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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.