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.

A Home for the Vierge – Dennis Aubrey


A couple of months ago we posted an article about the magnificent vierge romane Notre Dame de Courpière that we photographed last May. What we didn’t know at the time was that this work had only recently returned to her home, having been stolen in 2008. She was found in the possession of a Japanese collector via Belgium and it took three years of legal proceedings to recover her. Returned to France, the statue was sent to the Paris workshops in the Louvre for restoration and was returned to the church of Saint Martin of Courpière in February 2015.

Vierge Romane, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Vierge Romane, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Église Saint-Martin de Courpière is an interesting structure in its own right. The church is laid out as a modified latin cross with very short transepts. The 11th century nave has three bays and a narthex, and there are side aisles on the north and south sides. The nave is covered with a barrel vault.

Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The side aisles are narrow and dark, covered with half-barrel vaults. The individual bays of the aisles are separated by transverse arches. At some time in the past, most likely the 15th or 16th century, the exterior walls of the north side aisle was expanded to accommodate two chapels, clearly seen on the left. In the far distance we can see the apsidal chapel. There is another matching chapel on the south side of the apse as well.

North side aisle, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by PJ McKey

North side aisle, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Looking across the side aisle we see the nave and, on the south side, another late modification to the church. The Galerie Saint Martin is an upper structure that was built in the 17th century. In this shot we can also see the formidable nave piers with their attached columns, and the fine capitals that proliferate throughout the church.

Nave piers, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave piers, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

In this nave elevation, we can clearly see the barrel vault springing directly from the nave arcades. Somehow, despite the jumble of elements visible in this shot – the chandeliers, paintings, side chapels, and pulpit – the visual effect of the Église Saint-Martin is pleasing.

Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

In the shot of the chancel crossing, we can see left and right the very short transept vaults. The transepts give the impression of stubbiness and are unusual for that. Notice again the capitals topping the attached columns that give rise to the squinches supporting the cupola.

Chancel crossing, Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chancel crossing, Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The finest feature of the church has to be the harmonious apsidal ensemble. Two echeloned side chapels flank the apse itself, which is composed of a short barrel-vaulted choir and a small apse covered with an oven vault. The choir is pierced by a large upper window in the transverse arch, but it is clear that it is not in proper relationship with the vault above and the arch below. I would suspect that the window was most likely a later, rather unfortunate, addition. The apse is pierced by three altogether more pleasing windows. We can also see clearly the 19th century painting that was added, common to many of the regional churches. We don’t know if these were based on existing medieval fragments.

Apse, Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We should not omit a sample of the capitals that adorn the church. This particular version shows two double-bulls, but there are others featuring Adam and Eve, sirens, atalantes, and acrobats.

Capital, Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Nave, Église Saint-Martin, Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Much of the Église Saint Martin is in an état vétuste, a dilapidated state, and subscriptions are underway for restoration. For those who are interested, here is a French television clip about the Vierge de Courpière and her return home.

Location: 45.754634 3.538881

Église Saint-Étienne de Lubersac (Dennis Aubrey)


It always astonishes me how little we remember of all the churches that we shoot. Today’s example is the Église Saint-Étienne de Lubersac in the Limousin, part of a group of eleven churches that we photographed last June. This was an incredibly rich area of exploration with eleven major churches including the Collégiale Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens in Le Dorat, the Collégiale Saint-Junien de Saint-Junien, and the Abbatiale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul in Solignac. Somehow PJ and I had both forgotten this church in Lubersac until a few weeks ago when we were looking for a subject on which to post. Both of us were immediately struck by the excellence both of the architecture and especially the sculpture. Today we make amends for this oversight.

I started shooting the exterior, especially the sculptures on the life of Saint-Etienne. But the south portal is also quite a fine piece of work – simple but with elegant Mozarabic scalloping of the portal.

South portal, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

South portal, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The original church on this site was built around 950 on the site of an ancient temple and was dedicated to Saint Gervais and Saint Protais, second century Milanese martyrs. In the 12th century, the priory church took the name Saint-Étienne, but was pillaged and destroyed at the end of that century. In the beginning of the 13th century, the church that we see today was built.

The nave consisted of two bays covered with banded barrel vaults. The round arcade arches open on to the side aisles with their large windows that flood the interior with light.

Vaulted nave bays, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze)  Photo by PJ McKey

Vaulted nave bays, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze) Photo by PJ McKey

In the 14th century the nave was supplemented with two more bays, this time covered with wooden ceilings. We can see this clearly in PJ’s photo from the choir loft.

Nave from choir loft, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave from choir loft, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze) Photo by PJ McKey

In the nave elevation of the 14th century additions we can see that there are no true side aisles and no windows opening to the exterior. Instead, these arcade openings are used to frame some of the large modern paintings that adorn the church.

Nave elevation, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave elevation, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze) Photo by PJ McKey

The simple apse consists of an oven-vaulted semicircular structure with three large windows and a blind arch on each side. The apse is separated from the barrel vaulted choir by a transverse arch. The choir continues the motif of the blind arch with a pair of blind arcades.

Apse, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the photo of the apse from the transept, we can clearly see the blind arch, as well as the capitals decorating the transverse arch. Also, we can see the oldest fresco in the church, a 13th century painting of Saint Léonard freeing a prisoner. As readers of the article on Saint Léonard de Noblat may remember, Saint Léonard was the patron saint of prisoners and was much venerated in the Limousin region. Also note the double columns supporting the transept arch.

Apse, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze)  Photo by PJ McKey

Apse, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze) Photo by PJ McKey

In the first bay of the 14th century expansion, on the south side, the arcade is used as a monument for a wonderful medieval sarcophagus. We can also see fragments of stone capitals hidden behind, fragments that we can only hope will someday be restored.

Sarcophagus, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze)  Photo by PJ McKey

Sarcophagus, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze) Photo by PJ McKey

We have already discussed the exterior sculpture of Saint-Étienne in a previous post. The stoning of Saint Steven is depicted in a series of capitals on the exterior and the workmanship was quite fine. The interior sculpture is just as distinguished as we can see from this image of the Adoration of the Magi in the nave. The comprehensive set of capitals inside primarily document the life of Jesus from the nativity to the crucifixion.

Adoration of the Magi, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Adoration of the Magi, Église Saint-Étienne, Lubersac (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is an interesting note about the derivation of the town name. It was originally called Louparsat, lou percé in Limousin, meaning “pierced wolf” after a story of a knight who killed a wolf with a blow of his sword to save his beloved.

Location: 45.444185 1.401842