Imperfect Means for a Perfect Church (Dennis Aubrey)


When we photograph in France, we often are given access to the various churches and cathedrals from the DRAC, Direction régionale des Affaires culturelles (the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs). This allows us access to churches that might otherwise not be available (although for the most part, this is not an issue).

Exterior, Abbaye de Thoronet, Le Thoronet (Var)  Photo by PJ McKey

Exterior, Abbaye de Thoronet, Le Thoronet (Var) Photo by PJ McKey

When we arrived at the Abbaye de Thoronet, however, we received a bit of a shock. We were allowed to photograph, but we couldn’t use our tripods. Since we normally photograph with small apertures for long exposures this was a problem. We showed our recommendations from the authorities, but after about an hour, we were informed that the Abbey at Thoronet was not a church, but a national monument under the direction of Centre des monuments nationaux. The Centre is a public administration run by the Ministry for Culture and Communication. It conserves, restores, and manages nearly 100 national monuments belonging to the State, staffing their sites and opening them to the public. Photography at one of these sites requires additional permissions and even fees.

View of chevet from east, Abbaye de Thoronet, Le Thoronet (Var)  Photo by PJ McKey

View of chevet from east, Abbaye de Thoronet, Le Thoronet (Var) Photo by PJ McKey

PJ was a little disturbed by the statement that the abbey was a park and not a church. Disgruntled, she said, “Well, let’s just have a picnic since it’s just a park.” But we decided to try to photograph anyway in the large, dark structure. We set the ISO’s up to 1000 and entered the church. The abbey church is, quite simply, perfection. It is the finest example of pure Cistercian architecture that we’ve seen and we were enthralled.

But the photography was a challenge, primarily in a few specific areas. First, trying to capture this perfection with tilt-shift lenses and no tripod was a challenge. It is a difficult feat in dark churches anyway, and it was pretty much a matter of guesswork without a tripod. Second, focus was difficult because we had to handhold fairly long exposures, and third, there was increased noise because of the high iso’s.

This image is a typical example of a shot that proved successful. It was a 1/30 second exposure at ISO 1250 and f/4.0. Normally this would have been 30 seconds at ISO 100 and f/16. You can see that the vertical alignments are not wholly successful.

Nave, Abbaye de Thoronet, Le Thoronet (Var)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Abbaye de Thoronet, Le Thoronet (Var) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Another version of this view was taken at 1/25 second, ISO 800 and f/4.0. The horizontal framing was extremely challenging for the tilt-shift function. But this was at the end of the shoot and I was more comfortable with the attempts and the verticals are better aligned in this photo.

Nave and side aisles, Abbaye de Thoronet, Le Thoronet (Var) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave and side aisles, Abbaye de Thoronet, Le Thoronet (Var) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But as you can see from these images and with technical challenges aside, the abbey church is simply perfection in its architecture. The simple lines reflect the elegance of its design and construction. The apse demonstrates this – the three centered windows with round arches and the oven vault perfectly framed by the ogive chancel arch.

Apse, Abbaye de Thoronet, Le Thoronet (Var) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Abbaye de Thoronet, Le Thoronet (Var) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The side aisles are raised three steps above the nave and feature a small retaining wall between the two features.

View from side aisle, Abbaye de Thoronet, Le Thoronet (Var)  Photo by PJ McKey

View from side aisle, Abbaye de Thoronet, Le Thoronet (Var) Photo by PJ McKey

The view from the transept looking west emphasizes the simplicity of the architectural lines, from the ogive arches to the round windows. The side aisles are covered with demi-lune vaults, half-barrels that support the central walls carrying the weight of the nave vault.

View from transept, Abbaye de Thoronet, Le Thoronet (Var)  Photo by PJ McKey

View from transept, Abbaye de Thoronet, Le Thoronet (Var) Photo by PJ McKey

The abbey features an extraordinary multi-level cloister, with a garden in the center. Since the church is sited on a hillside, the main passages of the cloister are on several levels and there is an upper walk as well.

Cloister, Abbaye de Thoronet, Le Thoronet (Var)  Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister, Abbaye de Thoronet, Le Thoronet (Var) Photo by PJ McKey

Overall, we were as successful as we might have hoped in capturing this abbey. On close inspection of the original high-resolution images we can see the flaws – excessive luminance noise, slight focus problems, and tilt-shift aberrations. We are also not able to get tack-sharp images across all planes because we could not do the long exposures that we prefer. Next time we go to this far reach of the Provence, we will return with the proper permissions and – tripods in hand – get the images that we had planned in the first place. I suppose that is not a bad thing – we always have a great excuse to revisit this magnificent church.

Location: 43.460280° 6.264135°

26 responses to “Imperfect Means for a Perfect Church (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Despite the technical difficulties, these are another set of great photos. The simplicity of this interior is mind blowing. Thank you Dennis and PJ.

    • Mell, the church took us by surprise, even though we have photographed about 750 of them, including many Cistercian churches. It is much like the abbey at Senanque, but somehow it is just more elegant and perfect. Glad you liked it.

    • The deceptive simplicity of perfection, Helen. We saw so many small details that always supported the main theme. As for the admin problems, we’ve got a great reason to return now.

  2. I am thrilled to see your post on the last trip before your illness and family loss. More so because it is your incomparable photography of Le Thoronet, PJ and Dennis !
    Le Corbusier was inspired by Le Thoronet, as he embarked on the design of his own abbey of Ste Marie de la Tourette near Lyon.
    Jong-Soung

    • Thank you, Jong-Soung. It has been a tough summer but we are both well now and anxious to get back to posting on Via Lucis. As far as Le Corbusier, I can well understand how he was inspired by Le Thoronet. We were completely captivated.

  3. For all the difficulties, these photographs made my heart sing. This has to be one of the most quietly moving churches. It seems so very familiar, as though I have walked in that place, spent hours inside.

      • The pure symmetry of Cistercian architecture is its genius.

        As for the difficulties photographing without a tripod, perhaps you could have taken a leaf out of my book and perched your cameras on the pews as I do 🙂 Excellent photos nonetheless Dennis.

        I’m in Bristol right now and about to walk into the cathedral here, which should be marvelous. Cheers!

      • Nathan, we used pews, walls, laps, and everything that we could to stabilize the camera. The problem is that the tilt shift image changes with every little movement of the camera and the focal plane needs to be perpendicular to the ground. But we managed a few shots. Let us know about Bristol. BTW, we’re planning a Nathan post now!

      • Ah yes, the tilt shift did present certain intricacies beyond the standard point-and-shoot.

        Bristol is a hall church and has some incredibly intricate tracery arches spanning the side aisles. Wish my camera wasn’t lost or else I would provide photos :/

        Looking forward to seeing what you have to say about me–just remember I can always counter with that cow of yours 😉

  4. I commend your dedication and pursuit of perfection in your images! Even with the challenges at this church, these are simply amazing pictures! The architecture is so pure and I love the minimalist interior so that you can really see the stone. Thanks for sharing another amazing place!

    • Thanks, Christina. Our drive is to document these wonderful structures as they deserve and we have dedicated quite a few years to the pursuit. We have had so little interference over the years that this took us by surprise. But to the credit of the people working at Le Thoronet, they spent over an hour on the phone trying to get us permission.

  5. Despite all efforts, I’ve never managed to get there. One of my most treasured books is Lucien Hervé’s ‘Architecture of Truth”… so for much of my life I have seen Le Thoronet in his magical black-and-white images. And now suddenly, in your beautiful tripod-free images, it bursts into colour!
    Thank you so much.

    (PS Jong-Soung Kimm is right to mention its profound effect on Le Corbusier – who introduces Hervé’s book.)

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