Why? (Dennis Aubrey)

… the “why” of it all is hard to answer. I’m not religious, although I think I have a deep streak of the need to believe, which takes expression in artistic work. I first fell in love with Romanesque architecture because of its beauty, durability, and variety. But over the years studying these buildings, I have come to believe that they are some of the most perfect expressions of faith that architecture has ever produced. Our Greek ancestors, with their temples, the Egyptians with theirs, the Chinese, Japanese, so many others have all found unique and powerful ways to match structure and belief. But it was, not to be showing disrespect, elitist. The Romanesque and Gothic, on the other hand, were “partout“, everywhere.

The altar of the Chapelle Sainte Marguerite, Epfig (Bas-Rhin) (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

For two centuries, hundreds of churches were built every year by towns, cities, monasteries, episcopal sees. They were not just the reflection of Man and God, as are the others, but the record of an entire people. When that faith dissipated, as is inevitable in any civilization, we were left with a stone record of incredible beauty, a direct link, as it were, to the aspirations of these people. Like the Greek temples of the Athenian golden age, they were built by a free people. In the 12th Century, these people moved more stone in building their 80 cathedrals and thousand churches than did the Egyptians in the entire history of building their pyramids using slave and conscripted labor.

Crypt stairs in Eglise Notre Dame, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

If we can be commended for anything in this project, it is not having a point of view to impose on the world of the Romanesque and Gothic builders (for they often worked simultaneously). We have walked into our hundreds of these churches with no other object than to let them speak for themselves, to tell their own stories. Many times that meant entering, sitting, and waiting for something; at other times it meant setting up and shooting immediately, trying to capture impressions that changed with the light, capture them before they disappeared. But in all cases, it was the church speaking, the building. Eventually we understood that to mean that the builders were speaking, and the monks and bishops, the thousands who prayed, the armies that pillaged and murdered, the revolutionary crowds that tore down what symbolized to them the oppression of their lives. The churches told tales of reformist iconoclasts who destroyed the statues because they considered them idols.

Altar of the Virgin Mary, Collegiale Saint Lazare, Avallon (Yonne) (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

All of these things, the churches told us, but more, as well. They told stories of the thousands who came to pray and seek guidance. They told of the monastics who pulled Europe out of the chaos and devastation of the post-Carolingian world and brought civilization, one that might be considered one of the great civilizations of history, to a land invaded, burnt and benighted. This is a choir of thousand-year old voices, still standing witness to a world that we can barely understand, much less participate in.

4 responses to “Why? (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I belong to St. Mary’s Basilica in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. It’s known as “the mother church of Phoenix” because it’s the first and oldest in the city. It’s been the home of Franciscan friars since 1895, which is one of the main reasons I attend there. However, we are often admonished to remember that “the Church is the people, not the building.” This is the humble friars’ way of saying we need to keep the purpose of church in our hearts and minds and not just come because we like the building! But the building does communicate a great deal in its Roman cross floor plan and it’s big domed ceiling, the focus on the altar and cross, the beautiful old stained glass windows imported from Germany; the building communicates an attitude of reverence and peace, something we are clearly in need of as human beings, even more so now than ever with the constant interruption and focus in our lives of high tech information technology. I know the modern churches work for some, but they leave me cold. There is a sense of timelessness to a beautiful old building that is itself a comforting message.

    • You are right, Lydia. They do communicate the values of the religion in many ways. The builders intended them to represent the harmonies of their Christian universe, the message of their Church, and the promises of their salvation. These stone structures even communicated the central mysteries of their faith. I believe that these values were more tangible for the existence of the churches themselves.

  2. This is beautifully written, and gives the perfect answer to what I am sure is an oft-asked question. After knowing you for nearly 45 years your answer was obvious to me from the photos when I first saw them; but it was nice to have such clarity in your explaination. Every thinking man or woman has those contempletive moments in a church, or forest, or beach, or mountaintop, or as I did once, in an abandonded cemetary in Utah lying on a huge piece of granite with just the name CUNNINGHAM etched into the side.

    But what you are doing, and what I like about it, is that you are attempting to feel what the builders felt, and to absorb their spirit if not their belief. If everyone acted that way the world would be a better place.

    • Thanks, Patrick. The churches invite that contemplation, and there are few places in the man-made world that are designed to do so. Your list of these places attests to that. It is a part of the appeal of the Romanesque churches to us; there are 5000 still remaining in France, and they remain for a reason.

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