The Monk in the Morvan Forest (Dennis Aubrey)

We are finally home again after two months photographing in France, Spain, and even a little bit of Italy. We drove 6,960 kilometers during that time at an arrive speed of 51 kilometers an hour, which translates to 4,344 miles and a dazzling 32 miles per hour. This demonstrates the narrowness of the country roads where we drive and the amount of time we spent in the Pyrénées and Alps. Until we hit the highway returning to Paris, the average speed was 48 kilometers per hour!

The trip ended in Vézelay at the Crispol hotel, which is almost like home to us. The Schori family is always so welcoming and the addition of the two children Max and Clémence makes it even brighter. It is always bittersweet leaving France. We love it there but we are always anxious to return home, this time to our new house amidst the Amish in Ohio. But this year was even harder because on our last full day, we went to visit Angelico Surchamp again at the monastery at La Pierre Qui Vire. Surchamp is our inspiration and our master, whose two hundred volumes of work documenting the Romanesque religious architecture of Europe is the bedrock on which we build. We arrived knowing that he resides in the infirmerie these days.

He was brought to the parloir in a wheelchair and we could see how feeble his 94 year-old frame is now, how much thinner. But when he recognized us, he lit up like a child and we had the most wonderful hour visit with him. Continually he would look out the window and smile at the blue sky with the great white clouds and remark at them, as if seeing them for the first time. C’est le don du Seigneur pour cette visite.

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

He tired easily but I thought he might want to go outside. He immediately agreed – to PJ’s horror. It was quite chilly outside and she was not sure that the nurse would appreciate us absconding with him. Surchamp rose as if to walk but agreed to let us wheel him out. We took the back way through the refectory and down the service elevator and out into the lower courtyard. We only stayed a few minutes because of the cold, but his eyes glowed brighter and he was transfixed by the site of the forest beyond.

When it was time for us to leave, we told him that we would see him next year. I asked if he would like us to take him to Vézelay to see the Basilique Sainte Madeleine, the church that started his great adventure almost seventy years ago, the first that he ever photographed. His eyes opened wide and he said almost rapturously, oh, oui, si Dieu le veut with a smile. And then he added that he would have to ask the abbot. I told him we would write the abbot about the plans and he repeated that he would have to get the permission of the abbot.

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

And then he said, À mon âge, tout ce que je dois donner c’est ma mort – “At my age, all I have left to give is my death.” I told him that he had more to give than that, just the joy of our visit with him was a greater gift. He took my arm, looked at me with that old, wise look and said Nous sommes séparés par des milliers de kilomètres et un grand océan, mais nos coeurs sont proches.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I think he was saying goodbye. We return to France again next year and I can only hope that we see our master at that time. Until that time, we can rest content that he is at peace in the forests of the Morvan.

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

16 thoughts on “The Monk in the Morvan Forest (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. What a lovely and loving tribute to your dear friend and master, Dennis. His voice will join the Madeline’s singing from the stones in Vezelay. Peace and thanksgiving to you, PJ, and Angelico Surchamp.

    1. Gordon, each time we see Surchamp, it is a gift. He himself is aware of this, saying that every year after 80, “Ça coûte cher”. We live for the moment that his inner imp appears to delight us and he didn’t fail us this time either. Best to you, Kay and Barclay.

  2. Reblogged this on Views from the Edge and commented:
    We post Dennis Aubrey’s latest epistle for a number of reasons. Readers of Views from the Edge may recall that the Via Lucis photographic essay on the stones singing at Vezelay inspired a sermon on the stones singing. Here the monk who wrote the history of these Romanesque churches comes out from the shadows in a lovely tribute by Dennis, complete with pictures of PC and Dom Angelico Surchamp.

  3. Dear Dennis Aubrey:
    I rad with a big pleasure and interest your chronicles about « Via Lucis », the light’s road ! Your last chronicle about our visit to Don Angelico Surchamp at La Pierre qui Vire. Indeed, I enjoy, in my library, a number of « Zodiaque » books some on thematics of romanesque art, other dedicated to a region, most in France and in Italy. We visited La Pierre qui Vire in 1996 in the frame of a trip in the Morvan, combined with a visit at Saulieu to St Andoche… and a wonderful meal at « La Côte d’Or », with quite a friendly welcome by Bernard Loiseau, one of the very best cooks in France ! Alas, a few years later, Bernard suicided, in consequences of a bad (and unjustified judgment by Gault et Millau guide. When we met, we had the feeling that he was altogether a genus of cooking and a very fragile person…
    The day after, we were at la Pierre qui Vire, were Zodaque editions were still active at this time. Alas, Don Angelico was absent, so we were received by another monk active in the edition. I was surprised to learn that Don Angelico was still living, and your evocation is extremely sensitive and human !
    We live in Switzerland (Neuchâtel), so not that far from Morvan (about 4 hours drive) than Ohio ! Sure you know St Andoche, but anyhow, I attach below some of my (more recent) pictures of the chapiteaux.
    All the best, and once more, best thanks for your chronicles !
    Michel Aragno
    retired professor of microbiology… and lover of romanesque art


    1. Michael, at the time that you visited La Pierre Qui Vire, Surchamp was probably the confessor at the convent of Notre Dame de Venière, just outside of Tournus; he only returned three years ago. We visit him every time we return to France. Alas, this time he was not able to go to lunch at a restaurant with us.

      As far as Bernard Loiseau is concerned, indeed a tragedy. The region lost another of its great restaurants when Mark Menau’s L’Esperance closed last year as well (my personal experience there was not great). I read that it is now being turned into a spa and has Alain Ducasse’s name associated with it. At least Saulieu still has Saint Andoche and its marvelous sculpture – from one lover of Romanesque to another, thank you for your photos.

  4. It’s been a wonderful time traveling with you both through your beautiful photography and heart felt comments.Welcome back to your other home!

  5. Leaving a comment in any Via Lucis’ post is always difficult.

    If the reader is not temporally blinded by the technical and artistic perfection of its pictures, then he is speechless because of the profoundness, empathy, sensitivity of its text.

    Yes, it’s very difficult to leave a comment here. But I’ll try…

    Wonderful post, Dennis.

  6. Dennis & PJ, your posts always bring me joy, and this one especially so. Thank you. For those of us who yearn to travel and write as you do, every post is an inspiration.

  7. Visually stunning images, as always, and a beautifully poignant memoir. You and PJ have a gift for capturing the juxtaposition of light and shadow that captures the serenity of these beautiful places. Keep up the great work.

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