The White Mantle of Churches (Dennis Aubrey)


At the core of this project to document and explore the great Romanesque and Gothic churches of France and Spain lies a mystery. In this world “cloaking itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches” (the French monk Raoul Glaber wrote that after the turn of the millennium it seemed that “the whole world were shaking itself free, shrugging off the burden of the past, and cladding itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches”), our question is “Who were the builders?” Who were the people who, uncompelled, built their thousands of shrines that have lasted a thousand years? Their archives have disappeared, so often we don’t even know their names. But merely knowing their names would not tell us anything about who they were and how they came to perform such tasks. What kind of belief impelled and motivated them? That is the mystery we explore.

L'Abbaye de Silvacane, La Roque d'Anthéron (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by PJ McKey

Three great ethical systems emerged from the Arabian deserts. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam shared a God, prophets, and a great text. Judaism was insular, however, the religion of a specific people. They were not intent on converting others. The Jewish faith always existed as the faith of a people obeying a covenant with their God, a people surrounded by others with different religions. Their faith marked them out as different, but that people had a home in which their laws were primary. They were confident in the superiority of their religion.

Basilique Saint Hilaire, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Christianity and Islam were different, more aggressive. The Christians emerged as a sect with no home, persecuted everywhere. In order to survive, they had to convert, to demonstrate to others the superiority of their religious beliefs. Conversion became a key goal of the religion so that it might survive in a world hostile to its very existence. The fledgling church used the abuses against the believers as a powerful weapon – the passion of martyrdom was proof of the enduring powers of their faith and their God. Eventually the Christians converted not only people, but the greatest political structure in the western world, the Roman empire.

Four centuries later, a third religion emerged from that same hard-scrabble Arabian soil. With the fresh energy of the newly birthed, Islam spread like a rushing tide across the Middle East, North Africa, and into Europe. Fueled by the twin confidences of belief and success, the Muslims seemed unstoppable. In Europe, they came into contact with a religion with the same antecedents, and that contact incited their enmity. Christianity was an older and seemingly corrupt relation. The conflict was of the peculiar destructive violence common to internecine warfare. It was a war of extermination. The threat of this war cut deep into the fragmented Christian society.

Side aisle Abbaye Saint Martin du Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Christian monastic orders were the mortar of society, the bond that kept it together. Through these orders, Christian Europe began to defend itself, not just in arms but philosophically. The Church needed to restate its very identity. That restatement was powerful and profound. The Christian identity was re-imagined completely, not merely rediscovered. The Church incorporated the new learning of the day – the sciences of logic and philosophy. In doing so, Christian Europe managed two monumental feats; they united faith and intellect and they transmuted stone into an expression of faith.

Nave of Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon (Aisne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We are concerned with this second achievement, sending stone soaring to the heavens.

8 responses to “The White Mantle of Churches (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Well done, Dennis. Beautiful, living photography that brings religion and its temples to life. And succinct writing that shows the basic differences that separate the three great religions.

  2. Thanks, Lewis. It always amazes me to see how many shots that we have that I don’t have a memory of. When I saw the photograph PJ took in Saint Hilaire in Poitiers, I was stunned. She always gets such wonderful juxtapositions, and to see the Madonna playing with the child, and then just around the corner, the crucified Christ looking down on the two of them … truly wonderful.

  3. Hey Dennis, completely off topic here, but I was wondering from your experience if it’s possible in most smaller rural churches to have more access to different vantage points, namely getting up into the gallery. Have you had any luck with that?

    • Nathan, in the smaller churches it is often very easy to get up to the galleries, although they are seldom the great nave arcade galleries that you see in the large churches and cathedrals. But often they have a choir loft over the west entrance. The best thing to do is to ask when you get the keys. BTW, we did a post about the “etiquette” of the churches, including getting keys. The folks who take care of the churches are very proud of them and anxious for them to be appreciated.

      • When I was at Chartres earlier today I didn’t even bother asking–I figure I would need to correspond well ahead of time and probably have some sort of credential. And of course, I would never, ever do something as ridiculous as applaud after a service! But good tip about looking in the local town hall/knocking on doors. Since you and PJ are veterans of shooting Vezelay and that’s my first major stop, is it possible to make it into the gallery? I really want an elevated view of at least one major church, just to be able to see everything from a different angle. Thanks for your help!

      • Nathan, how I wished you had let us know you were going to Chartres. We would have introduced you to someone who might have helped you get access. Certainly some access. As far as Vézelay is concerned, you need to talk to the Curé (his office is very close to the Basilica). Sometimes they are accommodating.

        As far as access, if you let us know your schedule, or at least give us a couple of days notice, we might be able to recommend places where you can have free access. In the Basilique Saint Julien-de-Brioude in the Auvergne, for example, you can get the key at the Mairie. That unlocks the door to the wonderful Saint Michael’s chapel. In Paray-le-Monial it is possible to have access as well. It probably is still possible to do so in Tournus at Saint Philibert. Some of the smaller churches (Saint Hilarion de Perse in Bessejouls, for example) allow easy access.

        In some of the great Gothic cathedrals, you can often take a tour that gives you access to the upper regions. In Conques, at the Basilique Sainte Foy, you can also tour the galleries at certain times of the day.

  4. Well, I still am in Chartres–sitting in the McDonalds in the city square, because it’s the only place I could find that has internet! I’m sleeping overnight in the train station and then one way or the other making it to Vezelay. I will try to hitch a ride if possible (save some money, which I bled the last few days in Paris), so it might take a day or two.

    I’ll give the Cure @ Vezelay a visit, I’m sure even my survivor French will do the trick. I don’t suppose he would believe me if I said I was a special Via Lucis envoy?

    Anyways I am bookmarking this page (and your post about etiquette) and will put it to good use. And despite this being a seat-of-the-pants excursion, once I get on the Camino it should be pretty straightforward to know where I’m headed next, so I will be able to let you know ahead of time where I’m going and if you know how I can get into certain places. Thanks for looking out.

    • You’ll find Macdonalds to be of great use in Europe for internet and good coffee (!!!)

      Think of us as your guides. We will be living vicariously through your journeys, Nathan.

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