Happy Easter


We are fortunate in having found yet another medieval sculpture of the patron of secular Easter celebrations, Saint Saliento Lepus.

Saint Saliendo Lepus

Saint Saliendo Lepus

According to our research, Saint Saliendo Lepus was a 3rd century noble Roman rabbit who incurred the wrath of the Emperor Diocletian by hiding colored eggs in the forum. Enraged, Diocletian had him turned over to Plautian, prefect of the praetorium, who tortured him in an effort to force him to stop this practice, but when Saliento persisted, he was beheaded and served in a stew with lentils and onions. Though the legend is an ancient one, it is no more than that.

Romanesque Vegetables – Amuse Bouche #37 (Dennis Aubrey)


Somethings you can see and then forget. Others you see and can’t forget. And a few, once seen, can never be unseen.

Today’s example of this comes from our Via Lucis contributor Albert Pinto. He is usually featured as a guest writer or translator, and has even served as our guide in Aix-en-Provence, but this week he outdid himself. He sent us this photograph and asked us to compare it with a certain celebrated masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture.

Celeriac root, photo by Albert Pinto

Celeriac root, photo by Albert Pinto

Stare at that photo for a moment and move on to the next photo, of the trumeau at the Église Abbatiale Sainte-Marie in Souillac with its writhing, intertwined beasts.

Trumeau and tympanum, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac  (Lot)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Trumeau and tympanum, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Some people see the face of Jesus in a cheese pizza or a piece of naan bread, but this really tops them all. And now that I have seen this comparison, and imagined Albert and his wife Monique in their kitchen in Aix-en-Provence, looking at this root and exclaiming together “Wow! Doesn’t this look like the trumeau at Souillac,” it is impossible to look at this picture of the studious Albert in the same way ever again.

Albert Pinto

Albert Pinto

What a delightful contribution to our week.

The Precarious Madonna – Amuse Bouche #36 (Dennis Aubrey)


We have often remarked how revered are the vierges romanes and especially the vierges noires in rural France. Notre Dame de Vassivière in the Puy-de-Dôme is no exception, in fact she has two homes. Since 1547, the statue has spent the winters in the Église Saint André de Besse in the town of Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise. Each summer on July 2, the feast of the visitation, she is carried up to her remote summer home at the isolated Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vassivière, a journey of about five miles due west. The statue is carried on a litter by the faithful in a festival called the Montée and returned on September 21st, the feast of Saint Matthew, in the Dévalade. Her return to Besse is accompanied by fireworks and gunfire.

View from the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vassivière, Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by

View from the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vassivière, Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by

The current version of Notre Dame de Vassivière is a copy of the original, burned in the Revolution in 1804. Five years later, Napoleon re-established the veneration of the statue and the copy was made. In 1881, the crowning of the vierge was celebrated by 30,000 worshippers.

PJ and I were anxious to photograph Notre Dame de Vassivière and when we visited in September of 2008, the chapel was almost empty. The Dévalade was scheduled for three days later, but we could not stay. She was on her spot high on the wall of the chapel. We took the pictures and then ventured to ask the gardienne if it were possible to take the statue down for photography. She thought for a moment and then agreed – PJ and I were absolutely delighted. We were delighted for only a moment, however. The woman came out with a rickety ladder and handed it to us. We were to take the priceless artifact down ourselves!

Notre Dame de Vassivière, Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vassivière, Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Notre Dame de Vassivière, Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vassivière, Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Now the ladder was not only rickety, but it had only about five steps. I would have to climb all the way to the topmost step and stretch my full length just to reach the vierge. Then I would have to lift her off her shelf with just my arms and bring her down! The sculpture was only 30″ high but it was solid wood and weighed at least 40 pounds.

PJ and I looked at each other, swallowed and made our only possible semblance of a plan – she would hold the ladder while I climbed, and as I descended, she would help secure the madonna. Gulp! And so we did. Climbing the ladder was an adventure. I am a very large man and the ladder was probably rated for someone half my weight when it was new. Now, it was a miracle that it was holding at all. PJ said she felt “abject fear” as I began moving the statue from its shelf. It became clear that the crown was not really secured and we would have to be extremely steady not have the gold crown come tumbling to the ground. I was in a state of fear and PJ was busy with her own calculations; if all went wrong, should try to save me, the vierge, or the crown?

Somehow we made it down without a disaster and placed the vierge on the altar for our photo session. The photographs were worth the effort, we figured, even though we would have to get the statue back up later.

Dennis photographing Notre Dame de Vassivière,  Photo by PJ McKey

Dennis photographing Notre Dame de Vassivière, Photo by PJ McKey

We did manage to return Notre Dame to her lofty perch on the wall of the chapel, gave a small prayer of grateful thanks for our own personal deliverance, and returned to Issoire for an aperitif! We earned it on that particular day.

Notre Dame de Vassivière, Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vassivière,  Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame de Vassivière, Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vassivière, Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

Saint Peter in Aix – Amuse Bouche #34 (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I have been fortunate enough to photograph the magnificent churches in the Provence for many years now, but only recently were able to document the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur in the center of the old city of Aix-en-Provence. Through the good offices of our friends Albert and Monique Pinto, we received permission to spend most of a day unhindered in this grand melange of a cathedral. One section is pure Romanesque, however; the cloister. On one corner pillar is a magnificent rendering of Saint Peter. While looking about for a post to re-start our Via Lucis posts after our long and somewhat difficult move from Cape Code to our new home in Ohio, I found this sculpture and was immediately struck by its beauty. I had completely forgotten that Saint Peter anchored that lovely cloister and was delighted to rediscover him.

Saint Peter, corner cloister pier, Cathédrale Saint Sauveur, Aix-en-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Saint Peter, corner cloister pier, Cathédrale Saint Sauveur, Aix-en-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The sculptural details really make this work special. The incorporation of the rays of the halo into a decorated fanfold is superb, and the knot at the waist is a great touch. The borders of the tunic and cloak are also beautifully rendered by the sculptor. We forget how brilliant the Romanesque sculptures were at creating these decorative touches.

Saint Peter, cloister, Cathédrale Saint Sauveur, Aix-en-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Saint Peter, cloister, Cathédrale Saint Sauveur, Aix-en-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We missed our conversations with all of you here at Via Lucis and are so glad to be back at work on this project. We look forward to presenting more of these magnificent churches and revisiting them in person as soon as we can.

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

A Madonna for Mariners – Amuse Bouche #33 (Dennis Aubrey)


En Avant de Guingamp

En Avant de Guingamp

Since the relegation of our beloved AJ Auxerre from Ligue 1, PJ and I have chosen another underdog, this time a tiny town represented in Ligue 1 by an over-achieving football club. The team we chose was En Avant de Guingamp, competing for the small Breton town with a population of 7,235 people. It would be inconceivable for a town the size of Devils Lake, North Dakota to field a major league baseball team, but this is the equivalent of Guingamp’s achievement. The home pitch, the Stade du Roudourou, has a capacity of 18,126, two-and-a-half times the population of the town. In 2014 they won their second Coupe de France competition against all other teams in French professional football! The Guingampais have good reason to be proud.

The Guingampais also have reason to be proud of their famed Basilique Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours. This structure is an amalgam of contrasting styles but is somehow harmonious. Inside the church we found the famous Black Madonna, Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours (also anciently known as Notre Dame du Halgoët). I believe that she is normally found in the Porche Notre Dame on the north façade of the church, which features a famous labyrinth on the floor. But when we were there, she was ensconced in the south side aisle.

Side aisle with Madonna, Basilique Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours. Guingamp (Côtes-d'Armor)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisle with Madonna, Basilique Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours. Guingamp (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Guingamp is just 20 miles from the sea, and for centuries the families of the mariners of the town prayed to Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours for the safe return of their loved ones. There was a pilgrimage to the Madonna on the Saturday before the first Sunday of July and records document her fame from the 15th century. The original, venerated for centuries, was torn down and destroyed in the French Revolution. The current Black Madonna was reconstituted in the 19th century from fragments of three different statues recovered from the broken pieces. The head, I have read, is from the original.

Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours. Basilique Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours, Guingamp (Côtes-d'Armor)  Photo by PJ McKey

Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours. Basilique Notre Dame-de-Bon-Secours, Guingamp (Côtes-d’Armor) Photo by PJ McKey

A final note – after our visit to Guingamp and her lovely basilica, PJ and I stopped at the small coastal town of Paimpol, where we enjoyed a late lunch of oysters and and a bottle of Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine sur lie at a seaside cafe. A perfect day.

Huitres avec mignonette, Photo par PJ McKey

Huitres avec mignonette, Photo par PJ McKey

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

A Roadside Masterpiece – Amuse Bouche #32 (Dennis Aubrey)


In 2012 PJ and I spent some time in Burgundy exploring the regional churches there. At the limits of that exploration, we visited the small 12th century church of Notre Dame d’Avenas. This modest church sits literally on the side of D18E, a regional road that passes through the commune of Avenas, population 128.

Legend recounts that the 12th century builders came to Avenas to a church on the site of an ancient abbey destroyed by Saracens. “It was decided to rebuild a church on the ruins of the ancient monastery of Pelagius, destroyed by the barbarians. The work began, but every morning the tools of the workers were found scattered … The building owner, thinking God did not want that location, had an idea. He would throw his hammer and where it fell, that would be the future sit. He did so and the hammer fell 1200 meters away in a hawthorn bush, near the sacred fountain of Avenas.”

Église Notre Dame d'Avenas, Avenas (Rhône)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Notre Dame d’Avenas, Avenas (Rhône) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The church came under the rule of the monastery of Cluny and its Benedictine monks. The sculptors of Cluny III made one lasting contribution to the church, the limestone altar with its magnificent carving featuring Christ in Majesty, surrounded by the twelve apostles, each carrying a book.

Altar, Église Notre Dame d'Avenas, Avenas (Rhône)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Altar, Église Notre Dame d’Avenas, Avenas (Rhône) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The ensemble as a whole is excellent, including the other panels not shown in this view. But I am particularly struck by the figure of Christ. Though damaged, we can see Christ giving the sign of benediction with his right hand. He has a small, neat beard and his clothes are finely rendered. His face, however, demonstrates an almost surreal calmness. I can only wonder what the sculptor felt as he worked to free this figure from the stone.

Altar detail, Église Notre Dame d’Avenas, Avenas (Rhône) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Altar detail, Église Notre Dame d’Avenas, Avenas (Rhône) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

The Crucifixion Capital in Lubersac – Amuse Bouche #31 (Dennis Aubrey)


One of the finest sculptures to be found at the Église Saint-Étienne in Lubersac is the capital showing the death of Jesus. Christ on the cross is flanked by two standing figures. On the right, the vinegar is offered for Jesus to drink. This act is described in John 19:28:

After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst. Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a spunge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.

On the left, the Roman soldier pierces his side with a lance told in John 19:33:

But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.

Capital – Crucifixion, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – Crucifixion, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Of particular interest are the figures on either side of the cross, at the right and left hand of Jesus. These represent the thieves crucified with him on Golgotha. Note the sunburst around the head of the thief at Christ’s right hand – certainly this signifies the penitent thief.

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.