Saint-Avit-Sénieur (Dennis Aubrey)


It’s all about research. One fact about my family is that we love research. My brother John Paul is a professional researcher. Brother David is a Ph.D. oceanographer and has hundreds of publications to his name. Sister Ann is a writer/editor and has innumerable titles on her resumé. I’m not in their league, but make my effort.

This Via Lucis project requires massive amounts of research to identify and learn about the churches that we plan to photograph and to understand those that we have photographed. Our house overflows with books, pictures and documentation on Romanesque and Gothic churches. Things spill out of book cases and accumulate on the bed headboards, tables, and any flat surfaces not used for other purposes.

We have built a Google Earth database identifying thousands of structures, each copiously annotated with material from the Patrimoine de France, the Zodiaque books of Angelico Surchamp, and texts by Conant, Nebolsine, Shapiro, Porter and many others. The internet provides masses of materials available almost instantly.

Via Lucis Romanesque database for France on Google Earth (Red indicates that the churches have been shot already)

But even with this world-wide library, there is sometimes very little information to be found and we can’t anticipate what we will see on arrival at a particular site. This was the case when we went to the Abbey Church of Saint-Avit-Sénieur in October. The description in the Patrimoine de France tells us only that the abbey church was built in the 12th Century, listed as protected in 1862 and is the property of the Commune of Saint-Avit-Sénieur. So we didn’t really know what to expect.

The town is built on a rocky outcrop in the valley of the Couze river, a twenty-mile long tributary of the great Dordogne River. It is sited ten miles southwest of the another great abbey in the region, the Abbaye de Cadouin in the town of Le Buisson-de-Cadouin. In the Middle Ages, the Abbaye Saint-Avit-Sénieur was on the Via Lemovicensis, the Compostella route that departed from Vézelay.

There was nothing particularly surprising when we drove into the picturesque town square. Saint-Avit-Sénieur is typical of many small towns in the Dordogne region of France and has many of the same issues, particularly declining population. In 1793 the population was 1,121; it fell to a low of 365 in 1990, and was up to 440 in 2008. A significant portion of that recent population increase was caused by people buying second homes in the commune.

We happened on the town on a gorgeous Fall afternoon. There was a great deal of activity in the square in front of the church, as a good portion of the town’s population was gathered to build floats for harvest festival parade to celebrate the Fête de l’Automne. There were wagons full of pumpkins and squashes of different sorts.

This activity was the only thing that surprised us until we got to the church itself.

Nave, Église Abbatiale Saint-Avit-Sénieur, Saint-Avit-Sénieur (Dordogne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The building was constructed as an enormous hall church in the 11th Century as part of the abbey, whose vestiges are next to the building. During the religious wars, the apse, hemicycle, and ambulatory were destroyed, which leaves little evidence of its past as a pilgrimage site. This nave shot was taken with the Canon 17mm tilt-shift lens, which is the perfect lens to capture the scale of Saint-Avit-Sénieur.

South nave arch, Église Abbatiale Saint-Avit-Sénieur, Saint-Avit-Sénieur (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

The nave is remarkable in its way. First, it is a hall church, but is comprised of three open bays. Each open bay has a blind arcade of four arches and three windows at the clerestory level (except for the left wall on the first bay from the choir, which has two). The nave was fitted with rib vaults in the 13th Century. It is, in many ways, similar to the Église Sainte Radegonde in Poitiers. In fact, we can get a feeling for what Saint-Avit-Sénieur would have looked like with the hemicycle and apse (which would not have been raised above a tomb).

Alcove, north nave wall, Église Abbatiale Saint-Avit-Sénieur, Saint-Avit-Sénieur (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

The massive square pillars set off the different bays and provide the springing for the vault arching. But I also particularly admire the detail of the passageway at the back of the church. All the walls are covered in mural paintings, varying widely in their condition. The church shows the effect of multiple restorations over the years, but retains the dignity and grace we find so often in Romanesque churches.

PJ was struck by the fact that the church only had benches for about 150 people, so it looked empty. It makes one wonder about the throngs of worshippers that would come to Saint-Avit-Sénieur during the pilgrimages in the Middle Ages.

North nave wall, Église Abbatiale Saint-Avit-Sénieur, Saint-Avit-Sénieur (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

There was one detail that was absolutely unique. Most old churches have a “tronc,” a box to collect donations for the maintenance of the structure. At Saint-Avit-Sénieur there was a large tree stump placed on the floor near the entrance. There was an old wooden mallet chained to the stump and a container full of metal brads or tacks next to it. With a donation of one euro, one could use the mallet to hammer a brad into the stump. There were hundreds of these tacks embedded in the wood. It was a novel way to raise money to preserve the church.

As we left the church in the late afternoon, the activity in the square was feverish. Everyone was working on the floats and we regretted that we could not see the festival the next day. If I had done my research properly, we would have known about the festival and planned a little bit more carefully. But, as we so often find out, it is much better to have a good reason to return.

24 responses to “Saint-Avit-Sénieur (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Elliott, 450 churches in France so far, another 60-70 this coming Fall. At that time the “survey” part of the project will be complete. We will have a substantial record of each of the French Romanesque regional styles – Normandy, Anjou, Poitou, Auvergne, Burgundy, Provence, Languedoc, and Pyrénées. That covers going “broad,” now we’ll go deeper. In addition, we’ll go back to Spain to continue shooting the 1500 churches in the northern band of Romanesque. Then we have Italy, Germany, and England. It’s nice to wake up knowing what you will be doing the rest of one’s life!

  1. European churches are a lesson in the history of architecture. Great photos. Best of luck with your project efforts. As it appears that your are interested in the stories of interesting churches, let me recommend a book “Cities of Kings” by Atreyee Gupta which discusses how the royals of London and Paris from the Normans till the 19th century influenced the historical architecture of these cities. Great read with some stories of churches in the areas which your project is focused. Cheers.

    • They are a history lesson, to be sure. Thanks for the recommendation on “Cities of Kings” which I just ordered for the Kindle. We’ll be going to Normandy in September for a couple of weeks to shoot in the Contentin and in the Calvados region, all as part of our seven week journey. Can’t wait. Appreciate your comments and suggestions.

      • I hope that you enjoy the book. Have a wonderful time in Normandy. Hopefully you’ll get to see some amazing sights like the Bayeux Tapestry and the stained glass at Notre Dame Cathedral in Bayeux, as well as the architecture of Lisieux. I know your interest lies in cathedrals in the region, but the seaside towns of Honfleur and Deauville are fun places to relax. Cheers.

      • Bayeux is wonderful. Have shot at the cathedral and of course have seen the Bayeux tapestry, although PJ has not. We will definitely go back in September (we spend five days in the Caen/Bayeux area. The Cathédrale Saint Pierre de Lisieux is on the list as well. I may wish to make a rude remark to the grave of Pierre Cauchon since Lisieux was his reward for condemning Jeanne d’Arc. And of course, we are in the land of Calvados!

        We will be spending another five days shooting the numerous Norman churches in the Contentin as well. Thanks for the suggestions and thanks for participating in our Via Lucis project. Your online magazine looks very intriguing. We’ll make sure to follow its progress.

    • Graham, can’t believe we didn’t get a shot. We each probably thought that the other would take it! I had forgotten about it until PJ reminded me last night when we were talking about the church as I was writing. Thanks for the link to the “wishing tree” – amazing how these things proliferate.

      I do love the internet for research, but the thing that I’ve found most amazing is the number of out of print books I can get online. Just recently was able to find and download “Illustrated catalogue of photographs & surveys of architectural refinements in medieval buildings” by William Henry Goodyear, “Constructive architecture” by Samuel Sloan, and “The ecclesiastical architecture of Scotland from the earliest Christian times to the seventeenth century” by David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross. The Goodyear text is absolutely remarkable in demonstrating the aesthetics of intentional deformations (entasis) in medieval churches. We are going to Saint Quentin for the express purpose of trying to photograph some of the details that he talks about.

    • Arnel, they actually are trying in some places, certainly Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. But in the US, there is a wonderful church in Pennsylvania, the Bryn Athyn Cathedral in Bryn Athyn. In the last comment to Graham, I referenced Goodyear’s book, “Illustrated catalogue …”. In the planning of the Bryn Athyn Cathedral, they decided to add some of these aesthetic deformations in order to achieve the same effects as were accomplished by the medieval masons. The Washington National Cathedral certainly employed masons to carve the stone instead of trying to build out of concrete. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC is brick covered with marble. The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis has mosaics collectively containing 41.5 million glass tesserae pieces in more than 7,000 colors, covering 83,000 square feet.

      The power of the faith drives these buildings. While that faith is not as universal as it was in the Middle Ages, it still has force. Thanks for your comments and commentary.

    • Allie, the Google Earth database is critical. We can tie in location, description, and images and then access the information from anywhere. Thanks for the note. BTW, do you use such a system for your US Basilica project?

      • I keep a KML file that I then upload to Google Maps. Right now it’s not just basilicas, but everything, color coded by type (pink for basilicas, yellow for Catholic churches, etc). When I find that elusive free time, I want to a) figure out how to make icons transparent for places I haven’t visited, and b) have my blog allow for checking/unchecking categories people may or may not be interested in. Someday!

      • Allie, it’s a great start. Once you’ve got the right design, it can be a perfect tool for planning. You know that in Google Earth you can embed both links and pictures. This link will show how we use it for a particular church. The symbol at the bottom left represents an image that does not print.

        We break down the churches into Country (France, Spain, England, Italy, and Germany) and style (Romanesque/pre-Romanesque or Gothic). So we will have different files for French Romanesque and French Gothic. Each has a base color and then it goes red when we have shot there.

  2. I so much admire your dogged pursuit of such a complex quest. Your map is very interesting: what a lot there are in our little Cotentin peninsula. Compared with the Rhone and the Loire valleys, the Route des Abbayes from Mont St Michel to Rouen seems relatively less crowded . It’s also suprising how sparse the sites are in Britanny. We were in the far west a couple of years ago and visited some remarkable churches but perhaps they are outside your period of interest. (My ignorance betrays me).

    • Viv, nice to hear from you again. You must remember that this map represents only the Romanesque churches. We have another that represents our other era of interest, the Gothic. In such cases there are massive numbers in Picardy and Northern France and far fewer in the south of France.

      The Romanesque is primarily 11th and 12th Century, which is also the prime period for the Compostella pilgrimage. It is interesting how the map traces the routes from Tours, Vézelay, Cluny, Le Puy, and Arles. The churches are clustered on those key pilgrimage routes.

      In Spain, the Romanesque is clustered in the top 35% of the country because the rest was under Islamic rule until the 1ater periods. What is found there is a wonderful series of Romanesque and pre-Romanesque churches (especially in Asturias and Cantabria) that are centered on the northern and southern routes to Santiago de Compostella.

  3. Your photoblog is contemplative, instructive and beautiful. If you were to compile a book or gazetteer of your travels, the many churches you’ve visited along with historical information like the above, and illustrate it with your wonderful photography, I’d buy at least two copies instantly.

    • We’re working on a book called “Light & Stone” which we hope to get to publishers in the next few months. Thanks for your interest. Frankly, we are a little surprised at the number of people who are interested in our rather narrow field of specialization. Gratified, certainly, but surprised.

  4. I cannot get over that map. Absolutely tremendous drive and focus to work on this massive project, such an incredible piece of work and your pictures and commentary are stunning. Great work.

    • Aaron, thanks so much for your kind words. This project is a labor of love for both of us, the research, the photography and the writing. We are already planning for September and October. There are many reasons that we do it, but if we needed more, check this out:

      This article from the Patrimoine de France indicates that France is in danger of losing between five and ten thousand buildings from their heritage list in the next twenty years. “Repeated thefts, sales and alterations of places of worship, destruction and – even worse in the long-term – outright abandonment, are the primary threats. To these, the financial crisis poses a medium-term issue of funding of this heritage identity to which the French are very attached. The weakening of public finances and the debt burdens of state and local governments are so many mortgages on the future of all great religious buildings of the French, and thousands of religious monuments could disappear within 20 years!”

      I appreciate your interest participation in our Via Lucis project (one Canon gearhead to another)!

    • Thanks, Kim. We are always surprised by the number of people who share our love for these Romanesque and Gothic churches. But there are many, like yourselves, that look to the past for guidance. We appreciate your comments and your visit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s