referring to the frescoes at the nearby Cappella di Notre Dame del Coignet. The frescoes feature a fine annunciation on the apsidal arch and the life of Saint Anthony in the apse itself.

Apse frescoes, Cappella Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, Chiomonte (Piemonte) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We had a great time photographing the small church in Ramats, but then it was time to go home to get ready for my birthday dinner. And dinner did not disappoint! Not only did we have torre di polenta con funghi made with porcini mushrooms, but I had the boar stew, which was marvelous. After dinner, there was a fuss in the kitchen and then the entire family emerged with a birthday cake!

Birthday cake at Ristorante Al Cantoun, Chiomonte (Piedmont)

This cap to this perfect birthday was going to the town square to watch the final of the Champions League between Real Madrid and Juventus. We were torn in loyalties, because we are Real fans, but Juventus is in nearby Turin and we are big fans of their goalie, Gianluigi Buffon, and their now-departed midfield legend Andrea Pirlo. In the second half, Real scored three goals to take the match, but for me the amazing thing was watching PJ’s performance. Despite being happy for Real, she acted like it was a disaster of the first magnitude for the benefit of the Juventus fans surrounding us. Personally, I was in awe of the performance, worthy of Italian opera buffa or commedia dell’arte!

Watching Champions League Final in town square

The Aiello family made this day very special for me and we hold them dear in our hearts. The welcome, the cuisine, the fantastic alpine setting, all contributed to a most special celebration. All that is left is for us to learn to speak Italian so that we can do their welcome justice on our next visit!

Via Lucis’ visit


Leave it to the great Covetotop to write the prequel to our own post! All hail!

Covetotop

Via Lucis is Latin. It means Way of Light.

Visit means visit, and some visits mean a lot.

— — — — — —— — —

It all happened on a sunny morning of May…

My castle

I was practicing mindfulness in my humble castle, when a burst of light exploded within my empty head, just like a top-notch-flash blows within the walls of a little Romanesque church.

Shocked and tousled, I heard a telepathic message:

-We wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop… We wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop… We wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop…

-Who are you? -I asked with my fabulous mind powers and with my poor English.

– We’r pjandnis of vaicis. How’re ya doin’, hoveop?

– Can you repeat it, please? -I asked with my fabulous mind powers, because I didn’t understand a word.

– We are PJ and Dennis, of Via Lucis. How are…

View original post 1,396 more words

The Monk in the Morvan Forest (Dennis Aubrey)


We are finally home again after two months photographing in France, Spain, and even a little bit of Italy. We drove 6,960 kilometers during that time at an arrive speed of 51 kilometers an hour, which translates to 4,344 miles and a dazzling 32 miles per hour. This demonstrates the narrowness of the country roads where we drive and the amount of time we spent in the Pyrénées and Alps. Until we hit the highway returning to Paris, the average speed was 48 kilometers per hour!

The trip ended in Vézelay at the Crispol hotel, which is almost like home to us. The Schori family is always so welcoming and the addition of the two children Max and Clémence makes it even brighter. It is always bittersweet leaving France. We love it there but we are always anxious to return home, this time to our new house amidst the Amish in Ohio. But this year was even harder because on our last full day, we went to visit Angelico Surchamp again at the monastery at La Pierre Qui Vire. Surchamp is our inspiration and our master, whose two hundred volumes of work documenting the Romanesque religious architecture of Europe is the bedrock on which we build. We arrived knowing that he resides in the infirmerie these days.

He was brought to the parloir in a wheelchair and we could see how feeble his 94 year-old frame is now, how much thinner. But when he recognized us, he lit up like a child and we had the most wonderful hour visit with him. Continually he would look out the window and smile at the blue sky with the great white clouds and remark at them, as if seeing them for the first time. C’est le don du Seigneur pour cette visite.

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

He tired easily but I thought he might want to go outside. He immediately agreed – to PJ’s horror. It was quite chilly outside and she was not sure that the nurse would appreciate us absconding with him. Surchamp rose as if to walk but agreed to let us wheel him out. We took the back way through the refectory and down the service elevator and out into the lower courtyard. We only stayed a few minutes because of the cold, but his eyes glowed brighter and he was transfixed by the site of the forest beyond.

When it was time for us to leave, we told him that we would see him next year. I asked if he would like us to take him to Vézelay to see the Basilique Sainte Madeleine, the church that started his great adventure almost seventy years ago, the first that he ever photographed. His eyes opened wide and he said almost rapturously, oh, oui, si Dieu le veut with a smile. And then he added that he would have to ask the abbot. I told him we would write the abbot about the plans and he repeated that he would have to get the permission of the abbot.

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

And then he said, À mon âge, tout ce que je dois donner c’est ma mort – “At my age, all I have left to give is my death.” I told him that he had more to give than that, just the joy of our visit with him was a greater gift. He took my arm, looked at me with that old, wise look and said Nous sommes séparés par des milliers de kilomètres et un grand océan, mais nos coeurs sont proches.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I think he was saying goodbye. We return to France again next year and I can only hope that we see our master at that time. Until that time, we can rest content that he is at peace in the forests of the Morvan.

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

All Hail Covetotop (Dennis Aubrey)


This year’s trip to Europe has been filled with visits to friends old and new. We saw Servane de Layre-Matheus in Chartres, our lifelong friends Therese Gayet and her son Francois in Vivonne, France. We saw Albert and Monique Pinto for lunch in the Provençal town of Saignan in a wonderful local restaurant Au comptoir de Balthazar. We will see Angelico Surchamp at the Abbey of La Pierre qui Vire later this week. But we had the immense pleasure to finally meet one of our favorite bloggers, Covetotop, whose eponymous blog chronicles his native Catalonia and the Costa Brava, in English no less!

Covetotop is famously reclusive and even gives no details of his private life, not his name, his profession, where he lives. His blog does give specific instructions on how to contact him – “Telepathically: close your eyes and think aloud: “I wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop’s author … I wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop’s author … I wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop’s author …”.”

PJ and I followed the instructions to the letter and were actually able to make contact and schedule a luncheon during our visit to his beloved Empordà region of Catalonia. The day arrived for the lunch we arrived early, anxious not to miss a moment with him. We went into the restaurant, were shown to our table and speculated on what he must be like. PJ asked if I had a mental picture of him and surprisingly I realized that I didn’t. I knew he was well educated, witty, well-travelled, a gourmet who favored the best small restaurants of Catalonia, but no physical image. As we were speculating, we heard a tumult outside. We went to the window and saw hordes of small children waving Catalan flags running alongside a 1924 Hispano-Suiza H6 roadster painted the same bright yellow as the Catalan flag itself. It pulled to a stop in front of the restaurant and out stepped an impossibly handsome man dressed in a white suit, greeting the children and the adults who crowded around noisily. He looked up and saw us and flashed a brilliant smile in the sun and we knew it was he – it was Covetotop.

Covetotop’s car

As we sat to lunch, his graciousness made us feel immediately at home. When he asked how we were enjoying Catalonia, we mentioned that many of the Catalan churches were closed and our disappointment in not being able to photograph. Covetotop merely smiled and suggested we visit a few churches that he mentioned by name. Of course, when we arrived at each on the following day, they were open and we received full cooperation from the local residents in our work, including the ever-present children waving Catalan flags. In the town of Beget, though, with its stunning site and the picturesque church perched at one end of the village, we arrived during the hours of the siesta. But when the church warden heard the delighted cries of the children and realized that we had arrived, he rushed out of his house, pulling up his yellow and red suspenders and tucking in his shirt as he rushed to open the church for us.

Exterior, Església de Sant Cristòfol, Beget (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

Inside the Església de Sant Cristòfol in Beget, we were able to see on the ornate Baroque retable the “dressed Christ” that Covetotop told us about.

Nave and apse, Església de Sant Cristòfol, Beget (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

When it came time to order our meal, rather than try to select individually among the many offerings, Covetop recommended that we eat Pica Pica style, featuring a “little bit of this, a little bit of that”. There was a truitas de patata, the Catalan omelet, the croquetes de pollastre, the canelones de Can Roca, gambas, honeyed botifarra, fried carxofa, and the Anxoves de l’Escala, among many other splendid dishes.

Side aisle to nave, Sant Feliu de Beuda, Beuda (Girona). Photo by PJ McKey

As we progressed through a wonderful lunch of Catalan specialties, Covetotop gradually revealed more of his intensely private life. We learned his real name, but promised on our very lives never to reveal it to anyone. We found that he was born in the little village of Beuda and was baptised with great celebration by the entire community in the font of the church of Sant Feliu, a font filled with the local Empordà wines.

Baptismal font, Sant Feliu de Beuda, Beuda (Girona). Photo by PJ McKey

We found that he spent time in a Benedictine monastery in Austria before moving back to his native Catalonia. After spending years as a calligrapher working in traditional materials using handmade inks and tools, he began his current career crafting wooden fishing boats in a small village on the Mediterranean coast.

Altar, Sant Sepulcre de Palera, Beuda (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

Finally our lunch was finished and we faced the end to a fascinating visit with the enigma that is Covetotop. The empty plates that covered the table somehow reflected the physical and mental feast that we had shared together and we said our fond goodbyes. We will see the Empordà with new eyes now, and look forward to our next visit in the Costa Brava.

Side aisle, Sant Sepulcre de Palera, Beuda (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

Our visit ended as it started, with the crowd waving their Catalan flags as the Hispano-Suiza disappeared down the road, like us, inspired by the visit from the great Covetotop.

This is clearly a fanciful post, not reflecting the exact nature of our encounter with Covetotop, but a fantasy based on how it should have gone if the universe were as fanciful and imaginative as Covetotop himself. While the details of Covetotop’s private life are obscured, there is one true personal fact included that we invite you to identify. Meanwhile, PJ and I continue to revel in our visit with our new friend.

In a further development, Covetotop has revealed fascinating private details of his life and our visit in his prequel to our visit. A must-read for Covetotop fans thirsty for knowledge!

A Column Swallower in the Pyrénées – Amuse Bouche #39 (PJ McKey)


Regular readers of Via Lucis know the fondness PJ and I have for medieval grotesques. Among these are some of our favorites, the column swallowers. We have even found one of these gruesomely compelling engoulants in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum.

On this trip we were photographing in the Haute-Garonne region of the Pyrénées and PJ discovered one of the column swallowers hiding in the Templars’ Church in Montsaunès, peeking out from a column to the left of the altar.

Apse, Église Saint-Christophe des Templiers, Montsaunès (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Unlike many of its brethren, this version of the column swallower seems less monstrous and shows more surprise in his simian features. This was the only column swallower we saw this year in our travels – perhaps he was as surprised to see us as we were to see him!

Column Swallower, Église Saint-Christophe des Templiers, Montsaunès (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

Medieval Surgery – Amuse Bouche #38 (Dennis Aubrey)


A couple of weeks ago, PJ and I had the pleasure to photograph the fine reconstructed Romanesque cathedral in the Pyrénéan town of Lescar where the royal family of Navarre was buried for some time. The reason we were excited to come, however, was the presence of the Romanesque mosaics in the apse that were rediscovered in the 19th century. The remaining fragments are in almost perfect condition.

One of the two panels is of particular interest – a hunter with a bow clearly has an artificial leg! It appears that this represents a Moorish soldier from Al-Andalus who lost his leg in the battles against the encroaching Christians during the Reconquista. After he was fitted with his artificial leg, he fought again against the Christians and was captured by Gui de Lons, who subsequently became the bishop of Lescar and founded the cathedral there. He served as a slave and later became a friend to the Bishop, who immortalized him in this mosaic in the apse.

Mosaic, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Lescar (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The donkey following the hunter has a purpose in the composition – not only is it following the hunter-master, but as shown in the next photograph, actually hauls the hunted prey, in this case a resisting wolf.

Lescar wolf

Mosaic detail, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Lescar (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have since discovered that the nearby church of Saint Aventin has a capital depicting one of the Saracen captors of Saint Aventin who also has the exact same leg prosthesis. This is certainly a subject for further investigation.

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.