The Grotesques of Aulnay (Dennis Aubrey)


The Poitou region of France is one of the most fertile for Romanesque churches and features a distinctive architectural and sculptural style. Such is the profusion of sculpture that I am never sure how much of the content is part of an iconographic program and how much is decoration, and nowhere is this question more apparent than in the Église Saint Pierre des Tours in Aulnay-de-Saintonge.

We’ve photographed the famed Église Saint Pierre before, but this year when we went back, my job was to document the sculpture that is one of the wonders of the Romanesque world. From the magnificent western and south portals to the interior capitals, the church is a riot of sacred and profane art. This post is not to argue for an interpretation of some of the grotesque sculptures, but just an opportunity to share in their creative vigor.

This first shot is of chevet and the south wall of the church at the end of the day. We were still shooting when they came to close the church and when I went outside, this was the view. You can clearly see the location of the portal in the south transept.

Eglise Saint Pierre des Tours, Aulnay-de-Saintonge (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

That south portal is a magnificent array of four orders of densely carved archivolts. In the third archivolt you can see the Elders of the Apocalypse, but interestingly enough, there are thirty-one figures instead of the traditional twenty-four. I’m not an expert, but this indicates to me that the demands of ornamentation were more important that the strict demands of iconography.

South portal, Eglise Saint Pierre des Tours, Aulnay-de-Saintonge (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In this photo of the nave by PJ, you can see the the elegant interior of the church with the capitals.

Nave, Eglise Saint Pierre des Tours, Aulnay-de-Saintonge (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave, Eglise Saint Pierre des Tours, Aulnay-de-Saintonge (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

Here you can see the lines of the columns topped with the capitals, drawing the eye inexorably upwards.

Nave, Eglise Saint Pierre des Tours, Aulnay-de-Saintonge (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

The inside of the church is a riot of figurative capitals with elephants and other creatures, scenes from the Bible, and what we call grotesques. The next three photos are black and white treatments of three of the grotesque capitals that I absolutely adore.

Grotesque faces, Eglise Saint Pierre des Tours, Aulnay-de-Saintonge (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This shot is a wonderful contorted sinner surrounded by snakes.

Comic grotesque, Eglise Saint Pierre des Tours, Aulnay-de-Saintonge (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This final shot of the first capital on the south side of the nave features a pair of demons tormenting a bearded man. I am sure that there is some religious signification to these three sculptures, but there is no question that they have great decorative value.

Demons at work, Eglise Saint Pierre des Tours, Aulnay-de-Saintonge (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Location: Click this link to see the location on our custom Google Map.

For those who are interested, in the blog The Joining of Heaven & Earth there is a video on Aulnay that is worth watching.

7 responses to “The Grotesques of Aulnay (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Sonnie, we never get enough. We shoot 80-90 churches each trip and learn more every day. We shot 22,000 exposures in September and October and are still processing. It’s like rediscovering the churches a few months later.

  1. Pingback: The Grotesques of Aulnay (Dennis Aubrey) « Via Lucis Photography « Via Lucis Photography

  2. The beauty of your photography always brings me in, and inspires me. Best of all once I am here I learn something, I learn about the architecture, and the symbolism used to adorn the various features, a subject I have always been interested in, thanks for sharing your work.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words. Aulnay is a gem, and unlike most French churches, is in an open space outside of town and therefore easily accessible from all directions. Well worth a long, inspiring visit.

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