A summit in time (Dennis Aubrey)


I feel that it is important to remind readers that PJ and I are not practicing Christians and this blog is not intended to preach, convert, or apologize. We are simply trying to understand these churches which speak so powerfully to us. They awake in us sensations and thoughts which we try to express with our photography. Inevitably, they speak in the tongue of which they were formed – a medieval Christianity that we both admire greatly. And they point to the possibility of the divine, a presence we feel within so many of these stone walls.

Église Saint-Léger, Ebreuil (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

People too often look through the telescopic lens of history and see the world as a progression, getting better or growing from one age to the next, each a transition from the one that preceded. While there is necessarily cause and effect from age to age, there is not necessarily reason to the rhyme. Disease may follow from a genetic predisposition, but it may be kindled by something else, something in the world around us. The genetic predisposition may be dormant without a catalyst.

Prieuré de Serrabone, Serrabone (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

If we look at the Romanesque as the genetic precursor to the Gothic, which surely sprang from its loins fully formed, we then tend to dismiss the Romanesque as merely a precursor. We forget that Gothic was a new form. Like the monastic-inspired Romanesque it was an expression of Christian belief and created extraordinary houses for the worship of God. It used the same building methods (or those derived directly from the Romanesque) and the same materials. It occurred in the same place, built by the same masons. But it’s purpose diverged in order to express something different, a secular perspective.

Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by PJ McKey

In this way the world changes over time, growing and contracting as a living entity. But if we do not look at the Romanesque through the lens of history, but instead look at it as a completed moment in time, something remarkable appears. It has been for good reason called the Age of Faith because it was a time where the entire social structure of Western Europe was united within a single system of belief. The law of God ruled completely and bent Counts, Kings and Emperors to its moral authority.

Abbaye de Bénédictins de Gellone, de la-Transfiguration-du-Seigneur, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert (Hérault) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

That system of Christian belief found its expression in hard, durable stone, molded with infinite care and thought by builders who didn’t even possess a ruler. A geometry as pure and expressive as scholasticism was the only tool necessary for the design; such a tool was sophisticated enough to calculate the cutting of stones on a quadripartite vault and could at the same time express the seven deadly sins or the Passion of Christ.

Mary Magdeleine, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais de Mozac, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

We are lucky to have thousands of reminders of that gift of that medieval world, the beautiful Romanesque churches of France. We can never fully understand their wonder and glory. They are more than buildings, more than art; something intangible was built into their stones and fired into their glass. The work of a man or a woman, another man or woman may understand. But these are the work of ages, of nations, of a civilization. They were parts of a marvelous drama, the ceremonial life of a people.

Monastir de Santa Maria de Ripoll, Ripoll (Girona) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In their monuments, nothing is obvious, nothing is merely clever. Nothing is individual or marked out as artistic. They are as serene and perfect as a wonder of nature.

30 responses to “A summit in time (Dennis Aubrey)

    • They are wonderful, aren’t they. We are never tired of seeing them and each of them is a discovery unto itself. In four weeks we will be back in France shooting again – our “trigger fingers” are itching to start!

  1. Forgive me, as a cleric I must make an observation. You are not “practicing” Christians, yet, you spend more time in Catholic churches than many people in my part of the nation! Your motive for going into them is to record their memories, beauty, and the truth that they have something to say to our world. You are pulled into them by their sacredness and your desire, possibly, to capture and unite with the sacred. If that is true, then you may not be practicing Christians, but, you may be expressing a desire to know, worship, and love God.
    There is more, in my opinion, than just a secular motive for the Gothic. Do you not agree that Abbot Suger and others that followed him desired to express in glass and stone the illumination of the Word made flesh? I truly believe that they viewed the catechetical importance of the stained glass, soaring arches and vaults, in impressing upon the minds of the faithful the truth that God wants to unite with mankind in joy filled light – a light that would not only illuminate the interior of the church, but the individual’s soul as well. Yes, the secular did enter into the Church. One city trying to out build the other, towers and ceilings crashing to the ground, like the Tower of Babel – man’s pride going before the fall. Okay, so it is right to take a balanced view of this, but I believe the Lord puts a pound of His flesh on the side of the spiritual interpretation.

    • Paul, so many thoughts in this one comment! Let me start with the secular motive for the gothic. By secular, I still mean religious, but ecclesiastic instead of monastic. These were mostly the products of bishops and their sees, supported by the commercial communities. There is no question that the motive was religious. I should have been clearer on that count. The collapse of the apse in Beauvais (twice!) was certainly a product of pride, but that is the fault of man and not the institution.

      As for PJ and myself, we were both raised Catholic and drifted away from the church during our adult lives. We spend enormous amounts of time in and on these churches, which fascinate us. But we both respond to something powerful. Sometimes it is because of a “memory” of a history of belief in the structure, other times because of the history itself. But in truth, it is because in constructing these churches, the builders wrote their belief in stone. You understand this well. And as we understand it, we experience more and more something of the belief itself. As you said, we try to capture and unite with that sacred thing that lives in these churches.

  2. Beautiful photos as usual. I love the quite compositions and how you record the light in the spaces. I agree with the previous comment that great architecture deserves to be shown off. Cheers.

    • Thank you, PJ remarks all of the time that the light is everything in these churches. It is, of course, the key to photography, but especially here where the contrasts of light and dark are a conscious part of the design.

  3. I find something very comforting about Romanesque arches. They reach, but are solid, dependable. There is such beauty in their shadows and light, too, as captured in your photographs.
    ~ Lily

  4. You’re a great teacher, Dennis. This was a good post, but aren’t they all? (On the other hand, I haven’t decided why I felt less comfortable with Saturn devouring a child’s head than I did with column swallowers and teeth-gnashing devils. It was the colours, I suppose.)

    • Trish, the Goya is truly a disturbing image, far more so than the relatively benign gnashing devils and column swallowers. Part of Goya’s genius, I suppose. Do you know that that the painting was actually a mural in Goya’s home, the Quinta del Sordo, never intended for public display? And it was in his dining room! After his death, the house was sold and the subsequent owner preserved those paintings that he could, which are known collectively as the “Black Paintings”.

      • I studied art history for years but quickly passed over Goya, preferring Delacroix, his Orientalist paintings (though not the violent ones…). In my previous comment I hit send before writing that I love the photo from the Prieuré de Serrabone. I looked it up – none of the photos on other sites were half as good as this one. Thanks PJ. I’m following this closely because I’m searching for a village to stay in, one with a monastery close by – still saving to get there.

      • Serrabone is a wonderful monastery on the top of a hill out in the middle of the country. The nearby village of Boule d’Amont. The church dates from the XI century and features a vierge romane. Both Serrabone and Boule are very remote and if that is what you are looking for, it would be an interesting place to stay.

        The shot that PJ took (which is superb – I had not seen it until today!) is taken through the glorious Conflent pink marble tribune.

  5. Pingback: Hoof Beats and Foot Prints

  6. Your photos make me want to rush back to Europe and take in every church and cathedral I can find. Besides beautiful to look at they also stir something within – I’m ticked with myself for not taking in more of the churches during my own travels. At least I have you to show me …

    • Thank you, Graham. I am fascinated by your dual project of documenting the Welsh lands and the airplane crash sites. My family originates in Abercynrig in Llanfrynach, Powys and we hope to visit there soon.

  7. I studied art history (among other subjects) in college, and Gothic churches were among my favorite subjects; thus, I have nominated you for the Kreativ Blogger Award.

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