The Faith of Anselm (Dennis Aubrey)

We return to Normandy in September to photograph a couple of dozen churches in the Cotentin and Calvados. There are so many historical associations to this land, not the least being the invasion of June 6, 1944, but to us it is the miracle that is Normandy itself.

Eglise Saint-Etienne (Abbaye-aux-Hommes), Caen (Calvados) Photo by PJ McKey

No church in Normandy exists that was built before the year 1000, and for good reason. For three centuries the Vikings savaged the land and burnt every church and abbey to the ground. The French finally managed a response in 911 after the Viking chief Rollo besieged Chartres. A relieving army came to aid the Bishop of Chartres and defeated Rollo’s forces on July 20, 911. By the terms of the ensuing Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte with Charles the Simple, Rollo converted to Christianity and was granted in fief the lands that now comprise Normandy and Brittany.

In a short time these sea-faring marauders settled their new land, intermarried with the local population and created a Christian culture that emerged as the most prolific builder of churches in Europe. Their monumental energy was not just limited to the construction of religious structures – their Viking blood led them to conquer and establish kingdoms as far away as Sicily.

Église de la Sainte-Trinité (Abbaye aux Dames), Caen (Calvados) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In 1066, William, the Duke of Normandy, attended the consecration of the Abbaye aux Dames, La Trinité in the city of Caen. Just months later, he and his followers crossed La Manche. These Normans invaded England with the newly composed “Song of Roland” on their lips. Just a few decades later, Jerusalem itself rang with the same song when the first Crusaders stormed its walls.

In England, these Normans continued their church-building ways – in the 150 years after the conquest, their bishops built 400 churches in expiation of the wrongs done to the Saxons.

Nave tribunes, Église Saint-Etienne (Abbaye-aux-Hommes), Caen (Calvados) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But there was more to these people than war and the equally energetic enterprise of church building. The Normans had a dynamic monastic community, first dedicated to the strict Celtic Rule of Saint Columbanus and later to the rule of Saint Benedict. It was this monastic community that produced the monk of Bec “with a face like an angel,” who signed himself “Brother Anselm by the heart, Archbishop of Canterbury by coercion”. Anselm toiled on his philosophy late at night in the abbey while his brethren slept. In the dark of that night he wrote the words “Credo ut intelligam.” “I believe so that I may understand.”

Église Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by PJ McKey

“I believe so that I may understand.” This is an extraordinary formulation, and one that provided the spiritual foundation for two hundred years of Romanesque architecture. The secret of these buildings is hidden in those three Latin words “Credo ut intelligam.”

In the twenty-first century, I can only paraphrase Anselm; “Intelligo ut credam” – we seek to understand so that we might believe. It might be this impulse that propels us forward with our work in Via Lucis. If we can understand these churches and what moved the builders, we can perhaps understand the belief – the Credo – that was the prime mover behind them.

Eglise Abbatiale Saint Vigor, Cerisy-la-Forêt (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Thomas Aquinas cautions us against such presumption in the hymn “Tantum Ergo” – “Praestet fides supplementum sensuum defectui,” freely translated as “Faith supplies where the feeble senses fail.”

Our senses are feeble, and getting feebler with every passing year. But then again, using our senses to try to understand the belief of Anselm and his Norman brethren, spending years trying to apprehend their faith and their God – isn’t that a form of faith in itself?

Église Saint-Etienne (Abbaye-aux-Hommes), Caen (Calvados) Photo by PJ McKey

24 responses to “The Faith of Anselm (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Jong-Soung, we will be traveling an arc from Saint Philbert-de-Grandlieu and its Carolingian church, around the periphery of Brittany, up to the Contentin, then down to Calvados. About 16 days for this part of the trip. We will reshoot the two abbey churches in Caen as well, but a great many new ones. We just finished our hotel reservations last night, which means that we are all set!

  1. Dennis,

    On the first image of this post my computer is reading your photo as grey stonework with a lovely mild emerald green interior. Is that emerald green interior the reflection given off by the stained glass windows in that part of the church, or, is it the result of some other affect?
    Thank you for sharing a personal statement of your own faith quest; it is, as you know, a unique spiritual journey that you and PJ embarked on years ago. You both have the skills and gifts to present these stone testaments of faith to people who would never have the chance to see them. Like St. Barnabas, whose memorial we celebrate on June 11th, you are evangelizers who are the salt of the earth because you season the hearts of all those who view your art with the truth, goodness, and beauty of God and the simple faith of those who desired to give glory to Him through these architectural masterpieces. Our intellects can take us only so far, so what do we do? The saints tell us to continue to trust and love God, He will never abandon those that do.

    • Paul, the windows in this section of the ambulatory are tinted a light emerald green (which PJ actually toned down a bit). We don’t color these pictures – just try to balance them with the rest of the image.

      As far as our personal journey, it is strange being called evangelizers, but I guess we are. I find it hard to use such charged words when discussing our work, which I like to believe is simple and uncomplicated. We study and search and photograph, and above all, we talk together about this all of the time. It is a remarkable thing to have a partner with the same deep passionate interest in these churches, with her own artistic vision. We will continue to search out the understandings on our next trip in September, and then spend another nine months trying to come to grips with what we have found. It is not a bad way to spend our life, Paul. How lucky we are.

  2. I am ashamed to say that I have not visited the Abbayes at Caen, despite having spent time there at university summer school. An omission to be remedied, given the beauty of your photographs.

    I look forward to reading your Cotentin experiences in the Autumn. If the Norman conquests in Sicily interest you, you may find a visit to the Chateau de Pirou rewarding – a fortified castle, not a fancy estate – where there is a modern representation of the Sicilian venture in embroidery after the style of the Bayeux tapestry. Taking nearly 20 years to complete, this local lady studied the Bayeux stitch for years before even starting! The little chapel adjacent to the great hall where the 70 metre long ‘tapestry’ is displayed, is also well worth a visit. You’ll find a picture of the chateau and part of the tapestry at

    • Viv, we will try to visit the Chateau de Pirou when we are in the region, but there is so much to do there! Such riches. From Orval (right around the corner from you) to Querqueville and then over to Brevands there are 19 churches that we have identified for shooting (and how many others that we may stumble upon) not counting the cathedral of Coutances. And we have four days. At best, we can shoot a dozen churches. How to choose? What this really means is that we will be back several times in the future. I see that Pirou is just south of Lessay, one of our major objectives, so maybe on that day!

      As far as the churches of William and Matilda, they are simply magnificent. Our next post will be on Saint Etienne – hope it sends you winging across Normandy where you might write a poem on one of the many stories hidden in those stones.

  3. I wish I had the time to comment at length on the beautiful things I see in this blog, but for now I will just say that what I find here has an amazing restorative influence on the reader.

  4. Re St Etienne Caen: I had the impression that all Caen was in rubble post invasion. Is this church a rebuild or was anything of it left standing?

    • Stephan, Caen was virtually destroyed in WW2 but the churches were remarkably spared. Here is an image (a preview of something from my next post) showing Saint Etienne after the battle. The church was used as a civilian hospital and was marked with giant red crosses on the roof during the aerial bombardments.

      Saint Etienne amidst the rubble

  5. Ste. Trinité has been cleaned!! I’ve not been there in many years and usually I’m disappointed by the squeaky clean white stone (as I am with Chartres’ current work) that erases the patina, history and seeming authenticity of a place but this might actually represent an improvement. It was a particularly dark, dank church, as I remember. It struck me at the time that the poor nuns didn’t have the advantage of the lighter exposure that the monks enjoyed in S. Etienne (though that is probably most conditioned by the later choir).

    • Janet, yes, she was quite beautiful in the late afternoon light. We are not always pleased with the results of these restorations, as you know, but are withholding judgment about Notre Dame de Chartres. Perhaps it is because I am always mesmerized by the thought of Bernard of Clairvaux standing in the nave, staring at the windows as the colored light danced on his white robes.

      BTW, I keep expecting to see glasses on the Vierge of your Gravatar.

  6. Dear Dennis and PJ,

    This is my first response to one of your posts since I discovered Via Lucis last year. Your site is the only one that I follow with some anticipation. I simply wish to say thank you for your images and words. Please continue.


  7. Dennis: something for you to try. Find CD of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir singing Da Pacem Domine (Arvo Part) & other airs…play while looking at your photos. You’ll understand.

    • Magnificent, Stephan. We did a video using Zbigniew Preisner’s Requieum. Much the same effect. But this music is a real find, thank you so much! Maybe I’ll do a video …

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