The Passing of a Giant (Dennis Aubrey)


Angelico Surchamp June 23, 1924 – March 1, 2018

The first time we saw Père Angelico Surchamp, the diminutive monk was with a group of admirers at the Convent of Notre Dame de Venière just outside of Tournus where he served as confessor to the nuns. One of the guests – obviously a great admirer – insisted on taking his picture. Smiling, Surchamp asked, “What am I? A national monument?” I remember thinking at the time, “Of course you are!”

Dom Angelico Surchamp, September 20, 2011

PJ and I have been planning our fall trip to Europe. As always, we put on the list a visit to the Abbaye de la Pierre-qui-Vire, home to our great mentor. The last time we saw him a year ago his health was failing and we were hoping that he would be well enough to receive us. This is not to be; today we received a letter from Father Mathias at the Monastery.

Chers amis,
Nous vous partageons le départ de notre Frère Angelico Surchamp.
Bien fraternellement.

This short announcement came with an obituary letter from Père Luc CORNUAU, Abbé of La Pierre-qui-Vire, giving the briefest summary of his life and accomplishments. The key phrase in the document is the following; “Artiste et moine, f. Angelico a cherché à unifier sa vie, non sans tension lors des évolutions de la liturgie après le Concile. Son regard pétillant et malicieux laissait entrevoir sa forte personnalité, et son sourire accueillant, sa simplicité ainsi que sa belle confiance en Dieu.” Translated, this reads “Artist and monk, Father Angelico sought to unify his life, not without tension during the changes in the liturgy after the Council. His sparkling and mischievous look revealed his strong personality, his welcoming smile, his simplicity and his trust in God.”

So few words, hinting at so much. But what nothing in the document says is what he accomplished for the history of architecture, specifically, Romanesque architecture. His chef d’oeuvre – the Éditions Zodiaque – is a monumental accomplishment in art history, a collection of over 200 volumes on Romanesque art and architecture. No work in the field is complete without these studies.

Frères Surchamp and Norberto photographing a church in Aragon, September 23, 1986 (Photo courtesy of Románico)

Our admiration for Surchamp is complete, but the sense of loss at his passing has nothing to do with his work. We have lost the luminous spirit of the small monk in the Morvan who had become our friend, our mentor, and our spiritual guide for Via Lucis.

We have one memento of our visits to him that carries his inimitable touch. On our first visit, we met him at the convent and then took him to lunch in Cuisery. Afterwards, he took us to see the Église Sainte Marie Madeleine in the village of Le Villars. He thought it would be interesting for us to photograph. At one point I was shooting the exterior capitals and joked with Père Surchamp that he had now to “sing for his supper”; I handed him the remote and asked him to take the shot. He smiled at me and said “Is the photographer the one who presses the button or the one who composes the shot?” I laughed and said, “Now we’re talking philosophy.” Here is the shot he took – posted in black and white, of course – and even though we never completed the discussion of who the photographer was, I have the pleasure of assigning the metadata and therefore attribute the photo to the master.

Portal of Église Sainte Marie Madeleine, Le Villars (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dom Angelico Surchamp

That night I asked PJ to express her thoughts on Surchamp. “We were so excited to meet him; I thought it was the meeting of the minds for the two of you. You found someone who you could talk to about the churches on a different level than anyone else, because there is a philosophy in his speaking of these places and the experience of photographing them. You can really understand him when you have done it, like we have. It means a great deal to hear him speak. I think that he looked at the churches as an artist, not just as a priest or a monk or from strictly a religious point of view, but also from an artistic point of view. Which is why you don’t have to be Catholic to love the places. He understands this on a very profound level, as I think we do.

And I love his explanation of the difference between Romanesque and Gothic – the Romanesque induces internal experience and reflection; Gothic induces external reflection. Gothic is the demonstration of the belief of spirituality while Romanesque is the experience of that belief.”

And this from a woman who professes not to speak French.

Surchamp’s artistic view of the world comes from his early love of and training in the fine arts. He was a student of the great Cubist painter Albert Gleize and was greatly influenced by Gleize’s work.

Paysage cubiste, Albert Gleize (1920)

PJ had further thoughts on Surchamp. “He sees the interaction of lights and planes, shapes and shadows. He wasn’t just shooting – most of the photography that you see from that era, they are shooting a picture of the church. But he’s really shooting like we shoot, he’s shooting something else. He is trying to capture the church, but he’s shooting deeper than ‘I want to show someone what this place looks like.’ He’s trying to express all of these other things – the interaction of the architecture with the light, it’s multidimensional feel.”

Paray-le-Monial from Bourgogne romane, La Nuit des Temps I, 1974 (6th ed.), pl. 50

Paray-le-Monial from Bourgogne romane, La Nuit des Temps I, 1974 (6th ed.), pl. 50

She continues, “He’s shooting as an artist – taking the religious content aside, you can see that he is shooting it the way an artist would. Of course it’s very realistic, there’s nothing more real than architecture, but like your shot of Fontenay that I love, that’s a perfect example. There’s nothing more realistic than that, but it also wonderfully abstract, and you can look at it and see the bands of light only, it’s abstract.”

As if to confirm this thought, when Surchamp saw PJ’s photograph of the side aisle at the Cathédrale Saint Front in Perigeueux, he smiled at her and said “You photograph as I photograph!”

Side aisle, Cathedrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

We were lucky enough to visit with Surchamp in the company of my parents some years ago. At the Basilique Saint Philibert de Tournus, we walked through the old columns of the nave together. We descended the steep stairs into the crypt, and seeing Surchamp in his black robes walking with his hands behind his back was like being taken back centuries in time. I could almost hear the plainsong chants of his Benedictine predecessors as he walked these stone floors among the strong pillars.

We mounted again up into the main floor of the abbey church, my father and Surchamp walked arm-in-arm. I thought, “These are my two fathers, my birth father and my spiritual father”.

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

Driving away, my parents were delighted to have met Surchamp – “He was everything you talked about,” my mother said. Indeed, and more, because my words can never do justice to this accomplished Benedictine monk who has become so important to our lives. “We do not reach beauty except in love, and love requires time and freedom.”

On our last visit with Surchamp at La Pierre qui Vire, 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.

“We are separated by thousands of kilometers and a great ocean, but our hearts are close.”

I felt at the time that he was saying goodbye, and it turns out that feeling was correct. He is back in the arms of his great, giving, and loving God who Surchamp cherished with all of his heart. We wish him farewell on his long journey into eternity. We will lay flowers on his grave when we return to our beloved France in September.

Here are links to our previous articles on père Angelico, José Surchamp

Those who precede (Part 2), Angelico Surchamp

Those who precede (Part 3), Angelico Surchamp

Those Who Precede part 4 – Angelico Surchamp

The Monk in the Morvan Forest

30 responses to “The Passing of a Giant (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. As time passes by…

    Angelico view of the world was that everything was divine, we had a grear discussion with Jaime Cobreros with him during his paint exposition in Evreux.

    Qu’il repose en paix auprès du Père.

  2. Thanks for the informatin. I had not realized that Dom Angelico lived a few kilometres from my hometown of Tournus ! I will be thinking of him when I go for walks and drives in Venières.

    • Evelyne, he was in Venières for several years in his “exile” from La-Pierre-qui-Vire. We spent hours walking together in the Basilique Saint Philibert, a church he knew so very well.

  3. I never knew him but through your own writings Dennis. Nevertheless I feel for your loss and that the world is the poorer for his passing.

    • Doug, we were so lucky to have him in our lives. We do, however, have a pilgrimage to make. Besides placing flowers on his grave. we will visit some of the churches for which he painted murals during his long and vibrant life.

  4. A wonderful tribute. I am not Catholic, but I too enjoy the art. Beauty in all of its facets reflects and refracts the nature of our God from whom it shines. The composure of your pictures does indeed speak of the deeper meanings of the scenes you capture. Keep up the good work; seek to know God more than merely the beauty of which He is the Artist and Author.

  5. Dennis and PJ, I am sorry to read of Pere Surchamp’s passing. We had hoped to meet him this fall with you. Isn’t it wonderful that you connected with him, as you were meant to do? He will live on in you and in his works. May the Lord embrace him magnificently.

    • Ann, I believe that there was a party of angels on his arrival in Heaven, the champagne slightly flat because he was later than expected. But we can be sure that he would look at the assembled throngs and say, “What am I, a national monument?”

  6. I extend my condolences to you and PJ on this sad news. I know the feeling of losing a spiritual parent as well as my biological parents. There are certain people who touch our lives in ways others do not, those special individuals are so precious and their influence lasts a lifetime. Requiem in aeternum.

    • Thank you, my friend. We are lucky to have these people in our lives – and PJ and I are so lucky to have the because of our shared passion in Via Lucis. Everytime I see “Aquila” on a post, I know that there is a thoughtful and empathetic soul communicating to us.

  7. My condolences to both of you, Dennis. It seems like Father Surchamp’s passing is like losing a piece of yourself. The work that you and PJ do carries on his legacy of capturing more than just the look of Romanesque or Gothic, but of how it feels. I love the way PJ paraphrased this mutual understanding of the difference:

    “The Romanesque induces internal experience and reflection; Gothic induces external reflection. Gothic is the demonstration of the belief of spirituality while Romanesque is the experience of that belief.”

    Does someone like this ever really die? His ideas live through you and PJ and all of us who appreciate what it means to step into a place like Vezelay, Fontenay, or Paray-le-Monial and grasp, even briefly, that pure light against the stones.

    • Nathan, it feels like losing both of my fathers, my real one, Don, who I adored, and Surchamp, who was my spiritual mentor. My lord, did we bond when we were together; it was like a mine-meld. His eyes would hold mine so firmly, ensuring that no meaning was lost between us. Thanks for your kindness, Nathan. You know how much you mean to both PJ and myself, and how we are looking forward to you and Caitlin coming to visit this month.

  8. I am very sorry. My condolences to you and PJ. I keep like a treasure a wonderful book of Éditions Zodiaque (“Le Maître de Cabestany”) It seems that the world is getting darker and darker…

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