Notre Dame la Grande (Dennis Aubrey)


Notre Dame la Grande is one of the great Romanesque churches in France and this is my favorite photograph of her. At the time, an elderly woman was preparing to light a candle in the radiating apsidal chapel in the distance. I thought it would be a fine shot and set up the camera and tripod, but when I was ready the woman had lit her taper and disappeared. I took the shot anyway and forgot about it.

North Side Aisle, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

It was not until the trip was finished and we returned home to the United States that I saw the shot for the first time and fell in love with it immediately. It captures for me the pure unadulterated spirit of Romanesque, the kind of architecture that is done by people who truly believed that their God was powerful, protective and enveloping.

There are ideas and beliefs embedded in these buildings. They did not merely evolve from earlier structures; conscious design decisions were made to reflect intangible thoughts and beliefs.

Nave, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Romanesque architecture was a physical manifestation of a mystery, and to believers, explained the world and its mysteries. The soaring height was a tribute to the majesty and power of God above. The solid and thick walls, pierced by a series of arches, represented the strength of His love and protection of us. The cruciform layout of the transepts and nave represented the crucifixion, the windows represented the light of the Lord leading us from darkness and ignorance and fear.

Chancel, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

All structures led to the chancel, the altar where the mysteries of resurrection were enacted, where the humblest of believers could taste of that resurrection. The dark and mysterious narthex kept unbelievers and sinners at bay, separated from the faithful by great doors that led to the lighted interiors beyond.

Garden of Eden detail, west facade, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The carved stones themselves spoke of sinners and saints, martyrs and demons. They spoke of mysteries of faith, each and every sin, and the path to redemption. They spoke of salvation and damnation, the ultimate verdict of the Last Judgment.

Side aisle windows, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Later the windows told the stories in glorious panoplies of color with the light of God streaming through the stained glass to touch the very soul of the believers.

South side aisle, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

The church was a book, a testament, the record of their faith and beliefs, readable by every one of the faithful familiar with the stories of Balaam’s ass, David and Goliath, Sampson, Jacob’s Ladder, the Fall in the Garden of Eden, or the Flight to Egypt.

Sculpted west facade, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The penalties of a life of sin on this earth were displayed over the doors on the great carved tympana, or in the case of Notre Dame la Grande, across the entire west facade. The judgment of God, the long lines of saints and the roiling and writhing agony of the sinners were expressed in lasting stone to remind us of the rewards and penalties that await each of us at the Judgment. Demons fed souls through the very maws of hell, the Devil cheated during the weighing of souls, even trying to capture a marginal soul by cheating, lest he lose one more to Paradise.

In this universe, it was not enough to barely get by; one had to believe wholly and completely, and the way to believe was writ large on these great buildings for all to see. There was never an excuse for ignorance. Guidance was available to all. Free will dictated the path taken by each soul and the judgment of God accepted no excuses.

6 responses to “Notre Dame la Grande (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Awesome church photos, especially those inside photos. That I can say with full heart, because I have been photographed in Finland more than 380 churches and mainly spread on countryside. On far are countryside small wooden churches are the best.

    Happy blogging.

  2. Breathtaking! That first image you can see the candle the woman had just lit – probably others lit earlier as well are adding to the glow. This image is powerful and transcendant not only because of the skill of the photographer, but because of those lights. How many such candles were lit and extinquished over the centuries – yes, centuries – in this same place with the same yearning devotion? How many are still lit today and for how many future centuries will the candles continue to burn? In this image is captured the transcendence of eternity, past, present and future embranced in a single, silent image.

    In that silence is the thunder of eternal and unspeakable Beauty.

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