In photographing, thinking of and writing about these churches for Via Lucis, we have found it necessary to develop a language to communicate the ideas that result. Part of that language is, of course, architectural. Technical descriptors of the elements of the churches are necessary. If we are to describe the nave of the Basilique Sainte Foy in Conques, we could not do so without a discussion of Stützenwechsel, the alternation of piers and columns in the arcades.
How could we discuss the development of Romanesque and Gothic architecture if we did not discuss the magnificent stone vaulting that covered these churches?
Another part of the language is historical, the times during which these churches were created, lived, and destroyed. It is impossible to understand the European renaissance that was marked by the development of the Romanesque style without discussing the great monastic movement, or figures like Bernard of Clairvaux and Abbot Suger?
If we want to explain the destruction of these beautiful structures we must invoke the Viking invasions, the Hundred Years’ War, Wars of Religion, or the French Revolution?
A third part of understanding is art and art history. This was the age where Europeans rediscovered sculpture and they celebrated that discovery with monumental achievements like the great portals with their tympana.
They filled their churches with carvings, from capitals to friezes, tombs, and statuary. Everywhere there were signs of this sculptural revival. The churches were decorated with friezes and even mosaics. They were filled with reliquaries, crosses, and sacred vessels made of fine enamel, jewels, gold and silver. There were ornately illuminated manuscripts that took years of patient labor to complete.
And then there is the language of the Christian religion. Romanesque churches are, after all, religious structures and their very fabric contains the ideas of Christianity. Stories from the Bible, the life of Christ, the hagiography of the saints and martyrs are all part of this fabric.
In doing so, I have personally adopted this language as part of my personal means of expression. I started reading the Bible and religious writers to understand references, and in doing so discovered ideas that were incorporated into my life. Stories from the Bible carried for me elemental power; the Death of Ephraim, the Tower of Babel, and the fall of Simon Magus. Like the study of Shakespeare in my earlier years, the episodes became part of my expressive language.
But doing this is not enough for us. We are not experts but devoted amateurs. We can use the tools that the experts give us to the best of our ability, but we are always learning ourselves, so how can we pretend to be knowledgeable? We shot twice at the Cathédrale Saint Etienne in Cahors before we realized that we had never photographed the extraordinary façade hidden on the north side of the church in an alleyway.
The scholar Janet Marquardt was nice enough to correct one of my statements recently, and she did it quite gently, in a personal email. She did not want to embarrass me. I wrote her that there was no problem with the public correction; I am not academically inclined and am sure that I make many errors in my writing here.
Ultimately I would have to say that for PJ and myself, these different fields of knowledge do not make the language of the Romanesque, do not allow us to express the churches fully. It takes more, something composed from but different than the individual descriptions. It is somehow a unique combination with a resonance, like a musical style. Like the architecture itself, this language is about proportion and balance, inspiration and devotion.
Whenever we are stuck, we ask ourselves how we feel about the architecture, or more accurately, what feelings these churches evoke in us. This can get tricky, and sometimes I write articles that are far more personal than I would have ever expected when starting the Via Lucis project with PJ. But these reflections often give us the key to describing the churches that we love so much.
We have been looking for the authentic sound of these churches and when we are lucky enough to find that voice, it is like hearing great Cajun songs in Southern Louisiana, with all the rhythm, melodies, harmonies and grace notes that make them sing.