The Infinite Interior (Dennis Aubrey)

The subconscious is ceaselessly murmuring, and it is by listening to these murmurs that one hears the truth. ― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie

Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by PJ McKey
Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

There is a conceptual difference between Gothic and Romanesque churches and cathedrals. While the Romanesque builders paved the way for the Gothic, there is a deep and wide chasm between the two worlds. It starts on the outside – Gothic cathedrals make you want to sit on a bench and admire the exterior. One enters later and experiences the wonders of the soaring internal architecture.

The exterior of Romanesque church architecture is different, much simpler. It is dominated by three features – the clocher, west front, and the chevet. The clocher (or belltower), like the contemporary church steeple, identifies the structure from the distance as a church.

Église Saint-Révérien, Saint-Révérien (Nièvre)  Photo by PJ McKey
Église Saint-Révérien, Saint-Révérien (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The west front is usually the decorated main entrance to the church and sometimes contains one or two towers. And the chevet is the extreme end of the chancel or choir, usually dominated by the rounded ambulatory chapels. Other than these elements, there is little else that distinguishes the outside of the church, because the goal of the medieval builder was not the exterior, but the creation of interior space.

Eglise de Mailhat, Mailhat (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Eglise de Mailhat, Mailhat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Within the Romanesque church there are a multitude of elements that define the space. The groundplan alone yields a narthex, nave, side aisles, transepts, chancel crossing, apse, choir and ambulatory. The vertical elements include arcades, tribunes, triforia, clerestories, and vaults, all combined in harmonious order creating rhythms of arches and bands the length and breadth of the church.

Abbaye Saint Pierre de Beaumont, Beaumont (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Abbaye Saint Pierre de Beaumont, Beaumont (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The careful arrangement of these elements represents the artistic struggle to define the architecture of belief in an architecture of stone. While they share many of the same structural elements, the Romanesque and Gothic styles reflect different worlds. The Gothic churches speak to our minds, hearts, and aspiring imagination. We admire the achievement of the architecture and are transported by the beauty, elegance, and sophistication. Inside and out, they remind us of the medieval glory of God and a universal order explained by the Christian faith.

Looking west from apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Looking west from apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Romanesque churches don’t inspire admiration for the exterior; they invite you immediately within. And in these shadowed interiors with their unlit corners, we sense a space that reflects an understanding of the human soul and a darker human imagination.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay (Yonne)  Photo by PJ McKey
Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

We sense a faith that does not illuminate brightly like a torch, but acts like a flickering beacon in the distance. We sense the distance we must travel and the dangers we must overcome in order to reach that light. We acknowledge the fear of evil and the terrors of the dark. In the protective embrace of the Romanesque church, we hear the murmuring of subconscious phantoms and sense the truths of which they speak.

Eglise Saint Pierre, Saint Gilles (Marne)   Photo by PJ McKey
Eglise Saint Pierre, Saint Gilles (Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

18 thoughts on “The Infinite Interior (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I really like the metaphor for the Romanesque interior as a flickering light, versus the wholesale, sensory overload illumination of Gothic. I would add that the sculpture-heavy facade of Gothic cathedrals extend the metaphor of exterior vs interior focus, considering how bare Romanesque facades are compared to their Gothic counterparts.

    1. Nathan, we can’t quite agree on the bare Romanesque facades, at least not in the Charente where there is a riot of sculpture on the west facade. But it is, as I mentioned, confined primarily to the west front, unlike the Gothic, where we see it everywhere, even on the roof. Enjoy your trip to Spain, my friend. PJ and I hold a piece of you in our hearts.

  2. Your words sing as poetry. I read them aloud, and their rhythm resonated like the interiors of those ancient creations. Thank you for awakening my drowsy consciousness so early on a cold and icy morning. Vann

  3. I agree that your writing is beautiful. My favorite images here are of the doors. The first exposed for the light and letting everything else fall into darkness. The second is very nicely composed with sharpness in the foreground and background. Both impart a sense of emotion yet different from the other. Well done!

    1. Thank you, Lisa, for your kindness. We love the door images in the churches. So often we are shooting, the light changes, and these scenes just fall in our laps. Many times we try to set them up for capture, but it depends on the characteristics of the church and the light for the shot to really work. PJ’s shot of Saint Gilles is wonderful because of the scene within and is one of my favorites.

  4. Great post, Dennis. I’d simply would like to point out that some Romanesque churches, specially those little, secluded, humble and amazing little Romanesque churches that you find in remote locations do inspire lots of admiration for the exterior too …

    1. Certainly there are many that do, no question. The Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe Chapel in Le Puy springs instantly to mind. Certainly the monastery of Saint Martin du Canigou – but much of this is the setting, I think. But I do believe that these churches were built “from the inside out”.

  5. Lovely; thank you.
    But particularly the darkness – inside the door, down those steps, at l’Eglise de Mailhat. I’d love to see how much more you can do with Romanesque darkness!

    Starting with Bachelard will always open my senses and soften my heart. I suspect you may offer us a phrase from In Praise of Shadows (陰翳礼讃 , In’ei Raisan) by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki next, yes? Wonderful stuff.

    1. Oh, John, I had never heard of “In Praise of Shadows” until you mentioned it. “I understand that in the Gothic cathedral of the West, the roof is thrust up and up so as to place its pinnacle as high in the heavens as possible—and that herein is thought to lie its special beauty. In the temples of Japan, on the other hand, a roof of heavy tiles is first laid out, and in the deep, spacious shadows creates by the eaves the rest of the structure is built.” It is truly wonderful – thank you so much for this reference. And his discussion of laquerware in dim light. Wonderful. “Elegance is frigid.”

    1. Kathy, it was empty and peaceful when we were there. I stood on the ramparts with my father looking down on the marais below and felt what it must have been like to have been a pilgrim when the Benedictines lived here.

  6. You have, as always, given me food for thought.
    I wonder if it is that the romanesque church is a shelter, a reassurance , whereas the gothic church is a confident statement.

    1. I believe that you are on to something there, Helen. I read once that the difference between the two styles is really a difference in spiritual values, and even if the monks of the Romanesque world had the the technical capacity to build with innovations that led to Gothic, they would still build the churches that they did. I am not positive about that, since the Cistercians often built in a Gothic style, but there is truth in there somewhere.

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