Most of the time when we enter a church we are overwhelmed with the sheer amount of material to shoot. There is the church itself – how it is built and laid out, the patterns of the arches and the arrangements of the volumes. But on top of that, there is a wealth of detail – sometimes sculpted or painted, but sometimes just a magnificent arrangement of stone. The tympanum at Conques has taken me the best part of two days to photograph and I’m still not sure that I’ve captured it. It has taken me four sessions in Vézelay to photograph just the capitals and I know that there are angles and details that have been missed. We almost always feel that we never have enough time to do the church justice.
The Église Notre-Dame du Pré in the Burgundy town of Donzy-le-Pré might seem to be an exception because it is almost completely a ruin. All that remains of the Benedictine priority is the west narthex, the north tower and part of the south tower. The church itself is gone. One other element has survived mostly intact – the 12th century tympanum over the narthex entrance. Because the church is gone, I was able to spend some time photographing this sculpture and to find the right lens to do so. In this case, it was using a 400mm lens from a great distance so that the photos could be taken from almost straight on. In this way, I could avoid the sense of “looking up” at the sculpture.
In this shot of the tympanum figures, we see Virgin and Child seated on a throne in the Heavenly Jerusalem, flanked by the prophet Isaiah on the right and an angel on the left. Notice the superb carving of the archivolts. We can still see the traces of the polychrome painting when the light is right.
Over the Virgin is a wonderful detail that reminds me of the Conques tympanum. The hand of God reaches down in benediction over the scene.
The Isaiah figure is well defined; he carries a scroll and a palm frond. The sensations of weight and volume in the folds and the knot on his tunic demonstrate such a fine touch of carving.
One of my favorite details is the addition of the tendons seen in the hands. These faint lines give more definition to the figure and demonstrates a knowledge of anatomy.
The tonsured angel on the left is framed both by his halo and the patterning of the different feathers of his open wings. In my imagination, he has just alighted to his position next to the Virgin and Child.
But my favorite detail of this angel is the position of the feet on the slanted base of the tympanum composition. He is perched perfectly and we can see his feet holding tight on the slanted surface as the swirl of his robes enhance the feeling of movement.
Knowing that the Église Notre-Dame du Pré was a ruin meant that we had little expectation when we visited. Actually, the only reason that we stopped was because it was on the way of our oft-traveled route from Vézelay to La Charité-sur-Loire. But we were moved greatly by the magnificent ruin. It helped me realize what an extraordinary invention of the Romanesque was the tympanum sculpture.
Location: 47.366013° 3.111206°