Those who precede (Part 2), Angelico Surchamp – Dennis Aubrey

In a previous post, I discoursed a bit on the two groups whose work we are endeavoring to continue with our Via Lucis photography.

The Missions Héliographiques was a group of five photographers assembled by the Monuments Historique of France in 1851 to photograph important monuments throughout France. Exactly 100 years later, three Benedictine monks began their extraordinary program of photographing the great medieval churches of Europe. The creators of the Editions Zodiaque of the Monastery of La Pierre Qui Vire in the Yonne spent 45 years documenting and writing about Romanesque churches in Europe. Under the energetic leadership of Dom Angelico Surchamp Editions Zodiaque published an astonishing 190 books about these churches, all illustrated by thousands of photographs taken by Surchamp and his team.

Frères Surchamp and Norberto photographing a church in Aragon, September 23, 1986 (Photo courtesy of Románico)

PJ and I had the extraordinary fortune to spend a day with Surchamp in September near his home in Burgundy where he is Chaplain of the Convent of Notre Dame de Venière just outside of Tournus. But before describing the events of that day, a small digression is needed.

Last year when we were in Vézelay, we stayed as usual at our favorite hotel in the area, the Crispol. The Crispol is a lovely spot; from our room we can look across the valley to the Basilica of Sainte Madeleine. The hotel is run by Mme Paule Schori, who has become a friend. When I ordered écrivisses (crayfish) one evening, Paule told us that when she was a little girl, she would harvest crayfish from the river and sell them to her grandmother. She grew up close to the nearby Benedictine monastery of La Pierre Qui Vire, “the stone that spins”, which she proposed that we visit. PJ and I did so, found the monastery, and discovered that they had a printing press. This led to the treasure-trove of the extraordinary Zodiaque publishing legacy.

In my subsequent research on Zodiaque Press, I found an article on Surchamp and Zodiaque by Janet Marquardt, a professor of Art History at Eastern Illinois University. Marquardt turned out to be an acquaintance of my great friend in Los Angeles, Rose Portillo, and knew Dom Surchamp but had lost touch with him recently. She gave me his contact information, and he responded. So we were able to find Surchamp through this rather fortuitous set of circumstances.

On the designated day, PJ and I went to the monastery. As we arrived, we saw him talking to another gentleman, obviously a great admirer, who wanted to take a picture of Surchamp. Smiling, Surchamp asked, “What am I? A national monument?”

Surchamp is a small, slightly stooped gentleman in his 80’s, with rosy cheeks and the bright glint of intelligence in his eyes. He conducted us inside to the dining room of his small quarters – “We must sit in here because all of the other rooms are a catastrophe.” One of the Sisters brought us juice and cookies as we talked. On the wall were some drawings by his artistic mentor, Albert Gleizes. “He was my teacher, a great artist.” This reminded me that I had heard that Surchamp himself was an exhibited painter.

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

PJ and I had just finished shooting for three days at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, so I ventured to use the metaphor of the evangelists riding on the shoulders of the prophets – they could see further because they were supported by the prophets (this is illustrated by the four lancet windows under the south transept rose window of the Cathedral). Relating our photography to his, I told Surchamp “… with our work, we are the evangelists on your shoulders.” He took one look at my bulk and recoiled in mock horror, “Oh no, but you are Goliath and I am David. I am merely a flea!”

We sat in the room for about an hour, talking and looking at pictures. PJ and I had put a selection of images on our new Ipad (the greatest invention for displaying images since offset lithography!) Surchamp quickly got used to scrolling and was soon looking through at his own speed. “We documented the churches prior to restoration; you are documenting them afterwards,” he said. But most extraordinarily, he knew every single church! He knew them mostly from a time prior to their restorations, but the surface changes could not hide the well-remembered bones. He was without pretense and spoke with complete candor and honesty as I tried desperately to translate for PJ – miserably, though, because I was so enthralled with his observations about the places he obviously knew so intimately.

I asked Surchamp to sign my copy of “Bourgogne Romane” next to the final paragraph of his extraordinary introduction. He took the pen and asked if we would like the “real signature or the official one?” We said the first and he made a quick, brief movement with his hand. This is that signature!

Dom Angelico Surchamp's signature

We took him to lunch at the lovely restaurant of Hostellerie Bressane in nearby Cuisery, where PJ and I had stayed with my parents last year. Knowing that Surchamp will probably read these lines, I can’t resist detailing the meal – jambon persillé fait maison au Mâcon blanc et rémoulade de céleri; la grosse quenelle mousseline de brochet, sauce écrevisses, nouilles fraîches.

After lunch, Surchamp proposed that we go to Le Villars visit the Église Sainte Marie Madeleine, an 11th century convent that was not on our database of churches in the area. He watched with great interest as we unpacked our gear, which was, of course, much different that that used by the Zodiaque team (Hasselblad 4×5 film camera with Zeiss lenses, some reflectors, and a small scaffold which they used to get high up in the churches to shoot details). He also expressed his preference for black and white imagery instead of color.

At one point I was shooting the exterior capitals and joked with Pere Surchamp that he had now to “sing for his supper”; I handed him the remote and asked him to take the shot. He smiled at me and said “Is the photographer the one who presses the button or the one who composes the shot?” I laughed and said, “Now we’re talking philosophy.” Here is the shot he took – posted in black and white, of course – and even though we never completed the discussion of who the photographer was, I have the pleasure of assigning the metadata and therefore attribute the photo to the master.

Portal of Église Sainte Marie Madeleine, Le Villars (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dom Angelico Surchamp

After shooting the church, Surchamp and I sat on a bench and talked while PJ continued shooting. As PJ describes this hour-long conversation, “You and Pere Surchamp really connected on the bench behind the church. It seemed like the perfect spot for you.” We discussed the legacy of Descartes, the restoration of churches in France (his description of the the restoration of the great Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paray-le-Monial was “honteux,” “shameful“), and his love of travel. His desire to see the world was the real reason for the Zodiaque project in the beginning – the photography was a great excuse to for travel. Surchamp also proposed one last book in the Zodiaque series – “America Romane”. When I laughed, thinking it was a joke, he reminded me that the cloisters of Saint Guilhem-le-Desert, Saint Michel-de-Cuxa and Saint Martin-du-Canigou are in New York at the Cloisters Museum, and a great many other Romanesque artifacts are scattered across the country. Perhaps he was right – the International Center for Medieval Art has published two volumes of a census of Romanesque sculpture in the USA (1979 and 1999). Maybe it was no joke after all.

"Goliath" and "David" at Le Villars, September 20, 2011

Finally, it was late afternoon, so we drove him back to Notre Dame de Venière. When we left, it was all we could do to thank him profusely for his time. I proposed that one day we would return to the region where it all started and have a meal together at the Crispol, so close to La Pierre Qui Vire, which started the whole process for us. To that happy day, I raise a glass of Irancy wine and salute the Don.

Last night I asked PJ to express her thoughts on Surchamp. “We were so excited to meet him; I thought it was the meeting of the minds for the two of you. You found someone who you could talk to about the churches on a different level than anyone else, because there is a philosophy in his speaking of these places and the experience of photographing them. You can really understand him when you have done it, like we have. It means a great deal to hear him speak. I think that he looked at the churches as an artist, not just as a priest or a monk or from strictly a religious point of view, but also from an artistic point of view. Which is why you don’t have to be Catholic to love the places. He understands this on a very profound level, as I think we do.

And I love his explanation of the difference between Romanesque and Gothic – the Romanesque induces internal experience and reflection; Gothic induces external reflection. Gothic is the demonstration of the belief of spirituality while Romanesque is the experience of that belief.”

And this from a woman who professes not to speak French.

The surrealist poet Louis Aragon provided a great snapshot of Pere Surchamp, which I will try to quote accurately, “Dom Angelico Surchamp n’avait qu’un petit mot à dire. Il le dit : “Ne croyez-vous pas, messieurs, que l’art abstrait, en transférant le sens de la réalité, favorise l’accès au sacré ?” Et sans doute que notre réponse lui importait fort peu, car il disparut comme il était venu.”

Freely translated, “Dom Angelico Surchamp had a simple word to say. He said, “Don’t you think, gentlemen, that abstract art, by transferring the sense of reality, promotes access to the sacred?” And without a doubt, our response mattered little, since he disappeared as he had come.”

Dom Angelico Surchamp, September 20, 2011

✜ NEWS FLASH: In January 2012, Dom Angelico Surchamp was named a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur as follows:

M. Surchamp (Marie, Jean, José), dit Dom Angelico, médiéviste, fondateur d’une maison d’édition ; 63 ans de services.

Our congratulations to Surchamp on this recognition of his services. ✜

Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur

✜ On April 28, 2012, there was an interview with Surchamp on Radio Notre Dame. The interview (in French) with Surchamp starts about a third of the way through. ✜

Note: We met Angelico Surchamp again in September 2012. Here is a link to the post that describes that visit.

8 thoughts on “Those who precede (Part 2), Angelico Surchamp – Dennis Aubrey

  1. I loved reading your story. Thanks for sharing all the details. I am so glad you took all the steps to make your meeting with the Dom happen. It is like Hank Aaron meeting Babe Ruth.

  2. Thanks Dennis and PJ for this lovely story!! I was unable to get south this year to see Père Angelico, but hope to do so in Spring. I’m glad your French is so good–I have trouble talking philosophy with him because I often lose the thread of meaning. My book is progressing and I hope to hand the manuscript to the press in Fall 2012 so look for a comprehensive story of Zodiaque in Fall 2013–if all goes well. We’ll keep in touch along the way!

    1. Janet, thanks so much for the intro – as you can tell, it was a great visit. We will see him again next year when we go back, if all works out. His discourse on Descartes was worth the price of admission.

  3. Thank you for the beautiful moment! I remember how priveledged I felt when I finally got to speak with Lillian Gish!

    1. Ann, I found myself struggling to communicate in the blog all that we talked about that because it was a stream from a high-pressure fire hose and I took no notes, of course. It was only by breaking down the discussions to a) his rooms b) restaurant c) shooting the church and d) on the bench outside that I could even begin to reconstruct. Can’t wait to see him again next year.

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