Quarante (Dennis Aubrey)


Quarante is a hillside town in the Languedoc region of southern France. We arrived on a windy day, buffeted by the Transmontana winds that sweep this region, only to find the church being used for a funeral. The Abbatiale Sainte-Marie is one of the first Romanesque structures in the Languedoc, a very early example (consecrated in 1053) of the Lombard Romanesque style. From the exterior, the church looked quite interesting so we decided to wait out the service.

Abbatiale Sainte-Marie, Quarante (Hérault) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

When the Quarantais had completed their service and left the church, we were able to enter the interesting narthex from the south in the town square.

The first thing that we noticed when entering the church were the pure Romanesque lines – the barrel vault with the pronounced supporting bands repeating to the chancel crossing. The nave is broad with two side aisles. The austere interior has no sculpted decoration to distract the eye away from the superb structural elements.

Nave, Abbatiale Sainte-Marie, Quarante (Hérault) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave elevation shows wide even bays, with two clerestory windows at the base of the vault in each bay. These are almost certainly later additions. Beyond the arcade arches are the high, narrow side aisles, groin vaulted with windows

Nave elevation, Abbatiale Sainte-Marie, Quarante (Hérault) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The austerity of the interior is highlighted by the interesting wooden crucifix affixed to this unadorned pillar. I particularly like the contrast of the organic wood cross on the severe geometry of the stone.

Side aisle, Abbatiale Sainte-Marie, Quarante (Hérault) Photo by PJ McKey

Notice how the heavy cruciform pillars of the nave have no capitals, but simple beveled impost blocks. This contributes to the purity of the lines and accentuates the banding across the vault.

Transept, Abbatiale Sainte-Marie, Quarante (Hérault) Photo by PJ McKey

After several hours shooting, PJ and I had progressed to the area around the apse and transept. We turned back to the west and were greeted with the sight of the late afternoon light streaming through west window and striking the first nave pillar on the north.

Nave, Abbatiale Sainte-Marie, Quarante (Hérault) Photo by PJ McKey

These two shots were taken about five minutes apart and the quality of the light changes considerably in that time.

Afternoon light, Abbatiale Sainte-Marie, Quarante (Hérault) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The abbey church is about a half hour drive due west of Beziers, but worth a visit if you are in the region. We particularly liked it because there are not a great number of churches in this area that preserve their original Romanesque structure without later modifications and additions. In this case, the remoteness of the town contributed to the preservation of the remarkable Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Quarante.

34 responses to “Quarante (Dennis Aubrey)

    • For all the great work done by the French government and people in maintaining these churches, they sometimes put in horrible lighting fixtures. In this case, the choice was more fortunate. Thanks for the comment and observation.

    • The light was wonderful, a great surprise and we had about ten minutes to play around to get the right capture. We were alone in the church for the entire three hours, which is a rare treat.

      • rare treat indeed…and lucky as well. light is one of THE most imp factors in a pic…and to get a rare shot with that is just so awesome. makes you feel like you have indeed achieved some thing!

      • The book that PJ and I are working on is called “Light and Stone”, for exactly the reason that you described. Since we shoot only available light (sometimes there are lighting fixtures), we depend on the churches themselves for the extraordinary effects that are produced.

      • That sounds awesome. Great choice to work with. Light works wonders for a good snap. and with churches and their stain glass windows, the effect is even more striking

      • We’ve found that the medieval search for “maximum height and maximum light” in their churches was one of the reasons for the development of Romanesque and later Gothic architecture. The sheer weight of the stone vaults created structural challenges that were solved by the brilliant discoveries of these anonymous builders. If you are interested in these advances in vaulting and how they changed church architecture, try this link to a post from last year (on Shakespeare’s birthday).

  1. I could smell the dank wetness of the strone that you often find in these ancient structures. Love the photos of the light through the window. The silence inside the church was also evident. I must go there one day! Thank you for bringing it all the way to the mountains of North Carolina.

  2. Dennis, Thank you for this post on the Romanesque church in Quarante. I have also found myself occasionally alone in an ancient French church; it’s not hard to find an empty church in the small villages. The one I remember best is in Pérouges, about half an hour north of Lyon. The church forms part of the village’s wall, as fortification. I spent some time sitting in the back pew and looking at the structure in all its detail, thinking about all the feet that had worn a groove into the wooden floorboards.
    Thank you especially for your photos of the Abbatiale. They are helpful for me because I’m translating a French novel set in a monastery. The photos help me understand the architectural descriptions. Great blog.

    • Trish, thanks for your kind words. I don’t know the Église Sainte Marie Madeleine in Pérouges, but from what I just read, it looks like a nice Gothic church. PJ has done a wonderful post on the feet that have worn those grooves, if you are interested. Good luck with your novel, keep me posted.

    • Emily, we appreciate your compliments on our work. As you can see from this site, Romanesque (and Gothic) architecture is our passion. We’re returning in September and October to shoot again, this time in Normandy, Poitou-Charente, and the Auvergne. With 5000 Romanesque churches in France alone, our work won’t be done for some time!

  3. Gorgeous images. Churches have this almost supernal quality to them, surely akin to our universal impulse yearning for the sacred. What, may I ask, cameras and lenses do you use? And what a great concept for a photo book!

  4. Thanks for the links. You are generous sharing your expertise! May I ask you you and PJ started this specialized specie of photography? Your links have just infected me with lens envy LOL! Do you have links to your marketing and business setups? I just think you are doing such enviable, wonderful service for those of us who love these timeless treasures of Western European art and architecture. I’ve recently thought of photographically recording the interiors of Indianapolis churches, a project not quite as audacious as yours.

    • Orlando, the idea of shooting Indianapolis churches is terrific, in fact there seem to be a high number of wonderful churches there. I already knew about the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul and had heard about the Scottish Rite Cathedral, which looks stunning. Keep me posted on this …

      We don’t have any links to the business side of the work that we do. We are currently working on “Light and Stone,” a book on Romanesque architecture in France. Should be ready to submit to publishers in a month or so. We have an exhibition coming up in Boston (and possibly Washington and New York as well), preparing that now. It will be on the photos we took of the Cathedral of Chartres.

      Lens envy is a tough thing. The tilt-shift lens is key to the architectural work, whether the 17mm or 24mm doesn’t matter, really. Can get great shots with either. What equipment manufacturer do you use?

      • I have a Canon 5D and the 7D and thinking of buying the new 5D MIII. I only started seriously shooting in 2008 and have so far mostly done model and portrait photography. Indiana has a bonanza of young people interested in modeling. Most would probably not make it but the shoots have allowed me to learn lighting and studio work. So much to learn and my experience has been that reading about some technique is not enough. I have to learn from actually doing it myself and it’s been a slow process. Now I want to do more landscape and location shoots. Still not making much money so this year I’ve decided to shoot as a “hobbyist” and take the pressure off me, focus on shooting better and enjoying the adventure. This is self-deception: the more I do this the more I am hooked into more serious work. I feel I’m just skimming the surface of digital photography and have not yet really found my true, authentic calling!

        This is BTW my 2nd life, after a lifetime doing something else. Increasingly though I am drawn to gallery and book photography but I’m nowhere close in terms of technique. For me it’s learning the technical aspects of digital photography AND learning to use post-production software since digital images lend themselves so well to artistic manipulation. I’m not completely sold. I still like images as I find them in situ and with minimal software manipulation. Which is why I love the images you shoot.

        I use a MacPro Quad-core workstation released in 2006 with 13 GB RAM. I updated the video card to the ATI Radeon HD 5870 last year so I can use FCPX. Yes, I am also interested in videos using Canon DSLRs. So many choices, so little time! Cheers!

  5. Thank you for visiting my blog “Eyes to Heart” and liking my post “Walk on by …” … This is a beautiful series of images that speaks to my own love of religious architecture and light imagery. I’m looking forward to seeing more. Thanks again for stopping by so I could find you :- ) … Be well … Dorothy

    • Thank you for the kind words, Dorothy. This Romanesque architecture is truly wonderful. PJ and I are very lucky to be able to go back to France every year for a couple of months and find these treasures.

  6. Thanks for visiting my site. Somehow I understand why you liked “Let there be Light”, actually. How did you manage to show off the light in the last picture?
    Eager to read your next post. Moisha

    • Moisha, the sun set behind the west window and the light literally “walked” up the great pillar on the north side of the nave. Technically, the shot was a six second exposure at f/6.3, ISO 100. It was shot with the Canon EF TS-E 17mm f/4L (tilt-shift). Hope that helps.

  7. The architecture of Abbatiale de Sainte-Marie, Quarante is of a very high spiritual level, as well as of a great refinement, and your photographs capture its essence so movingly!
    It is amazing that the tiny village of Quarante would be the site of such a wonderful abbey architecture. I assume it was not on one of the routes to Santiago de Compostella. Can you tell me who the patron of the abbey was?
    Jong-Soung

    • Jong-Soung, the information that I have is as follows: “It is only known that towards the end of the 10th century its protectors, the viscounts and archbishops of Narbonne, founded there a community of Augustinian canons, and that henceforth it assumed the title and rank of abbey. In 982 archbishop Ermengaud of Narbonne consecrated a new church … The church as it stands today was built in the second quarter of the 11th century by Guifred, archbishop of Narbonne and nephew of the famous Catalonian builder, Abbot Oliba of Ripoll.” The source of this is, of course, the Editions Zodiaque, “Languedoc Roman” in the La Nuit des Temps series.

      It appears that the church was not on the direct Pilgrimage route. Thank you for your generous compliments on our shots, but the church itself is, as you have noted, very conducive to moments of reflection which can be captured by the camera.

    • Indeed we have. It is an interesting perspective to hear it described as a niche, however. To us it is a subject as vast and deep as the Marianas Trench. Thank you for your visit and kind words.

  8. We were in Beziers a few years ago – sorry i missed this. I could hang around in here looking at your churches and cathedrals all day. Such amazing structures and spaces.

    • I’m sure you visited the Cathedral in Béziers. Did you happen to see any of the other churches there? We were lucky enough to get into shoot the Église Saint Jacques, which is usually closed. Thanks for your visit and kind words.

  9. Hello Dennis Aubrey, I am an American living in Quarante. A close friend, Jacques (last name omitted in this reply), has studied the Abbaye de Quarante for many years and appreciated your comments and beautiful photos. He does not speak English but would like to be in contact with you concerning some related information he has that might interest you. You may reply to my email address. I might add that Jacques is the artist responsible for the wooden crucifix you photographed.
    Cordialement,
    Jeanette

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