The Via Lucis collection of photographs of Romanesque churches has historical precedents, of course. There are thousands and thousands of photographs in existence, many of them superb professional images, but there are two great historical collections that I would like to honor in this post.
As discussed in previous posts, the French government established the Commission des Monuments Historiques in 1837. The French poet and writer Prosper Mérimée, author of Carmen and other works, was appointed the first Inspector General of Monuments. In 1851 he commissioned the Missions Héliographiques, a group of five photographers whose task was to photograph various monuments throughout France so that the Monuments Historique could select among them for restoration projects. The photographers Edouard Baldus, Hippolyte Bayard, Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq and O. Mestral were selected as documentarians. The intention was to create a tool to help in the selection, not to create artistic images of the monuments.
This was the early days of photography. The first permanent photograph was taken in 1826, the first daguerreotype in 1839. The calotype (a negative process using paper sheets coated with silver chloride which could be used to produce positive prints) was invented in only 1840. Mérimée selected the calotype process to be used by the Missions Héliographiques. The photographers produced 300 images in the summer and fall of 1851, the first systematic photographic program of documenting churches and other state monuments.
Since this time, the Commission des Monuments Historiques has photographically documented French monuments and art works to an extraordinary degree. The artworks selected by the Commission can be found in the exhaustive catalogs online at the Patrimoine de France website, one of our chief sources of information on Romanesque churches and Vierges Romanes.
One hundred years later, another remarkable photographic journey was undertaken by three monks at the Benedictine monastery in the tiny community of La Pierre Qui Vire on the edge of the Yonne and the Côte-d’Or. From 1950-1995 they traveled throughout France and Europe photographing Romanesque churches as photographer-pilgrims. The team, headed by Dom Angelico Surchamp, eventually started their own publishing house at the monastery, Éditions Zodiaque, which printed many superb volumes illustrated with their extraordinary photography.
For a fascinating history of this project, I recommend that you download the article La Pierre-qui-Vire and Zodiaque: A Monastic Pilgrimage of Medieval Dimensions by Janet T. Marquardt of Eastern Illinois University. There is also a permanent link to Peregrinations, International Society for the Study of Pilgrimage Art on the sidebar of this site.
PJ and I feel that we follow in the footsteps of these illustrious predecessors in our photographic work of these great monuments of the Middle Ages. We have the advantages of being able to learn from the tremendous information that they provided on these churches. We also have the advantages of modern digital technology; high-resolution Canon cameras and lenses, superb editing and archiving software on powerful computing platforms (Adobe Lightroom and Apple Computers), masses of data available on the internet, and the extraordinary Google Earth as method of compiling large amounts of data in a geographic database.
But despite all of the advantages, we have one thing in common with the brothers from La Pierre Qui Vire and the five pioneers sent out by Prosper Mérimée in 1851 – when we enter the church, we must sit alone in the quiet and let the building communicate to us. Light and stone must speak, and we must listen.