The Language of Romanesque (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

Alternating piers and columns, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Alternating piers and columns, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

How could we discuss the development of Romanesque and Gothic architecture if we did not discuss the magnificent stone vaulting that covered these churches?

Sexpartite vault, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sexpartite vault, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We certainly must have a vocabulary to discuss the vertical and horizontal elements that constitute the structure of the church.

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?

Philippe Quantin (c. 1600 -.1636) Saint Bernard écrivant  (Oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon)

Philippe Quantin (c. 1600 -.1636) Saint Bernard écrivant (Oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon)

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?

Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Jumièges (Seine-Maritime), Photo by PJ McKey

Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Jumièges (Seine-Maritime), Photo by PJ McKey

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.

West portal, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d’Or) Photograph by PJ McKey

West portal, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d’Or) Photograph by PJ McKey

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.

Resurrection capital, [Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Resurrection capital, [Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Flight to Egypt, Basilique Saint-Andoche, Saulieu (Côte d'Or)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Flight to Egypt, Basilique Saint-Andoche, Saulieu (Côte d’Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Angel and demon confronting each other  (Photo by PJ McKey)

Angel and demon confronting each other (Photo by PJ McKey)

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.

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

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.

10 responses to “The Language of Romanesque (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I understand. In it’s way, the language of Romanesque is indeed architecture, art, art history, history, but without the response evoked by the whole it is only a dry description of an object with little to no meaning. It is rather like trying to get past the dry facts in something like genealogy. Yes, the dates of birth, marriage and death are important but what about the person those dates attach to? What kind of work did they do (if you can find out)? Were they involved in the major events of their time? Did they see their children grow to adulthood and have children of their own? Can you get a sense of the person’s feelings, or standards, or character? You are doing things like that with your language of Romanesque. There is also something that words just can not convey, your images do that. Sometimes they feel like a window into the past, a way for us to see what it was like.

    • I’m sure that you do understand, Aquila. I noticed the other day that we have published over 500 articles on the Via Lucis site and published several thousand photographs, so of course the imagery is so important to the descriptions. But even for ourselves, we have to provide context. It was the pattern of these thoughts that provoked this post.

  2. Love the photo of the sexpartite vault. And the amazing sculpture in the Flight to Egypt. Thanks for what you said here. I also learn things by visiting French churches. In Argelès on Saturday I went into the church (Gothique méditerranéen) and a parishioner was keen to offer an explanation of the paintings and figures in the retable and around the altar. I learnt a lot, and understood the value of the picture-stories for those who couldn’t read.

    • Trish, the Flight into Egypt is the reason that we went to Saulieu, which as a church is just a poor remnant of its former state. But the remaining capitals are astonishing. As for your visit to Argelès, we understand the explanation that you received from the parishioner. That has happened so often to us. Meanwhile, PJ and I leave a week from tomorrow and will be in France so soon. Can’t wait.

  3. !!! You are Dennis is number II after the builders of churches. Your work is very important and precious. Respect for PJ McKey, big one.

  4. Chartres is where my love of cathedrals started so many years ago, but everything is so beautiful here. I think it’s high time I renewed my passport:)

    • Yuri, you will be surprised (and I hope thrilled) with the restoration that has taken place in the last seven years or so. We are seeing Chartres as it appeared 800 years ago.

  5. I teach medieval architecture and am specially fond of Romanesque churches and gothic cathedrals. I have found the English translation of Henri Focillon’s The Life of Forms especially useful as to clean and precise descriptive architectural terminology of medieval churches and cathedrals (also, the book is spectacularly well-written and brilliantly argued), also Otto von Simson’s english version of is The Gothic Cathedral. Duby’s masterpiece titled in English “The time of the Cathedrals” is a primer on medieval architecture terminology. Erwin Panosfky devoted a symposium at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art many years back devoted to Abbot Suger of Saint Denis, the “inventor” of the Gothic style in architecture. The book with all the essays read at the symposium can be obtained, used, from several bookstores on the net. Panofsky also translated Suger’s allocutions on the sanctification and the administration of Saint Denis in a book titled “Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and its Art Treasures”, a splendid book, where you can learn, from Suger himself, the meaning of religious ornament, the complexities of cathedral structure, taking into account that nothing in a Gothic cathedral is meaningless or happenstance. Romanesque is different, as the master builders often refurbished a Roman basilica to turn it into a church, and thus Romanesque typology was slow in taking shape, maybe barely a century before the cathedral came into being. It is very useful to visit medieval religious buildings after studying a lot. Everything becomes clearer and photographs may become even more meaningful and pertinent. Thank you for the opportunity to visit your interesting conversation. 🙂

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