The Living Symbol (Dennis Aubrey)

When I was young, I was attracted to the writings of James Joyce, even when people ridiculed me for being pretentious. There was something about his language that fascinated me, like a puzzle that allowed one to discover hidden secrets. Perhaps it was hearing Joyce read from Finnegan’s Wake after my lifelong friend Antonio Gardella came home one day with a recording featuring Joyce’s own voice.

The fascination was the discovery that Joyce’s works were constructions that led to deeper meanings or more oblique feelings that could not be expressed conventionally. They were symbols, references to something difficult to apprehend. I like Jung’s distinction between the symbol and the sign. The sign references something that is known and a symbol points to something deep and unapproachable, a mystery that cannot otherwise be easily expressed.

Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Christian cross is both a sign and a symbol. In the military cemetery the cross says that the person buried is a Christian, just as a star of David would indicate that the person buried is Jewish. It is a sign of something known. But the cross can also be a symbol, referring to the mysteries of the faith which it represents.

Cathédrale Notre Dame du Puy, Le Puy-en-Velay (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Cathédrale Notre Dame du Puy, Le Puy-en-Velay (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There are a series of transformations that occur with symbols that point to something important in our human need to believe. It is possible for the symbol overwhelm the mystery and to become completely identified with the concept or being to which it refers. The symbol becomes reality and thus becomes idolatrous.

Cathedrale Sainte Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Cathedrale Sainte Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This suggest that people need something tangible in which to believe. If the meaning behind the symbol is lost, the symbol itself becomes the object of belief. We see this in the modern world as clearly as in the ancient because there is always a clear conflict between the symbolic and the idolatrous. Iconoclastic movements are the result of that conflict.

Defaced frescoe "Idole", Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Defaced frescoe “Idole”, Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire, Béziers (Hérault) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is another further transformation that occurs with symbols. After knowledge of the original mystery behind the symbol perishes, the conflict between the symbol and the mystery will end and eventually the symbol itself will die out. It will become something inert, an archaeological artifact.

At some distant point, a final transformation may occur. The artifact may be rediscovered and completely re-created symbolically. This is something that I witnessed at the age of fourteen. My family made a trip to England and my father woke us up early to take us to Stonehenge on the summer solstice to watch the sunrise over the Heel Stone. This was a very mysterious experience … to stand in the misty pre-dawn on the Salisbury Plain amidst giant monoliths waiting for the warming sun to rise. But we were not alone – there was a multitude of strange people dressed in enigmatic costumes. I particularly remember a gigantic bare-footed woman with wild red hair wearing a shift made from a single white bed sheet, cinched by a rope at the waist, with a strange riveted look on her face. I also noticed that she had huge feet. Men with beards and staves were there as well. We were told that they were Druids and that they were there to celebrate an ancient Druid ceremony.

The ceremony appeared to be nonsense to my fourteen year-old eyes and even then my history told me that Stonehenge far pre-dated the Celtic druids. But what was real, what did happen, was that these worshippers had adopted Stonehenge as the symbol for their neo-pagan beliefs. They had resuscitated the ancient symbol and given it new – if tenuous – life.

North side aisle, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
North side aisle, Église Saint Martin, Ygrande (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This is important for a number of reasons, not the least because it is what PJ and I have done with the Romanesque churches that we photograph with such a passion. We are unable to share the beliefs of the original builders, however much we would like to do so. But the churches have for us a deep meaning – a dual symbolic meaning. They are symbols of the God in whom the builders believed with such conviction – the creator who gave his son to redeem humanity. But they are also a symbol of the immense depth of faith in that God demonstrated by those very same builders.

Basilique Notre Dame, Paray-le-Monial (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey
Basilique Notre Dame, Paray-le-Monial (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

That symbolism that we have given replaced the original symbols that we try to decipher. The buildings themselves were symbolic – built in the shape of the cross that is the most important representation of the sacrifice on which the religion was based. And this symbolic structure was filled with other symbols, with references to the Bible and the beliefs, references that taught the mysteries of the religion to the faithful.

Detail of the trumeau, Saint-Marie de Souillac, Souillac (Lot)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey)
Detail of the trumeau, Saint-Marie de Souillac, Souillac (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

A gentleman named Anthony Harpur commented on our blog this week and his comments included the following observation:

“One detail the blog brings out is that, even for those who don’t believe, the buildings depicted here tell a truth that can easily be ignored or overlooked – that religion was central to the lives of our medieval ancestors. Even a non-believer could find these buildings very moving. And secularists should note that religion cannot be written out of European cultural history. These treasures are the product of a religious culture and we should acknowledge this openly and willingly.”

Jeremiah, Église Abbatiale Sainte-Marie, Souillac (Lot)  Photo by PJ McKey
Jeremiah, Église Abbatiale Sainte-Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

There are plenty of reasons that so many of us – both believers and non-believers – find these buildings moving. For many it is a reinforcement of their own religious belief. For some it is a lament for the loss of that belief in our own world. For others, it is that the churches are symbolic of that deeper conviction where the entire world was explained by belief in the Christian God. And for all, the sheer beauty we find in these quiet spaces sparks the most profound reflections and asks us to to measure our own lives against our longing for something true and good.

And in this way, these great churches continue to live. They are not dead stone artifacts but vibrantly alive, kept vital by people who are powerfully stirred by what they are and what they represent. They are symbols of multitudes – a faith that moved thousands of builders to create monuments that have been handed down to us by the thousands – a thousand years later.

19 thoughts on “The Living Symbol (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Thank you for sharing your photos and tremendous insights! I maintain that we are most often motivated by love of People and Places, and I am so drawn to the beauty and sanctity housed within brick-and-mortar structures, especially houses of worship of all denominations. They are places where I can sit in stillness and marvel at the hope, peace and beauty that eternally reside in the centuries-old mortar, and imagine that I can hear the hymns and poetry absorbed within their walls. Even if I cannot share the beliefs of those who built these buildings, I can respect the universal desire to seek and transcend, and honor the amazing structure that were part of that process. Your wonderful photos allow me to do that from afar when I cannot be there in person.

  2. Such beautiful and serene photos. I appreciate your distinction between the sign and symbol, and your reminder of what can be lost when we fail to acknowledge their difference.

  3. Hi Dennis,
    In French the ‘trumeau’ is a vertical panel in a wall that separates windows. The central pillar of the main church door is properly termed the ‘central pillar’ (pilier central). There are thousands of people who use the word ‘trumeau’ for the ‘central pillar’ (including, probably, squinchpix) but that don’t make it right. Besides, insisting on the proper use of the word ‘trumeau’ will give you a great feeling of superiority over those who misuse it.


    1. Bob, afraid that I have to disagree with you on this matter. While it is true that the word “trumeau” in French refers to the space between windows, the architectural use is for “Vertical architectural member between the leaves of a doorway.” But I take my authority from Camille Enlart: “Trumeau designé également le pilier central séparant les baies d’un portail.” (quoted in de Montclos, “Architecture, Méthode et vocabulaire”). My authority for English-language usage would be Meyer Shapiro, who refers to the trumeaux at Moissac and Souillac.

  4. Well hmmph! I’m looking in Architecture, description et vocabulaire methodiques (Inventaire general du patrimoine culturel, editions du patrimoine), Centre des Monuments Nationaux by Jean-Marie Perouse de Montclos. ‘trumeau’ is defined on p. 224: ‘Pan de mure entre deux embrasures au meme niveau. Ne pas appeler trumeau le pilier central qui separe deux baies jumelees ou qui divise une porte a deux vantaux.’ and is shown as (b) in the adjoining illustration.

    On p. 215 Montclos defines the ‘pilier central’ in the way you’d expect and adds the caution: ‘Ne pas confondre le pilier central , qui est un support vertical, avec le trumeau, qui est un pan de mur.’

    Are we quoting the same book at each other? I think it’s worthwhile to get this definition sorted out one way or the other. I don’t understand how confusion arose about this issue. In other words the two definitions are pretty distinct so how were they confused?

    I see that in Cyril M. Harris’ Illustrated Dictionary of Historic Architecture (1977) ‘trumeau’ is simply defined as ‘central support of a medieval doorway’. I always used the word in this way until I ran across a caution from Dr. Mary Sullivan of Bluffton College (Professor emeritus in Art History) that it wasn’t the right term for the central pillar. But I never changed over until I ran across the same thing in Montclos.
    Actually, who’s even the right authority to decide this?


  5. O.k. so, reading the footnote to Montclos on p. 215, definition of ‘trumeau’ it says (and I admit that I didn’t read this earlier) “The word ‘trumeau’ commonly designates the central pillar separating the bays of a door although, by its function and form it (the central pillar so designated) is a pillar and not a wall” He references Felibien and D’Aviler here, both 17th C architects and whose works are described in the Chronological Bibliography in this same volume. Also he adduces , as you say, Enlart, who appears not to have been too scrupulous (from Montclos’ point of view) in accepting this definition. So ‘trumeau’ as central pillar seems to be the common usage and ‘trumeau’ as a section of wall appears to be the formal hoity-toity usage. Montclos on my reading appears to insist that the proper meaning of ‘trumeau’ is part of a wall.

    Is that fair? What a mess. Maybe there’s a blog post in all this.


  6. Still working this out .. So here’s Eugène Viollet-le-Duc who supports you:

    So why does Viollet-le-Duc accept this usage of ‘trumeau’ and Montclos doesn’t? And there’s still modern resistance to using the word ‘trumeau’ to mean ‘central pillar’. In the Dictionnaire d’Architecture, M. Lavenu and V. Mataouchek, 1999, the definition of ‘trumeau’ is ‘Partie d’un mur compris entre deux baies. A ne pas confondre avec le pilier qui separe deux baies ou qui divise une porte.’ Now this is just a little dictionary for students but it seems to exemplify a concern that students will learn it wrong unless they’re warned.

    1. Bob, Viollet-le-Duc trumps all as far as I am concerned. Four pages plus illustrations? Perhaps there is a modern movement to differentiate between the wall and the pillar, but I don’t know why anyone would insist on a change when the literature is so full of the original usage. Thanks for bringing this up, a fascinating sidelight.

  7. My dear Dennis, Happy New Year 2013. Your brilliance, sensitivity and deep honor of history and the symbols that so beautifully embody and reflect history reminds of our many hours of conversations in the late 60’s and early 70’s. You embody and reflect those conversations in your photos and commentary.

    Thank you now and then for your friendship and love of beauty,

    Ray Tischer

  8. Dennis I love how lately you have been including many more philosophical posts. The images of the churches compliment your thoughts so well. These beautiful, calming buildings do make one pause and think, so it only seems natural that a blog devoted to your trips to these churches should also feature your thoughts while in them. I’m reminded of my time last year visiting so many old churches in France – strolling through the aisles with my footsteps reverberating on the stone, lost in thought. Thank you for keeping that spirit alive in your blog.

    1. Thanks so much, Emily. The churches spark that kind of reflection and it stays with us all year when we return to the USA. I’m sure you understand exactly what we feel.

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