A Smiling Madonna – Amuse Bouche #42 (Dennis Aubrey)


In our many posts about the vierges romanes in France and Spain we have discussed their unique expressions. There is often a distant look, as if Mary is looking into the future, into the sacrifice that will be demanded of both herself and her Son. While there are exceptions like the triumphant Madonna in Saint-Aventin, most have serious expressions.

Today, however, while editing the photographs of the lovely Église Sainte Marie in Corneilla de Conflent I was shocked to find a smiling Madonna and Child.

West portal detail, Église Sainte Marie, Corneilla de Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Given the place of honor in the mandorla of the west portal tympanum, Mary is literally smiling. Jesus, however, is grinning! The effect is completely disconcerting. The sculptor must have had some unique vision to create this ensemble, but for the life of me I don’t know what it was. Perhaps after a lifetime of carving religious figures of the most solemn and serious character, this man or woman just felt that maybe there was room for some levity in religion, some expression of light-heartedness. Here in the remote Pyrénées, perhaps an expression of pleasure was warranted.

Whatever the reasoning, I found the image profoundly disturbing. As I tried to smile back, my lips were drawn back over my teeth in a grimace. I held the expression and went to the bathroom to see it in the mirror – it was grotesque! Coming back to the image I thought, even Jesus’ little bare feet seem to be smiling. The angels on either side also seem to be in on the joke.

West portal, Église Sainte Marie, Corneilla de Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

If there was ever a piece of sculpture that deserved to be featured as an amuse-bouche, it is this tympanum in Corneilla de Conflent.

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 Triumphant Madonna – Amuse Bouche #41 Dennis Aubrey


Saint-Aventin is a small town in the Larboust Valley in the Pyrénées, not far from Bagnères-de-Luchon. The eponymous church is located on a side road outside of town, actually a small lane rising to terrace partway up the hill. The church is a magnificent Romanesque structure which we will show in a later post and is distinguished by magnificent exterior sculptures. The most elegant of these is the Sedes Sapientiae virgin next to the door.

Regular readers of Via Lucis know our love of these figures, mostly carved in wood, but this one is unique. Most representation of the virgin are sorrowful, a mother knowing the doomed fate of her child at the hands of man. The child is normally seen as a small adult with a serious face looking straight out at the viewer (as does the Mother here). But here, the child Jesus looks up and shares with his mother a look of triumph, the conquest of temptation and evil.

Vierge Romane, Église Saint-Aventin, Saint-Aventin (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Beneath Mary’s feet are the heads of two demons, trampled into submission. The figures of birds and serpents are held at bay by the power of the Mother and Child, threatening but impotent.

I wish that I could translate the inscription but have not worked it out. Perhaps one of our readers can help?

And of course our readers came through – both Yuri de la Pena and Evelyne Clerc found the text: RES MIRANDA NIMIS MATER DEI ERAT VI NIMIS. This translates to “Thing worthy of admiration, the Mother of God is all powerful”. however, Project Gutenberg states, “In translating RES, avoid at all costs the word THING, or THINGS, and let the context guide you to the appropriate English word.” I will essay the following translation, “Of all who are worthy of admiration, the Mother of God is omnipotent.” This certainly fits with the triumphant Madonna.

Vierge Romane detail, Église Saint-Aventin, Saint-Aventin (Haute-Garonne) 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.

Cagots; the Despised – Amuse Bouche #40 (Dennis Aubrey)


” … cannibal, heretic, and delivered unto all vices.”

The people thus described in the Middle Ages were of no specific ethnicity or religious affiliation. They spoke the same language as their neighbors and practiced the same religion. But they were treated as inferior, stigmatized, and segregated. They had their own doors to churches, their own fonts, and when receiving communion, the wafer was thrown to them, or, if the sacrament was being administered by a sympathetic priest, on a wooden spoon.

Cagot font, Église de Saint-Savin-en-Lavedan, Saint Savin (Hautes-Pyrénées) Photo by PJ McKey

Thee were the cagots, common throughout the Pyrénées, and they were despised. They lived in their own segregated communities, the cagoteries, were restricted to certain trades, were not allowed to marry non-cagots, enter taverns, hold cabarets, use public fountains, sell food or wine, touch food in the market, work with livestock, or enter a mill. They could only marry within the cagot community. Even to the 20th century they were required to wear a special badge featuring the foot of a goose or duck.

Mark of the cagot

These were “untouchables” in western culture and their segregation in a caste system persisted even into the 20th century. There are theories that the cagots were descended from lepers or cretins, that they were remnants of the Saracen armies that intermarried with locals in the 9th century, or even that they were members of a fallen medieval guild of carpenters.

But the truth is that the cagots – these “pestiferous people” – are a mystery, gone from history except for a few remaining descendants and the physical remnants in the local churches.

Postscript – PJ has made a very interesting observation in the figure on the font in Oloron-Sainte-Marie. It appears that his lips are disfigured, as in a herpes-type malady. There are two variants of the virus; one affects the genitals and the other the lips and is thought to be hereditary. Herpes is highly contagious in skin-to-skin contact, which might explain many of the prohibitions. Also, when the virus is contracted, that person is infected for life. Herpes was certainly known at the time; it appeared in Central and Eastern Europe in the 5th century.

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Detail of Cagot font, Église de Saint-Savin-en-Lavedan, Saint Savin (Hautes-Pyrénées) Photo by 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 Column Swallower in the Pyrénées – Amuse Bouche #39 (PJ McKey)


Regular readers of Via Lucis know the fondness PJ and I have for medieval grotesques. Among these are some of our favorites, the column swallowers. We have even found one of these gruesomely compelling engoulants in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum.

On this trip we were photographing in the Haute-Garonne region of the Pyrénées and PJ discovered one of the column swallowers hiding in the Templars’ Church in Montsaunès, peeking out from a column to the left of the altar.

Apse, Église Saint-Christophe des Templiers, Montsaunès (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Unlike many of its brethren, this version of the column swallower seems less monstrous and shows more surprise in his simian features. This was the only column swallower we saw this year in our travels – perhaps he was as surprised to see us as we were to see him!

Column Swallower, Église Saint-Christophe des Templiers, Montsaunès (Haute-Garonne) Photo by 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.

Medieval Surgery – Amuse Bouche #38 (Dennis Aubrey)


A couple of weeks ago, PJ and I had the pleasure to photograph the fine reconstructed Romanesque cathedral in the Pyrénéan town of Lescar where the royal family of Navarre was buried for some time. The reason we were excited to come, however, was the presence of the Romanesque mosaics in the apse that were rediscovered in the 19th century. The remaining fragments are in almost perfect condition.

One of the two panels is of particular interest – a hunter with a bow clearly has an artificial leg! It appears that this represents a Moorish soldier from Al-Andalus who lost his leg in the battles against the encroaching Christians during the Reconquista. After he was fitted with his artificial leg, he fought again against the Christians and was captured by Gui de Lons, who subsequently became the bishop of Lescar and founded the cathedral there. He served as a slave and later became a friend to the Bishop, who immortalized him in this mosaic in the apse.

Mosaic, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Lescar (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The donkey following the hunter has a purpose in the composition – not only is it following the hunter-master, but as shown in the next photograph, actually hauls the hunted prey, in this case a resisting wolf.

Lescar wolf

Mosaic detail, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Lescar (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have since discovered that the nearby church of Saint Aventin has a capital depicting one of the Saracen captors of Saint Aventin who also has the exact same leg prosthesis. This is certainly a subject for further investigation.

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.

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.