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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.