A Sense of Place – A Guest Post by Nathan Mizrachi


PLACE is the bedrock of our existence. It ties together our most cherished memories, defines our experiences, and bookmarks our most important experiences. Place is not always at the forefront of what we do, or the defining totem of memory. But it is there, a vital organ in the body of our existence, and when we travel it takes on an added dimension to reflect the unique situation that we find ourselves in.

Nave, Église Notre Dame, Vinezac (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

From an early age I was cognizant in an unspoken, instinctive way of how significant place is. Even my earliest memories are filled with quiet yet rich details which I can plunge into.

For example, right now I am remembering a Shabbat dinner at my aunt Ruthie’s house when I was probably no older than four years old. My cousins were all girls so I was making do with cousin Jacqueline’s Polly Pocket set; yes, I will admit that Nathan c. 1994 was a brony. We were sitting on an off-white carpet. Anyways, I remember fiddling with the white and pink plastic parts which seemed small even to me then. We were playing in the living room while the adults ate; there was a white tablecloth on the dining table and the walls were illuminated a pale yellow from the lighting. Behind my uncle Elias was a sliding glass door leading to their backyard, but it was dark outside so it was impossible to see outside. There was a cherry-colored wooden end table with brass handles on it, and when I became bored with it we played with Jacqueline’s—or maybe Sophie’s—Lite Brite toy.

Crossing, Église Notre Dame, Vinezac (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

I tried to think of the most mundane example I could to illustrate a point: the focus of the memory was playing with the Polly Pocket toys, but there are so many quotidian details I can recall as well. Why should I remember what color the walls of my aunt’s living room were? Why should it be important that I remember such things?

Seemingly mundane details are not limited to my own life; they are oftentimes the defining feature in literature and art. One of an infinite number of examples is the final passage from one of my favorite books of all time, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Chapel, Chapelle Saint Benoit, Chassiers (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

Robert Jordan lay behind the tree, holding onto himself very carefully and delicately to keep his hands steady. He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow. He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest. We are privy to the last moments of the protagonist’s life, which Hemingway chooses to show us directly from his perspective as he lays dying in the rugged Sierra Guadarama (which even from afar are mesmerizingly beautiful). Jordan’s hyper awareness of the minutiae around him —the light breaking through the trees, the meadow beyond, the pine needles that push softly against his chest — buttress the notion that memories and even consciousness are demonstrative of the macrocosmic influence of place.

So if some of my earliest memories from childhood and the memories of a fictional character — albeit one conceived by one of the greatest writers ever — in his dying moments are saturated with an awareness of surroundings, they must be equally instrumental in giving context and in some cases meaning to my memories of travel.

West end of side aisle, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

Place, for me, is the cacophony of motorbikes, the shouting of merchants, the richly hued bolts of fabric hanging from the rafters, the Saharan sun marinating the back of my neck as I walk through the narrow reddish streets of the medina in Marrakech.

Place is the setting sun casting waves of shadows that spill across row after row of vines as Dennis, PJ and I sit on the back porch of our gite in the Ardeche and savor the fat of veal’s belly dissolving on my tongue, and the chilled glass of wine sweating gently into my hand, and seeing the green foothills of the Alps rising up off the plain.
Place is the impending roar of a solitary passing car on a gravel road in the depths of Iceland’s Westfjords, the quivering lap of gentle waves falling across the rocky shore, the dense mist which rolls across my sleeved arms and the low clouds like tarnished steel that are pierced by the sharp peaks as they pass overhead.

Place is a gray Parisian afternoon — the naked trees, the muddy swirling Seine, the dampness saturated with the knowledge of fleeting time — become monolithic to me.

Apse, Église Saint Andéol, Bourg-Saint-Andéol (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

Dennis asked me when I visited him and PJ in Cape Cod last May to write some sort of recollection of my travels, which to me is an exercise in summoning forth the essence of my memories and what I felt in this or that particular moment. There are certainly greater conclusions that I can come to by synthesizing my travels into a grander sum — I have been told time and again by friends and family I haven’t seen in two years how much more outgoing I am now, how much more bold I am (and I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment) — but they are phenotypes of greater changes which occurred within the depths of myself.

Chapelle Saint Benoit, Chassiers (Ardèche) Photo by Nathan Mizrachi

What unifies my experience of almost two years traveling is not a change in my personality, nor a broader outlook on the world, nor a willingness to throw myself into the vagaries of chance that lie around corners on the road. The collective seams of numerous memories, themselves composed of infinite threads of place, are the substructure which has defined my life for the past two years. I am simply grateful that I had the courage, the means, and the desire to walk down a path — literally — that has lit up my consciousness with the fire of discovering something new, again and again.

This guest post by Nathan Mizrachi is illustrated by PJ’s photographs from our time together in the Ardèche a few years ago. Nathan stayed with us at a gite for a week as we photographed this beautiful region.

PJ’s Doors (Dennis Aubrey)


This post begins with a piece of music recommended by our dear friend Nathan Mizrachi. Since it was the inspiration for this post, Einaudi’s Primavera makes a perfect accompaniment for a moment that was Spring in itself.

Today, PJ gave me a series of pictures of doors that she has photographed in Romanesque churches in France over the last decade. I ran a number of errands and used the time to think about the shots, about what I would write to describe her fascination with these old portals. I thought about how these doors lead us into a long-gone world of spirituality, of generations of veneration by the residents of the small towns where the churches were found. I tried to find a key to these doors; a way in, a way to understand.

Église Saint Martin de Tours de Gausac, Gausac (Val d’Aran). Photo by PJ McKey

But my thoughts were muddled; I felt overwhelmed by polarizing political dialogue, the self-righteousness of both the ignorant and the educated. We have created the horrible condition where children are gunned down in their schools, where our political world is corrupted by special interests, and our culture debased by celebrity and fashion.

Église Saint Martin d’Ur, Ur (Pyrénées-Orientales). Photo by PJ McKey

After awhile, however, I just grew tired. I was tired because I am ill, I was tired because I felt inadequate to the task of writing, and most of all felt so tired about the world around me, wondering if a word that I wrote would mean anything to anybody.

Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet et Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales). Photo by PJ McKey

In this exhaustion, I needed something different, a momentary diversion, an infusion of beauty, if I could find it. So I put on Ludovico Einaudi’s Primavera on my car stereo and drove the back way home through the forest. In our rural area there was no traffic to distract me from the music. Suddenly, three does crossed in front of me on the road ahead. When they saw my car, they did what they usually do – they bolted up the side of the hill and disappeared into the trees.

Notre Dame d’Orcival, Orcival (Puy de Dôme). Photo by PJ McKey

For some reason, however, I stopped, rolled down the window. Then I turned up the music so that they could hear it clearly. Instantly, all three deer stopped and their ears peaked; they turned and stared down at me from forty feet away. I turned up the music even higher and just sat there, watching and waiting. Within thirty seconds, they had started down the hill and approached the car, eventually stopping just five feet away, staring at me. The music was so beautiful, the deer responded to that beauty and stood there listening, calm, unfrightened. The closest deer looked at me with an ethereal calmness, her brown eyes fixing mine, probably wondering why there were tears running down my cheeks.

Basilique Saint Fris, Bassoues (Gers) Photo by PJ McKey

Finally the music stopped and the deer looked up and around, then turned and silently disappeared into the trees. They left me alone, car idling in the middle of the two-lane road, sitting for some period of time. When I emerged from my reverie, I felt a certain calmness, that everything was temporary; my illness, the politics of this world, everything. Beauty still exists and the I still respond to it. PJ and I respond to it in our private Romanesque world. Even the animals of the forest respond, their hearts beating a synchronized duet with my own.

Église de Mailhat, Mailhat (Puy de Dôme). Photo by PJ McKey

And suddenly I thought of a small 90 year old French monk who lives in another woods at La Pierre Qui Vire in France. I thought of Angelico Surchamp who has loved these same churches as we have but for fifty years longer.

And I thought of what he said about beauty; “We do not reach beauty except in love, and love requires time and freedom.”. And PJ’s doors opened to me and I felt her love.

Improperia and the madness of it all – Dennis Aubrey


Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.
“The Masque of Pandora”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1875)

The long dark nights magnify our solitude and lay us to waste. The world is mad and we just don’t know what to do.

We are willing to take great risks for the sake of our purses. We know what the destruction of the rain forest means, but we are unwilling to stop. We know that the global climate is changing but we won’t cut back on the creation of greenhouse gases. We suborn slavery and tyranny for cheap products to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace. We destroy the last of animal species that are the product of millenia’s selection and evolution for the pleasure of the kill. And we destroy each other in a frenzy of bullets, bombs, hatred, bigotry and greed.

Romanesque crucifix Santa Majestat, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Romanesque crucifix Santa Majestat, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

As individuals we believe ourselves peaceful and righteous, but somehow as a race we are possessed by a madness of blood-lust and destruction. We are so because in our little private worlds of peace and righteousness, we believe others are evil and mad. Demagogues have long been skilled at using our divisiveness for their own power. This is true the world over and has been now and forever.

We know this because our poets have remarked on it for the last two thousand five hundred years. In his tragedy Antigone, Sophocles quoted a proverb, Quem Jupiter vult perdere, dementat primus (Whom Jupiter would destroy he first drives mad). In the second century of the Christian era, Ahtenagoras of Athens wrote, At dæmon, homini quum struit aliquid malum, Pervertit illi primitus mentem suam (“The devil when he purports any evil against man, first perverts his mind.”)

Abbaye Saint Pierre de Beaumont, Beaumont (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Abbaye Saint Pierre de Beaumont, Beaumont (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the 5th century, the Sanscrit poet Bhartṛhari wrote,

Nor do the gods appear in warrior’s armour clad
To strike them down with sword and spear
Those whom they would destroy
They first make mad.

Quoted in John Brough, Poems from the Sanskrit, (1968), p, 67

Fresco with cruciifix Basilique Notre Dame, Paray-le-Monial (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Fresco with cruciifix Basilique Notre Dame, Paray-le-Monial (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Is the madness that surrounds us a sign that we being destroyed, or that we are simply destroying ourselves? Is there a reason that we stand at the precipice of disrupting the careful balance of nature that nurtures life as we know it? We must ask the question, because there is a difference between the madness that we see today and that which preceded. Today the madness destroys not just men, but more apocalyptically, it threatens to obliterate a world.

Gothic painted cross, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet- et- Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Gothic painted cross, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet- et- Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

There is a peculiar sculpted form of the crucifixion of Christ, known as the Improperia or the “outrages to Christ”. The implements of the pain inflicted on Jesus are attached to the crucifix. What would constitute the improperia to the body of humanity – torture, murder, war, sectarian politics, demagoguery, starvation, and greed? The implements of pain would be so numerous that we could not even see the wracked body beneath.

Improperia Crucifix, Cathedrale Sainte Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

Improperia Crucifix, Cathedrale Sainte Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

We can only hope that this suffering and madness eventually will yield a purpose and a meaning, that it is not hollow and purposeless. But try as I might, all I can hear is the echo of the words of William Butler Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming”.

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I long for our churches in France where PJ and I can sit quietly together, contemplating a monument to the higher purposes of our species.

The Illusion of Inevitable Progress


In your photography and writings I find a conversation partner who lives at the razor’s edge between belief and disbelief, joy and despair, the heights and the abyss of nothingness, and the honest search for hope and truth beyond the illusion of inevitable progress. Gordon Stewart

I received an email from a reader the other day commenting about our post on “Death in the Wood of Ephraim” from August 2012. When I went back to review the post, I saw the quote above from our colleague and friend Gordon Stewart. Now Gordon is one of those people who we never would have found if it had not been for WordPress. We have corresponded for years and he gave a sermon based on one of my other posts, which moves me every time I hear it. Gordon has a gift for words, both in using them and appreciating them. In this comment he concludes with the phrase “the honest search for hope and truth beyond the illusion of inevitable progress”. Something about the use of the word “illusion” struck me as indicative of a deeper meaning.

Rending beasts, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Cher)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Rending beasts, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The first thing that came to mind was our fascination with the fashionable with its induced cycles of obsolescence. We replace things not because they are worn out or because they don’t work any more, but because they are no longer in style. I have known children who absolutely craved a new $300 pair of sunglasses because the ones that they owned weren’t stylish anymore. The blandishments of advertisers are so powerful that we find it hard to resist the songs of these modern-day sirens and recklessly steer into the rocks, transfixed by a song carried on the wind. For a person who spends so much of his time discovering the brilliance of medieval art, this makes me cringe.

The Wise Apes, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Indre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Wise Apes, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The next thing that came to my mind was the effect of commercialism in all forms, but personally, for me, in food. I spend a great deal of effort seeking out old diners and restaurants, both in the United States and in France, places where I can taste real food, something that nourishes the spirit as well as the body. I am so tired of foams and dabs of reconstructed food used in the modernist cuisine. Ferran Adrià, chef at elBulli says “The idea is to provoke, surprise and delight the diner. The ideal customer doesn’t come to elBulli to eat but to have an experience.” Adrià and Heston Blumenthal advocate for the scientific understanding in cooking, but this is an elitist form of cooking. Now I say this, having experienced personally the rise of nouvelle cuisine. Derided at first for what was perceived as a preoccupation with presentation, it soon became apparent that this was cooking that stressed fresh ingredients and preparation focused on preserving the natural flavors of the food. This cuisine sought its inspiration in French regional cooking instead of the classic cuisine of Escoffier.

I remember in the mid-eighties when I lived in Los Angeles, a friend of mine, Torv Carlsen, raved about a restaurant in a shopping mall in Manhattan Beach. He ate there every chance he got, despite its rather high price tag. It did not interest me for some time, partly because there were so many trendy-but- forgettable-restaurants in the Los Angeles area at the time but also because of a certain snobbery; how could something extraordinary be found in a shopping mall? I finally took Torv’s advice and went to Saint Estèphe, the creation of executive chef John Sedlar and co-owner/sommelier Steve Garcia. What I found was astonishing; nouvelle cuisine adapted to American Southwest culinary roots. The presentation was gorgeous, of course, but more importantly, the food was bold, exciting, and delicious. Saint Estèphe closed two decades ago, but I never have forgotten the meals that I had there. The lesson I learned at its tables was that the pursuit of something authentic is more worthwhile than the pursuit of something merely fashionable.

The Contented, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Cher)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Contented, Église Saint Martin, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But we should never underestimate the power of the marketplace, where even a good idea can be run into the ground. I have drunk sparkling water since I was a boy living in France. Perriers, Badois, and the other mineral waters were cheap and I loved the tang. When I came back to the United States, it was almost never available, so I drank soda water. And suddenly, in the 80’s there was a proliferation of bottled waters. I remember that Los Angeles had a water bar where young professionals would queue up to order their favorite still or carbonated water from Sweden, Iceland, France and elsewhere, paying exorbitant prices for the privilege. And then this spread to the general population. It is no surprise that most of these waters are sold by companies like Nestle’s and Coca-Cola. Can you imagine the conversation in the boardroom of Coca-Cola when one of the executives said “You mean that we can sell a drink without any flavoring at all for more money than we can sell Coca-Cola?”

So the population was persuaded that these bottled waters were better than the tap water that they got for free in their homes and an industry was created, generating massive profits for the companies and infinite mountains of unrecyclable plastic containers in our landfills. Sometimes I think of what Steve Jobs said to Pepsi executive John Scully to recruit him to Apple.

“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

Église Saint Martin, Temptation of Christ capital, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Cher)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Saint Martin, Temptation of Christ capital, Plaimpied-Givaudins (Cher) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

So, maybe I’m just a cranky old guy and out of step with the times, but it does not seem like progress is really what we think it is. There is no modern art that is finer and speaks more deeply to our human condition than that of our medieval forebears. True artists always realize this because true art is not cynical and market driven. There is no modern building that evokes more intense emotions than Notre Dame de Chartres and chances are that in a thousand years, not one of the modern marvels of Zaha Hadid or Frank Gehry will still be standing.

And on a macro scale, what progress can we claim when we may well be destroying the only planet known to be able to support our form of life? We have presided over the extinction of thousands of species in our drive for progress and now we may have presided over our own. I can only hope that some of the wonders of nature that have existed for millennia will survive. Maybe that will be the only progress we can hope for.

The music, by the way, is “Primavera” by Ludovico Einaudi.

Two Brothers in Chauvigny (Dennis Aubrey)


This post is not about my brother David and our adventures in the Poitevin town of Chauvigny where we grew up. Instead it is a tale of two monks, both sculptors, who worked in the medieval churches of Chauvigny. One, Gofridus, is justly famous for his work at the Collégiale Saint Pierre at the top of the hill that dominates the town. The other, Harduinus, was less known for his work in the church of the lower town, Notre Dame de Chauvigny. Visitors streamed up the hill to see Gofridus’ creations while Notre Dame remained quiet and empty. It seems that Harduinus saw fit to complain to his abbot Imbertus about the reception to his sculptural work.

Capital, Église Notre Dame de Chauvigny, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Église Notre Dame de Chauvigny, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

“I don’t understand it,” Harduinis complained. “My work is so much better than his. My forms are more realistic, my carving is better, yet everyone flocks to see Gofridus’ work and mine is here unseen.” Imbertus nodded tolerantly as the young monk charged on. “You have assured me that my work is pleasing to the Lord. My wild beasts are as realistic as it is possible to be. Brother Mainardus of Lusignan went to the Crusades with his Lord Guy, and said that when he saw my beasts, he jumped backwards, fearing that they would leap from the stone and tear at his flesh, just as he saw them do in the Holy Land.”

Capital, Église Notre Dame de Chauvigny, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Église Notre Dame de Chauvigny, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

“Yes, my son, your beasts are fearsome indeed.”

“Far more fearsome than those beasts that Gofridus has carved, even if they are tearing at the flesh of humans. They aren’t fearful, they’re comical!

Capital, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

“And my birds, aren’t my birds more perfect, more beautiful. Gofridus’ birds are silly, eating human flesh. Birds eat seeds, insects and grains, not people.”

Capital, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

“Didn’t you say that my birds were so real that they are like those created by God on the fifth day when he said ‘let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens.'”

Capital, Église Notre Dame de Chauvigny, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Église Notre Dame de Chauvigny, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

“Be careful, my son. Do not compare yourself to the Lord and His creation. Your creations are more modest.”

“Modest? Gofridus is modest? Did you seen that he actually inscribed his own name on one of his capitals!!! ‘Gofridus me fecit!’ On the capital depicting the Visit of the Magi, center on the altar, visible to all.”

Capital, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Collégiale Saint Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

“I understand your confusion, my son. What would you have me say?”

“Tell me, Father Abbot, why does the world flock to Gofridus’ sculptures while mine remain unseen just a short distance away?”

Imbertus rested his hand on the shoulder of his young monk. “That which pleaseth the Lord does not necessarily please the soul of man.” And this lesson sank into Hardunius’ heart and he himself began to find the beauty of Gofridus’ visions.

The Naked Man, a Cathedral, and a Small Monk (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I have finally have arrived in France and are busy photographing our beloved churches. But we delayed the trip because we got news a couple of weeks ago that my father was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that has attacked his brain stem. So everything that has happened on this trip seems fraught with significance.

After our arrival in Paris, we drove immediately to Troyes. When we finally hit the A5 highway about 40 miles from Troyes, I sighted something extraordinary in a clearing in the woods next to the highway. I saw a man, about 45-50 years old, totally naked, standing motionless facing the highway. It was such a jarring sight that PJ thought perhaps I was suffering from jet lag. But no, he was there, en plein vu.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by PJ McKey

From there, we were just a short way to the Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul in Troyes, where we were able to stop for a few photos, even though we had flown all night. We were both doing quite well when the officious guardien brusquely closed the church for his lunch hour. C’est fermé, monsieur! We could have shot for hours more, but settled for the light appetizer instead of a full meal.

Choir, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Finally we arrived at the Crispol hotel outside of Vézelay, had a wonderful dinner and woke the next morning for our visit to the monastery of La Pierre Qui Vire and a visit with Angelico Surchamp. As always, Surchamp was a delight. We heard him walking down the hall toward the lobby where we waited, his cane tapping on the stones. As we rose to greet him, his face lit up and we were so warmed by his greeting. I’ll describe the visit in detail later, but suffice it to say that our visit with this self-described petit moine was simply extraordinary, warmed by his complete and total faith in God.

Side Aisle, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side Aisle, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by PJ McKey

Last night I lay awake wondering about the confluence of these three things – the naked man, the cathedral in Troyes, and Surchamp. I could make sense of the last two – Surchamp was born in a house on the parvis of the Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul. But nothing could bring the naked man into the picture.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by PJ McKey

This morning, PJ and I attended the mass introducing the week of Pentecost at the Basilique Saint Madeleine in Vézelay. As always, we were tremendously moved by the church, but today’s high mass was different. During the service, my thoughts were on my father and his deep and abiding Catholic faith, a faith I have always envied and that has sustained him throughout his long life. I found myself talking to Mary Magdalene, asking for her help. I dared not address God himself for I have not been a believer, but I asked her to intercede on my father’s behalf, to help him find his peace, to be able to end his life with his faculties intact, knowing my mother, his self, and his faith. During the mass, sunlight streamed in from the south clerestory windows toward me, and I recoiled in fear, as if the rays might burn me. But concentrating on my conversation with la Madeleine, I realized that I was praying. I have not prayed for fifty years, but on this day in Vézelay, I turned to PJ and said, “I think I was praying”. We both had tears rolling down our cheeks.

Side aisle, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by PJ McKey

My father was a soldier and it is too often the soldier’s duty to die. We have witnessed the losses in their thousands and tens of thousands. Each of them, man or woman, was someone’s father or mother, husband or wife. The tragedy of their loss is magnified by the enormity of their numbers. But still I am moved more by the loss of this one old soldier who has been the rock of my life.

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

During our visit with my family last week, I told my father that during my career, I have often met, conversed and negotiated with people who are famous, rich, and powerful. My secret weapon was always to ask myself “Is this person a better person that my father?” Inevitably, the answer was “no” and that gave me the strength to say and do what I needed to do.

Stained glass, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Stained glass, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Only once in recent years has the answer to that question been “Yes.” That person in question was Anglelico Surchamp. During the mass, I thought of my father and of Surchamp who I consider a second father. I thought of soldiers and their passing. And then, out of nowhere, I thought of a naked man on the side of the road. At that moment it seemed that in a way, we are all that man, unadorned and exposed; that when our time is finished on this earth, each of us must stand naked before our God and accept His judgment.

The Language of Romanesque (Dennis Aubrey)


In photographing, thinking of and writing about these churches for Via Lucis, we have found it necessary to develop a language to communicate the ideas that result. Part of that language is, of course, architectural. Technical descriptors of the elements of the churches are necessary. If we are to describe the nave of the Basilique Sainte Foy in Conques, we could not do so without a discussion of Stützenwechsel, the alternation of piers and columns in the arcades.

Alternating piers and columns, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Alternating piers and columns, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

How could we discuss the development of Romanesque and Gothic architecture if we did not discuss the magnificent stone vaulting that covered these churches?

Sexpartite vault, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sexpartite vault, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We certainly must have a vocabulary to discuss the vertical and horizontal elements that constitute the structure of the church.

Another part of the language is historical, the times during which these churches were created, lived, and destroyed. It is impossible to understand the European renaissance that was marked by the development of the Romanesque style without discussing the great monastic movement, or figures like Bernard of Clairvaux and Abbot Suger?

Philippe Quantin (c. 1600 -.1636) Saint Bernard écrivant  (Oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon)

Philippe Quantin (c. 1600 -.1636) Saint Bernard écrivant (Oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon)

If we want to explain the destruction of these beautiful structures we must invoke the Viking invasions, the Hundred Years’ War, Wars of Religion, or the French Revolution?

Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Jumièges (Seine-Maritime), Photo by PJ McKey

Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Jumièges (Seine-Maritime), Photo by PJ McKey

A third part of understanding is art and art history. This was the age where Europeans rediscovered sculpture and they celebrated that discovery with monumental achievements like the great portals with their tympana.

West portal, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d’Or) Photograph by PJ McKey

West portal, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d’Or) Photograph by PJ McKey

They filled their churches with carvings, from capitals to friezes, tombs, and statuary. Everywhere there were signs of this sculptural revival. The churches were decorated with friezes and even mosaics. They were filled with reliquaries, crosses, and sacred vessels made of fine enamel, jewels, gold and silver. There were ornately illuminated manuscripts that took years of patient labor to complete.

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

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

And then there is the language of the Christian religion. Romanesque churches are, after all, religious structures and their very fabric contains the ideas of Christianity. Stories from the Bible, the life of Christ, the hagiography of the saints and martyrs are all part of this fabric.

Flight to Egypt, Basilique Saint-Andoche, Saulieu (Côte d'Or)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Flight to Egypt, Basilique Saint-Andoche, Saulieu (Côte d’Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In doing so, I have personally adopted this language as part of my personal means of expression. I started reading the Bible and religious writers to understand references, and in doing so discovered ideas that were incorporated into my life. Stories from the Bible carried for me elemental power; the Death of Ephraim, the Tower of Babel, and the fall of Simon Magus. Like the study of Shakespeare in my earlier years, the episodes became part of my expressive language.

Angel and demon confronting each other  (Photo by PJ McKey)

Angel and demon confronting each other (Photo by PJ McKey)

But doing this is not enough for us. We are not experts but devoted amateurs. We can use the tools that the experts give us to the best of our ability, but we are always learning ourselves, so how can we pretend to be knowledgeable? We shot twice at the Cathédrale Saint Etienne in Cahors before we realized that we had never photographed the extraordinary façade hidden on the north side of the church in an alleyway.

The scholar Janet Marquardt was nice enough to correct one of my statements recently, and she did it quite gently, in a personal email. She did not want to embarrass me. I wrote her that there was no problem with the public correction; I am not academically inclined and am sure that I make many errors in my writing here.

Ultimately I would have to say that for PJ and myself, these different fields of knowledge do not make the language of the Romanesque, do not allow us to express the churches fully. It takes more, something composed from but different than the individual descriptions. It is somehow a unique combination with a resonance, like a musical style. Like the architecture itself, this language is about proportion and balance, inspiration and devotion.

Looking west from apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Looking west from apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Whenever we are stuck, we ask ourselves how we feel about the architecture, or more accurately, what feelings these churches evoke in us. This can get tricky, and sometimes I write articles that are far more personal than I would have ever expected when starting the Via Lucis project with PJ. But these reflections often give us the key to describing the churches that we love so much.

We have been looking for the authentic sound of these churches and when we are lucky enough to find that voice, it is like hearing great Cajun songs in Southern Louisiana, with all the rhythm, melodies, harmonies and grace notes that make them sing.