The Face of Mary Magdalene – Amuse Bouche #43 (Dennis Aubrey)


A recent article on the Marie Madeleine website (in French) featured a very interesting article on the work of the forensic scientist, Dr. Philippe Charlier. Charlier has done work on the remains of Henri IV, Charles III, Diane de Poitiers and other historical figures.

Charlier is best known for his forensic recreation of the likeness of Henri IV. He used CT imaging and digital facial reconstruction to create the following portrait of the French king.

Henri IV, reconstruction by Philippe Charlier

Charlier and his team recently analyzed the skull and hairs from the relics of Mary Magdalene from the Basilica de Sainte Madeleine in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. Using hundreds of digital models of the skull as a model, Charlier’s partner, artist-sculptor Philippe Froesh, sculpted a meticulous reconstruction of the face of the woman in the tomb at the Basilica. The result was an astonishing image of a fifty-five year old, dark-haired woman of Mediterranean aspect.

Mary Magdalene, as imaged by Philippe Froesh

The team has not been given permission to conduct DNA testing that might give further information on the relic, but PJ and I were both struck by the resemblance to a medieval sculpture of Mary Magdalene that we photographed in the church of Saint-Caprais in Mozac.

Resurrection capital, [Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ Aubrey

In closeup, the figure in the capital has the same eyes as Froesh’s sculpture. Although depicted as a younger woman the two images are remarkably similar, even down to the serious gaze.

Mary Magdeleine, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais de Mozac, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ Aubrey

Meanwhile, we are looking forward to Charlier’s team’s next effort; an investigation of the controversial skull of Lazarus kept at the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure in Marseilles.

A Radio Podcast Featuring Via Lucis


Last summer when we had our exhibition at the Marian Library at the University of Dayton, we were interviewed by Radio Maria. Here is a link to the interview (about 45 minutes long) where we talk about the Vierges Romanes and Black Madonnas that we photograph in France and Spain. Enjoy!

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.

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

Dancers and Magi in the Pyrénées – Lacommande (Dennis Aubrey)


I’ve always wondered why certain saints were chosen as patrons for medieval churches. I can easily understand some of the choices – Saint Denis because he is the patron saint of France, Notre Dame in infinite variation, Saints Peter and Paul (or both as in Andlau, Ingrandes, ), or Saint Jacques. But there are many obscure saints who have their churches – Saint Menulphe, Saint Vosy, Saint Vigor, or Saint Cerneuf. We found one of these latter in the Pyrénées last year, the Église Saint Blaise in Lacommande.

Exterior, Église Saint Blaise, Lacommande (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

Saint Blaise was the bishop of the Roman-Armenian city of Sebastea who is believed to have begun as a healer then became a “physician of souls.” People often turned to Saint Blaise for healing miracles.

Catholic Online describes his death: ” In 316, the governor of Cappadocia and of Lesser Armenia, Agricola, arrested then-bishop Blaise for being a Christian. On their way to the jail, a woman set her only son, who was choking to death on a fish bone, at his feet.

Blaise cured the child, and though Agricola was amazed, he could not get Blaise to renounce his faith. Therefore, Agricola beat Blaise with a stick and tore at his flesh with iron combs before beheading him.”

Nave, Église Saint Blaise, Lacommande (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

There is little remaining of Saint Blaise’s church in Lacommande from that built between 1135 and 1140. The part that remains, however – the apse – is something well worth seeing and is decorated with a magnificent ensemble of well-preserved capitals that sit at eye level. It is such a pleasure to be able to investigate the capitals closely with the naked eye instead of using a 400mm lens to mechanically bring them closer.

These capitals are the work of the Master of Oloron and represent biblical and secular scenes, richly decorated and ornamented. We are focusing on four of the capitals for this post. The first two represent the story of the Magi bringing gifts to the infant Jesus. The first capital shows the Magi riding following the star to Bethlehem. The star is to the upper right of the central rider. A second rider can be seen on the left and a third appearing on the right. This is such a richly portrayed scene with the detailing of the horse’s livery, the crown and the vestments.

Capital – Magi, Église Saint Blaise, Lacommande (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second image is of an engaged capital showing two of the wise men presenting their gifts to the Mother and Child. Above them is the star of Bethlehem that served as their guide. Note that Mary and Jesus are shown in the Throne of Wisdom pose that was so popular in Romanesque times.

Capital – Gift of the Magi, Église Saint Blaise, Lacommande (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second shot is from the right hand side of the composition, showing the third Magi carrying his gift. This is a very clear demonstration of how in the hands of a master sculptor the capitals could be composed in three dimensions with a continuous narrative.

Capital – Gift of the Magi, Église Saint Blaise, Lacommande (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

These two Magi capitals are richly decorated and fine illustrations of a popular biblical narrative. The next two capitals, however, are completely secular and far more animated. The first of these shows in the central position a bearded man playing a bowed musical instrument much like a fiddle. The image seems to swirl to the music with curved forms within and above the composition.

Capital – Viol Player, Église Saint Blaise, Lacommande (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

The panel to the left, however, brings the capital to life. We see another musician playing a lyre and accompanying a frantically contorting dancer. Again, the swirling of the knot pattern above the capital and the sinuous vegetal forms within the capital create an enormous sense of movement.

Capital – Harpist and Dance, Église Saint Blaise, Lacommande (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

The adjacent capital completes the ensemble – a pair of horn players gaily offer up their music while dancing. The plant form behind them graphically echoes the sound from the instruments and brings the scene to vivid life. These four capitals are certainly worthy of the Maitre d’Oloron.

Capital – Two Horn Players, Église Saint Blaise, Lacommande (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

The fact that I was personally unaware of Saint Blaise was no impediment to enjoying the bounty of the sculpture inside. What I thought was true about Saint Blaise was that he was the patron saint after whom my brother Stephen Blaisdell Aubrey was named. This was completely wrong, of course, but PJ was not so ignorant. She remembers growing up as a Catholic school girl in Marion, Ohio, and attending mass for the Feast of Saint Blaise on February 3, the day before her birthday. The priest consecrated two candles, tied them together with a red ribbon signifying martyrdom, and then approached the children kneeling at the communion rail. She remembers that the priest placed the candles on her throat along with a few solemn words in Latin as the blessing. “This was one of the first signs of faith for me growing up,” she says. “As a child it was so mysterious and powerful. I always thought I would never get a sore throat.”

Location: 43.277125 -0.508496

Guest Photos of Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues – Albert Pinto


PJ and I have been shooting Romanesque churches in France for so long and so intensely that we sometimes think we’ve seen them all. Recently our good friend Albert Pinto sent us three photographs of frescoes that have somehow been preserved at the Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues in Aveyron, about 20 miles south of Figeac. For all the times we have been in that region, we had never heard of the church.

Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues (Aveyron) Photo by MOSSOT, Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The church is quite ancient, quite possibly 10th century, which makes it pre-Romanesque. For centuries it served as a small priory but was abandoned and fell into disrepair. The church was only classified by the Monuments historique in 1988.

Saint with halo, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues (Aveyron), Photo by Albert Pinto

The survival of the frescoes in almost miraculous, as described by Pinto. At the time of his photographs, “that was used as a barn and devastated during centuries (same case as Fenollar). The Monuments historiques have since undertaken a restoration, but the frescoes seem to be in the same state as I found them.”

Eve at the Tree of Knowledge, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues (Aveyron), Photo by Albert Pinto

Thanks to Albert, we have another place to visit in one of our favorite areas of France, and can use it as another excuse to return to the Basilique Sainte Foy de Conques.

Two doves, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues (Aveyron), Photo by Albert Pinto

Location: 44.404371 2.027088

The Divine Rain of Sainte-Engrâce (Dennis Aubrey)


Sainte-Engrâce is a tiny commune in a small pass deep in Basque country on the French side of the border with Spain. We made our way there on a slightly overcast day wending our way deeper and deeper into the the Pyrénéean foothills through the old pass between the Aquitaine and the Iberian peninsula. It was here that Duke Arimbert of the Franks was ambushed and defeated by the Basques in 635, just as the rear guard of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne was ambushed and defeated by those same Basques fifty miles west at the pass of Roncesvalles just 142 years later.

Today Saint Engrâce is literally a turnout from the road and has a population of 208, On the horizon loom the Pyrénées mountains feeding the cold rushing streams. Just to the south is the spectacular Gorges de Kakuetta.

Waterfall, Gorges de Kakouetta (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Ancalagon, Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

But for us, Sainte-Engrâce is home to a lovely 11th century Romanesque church in a spectacular setting, the Collégiale Sainte-Engrâce.

Exterior, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

Sainte-Engrâce (Urdatx-Santa-Grazi in Basque) is thoroughly Basque, as much as the Euskera language and the frontón where pelota is played in every town. The cemetery adjacent to the church is filled with Basque surnames and mysterious Hilarri, disc-shaped funerary steles, remnants of long-past pre-Christian Basque traditions.

Basque funerary stelae – Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

The church was built in the community of Urdaix in the late 11th century by a resident group of canons of Saint Augustine. The canons named their new church after a Lusitanian martyr of the 4th century. A young Christian girl from Braga, Engracia, was traveling with eighteen companions to marry a Christian noble of Roussillon. On the way through the town of Zaragosa in 303, Engracia learned of the persecution of Christians by the Roman governor Dacian. She attempted to persuade him to stop his persecution and she was martyred after the most brutal tortures, and her eighteen companions decapitated. Legend has it that thieves stole the arm of the martyred saint from her shrine in Zaragosa and fled to the mountains where they hid the arm in the hollow of an oak tree beside the Fountain of the Virgin Mother. A bull whose horns blazed “like two candles on the altar” knelt before the oak and the relic was discovered. The relic was placed in the sacristy of a nearby church but returned time and again to the oak. This was interpreted to mean that the saint wished a church to be built on this site and in 1085 the canons of Saint Augustine acceded to her wish.

Capital, Demon and priest, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Shortly after the construction of the church, a hospital was added to tend to pilgrims on their way to Santiago Compostela. About the same time as the completion of the church building, Sanche I, King of Navarre and Aragon, placed it under the suzerainty of the wealthy Benedictine monastery of Leyre in Navarre. This was not a pleasing result for the Augustinians, who finally arrived at an agreement in 1125. The collegiate was required to provide the monastery two river salmon each year and two cows on Ascension and the Feast of John the Baptist. This relationship continued until 1512.

South side aisle, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

The church is classic Romanesque, with a nave and two side aisles and an ornate side chapel on either side of the apse. The barrel vault is segmented by each of the three bays of the nave. The apse features a lovely painted oven vault featuring the Holy Trinity – Christ and God the Father seated with the Holy Spirit hovering above. This is almost certainly of a later date, probably early 15th century at the time that Sainte-Engrâce became a royal borough.

Nave, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One of the delights of the church are the superb capitals, found on the pillars of the side aisle and the altar. They vividly illustrate various stories from the Bible and the life of Jesus. One of my favorites is off the left side of the altar and depicts the Magi giving gifts to the infant Christ.

Capital detail, gifts of the Magi, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is another interesting legend about the martyrdom of Engracia, the Countless Martyrs of Zaragoza, Dacian wished to discover the extent of the Christian population and promised to allow them to practice their religion. But first they had to leave the city at a fixed time by a certain gate. As soon as they gathered to obey his order, Dacian ordered them executed. In order to prevent their veneration as martyrs, he burned the corpses and mixed their ashes with those of executed criminals. But a shower of rain fell and washed the ashes, separating them into two groups. The white ashes here those of the martyrs and were known as the “holy masses”, las santas masas. They were deposited in a church dedicated to Santa Engratia in Zaragosa where they are still preserved.

Apse from north side aisle, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

As outlandish as this legend sounds, I understand its power completely. Who does not look around and wonder why the evil and the haughty seem to prosper in this world while the meek and those who daily create the bounty of the world are doomed to suffer? Our martyrs aren’t decapitated for their faith, but we still have martyrs who advocate for compassion, rational discourse, and social justice. Who does not wonder why these multitudes are not protected by the divine power who calls them “blessed”? Who does not hope for a divine rain to wash through the world and separate the saints from the criminals?

Just as a footnote, my mother comes from a Basque family in Eibar who came to the New World in the 16th century, settling in what became New Mexico. He was part of the expedition led by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Luján in 1540 in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola.

Location: 42.995493° -0.809957°