✿ Why? ✿ (Dennis Aubrey)

… the “why” of it all is hard to answer. I’m not religious, although I think I have a deep streak of the need to believe, which takes expression in artistic work. I first fell in love with Romanesque architecture because of its beauty, durability, and variety. But over the years studying these buildings, I have come to believe that they are some of the most perfect expressions of faith that architecture has ever produced. Our Greek ancestors, with their temples, the Egyptians with theirs, the Chinese, Japanese, so many others have all found unique and powerful ways to match structure and belief. But it was, not to be showing disrespect, elitist. The Romanesque and Gothic, on the other hand, were “partout“, everywhere.

The altar of the Chapelle Sainte Marguerite, Epfig (Bas-Rhin) (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

For two centuries, hundreds of churches were built every year by towns, cities, monasteries, episcopal sees. They were not just the reflection of Man and God, as are the others, but the record of an entire people. When that faith dissipated, as is inevitable in any civilization, we were left with a stone record of incredible beauty, a direct link, as it were, to the aspirations of these people. Like the Greek temples of the Athenian golden age, they were built by a free people. In the 12th Century, these people moved more stone in building their 80 cathedrals and thousand churches than did the Egyptians in the entire history of building their pyramids using slave and conscripted labor.

Crypt stairs in Eglise Notre Dame, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

If we can be commended for anything in this project, it is not having a point of view to impose on the world of the Romanesque and Gothic builders (for they often worked simultaneously). We have walked into our hundreds of these churches with no other object than to let them speak for themselves, to tell their own stories. Many times that meant entering, sitting, and waiting for something; at other times it meant setting up and shooting immediately, trying to capture impressions that changed with the light, capture them before they disappeared. But in all cases, it was the church speaking, the building. Eventually we understood that to mean that the builders were speaking, and the monks and bishops, the thousands who prayed, the armies that pillaged and murdered, the revolutionary crowds that tore down what symbolized to them the oppression of their lives. The churches told tales of reformist iconoclasts who destroyed the statues because they considered them idols.

Altar of the Virgin Mary, Collegiale Saint Lazare, Avallon (Yonne) (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

All of these things, the churches told us, but more, as well. They told stories of the thousands who came to pray and seek guidance. They told of the monastics who pulled Europe out of the chaos and devastation of the post-Carolingian world and brought civilization, one that might be considered one of the great civilizations of history, to a land invaded, burnt and benighted. This is a choir of thousand-year old voices, still standing witness to a world that we can barely understand, much less participate in.

39 thoughts on “✿ Why? ✿ (Dennis Aubrey)

    1. Thanks, Lisa. We spend so much time in these churches and have come to believe that the true genius of the French mind is expressed in their architecture and craftsmanship. There are so many things to understand here that is the work of a lifetime to even begin. But the rewards start the first day and continue every day after, especially, as you understand, if you stop looking with the modern eye.

  1. Dennis,
    The image of the crypt stairs is so well done that it reminds me of a pastel painting; a gentle soft texture that express the tens of thousands of footsteps they have supported, and will continue to support, in the future.

    1. The stairs lead from the crypt to the church of the beautiful church in Mont Saint-Vincent, Paul. The color is a mold that plagues the structure. Every year, the small parish forms a work party and cleans the stones by hand to protect their beloved church. In this case, the green serves as a patina to the stone, which reflects the wear of innumerable feet as the worshipers descended and ascended to the crypt, just as you have described.

  2. I also thought the crypt stairs photo was a painting, at first. What a brilliant skill you have!
    I’m still thinking about faith dissipating ‘as is inevitable in any civilization’. While it can appear that faith has dissipated, sometimes (throughout history as well as now) there’s so much conflict and disagreement occurring within the church building that people prefer to worship privately at home with family and a few friends. In that case, their faith is not very visible and record keepers can’t see it to record it. They believe the churches have emptied and it looks like no one cares any more. But sometimes people who trust God don’t want to go to a building to communicate with Him; they want to take time out from congregational worship and its politics. These people have not stopped trusting God.
    On the other hand, they don’t want the church buildings to disappear, because they know that one day they’ll want to worship God with other people again. We don’t like to be islands.

    1. Trish, I don’t mean to say that the faith disappears, but the universal fervor that marked the medieval faith was destroyed by rationalism, sectarianism, mercantilism, and a thousand other “isms” that trained their weapons in its direction. It is strange that so much was found wanting by people who reject these religions, but they respond to the images of these churches with longing for what they represented that is missing today. There is something latent in all of us, I think, even if we can’t do anything more that suspect its presence.

      Thanks as always for your kind words and commentary.

      1. Back to the beauty of these churches: I read something about looking at old oil paintings by candlelight, to see what the original artist saw before electricity. I wondered if you have ever photographed churches at night. By candlelight…

      2. Trish, we have shot them at night, but not by candlelight. That would be very interesting. An interesting thing happened though, in another context. As you surely know, Europe (especially France and Spain) are filled with caves decorated with paleolithic art. Lascaux, Chauvet, Font-de-Gaume, Altamira and so many others are filled with extraordinary prehistoric images, and these are of special interest to me. About twenty five years ago I went to one of the smaller caves in the Dordogne region to see the carvings in one of the caves. I was the only visitor (oh for those times again) so the guide gave me special consideration. He shined his flashlight on a section of wall that was filled with lines. Closer examination showed that there were images carved on top of each other in a seemingly random manner. It was chaotic and confusing – why would the artists do this? Then the guide lit a candle and turned off the flashlight. By the dancing of the candle flame, a whole other world emerged. Instead of superimposed images, it was clear that they were animated images. Animals moved in the light. This was an extraordinary discovery for me, that 20,000 years ago our ancestors were sophisticated enough to create movement on the walls of their holy places. I recently found this link that shows the concept clearly, but with originals that were painted and not incised. Extraordinary.

      3. Oh, that was amazing. And we think we are so clever… Thanks for showing me those animations.
        I did an experiment with a candle and a painting of mine yesterday, and my husband took a photo. The painting completely changed in candlelight. I only had one candle, but pre-electric artists probably had a number of them lighting a studio, nevertheless my painting was shadowed all the time, never wholly illuminated. (I put the photo on my blog.) Anyway, the exercise reminded me of a scene in “The English Patient” where the nurse was hoisted up towards the ceiling, holding a candle, to see the old frescoes. I tried to imagine you and PJ being given permission to enter a completely dark church with your candles and cameras.

    2. Trish, our exchange prompted some mathematics. At a targeted illumination of 15 lumens per square foot (the approximate illumination for a hotel corridor) for us to light the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay would require about two hundred 100w incandescent lamps producing 1650 lumens each, spaced six feet apart. This would leave the upper reaches of the church almost dark. To accomplish the same lighting with candlelight at 13 lumens each would require approximately 24,000 candles.

      Using long exposures, we could achieve results with about 20% of these candles, but that is still would require 4,800 candles.

      Now admittedly, Vézelay is quite a grand church, but it goes to show what it would take. Now, maybe we could use torches …

      1. I’m impressed that you did all those sums prompted by my suggestion. I’ve been wondering how monks would light the church when they went several times a night for offices. Did they hold one candle each? Were there candelabra continually burning? I discussed your 24,000 candles with a friend and she reminded me that the first few thousand would have melted by the time you’d finished lighting the last one. Perhaps a small church, with a few candles providing very low lighting, is an option. One day. (This is my second attempt at replying; the first one disappeared, always an unpleasant experience.)

      2. Trish, nobody would ever have tried to light an entire church by candlelight, I’m sure. I just did the calculations of what it would take for photographic purposes. Monastic offices would have only lit the portion of the choir where the offices took place, and the only really necessary light would have been for the lectern. It is interesting to think about all of this, however.

      3. Trish, I’m afraid that the calculations that I did got me the “Geek Award” from PJ – last night we were lying around talking and I told her about the candle discussion that we have had and then read her the comments we made. She’s still shaking her head, although she should know better.

      4. Well, I had to ask my husband what a lumen was. I definitely wouldn’t win a Geek award.
        I’ve since looked at a couple of YouTube videos of monks in night offices. They seem to hold a candle or lamp each. The camera doesn’t pick up much architecture.

      5. Exactly. It will pick up almost no architectural detail, even to the naked eye, much less to the camera. And since the video camera only has an exposure of 1/24th or 1/30th of a second, even less for video.

      6. Thanks for the exchange, Dennis. I learnt something about photography. And lumens.

  3. Dennis,

    It all comes down to motivation, no matter the civilization, and no matter the religion. Each of the great builders that you mentioned were motivated for different reasons, but each one created incredible structures and art and music, that would live on long after the builders had died. I, too, believe that the architecture and art of Christianity is more breathtaking than any that preceeded it, and it must have been the motivation of “faith” that made the difference. The genius of the designers and builders is a reflection of what they believed, and how lucky we are today to reap the benefits of those believers. I am not religious, and I have yet to sense the presence of divinity in any of the magnificent edifices of Europe, but I would never pretend to know for sure, whether or not that Divinity is there. Darwin summed it up in his writings about religion. He said, “I believe most deeply that this entire question of creation is too profound for human intellect. To pretend otherwise is to insult the intelligence of the creator.” Thank you for your thoughts, and I’ll continue to marvel at the remarkable creativity of our species.

    Vann Helms Lake Lure, North Carolina

    1. Vann, as you say, the “genius of the designers and builders is a reflection of what they believed.” As I have written elsewhere, I am not religious, but in my years of being in these spaces have felt the presence of something as if reflected in my direction. It is something deep, powerful and eternal, whatever it is, and it lives still. I have felt it in great churches like the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay and in tiny churches like the Église Sainte-Anne in Heume l’Eglise. I have seen it in the statues of the dancing Jeremiah in Moissac and the face of Notre Dame d’Estours in Monistrol d’Allier. And perhaps most powerfully of all, I have seen it on the face of a woman prostrating herself at the altar of the Basilique Sainte Foy in Conques where the force of her faith was a physical thing that could be felt like heat from a furnace. Imagine that force multiplied by multitudes and one can understand how these great churches came to be.

  4. I hope you don’t mind, but I have saved your Steps picture – I think it would make a great quilt design, with simplification and the right choice of fabrics.
    If you object, I can easily delete it.

  5. Maestro Dennis; just a few lines to inform you that I have posted again about some little Romanesque and Pre-Romanesque little churches of Spain. Pictures are so-so, but some of these rural churches are pretty difficult to reach …

    1. That they do. We miss so much when we are there, no matter how much preparation and research we do, so we are always returning to churches to reshoot. Each time we are amazed at how completely new the church is to us. Even the Basilique Sainte Madeleine, which we have photographed ten times, perhaps. We walk in and it is all so familiar and so welcoming, but after a few minutes, we see new things. We were in Conques last year, which we had previously shot twice, and sat down just to enjoy before photographing. While sitting there we realized what the architects had done by alternating square and round columns in the nave and a fresh understanding of the genius of these medieval builders swept over us.

  6. Your blog is excellent. It is exemplary for the genre of photoblogging and makes a masterpiece each time you post.

    1. Graham, this is the highest praise, and I thank you so much. This project is so personal for the two of us that your appreciation means a great deal, especially considering the interest you show in these churches.

  7. Your post strikes a chord in me who has become a late devotee of the Romanesque architecture. All power to both of you in photographing the treasures of the Romanesque art. Jong-Soung

  8. Dennis: you may already be aware of this, but for a fascinating insight into the Medieval imagination try Le Goff…a number of writings on that subject. I can guarantee it will help.
    Stephan Vitas

    1. Le Goff’s championing of the Middle Ages has been an important part of our view of this era. It has been awhile since I’ve read his works, though – time to go back. Thanks, Stephan.

  9. Dennis, Thank you so much for your thoughtful writing here. Though my personal beliefs can only honestly be described as atheist, I have always been smitten by the art and architecture of this time. The more I learn about it the deeper my love becomes.

    For six months I have had a post titled “Why” in my drafts folder in an effort to square my unshakable faithlessness with this profound reverence I feel for this art and the faith that made it possible. However, I can never quite get around to answering the question for myself let alone writing cogently enough for an audience. Your thoughts here have put me a little closer to an answer. Thanks again.

    1. It is a pleasure to find another wayfarer through these medieval ways. I took the liberty of looking at your site, work, and some of your writings. It seems that we have started in some of the same places – so I would not be surprised to find you down the road on my path in the future. It is the need to believe that I believe is the key, and my discovery of that was as profound as if I had found belief itself. I’ll watch your writing and see how your questioning develops (I saw the Anselm quote).

      1. Thanks very much for taking the time to look at my blog. And I’m glad to have another reader. I find writing prose to be a terrible chore (even with and English degree) but it is the quickest path to self discovery. Knowing that people are actually reading and responding helps me to be less sloppy.

  10. Something of interest from Connaissancedesarts.com
    Design & Décoration>
    AgendaPolices plus grandesPolices plus petitesImprimerrssEnvoyer par maillaisser un commentaireinShare.0Ors et broderies, trésors à la cathédraleLieu : Le Puy-en-Velay – Cloître de la cathédrale du Puy-en-
    Date : du 21 octobre 2011 au 26 octobre 2012 Présentation Article Commentaires Diaporama Podcast Vidéos Le trésor de la cathédrale du Puy-en-Velay vient de s’enrichir d’une exceptionnelle collection d’ornements liturgiques et tableaux de dévotion brodés allant du XVe au XXe siècle.

    Stephen Vitas

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