The Magnificent Fragment of Donzy-le-Pré (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

Exterior, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

Exterior, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Tympanum, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Tympanum, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Tympanum, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Tympanum, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Detail – Hand of God, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Detail – Hand of God, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Isaiah detail, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Isaiah detail, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Isaiah hand detail, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Isaiah hand detail, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Angel, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Angel, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Angel detail – Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Angel detail – Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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°

18 responses to “The Magnificent Fragment of Donzy-le-Pré (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Thanks.
    Even in the small village churches I photograph it can be a daunting prospect – ‘where do I start?’ is often the thought that comes to mind. I often sit a while and take in the ‘feel’ of the building and try to recognise the elements that are ‘rattling my cage’.
    It’s nice to see some relatively complete stonework. Great photographs as usual.

    • Christina, we were surprised as well. The church was destroyed during the Wars of Religion and during the French Revolution was sold to a private citizen. We all know what happened to the great abbey of Cluny III when that happened. Fortunately, this marvelous fragment was left relatively undisturbed.

  2. The amazing talent of the anonymous medieval sculptor, matched by your glorious photographs, Dennis has given all of us a chance to vicariously enjoy the spiritual beauty of that wonderful tympanum.

    • Kalli, it is amazing how we rediscover so much more when we go back and edit the photos. We take so many that it takes literally years to process one two-month session of photos. That means that we often see things differently than we did at the time. Glad that this one worked out for you.

    • Thanks, Sarah. The angel has been identified as Gabriel so it could have been a sword, but I don’t know for sure. On the right is part of his swirling garment, which adds to the sensation of movement.

  3. A beautiful work to contemplate…I’ve gone back over the photographs and seen more each time – and how is it possible that any of the polychrome work has survived in those conditions!
    i’m so glad that you broke your journey….

    • That was the feeling at the time, Helen, that we could concentrate on the details in a way that a more complete church would not have allowed. It was kind of interesting in shooting with the long lens – I was actually across the main road in a side intersection for much of the time I used the 400mm lens. That meant inspecting the tympanum through the lens instead of with the naked eye. It was then that I first noticed the polychrome.

      I’m sure that many of the people driving by were wondering what the heck I was doing – “Why doesn’t he just get closer?”

  4. Dennis, how is the information handed down the centuries to us? How do we know that this is Isaiah? Is it an interpretation of some 19th century historian (like most castle architecture renewals in France), or has it actually been transmitted from priest to abbot within the church over millennia?

    • Joel, I have more information, courtesy of Elizabeth Shukin who writes: “Dennis, first of all I didn’t guess it by myself, I just found a site in French dedicated to these marvelous ruins(it says that the copy of the tympanum is exhibited in the local museum, or so I understood.., which is good, it will be preserved no matter what happens to the original).
      As per Gabriel, I think he should be carrying a lily not a sword, no, (the sword is Micheal’s attribute, I think), or his arms may be crossed (like in many medieval paintings) : because he says: Ave Maria, gracia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus.

      We just had a discussion about it when I’ve been to Jerusalem about 2 months ago to see the Botticelli “Annunciation” fresco (transferred to canvas) exhibited in the Art Museum – on the fresco Gabriel has his arms crossed too..
      By Elizabeth Shukin”

      Great information.

  5. Dennis, is this church on the Camino de Santiago? How did I not see it? I walked from Vezelay to Tannay, then Tannay to Varzy, then Varzy to La Charite. Either way, it is absolutely MASTERFUL. The attention to detail is incredible–I don’t think I have ever seen a sculpture from this period where even the tendons of the hands are carved–and with such skill, I might add. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    • Donzy-le-Pré is about 25 kilometers due west of Varzy. You were walking southwest from Varzy to La Charité, so it was off your route. Église Notre-Dame du Pré was a Benedictine priory attached to Cluny and was not actually a pilgrimage church that I am aware of. But the tympanum is magnificent.

  6. Hi Dennis,
    I’ve never seen this church before but it seems to me the hand of God is part of a previous sculpture inserted in the tympanum, rather awkwardly too. Does it seem possible to you?

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