Saint Hilaire and the Helix (Dennis Aubrey)

Via Lucis is about the photography of Romanesque and Gothic churches in France. From the photographic side, we wish to document and explore these churches in a way that reflects the artistic accomplishments of the builders.

Église Saint-Hilaire, Melle (Deux-Sèvres) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

From the church side, we wish to understand what the builders intended and what they accomplished. That means that we study the architecture, we study the beliefs, and we seek to understand the minds of the builders.

The two sides inform each other every day. The more we understand of the churches and the builders, the more we can explore photographically. The more we photograph, the more we understand what these churches can mean.

It is a helix effect, twining, each side informing the other.

West entrance staircase, Église Saint-Hilaire, Melle (Deux-Sèvres) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sometimes we meet a church that challenges our expectations and our understanding. We have shot at the great Poitevin hall church of Saint Hilaire in Melle a few times, but last October we received a shock. Inside was a new permanent installation by noted French designer Mathieu Lehanneur. A layered structure of white marble fills the entire choir, mounting the medieval columns to create a new altar area.

Lehanneur’s intent was to use “the purity of the geological chaos to highlight the perfection of the Romanesque geometry.” In person, it seemed to me that this addition of the contrasting element was like an art school exercise in aesthetics. It had nothing to do with the real life of the Église Saint Hilaire. In nature, when a foreign element is introduced into a homogeneous system it will be rejected and destroyed.

Choir installation, Église Saint-Hilaire, Melle (Deux-Sèvres) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This rejection was clear. There were several people present, all of whom approached us to express their detestation of the installation, as if we were somehow responsible. Most of the notations in the guest book were negative. PJ and I were both offended by the infiltration of this modern work that seems to seep out of the chancel into the nave like a glacier.

Choir sculpture and pillar, Église Saint-Hilaire, Melle (Deux-Sèvres) Photo by PJ McKey

In the photographs from Lehanneur’s site, the installation is beautiful, but the photography forces the church into the role of backdrop. The character of the church is invisible. In person, the installation was an intrusion, an expression of personality instead of an expression of belief or faith, despite its visual references to liturgical elements like the baptismal font.

Imagine our surprise when we came home and started processing the photographs that we took. My shot above makes the installation look intrusive. PJ’s shots found a way to merge the work into the medieval church and actually found beauty in the interaction.

So now we are in a quandary. The sculptural ensemble in Saint Hilaire was offensive when we saw it in situ last October. But here in these photographs, it can be beautiful. And so PJ and I have something to reflect on – something more even than the sublime beauty of Saint Hilaire itself. Lehanneur’s website describes the work as, “An architectural gesture equally paradoxical and strangely distinguishable which will undoubtedly mark an important milestone in the development of religious works.” Is Lehanneur’s work a violation of the medieval space like those of Paul Abadie, but in our own time? It does not destroy, fortunately, only embellish. Or does this embellishment actually add something to Saint Hilaire de Melle?

Choir, Église Saint-Hilaire, Melle (Deux-Sèvres) Photo by PJ McKey

We will have passionate discussions about this because we are passionate about what we do. It is not the energetic passion of youth, but passionate in the depth of our feeling, the joy in discovery, and the pleasures of reflection.

50 responses to “Saint Hilaire and the Helix (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Dennis and PJ, in my humble opinion, it is not the photographs that matter; it is the “holographic”, 3-dimensional, human-presence, contextual experience that matters. If the installation doesn’t work in that instance, then it is wrong. I might compare this on a superficial level with the hideous Jeff Koons monstrosities placed in the ethereal architecture of Versailles. There are some things that one should not seek to justify, or to “make work”. How sad that this is permanent. Perhaps its overwhelming rejection will cause the authors of this action to rescind their decision.

    I cannot “like” your post, although I appreciate it.

    As ever, Elliott (

    • Elliott, standing in the presence of the installation at Saint Hilaire, I agree with you completely. The Koons material doesn’t work (in my opinion) either in photographs or in person. There is a distressing academic tendency to advocate the introduction of incongruous elements in an image. This juxtaposition of contradictory elements supposedly forces the viewer’s mind to make an imaginative leap to find a connection and therefore generates some kind of intellectual cachet. This is the kind of work epitomized by Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” and other abominations.

      One of the wonderful things about these churches was that they took so long to construct and design that the intellectual currents that drove the builders were deep and powerful, not short, erratic eddies of fashion. Thanks for your thoughts; I appreciate the interchange very much.

  2. This is fascinating: the “two sides” speaking to each other. Is Lehanneur’s new installation like a foreign body, a liver transplant, which the DNA of the Eglise Saint-Hilaire will resist, or is it a new mutation of the original spirit of the place? My first impression was the former, but your commentary led me to think again. A gospel that is immune to new interpretation is a dead gospel. But interpretatoins that runs so far afield from the Gospel writer’s narrative most often are vain and self-serving. Perhaps only time will tell whether this recent addition to this lovely old church is a defamation of its essential character or a fresh addition expressing the heartbeat of Eglise Saint-Hilair?

    • Gordon, this is always a bit of a conundrum, and I think that only time will tell. The problem for me boils down to essentially one thing. This individualistic vision is imposed on a Weltanschauung that was 180 degrees opposed to the concept of personal creativity. Whatever happens in the future, it will be the artistic vision of one person, Lehanneur’s vision, rooted in a particular time. That vision will inevitably become archaic and then the question will be whether this archaic imagery will still resonate with the medieval expressions that have persisted for eight centuries.

      • Only time will tell, as you say. The culture of individualism is NOT Romanesque or Gothic where the glory is directed away from the individual, where the individual gets to feel…well…very small, humble, rather insignificant in the best way. I’m not much of a student if architecture, I’m afraid. I think i know great artchitecture when I see it, and I certanly know bad architcture when I see it, but that’s about it. Yesterday I went to an estate sale in a neighborhood of lovely English Tudor homes. The estate sale was in the one out-of-place house where someone was trying to make a :”statement” – a terribly done retro- Art Deco contemporary home. Inside it was the pits. On one of the sets of stairs I blurted out to another visitor, “Thris place is really strange!” She replied, What were they thinking?!” Same idea.

      • Gordon, so much of what I try to understand is the “why”. There is much very interesting and striking architecture out there, but how much of it will last? The Le Corbusier “brutalist” complexes had a powerful intellectual component, but they turned into horrible tenements. Time will tell.

    • Graham, I agree. The image of the steps leading out are echoed in the “steps” leading up on the altar. But, this is a matter of perspective. It seems that without this one beautiful shot, there is no connection.

      • Ann, if you follow the internal link to the photos of the church, even Lehanneur himself sensed that the two elements were not congruent. First of all, they lit the church so that it was bright like the installation. Second, the exposures were for the art, not the church. The church was merely a backdrop. No matter what the artistic statements made in defense of the work, this tells the truth of the intent.

      • Gordon, I don’t want everyone to think that we’re cranky old men, but yes, so much banality. I don’t see the Lehanneur work as banal, in fact if you look at his work, it is quite wonderful. But whether it works with the extraordinary architectural expression of Saint Hilaire is another thing. I do not believe that it does, and for the reasons that we have discussed. Thanks for the commentary and your close attention to this work.

      • Dennis, I, too, see wonderful works of contemporary architecture, and I hope I’m not just being a cranky old man here. The comment about banality is not about those magnificent creations but rather about what I believe is the prevailing dumbing down of our time that leaves us bereft of awe, the sense of grandeur, wonder, or humility expressed by and inspired by the likes Eglise Saint Hilaire. There’s a flattening, a leveling of existence itself to human proportions, The belief in species superioriity displaces everything that suggests otherwise. My comments, I think you know, are not so much about the new installation at St. Hilaire – which, in and of itself, strikes me as quite lovely – but more about the age in which we live where nothing much seems to be of lasting value. Thanks again for the opportunity to reflect here. I enjoy listening to the voices that are more informed than I about the archicectural debate.

      • Gordon, I think it was a form of this “prevailing dumbing down” that inspired us to these churches in the first place. I became increasingly disturbed by rampant commercialism, when the point of commerce is to create obsolescence so that goods can be replaced whether necessary or not. Fashion and styling is substituted for value. PJ and I wanted to concentrate on something that had intrinsic value, and when we began exploring these churches in 2006, we found that something.

        One of my favorite books of all time is Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye”. In it, there is a speech by the wealthy Harlan Potter:

        “In our time we have seen a shocking decline in both public and private morals. You can’t expect quality from people whose lives are a subjection to a lack of quality. You can’t have quality with mass production. You don’t want it because it lasts too long. So you substitute styling, which is a commercial swindle intended to produce artificial obsolescence. Mass production couldn’t sell its goods next year unless it made what it sold this year look unfashionable a year from now. We have the whitest kitchens and the most shining bathrooms in the world. But in the lovely white kitchen the average American housewife can’t produce a meal fit to eat, and the lovely shining bathroom is mostly a receptacle for deodorants, laxatives, sleeping pills, and the products of that confidence racket called the cosmetic industry. We make the finest packages in the world, Mr. Marlowe. The stuff inside is mostly junk.”

        And that in 1953.

      • You’re making me weep…quite simply because…I’m not alone. Thank you so very much for this wonderful quote. I did not know “The Long Gooybye.” My day was just made bright by you and Raymond Chandler. I’ll take this and Psalm 8 to the 10:00 Bible study I do on Monday mornings. “O LORD, our Lord, How majestic is Your name in all the earth, Who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens! When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained; What is man that You take thought of him, And the son of man that You care for him?”

      • Gordon, “The Long Goodbye” is one of the great books of my life, have read it twenty or thirty times. The quintessential Los Angeles book, the masterpiece of its author. Glad we found each other through “Elle Chante, Pere”, Gordon. One never knows what is next around the bend.

  3. I suppose after another thousand years of this church’s life, the marble choir will be studied as part of the building’s evolution. There’s a church in a small village, Oingt, which has been added to since the 1400s, and each addition or change is interesting as a historical story. It, too, has a new altar recently made by a ceramic artist. I took some photos of the church in 2010, but you could see the different elements here:
    I’d like to know what the worshippers of Saint Hilaire think as they sit there looking towards the new altar and choir, whether it annoys them enough to go somewhere else, or whether they feel it’s a symbol of the church’s life, that it’s not dead, and their Gospel is not dead, as Gordon was saying.
    I had a reaction similar to yours when I was writing a thesis about a famous 19th-century French novel which has been translated into 21st-century English. The shock and disappointment of reading it left me asking Why on earth would anyone do this? The translator’s justification was that there needed to be a fresh modern approach to this particular work which had been previously translated (successfully!) into 19th-century-style English. I couldn’t find many kind words to say about the new work, and my examiners agreed with me. The study showed me it’s far better to translate a 19th-century French novel into an equivalent English style, which I’m currently doing. But I have to be careful not to be smug about it, because clearly some people like things modernised.

    • Trish, we have posted before about some of the complex issues in the restoration of churches. There are two basic philosophies. The first attempts to return the structure to some semblance of an “original” state as intended by the builders. The great Viollet-le-Duc said that this is to some degree necessarily an invented original state. One removes the additions from throughout the years and tries to reconstruct the original. The second philosophy is to repair the building to keep it in the form that it was at the time of the restoration, only in better condition. Which of these two is correct?

      The second does nothing to eliminate the sometimes horrendous additions that accumulated during the course of centuries where taste succeeded taste until the original vision was subsumed. But the first, while in a way purer and more aesthetically motivated, can result in the destruction of what exists. Among the worst examples, in my opinion, are the restorations of the Cathédrale Saint Front in Périgueux and the Cathédrale Saint Pierre in Angoulême. Both were done by the architect of Sacre Coeur in Paris, Paul Abadie. Abadie destroyed much of both churches in order to restore them to his vision of what the original structures should have been. But the prize probably has to go the Jean Juste Gustave Lisch’s “restoration” of the Église de la Très-Sainte-Trinité in Germigny-des-Prés.

      Like the issue of translation that you recounted, only the most careful and steadfast care should be exercised in dealing with these masterpieces. Fortunately in Saint Hilaire, there was no structural work; the installation is purely decorative. For that reason, one can remain calm. The churches of France are filled with modern altars, windows, furnishings, Stations of the Cross and other items of liturgical art. They will serve their purpose and then become respected and venerated parts of the church’s history or will collect dust in a back room somewhere.

      • Hi again Dennis, I just read your article on restorations. I now appreciate more your photography of as many Romanesque churches as you can in one lifetime, before they’re all repainted etc. The link to Jean Juste Gustave Lisch doesn’t work… But I looked him up and found your post on Google. Thanks for everything you write.

      • Thanks, Trish. PJ and I feel that most of the restoration that is done in France is of high quality, but there are always dangers. There seems to be a hiatus in the state-sponsored destruction that was done under the auspices of restoration in the 19th Century, but vigilance is necessary. The good news is that there is an extraordinary cadre of artisans and restoration specialists who are expert at this work. The organization responsible, the Patrimoine de France, supports their efforts with laboratories that do extensive research into methods and materials and the work is guided by architects who are specialists in the field. The ones that we have personally met are to be admired.

        BTW, I fixed the Juste Gustave Lisch link.

      • Trish, I just read something today that is astonishing and terrifying at the same time. 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!”

        We just did a post on the Église Saint Vosy in Culhat. You can see the state of some of the churches where the funding simply is not available to do the restoration. Which makes the expense of the installation at Saint Hilaire (funded by corporate donors) even more questionable.

      • Dennis, I read the article and I’ve been thinking about it all morning. I looked up the church in the photo and saw images of a demolition, which forced me to step back and remind myself that I don’t know why the building was condemned so I can’t judge. And I have to remember that as much as France loves its heritage, its patrimoine, it’s also now a secular state; there are many French people who never go near the churches. There’s a pretty church I went to mid-week in Lyon in 2004, which was closed when I returned in 2007, (except for Sundays). The outside of it had been irreparably graffitied and they had to close the doors because of the vandals. I suppose I’m trying to find a diplomatic way of saying that people will want to restore their churches when they remember why they were built and why they should exist forever. That is, when they see them as places in which we can worship a loving God. Until then, a church will be just an arrangement of historical stones and glass. And secular vandals have no fear of offending a God whom they have been told doesn’t exist.
        That said, your photography and your web sites are great for showing readers and bloggers how beautiful these churches are, because many of your readers may be the types who wouldn’t enter a church even as a tourist. You may well change their minds, and if they have money to spare, they may contribute to restoration funds. It’s a very good thing you’re doing.

      • Trish, thanks for the considered commentary. France is a secular state but they have made arrangements for the maintenance of the churches. Your letter has got me thinking about some things and I’ve decided to do a post on the funding of national monuments, especially churches, in France. Because like everything, it comes down to finance and politics, and politics is the ultimate determination of the salvation of these “arrangements of stone and glass”.

  4. From the photographs, I question LeHanneur’s judgment in truncating the columns. In principle, the work should have maintained the integrity of the architecture of St. Hilaire, rather than trespassing into it.
    There had been “happy” interventions by Pierre de Montreux at Notre Dame, Paris and St. Denis, then there were unfortunate mutilations by Abadie.
    In the case of St. Hilaire, Melle, one hopes that the townspeople and the concerned public everywhere would pursuade the parish to redo the choir in due time.

    • Jong-Soung, PJ had the exact response that you did to the truncation of the columns. It was, to her, a violation. It is interesting that the entire project was done at the behest of the Parish priest, Pere Jacques Lefebvre, who felt that the furnishings were not adequate to “la hauteur de l’architecture prestigieuse de l’église,” the “prestigious architecture of the church.”

      Bishop Pascal Wintzer, Auxiliary Bishop in Poitiers, stated that the project was “… a dialogue that will tie these two realities – the Romanesque and the contemporary”. His justification was to quote Saint Hilaire himself: “Dieu est beau et tout ce qui est beau rapproche de Dieu.” “God is beautiful and all that is beautiful is close to God.” They clearly recognized the ambivalent response to the installation. The question is not whether the installation is beautiful, however, but whether the dialogue between the Romanesque and the contemporary is in any way suitable to the “prestigious architecture of the church.”

      • It is treacherous, Elliott. I know the good Bishop is doing what he thinks is right, but the history of these churches is rife with bishops with horrible taste who were doing what they thought was right. PJ just said, “I don’t care what the aesthetic is, I don’t care what the intention was – it either works or it doesn’t. And in a world where they are struggling to maintain and support the churches and to find priests to minister to the faithful, it seems like such an extravagance to do something like this.”

        It does seem like an extravagance, and despite the protestations that the specifications were “fully consistent with the requirements of the Roman Catholic Church,” such work could only be done because it was funded by corporate underwriters.

  5. Dennis, I won’t belabor this eternally, but I understand perfectly. These things can be horribly political. The good Bishop may be bowing to demands we can only begin to imagine, such as perhaps the latter-day equivalents of the “donors” of other centuries. Churches are business institutions too.

    • Elliott, we can belabor this all we want. No editorial committee or advertisers to worry about here! We can fuss about artistry and integrity here in our small corner of the world if we choose:)

      • Ha! Well you have quite a crowd of constituents demanding a piece of you, and I don’t want to take more than my share.

        I’ve been thinking throughout this thread of parallels in the world of painting restoration, in which I am much more at home. Restorations of famous works to original state often shock the public because they reveal a visual garishness which does not look “old”. Sometimes entire elements of a work, not original to the artist’s hand but so familiar to the public as to be inseparable from the work, are left so as to avoid public outrage. The Louvre is now struggling with these issues as it contemplates a highly-sensitive restoration of the Mona Lisa, following that of the Prado’s recent cleaning of the twin of that most famous of paintings. An unsuccessful outcome could have severe financial repercussions on the entire Réunion des musées nationaux.

        Like you, I have confidence that the French corps d’experts dealing with these questions is top-flight. Unfortunately, they do not always have the last word.

      • Elliott, am sure you can recall the furor over the restoration of the Sistine chapel. I guess it is too much to hope that the experts will be the one’s to make the decisions. But even there, as Abadie and Licht have demonstrated, the human ego is a dangerous and unpredictable element. I was not aware of the issue you raised about elements not from the hand of the original painter being left intact because they are so completely identified with the work!

  6. I can see both sides of this, from your photographs – the last of which is stunningly beautiful. But the first long view was an offense to the senses.
    We were in a local church recently for a concert, where the modern sculptures were a joy, as they enhanced the spiritual and architectural dimensions. Sadly I’m not sure that applies in Saint-Hilaire.

    • Viv, we have seen some superb modern works in the churches. I’ve always loved Cocteau’s work in the 16th Century Chapelle Saint Pierre in Villefranche-sur-Mer. He combined beauty with humility and created something very special.

      BTW, one time in the 60’s, my family was visiting Villefranche. My brother and I were walking down the street and noticed a very elegant man wearing a dressing gown standing at a window. A cat was on the sill beside him. For some reason the image stayed with me and years later I saw a photograph of Cocteau, holding a cat, dressed in a dressing gown, at that very window.

    • These are horrendous assaults on the aesthetics of the Abbey Brauweiler and Eglise Bon Pasteur. What kind of heartless “mind” would conceive of either “improvement”? A little quiet time for the heart to hear the singing is nowhere in evidence. What a shame.

  7. I enjoyed this thoughtful discussion. The installation looks to me just that – an installation forced upon a location without reference to it apart from how it will fit. I appreciate art and architecture that gives me a jolt. However, after the initial shock, this remains disquieting. I was dismayed to learn that it is permanent. I believe it detracts from the whole and I think it would intrude on whatever I hoped to gain from a church visit.

    • I think your reaction is apt … the photography from the designer’s site completely obscures the great church of Saint Hilaire in order to focus on the art installation. That is a tacit recognition that the two do not mesh, in my view, no matter what the ecclesiastical powers that be may say. It is a purely intellectual construct.

  8. Hi, Dennis
    I had no opportunity to contemplate what has become of St Hilaire de Melle after it’s reopening. And I’d rather say: ” HELL’X”…Sorry for the poor joke !

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