Annihilated by the material (Dennis Aubrey)


“La signification de l’art roman, en notre temps, est évident. Il y faut voir un regret, le regret d’un monde. Le regret d’un ordre qui fut le nôtre et qui brille d’un dernier éclat à cet instant où l’horizon s’enténèbre, inexorablement, et où l’esprit, vaicu, semble sur le point de disparaitre, chassé, battu, anéanti par la matière.” (Dom Angelico Surchamp, Signification de l’Art Roman, Bourgogne Romane, Editions Zodiaque 1954)

“The significance of Romanesque art, in our time, is obvious. One must see a regret, the regret of a world. The regret of an order that made our own and that shines with a final brilliance as the horizon inexorably darkens, and where the spirit, overcome, seems about to disappear, chased, beaten, annihilated by the material.”

Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ went to Provincetown this weekend to direct a play and left me alone; readers of this blog all know that this is a desperately bad idea, although this time it was only for two days so the effects have been minimal. But I was rereading the first book of the Éditions Zodiaque series and came across the quote from Angelico Surchamp. The words assaulted me off the page with the intensity of truth – “annihilated by the material.”

I am so tired of the worldly wise who denigrate religion and believers. It is one thing not to believe oneself, but to insult those who do believe is shameful. To condemn religion for the past actions of its adherents is like condemning medicine because it once practiced leeching and bleeding. People only know what they know, and it is impossible to judge the past, only to try to understand it. I have said this before and the more I think about it, the more clear that is. And be sure, I am not speaking as a religious man, which I am not.

Cloister, Saint Paul de Mausole, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône)   Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister, Saint Paul de Mausole, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by PJ McKey

When Pere Surchamp and I met the first time, we had a long conversation on a bench behind the church at Église Sainte Marie Madeleine in Le Villars near Tournus. During that talk, Surchamp talked about Descartes and his famous cogito, “I think, therefore, I am.” Surchamp said that he admires the French mind, but aghast at the presumption of the statement. “If we didn’t think, don’t we still exist? La réalité est plus grand que nos pensées humaines.” Reality is greater than our human thoughts.

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

These churches represent a facet of that greater reality – a spirituality that literally changed the face of Europe. These monks used faith and their devotion to hard labor to rebuild that shattered land, a land invaded, burnt, and benighted. They returned civilization and they created for the first time a European identity. This was done because of their beliefs. Nobody forced them to praise God in this way. Some internal flame drove them to their calling and their plainsong is part of a choir of voices singing the praises of a God whose traces we can sense but cannot understand.

Crucifix detail, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet- et- Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crucifix detail, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet- et- Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ and I regret the loss of this world, the spiritual component of which created a renaissance in the 11th and 12th centuries. We mourn the loss in the depths of our souls. To see traces of that spiritual world that created our own – but from which it has all but disappeared – is to feel a sense of immense loss.

We see the twilight of that world – the flash of the sun on the horizon – as we move into the new order of the material which swallows up and annihilates the light of the medieval God.

16 responses to “Annihilated by the material (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. We seem unable to distinguish between the idea of God held by those who created these physical containers and dispensers of worship and the brutalities exercised by those who used the name of God for terrestrial ends.

    • It drives me crazy, Helen. We insist on judging what we don’t understand. It’s almost as if the act of judging replaces the need for understanding. Horrible things have been done in the name of religion, just as horrible things have been done in the name of democracy, liberty, and freedom. Thanks for your comment.

  2. “a religious man, which I am not”: You keep saying that. Methinks thou dost…
    Your personal side of these posts is as interesting as the history. I wonder what kind of monk you would have made.

  3. I am delighted to find your blog which I find interesting. Like you I enjoy photographing churches and researching their history. As we say in Ireland, ‘you are a man after my own heart’.

    • Brendan, we do share the photography of churches and also – quite important – in identifying them properly. I noticed that when I saw your post of Saint David’s, Kilsallaghan the other day. Glad that we met up and I hope that you continue to find our Via Lucis project of interest. And I look forward to more of your churches in Ireland – PJ and I long to photograph there. Eventually ….

  4. Your lament on the shamefulness of those who denigrate faith reminded me of George Santayana who said when speaking about the Enlightenment, “The world was to be freed from Christianity and feudalism; it was not to be free to become Christian and feudal again…. This rigid form of liberty being established, no other form of liberty would be permitted.” And as Nietzsche pointed out, “Nihilism does not only contemplate the ‘in vain’ nor is it merely the belief that everything deserves to perish: one helps to destroy.” Perhaps this explains why some who don’t believe also are so bothered by others who do.

    • Kerri, did not know the Santayana quote but I love “… no other form of liberty would be permitted.” He was so trenchant. Thanks for the contribution; this is one of those posts that just sort of popped out without any planning (and took the place of a scheduled post on Pilgrimage Churches).

  5. I’ve just discovered your blog (following back from your like on my Girona, Catalonia post). How lovely. I really appreciate both your sensual and uplifting photography and your philosophizing.

    To me, the great problem of Descartes statement has always been its ego-centrism. He acknowledges only his own existence and that point of view led him into a terrible disregard for the worth of the world outside himself. A horrifying example is his practice of vivisecting animals and dismissing their cries of pain as no more meaningful than the grinding of machinery in need of oil.

    I share a sense of awe at the beauty and power of these sacred places (particularly here in Europe where they have such a weight of history to anchor them) and I agree that they represent a faith in the more-than-material which is humbling and inspiring. If you have any suggestions for churches to visit as I travel east through Italy and beyond, I’m quite open to detouring. I look forward to reading back through your blog and also to seeing what comes next.

    • We welcome you to our blog … I have seen your posts for some time now and remember in particular the long one you did on Taliesin. As far as Descartes, you and Pere Surchamp share that opinion. He was aghast at the presumption and the lack of perspective. The conversation took that direction when I mentioned my admiration for the French mind, particularly in light of the early establishment of the Monuments Historique and Prosper Merimée’s selection of Viollet-le-Duc, at the time a very young man, to restore the basilica in Vézelay. This was Surchamp’s way of demurring.

      As far as suggestions for churches in Italy, there are so many! Have you thought about visiting Ravenna? PJ and I are going to make a detour there for a week to shoot the 5th and 6th century baptisteries and churches there? We also want to stop in Pisa to try to photograph the entasis on the western facade of the Cathedral there, described by Goodyear early last century. So many to choose from, how I envy you! BTW, where do you live (feel free to answer privately if you prefer).

  6. What an appropriate reflection to follow a post about the Camino de Santiago! I think you’ve captured it quite well – this passion to understand and praise a greatness what one feels exists. I have always found art to a gateway into this eternal longing and am certainly happy to see you and PJ seek it out!

    • Thanks so much, Christina. The post was not intended to come between the post about the Camino and the subsequent post on pilgrimage churches (which will be published tomorrow). But it just sort of came out while reading Surchamp. Appreciate so much the comments.

  7. After visiting the Prieuré de Serrabona a couple of days ago, my friend took me to the Chapelle de la Trinité de Prunet-et-Belpuig, to see the crucifix. It was astonishing, like something modern, quite stylized. It was good to see a photo of it here on this post.

    • The Chapelle de la Trinité de Prunet-et-Belpuig is a lovely little church and the crucifix astonishing. One of our favorites we’ve ever seen. So glad you were able to visit this area.

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