A Catalan Master for the Ages (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I love the Pyrénées mountains, and especially the eastern portion straddling France and Catalonia. While staying the town of Prades, we had an interesting experience. Despite having been there before, we found ourselves in a new place – Occitanie, or in Catalan Occitània. This is one of the new administrative regions in France since September 28, 2016 with a name derived from areas that showed a historic use of the Occitan language. We didn’t think too much about this until we went to a Catalan dance festival in town. During the introductions, the compère made a disparaging comment – “This is Catalonia,” he said, and followed that statement with a disdainful gesture behind him, “Occitània is somewhere back there!” all to great applause from the audience.

On this trip we visited the marvelous Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute in Les Cluse, a small early Catalan church perched on the Col du Perthus, the last Pyrénéean pass between France and Spain. In the distance, one can see Vauban’s Fort de Bellegarde that once guarded the frontier. The church, located in La Cluse-Haute, was probably constructed in the 10th century and remodeled in the 11th, 12th and 14th centuries. The exterior of the church is simple and unadorned, with a 14th century bell-tower. An interesting vestige of the porch still exists in the form of the stone arch standing separated from the church itself. The portal itself is of white Céret marble.

Western façade and clocher, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The small interior consists of a central nave and two side aisles. The relatively massive piers support the round arches from which springs the barrel vault across the nave. The side aisles have half-barrel vaults supporting the nave arches and relieving the lateral pressure of the barrel vault. There are no transepts or a crossing tower.

Nave, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The tiny oven-vaulted apse is flanked by two small echeloned chapels, communicated to by means of the narrow passages on the side of the apse. One can see in the photograph how the scale of the apse is so small and delicate compared to the sturdy piers and arches around it.

Apse from north side aisle, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

But small though it may be, the glory of the church is in that smal apse. There are some fragments of frescoes dating from the twelfth century which are in the same hand as those of famous frescoes of nearby San Martin de Fenollar.

Apse with frescoes, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

In the center of the apse we see a Christ in Majesty accompanied by the symbols of the alpha and the omega. The works of the Maitre de Fenollar must have been astonishing at the time of their creation, but they have continued to fascinate and have actually change the courses of modern art. In June 1906 Picasso stayed ten weeks in the small town of Gósol and had his first intensive exposure to Catalan art. In 1911 Picasso and Braque spent time in Fenollar and Les Cluses studying the works, transfixed by the expressive power and dynamic use of color. Later many other artists made their pilgrimage to this area – Miro, Gris, Derain, and Dufy – and all walked away genuflecting at the altar of the distant Catalan genius.

Christ Panocrator, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Just to the right of the Christ is a wonderful figure of an angel. I think that the way the wings and the cloak follow the curve of the vault is simply brilliant in inspiration and execution. I have the same dumbfounded reaction to this as I did when I saw the “Temptation” capital at Plaimpied.

Angel, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

If there is any doubt that the work of the Catalan artists had an effect on Pablo Picasso, we only have to look at his work from the periods of his stay in the area and how it differed from the Blue and Pink periods that preceded it. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon see the same naive, schematic construction of the faces that we see in Les Cluses and Saint Martin de Fenollar, and even some of the same technical details, like the use of white accents around the eyes and other features. And it may just be my imagination, but the standing figure on the far right seems to be a mirror of the angel at Les Cluses.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso (1907)

But we don’t need Picasso, Miro, Braque or Dufy to appreciate the Maitre de Fenollar. His work stands among the finest of medieval painting, hidden in the smallest church in the most remote of villages in the Pyrénées.

Location: 42.482277° 2.843190°

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.

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.