Candles for Vézelay (Dennis Aubrey)

Trish Worth has been a long-time member of the Via Lucis congregation, and one of the regular voices in the choir. A couple of years ago she brought up a question of whether it was possible to photograph a church at night by candlelight, specifically the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay. She wanted to understand how the church looked to those who built it.

Trish wrote, “I did an experiment with a candle and a painting of mine yesterday, and my husband took a photo. The painting completely changed in candlelight. I only had one candle, but pre-electric artists probably had a number of them lighting a studio, nevertheless my painting was shadowed all the time, never wholly illuminated. Anyway, the exercise reminded me of a scene in “The English Patient” where the nurse was hoisted up towards the ceiling, holding a candle, to see the old frescoes. I tried to imagine you and PJ being given permission to enter a completely dark church with your candles and cameras.”

Painting by Candlelight, Photo by Brett Worth

Painting by Candlelight, Photo by Brett Worth

This prompted a fairly long-discussion that of the subject in the comments section that led to the difference in modern illumination and candles.

I wrote, “At a targeted illumination of 15 lumens per square foot (the approximate illumination for a hotel corridor) for us to light the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay would require about two hundred 100 watt incandescent lamps producing 1650 lumens each, spaced six feet apart. This would leave the upper reaches of the church almost dark. To accomplish the same lighting with candlelight at 13 lumens each would require approximately 24,000 candles. Using long exposures, we could achieve results with about 20% of these candles, but that is still would require 4,800 candles. Now admittedly, Vézelay is quite a grand church, but it goes to show what it would take. Now, maybe we could use torches …”

Transept chapel, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Transept chapel, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Trish wrote back “I’ve been wondering how monks would light the church when they went several times a night for offices. Did they hold one candle each? Were there candelabra continually burning? I discussed your 24,000 candles with a friend and she reminded me that the first few thousand would have melted by the time you’d finished lighting the last one. Perhaps a small church, with a few candles providing very low lighting, is an option … I’ve since looked at a couple of YouTube videos of monks in night offices. They seem to hold a candle or lamp each. The camera doesn’t pick up much architecture.”

I replied, “Exactly. A few cameras will allow us to pick up almost no architectural detail, even to the naked eye, much less to the camera. And since the video camera only has an exposure of 1/24th or 1/30th of a second, even less for video.”

Nave capitals at twilight, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave capitals at twilight, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I then told her that we had shot at night, but not by candlelight and then described something extraordinary that happened many years ago in the Dordogne.

“As you surely know, Europe (especially France and Spain) are filled with caves decorated with paleolithic art. Lascaux, Chauvet, Font-de-Gaume, Altamira and so many others are filled with extraordinary prehistoric images, and these are of special interest to me. About twenty-five years ago I went to one of the smaller caves in the Dordogne region to see the carvings. I was the only visitor (oh for those times again) so the guide gave me special consideration. He shined his flashlight on a section of wall that was filled with lines. Closer examination showed that there were images carved on top of each other in a seemingly random manner. It was chaotic and confusing – why would the artists do this? Then the guide lit a candle and turned off the flashlight. By the dancing of the candle flame, a whole other world emerged. Instead of superimposed images, it was clear that they were animated images. Animals moved in the light.

This was an extraordinary discovery for me, that 20,000 years ago our ancestors were sophisticated enough to create movement on the walls of their holy places. I recently found this link that shows the concept clearly, but with originals that were painted and not incised. Extraordinary.

The point of all of this is that we are constantly astonished by the creative impulses in human beings. We are so fond of thinking that history is linear and progressive, that today is better than yesterday (except for certain people who are convinced that a few years ago is always better than today). We always feel that we are at the summit of human history. I was long ago convinced that this was a foolish thought and that other ages, while perhaps less technologically advanced, had significant advantages over us in matters that count. The fact that artists from 20,000 years ago were able to see movement in lines and created animations on the walls of their caves demonstrates this.

That the masons who created Vézelay were able to visualize a space that changed with the hours and days of the year, constantly renewing our appreciation of its structures and volumes, is more proof, if an ounce more were needed.

Teresa of Avila chapel, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Teresa of Avila chapel, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We won’t be lighting thousands of candles in the Basilique Sainte Madeleine to see how the church looked so many hundreds of years ago. We will, however, light a candle for my brother Steve who passed away a year ago, a second for my father who has been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, and a third for my mother who has to struggle with loss of those she most loves. May Madeleine show mercy.

15 responses to “Candles for Vézelay (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Thank you, Aquila. We appreciate this very much. We just found out on Thursday. We’ve postponed our France trip so we can visit my parents in California this week.

  1. I read this post in Barcelona this morning, my last stop. It was fun to remember that discussion about the candlelight, and tricky to see my painting here on your blog. Thanks for the attention. And thanks for the chats in English, a language I haven’t used much for a few weeks.

  2. My Lady and I are medieval re-creationists,and thus our evenings on historic UK sites are often lit by the magic of fire. And we have found that one needs a seriously-advanced camera to make it possible to photograph Torchlit Balls and Passages at Arms at some of the historic Sites we are privileged to use. The use of flashgun assistance is contra-indicated because it spoils the atmosphere for those taking part; but the use of long exposures is ruled-out because dance-movements blur. Think about what is needed to freeze fast human movement by torchlight. So I’m always happy when i manage to get pictures which “come-out” the way I want them to – candles and torches, and frozen movement all correctly judged. Achieving this has become much easier since I switched to digital SLR cameras from my trusty Canon F1’s. Instant playback helps because if the last exposure doesn’t look quite right, you have time to re-set and make other exposures. And I’d hate to think about lighting a medieval church by candles and torches ; -to make that work, one would need many helpers/servants lighting thousands of candles, as has been pointed-out. Lighting our 21ft dia. Grand Burgundian Tent adequately when we entertain, takes a dozen candles. Thinking about reading or doing fine embroidery or sewing is however not a problem – so long as you have a water lens.
    However, if they could be hired from the manufacturer for one PR-themed event, it would be possible to achieve a good simulation by the use of “electric candles”, which have developed so much fromtheir beginnings that the current models are extremely good simulations of the live-flame originals

    • Julian, I love the idea about doing a simulation with electric candles, in fact after reading your comment I had to research them on the net. It would be fun getting 24,000 LED candles going in a place like Vézelay and then photographing. Also, as to the difficulty of shooting by candlelight, the original Zeiss cinema lenses were developed for the director Stanley Kubrick so that he could film “Barry Lyndon” by candlelight. The effect was magical at the time. We have shot night services at the Basilique Sainte Foy in Conques and other churches and the only real solution is to use a high ISO and an open aperture. There is always a lot of noise, but much of that can be corrected. We have a very narrow depth of field, but that is the tradeoff for the ability to capture low-light action.

  3. Dennis, I’m not a photographer, not a medievalist and only barely a member of your choir, but I recognize in each of your posts a “sense of place”, a holy place. Feeling what it must have been by candlelight when people had more of an affinity with the unseen…

    Coming to California? Come to Grace!

    My best to your family.

    • Judy, how nice to hear from you and “Grace” – we will one day go to San Francisco and photograph this wonderful cathedral. Thanks for your best wishes and when we come to San Francisco, know that we will contact you immediately.

  4. Dennis,
    Your mention of the depiction of motion in paleolithic paintings captured one of my mind’s tangents: The triple face corbel at Sainte-Gemme (Charente-Maritime) may depict movement of a shaking head.

    The fact that three faces share four eyes helps create the effect of motion because there are really only two eyes but three positions of the head. At least one eye always shares the location of an eye in another position of the head. When one sees a person shaking their head the mind remembers either the whole face at one position or blurring. In the corbel the sculptor may have chosen to show three positions of the face as we shake our heads.

    Nonetheless, I think I prefer the more arresting possibility depicting the multiplicity of human kind.

    • Jesse, Andreï Vlad is doing extensive work documenting Saint Gemme, and he would be the right person to talk about this. I believe that these corbels are mostly 19th century additions from when the church was restored. However, if I might venture an opinion. I don’t see that the corbel that you mentioned with the triple heads would have functioned like the animations because any light source would be relatively stable. However, it well could be that the corbel symbolically represented the shaking of the head, an idea that had not occurred to me.

      When the cave images are seen by candlelight, the smallest lateral movement of the flame brought different details to the fore, which was the source of the animation. Thanks for the very interesting suggestion and commentary.

  5. Being back from Vézelay I come on your site to see your pictures… fascinating as always. Small remark: I believe it is Saint Thérèse de Lisieux on the last picture.

    Thank you, Pierre

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