A New Project for Via Lucis (Dennis Aubrey)


As regular readers of the Via Lucis blog know, our work has focused almost exclusively on European Romanesque churches with an occasional foray into the Gothic. We make a regular trip between six to eight weeks to France (and sometimes Spain and Italy) for the photography and then spend the rest of the year writing about the churches that we photographed. It is not unusual for us to leave the cameras unused in their cases for the rest of the year.

We have discussed a US project and have made occasional trips to photograph the Washington National Cathedral, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, and even New England Congregational churches, but have never settled on a full-blown program. That has changed with our new book project, “Frontier Faith – Land of Cross-Tipped Churches”. When we came back in June from France, we decided to do a book proposal and submit it to a publisher, and it was accepted. We started research immediately and last week we started photography.

The Land of the Cross-Tipped Churches is an area in western Ohio radiating 22 miles from the Maria Stein Convent in Mercer County. The region was settled in the early years of statehood by German immigrants drawn by the presence of the communal Society of the Precious Blood. These settlers bought land in the land of dense forest, swamp and marshland that was very difficult to transit. Despite these difficulties, they flourished and carved a rich farmland to sustain their communities. To sustain their enduring Catholic faith, they built the churches that today are known as the Cross-Tipped Churches. This land remains today a culturally and visually distinctive area that is easily identified by twenty-eight Gothic and Romanesque Revival churches that dominate the skyline of the rural, flat farmland.

The churches are identified in “generations” of their construction. The first generation was 1845-1865, the second 1865-1885, and the third 1885-1905. There was a fourth “transitional” generation from 1905-1925. Saint Augustine Church in Minster is an example of the first generation. The Gothic Revival-style building was constructed in 1848 and in 1874 the original spire was removed and twin Gothic spires designed by local builder Anton Goehr were added.

West facade, Saint Augustine Church, Minster (Ohio) Photo by PJ McKey

Saint Michael’s Church in Fort Loramie is an example of a second-generation construction, dedicated in 1881. Like most of the Cross-Tipped Churches, it is built of brick.

Exterior, Saint Michael’s Church, Fort Loramie (Ohio) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The present Saint Michaels Church building is fairly unique in this region because it has a chevet like we see in the churches in Europe.

Chevet, Saint Michael’s Church, Fort Loramie (Ohio) Photo by PJ McKey

The Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics was founded in 1875 which makes it a second genration church. After Father J.M. Gartner entrusted his collection of relics to the Sisters at Maria Stein, Ohio, a beautiful new chapel was built in 1892. The collection, with over 1000 relics on display, is the second largest collection of its type in the United States (after Saint Anthony Chapel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). The chapel and relic chapel are the only interiors we have photographed at this time.

Chapel apse, National Marian Shrine of the Holy Relic, Maria Stein (Ohio) Photograph by Dennis Aubrey

We are presenting two churches from the transitional generation today. Saint Francis Church in Cranberry Prairie was constructed in 1906 and is a brick building with a slate roof in the Gothic style with a 112-foot tower.

Exterior, Saint Francis Church, Cranberry Prairie (Ohio) Photo by PJ McKey

The construction of Saint Bernard Church in Burkettsville, Ohio, began in 1915 but was halted due to the beginning of World War I. Building resumed in 1922 and was completed in 1924. The church is Romanesque style with twin domes, an open belfry and elaborate round stone arches over the doors and windows. The brick is buff colored with a red tile roof and has beautiful stained glass windows.

West facade, Saint Bernard Church, Burkettsville (Ohio) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We will not, of course, abandon our beloved Romanesque churches, but this project will give us something to concentrate on here in our Ohio home. The project should be ready for peer-review next Spring and then for publication in late 2018 or early 2019.

Hikari33 Project


We have had our Via Lucis images used for many things in the past few years – we got a cover for a French magazine, a feature in a high-end fashion publication, academic books and journals, posters and exhibitions. We recently got a request from my long-time friend Harushi Tetsuka for something completely new – custom photo displays.

Harushi has developed a project called Hikari33, which features Limited Edition artworks by prominent artists printed on satin metal surface and mounted on weathered candle-lit display stands.

Harushi is an artist who I worked with for many years and he has always been the consummate craftsman. It is no wonder that his current project shows the hallmarks of his life’s work.

The Key Steps for crafting the HIKARI33 Candle Stands

Take a few minutes to look at the link provided and help out with his Kickstarter project. You can see a selection of five of our images that are available at this time.

An Exhibition in Maria Stein (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I have a six-month exhibition at the Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics in Maria Stein, Ohio. This small exhibition, entitled “Painted Romanesque” will be at the shrine until December 2017 and features eight images from our Via Lucis collection.

Mother House and Relic Chapel of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, Maria Stein, Ohio (1923 Postcard)

We discovered the Maria Stein shrine last winter when we went to western Ohio to discuss an upcoming exhibition at the Marian Library at the International Marian Research Insitute at the University of Dayton. Michele Devitt, who works at the library, asked if we knew about the “Land of the Cross-tipped Churches” in Mercer County. Mercer County is a prosperous rural region that features a concentration of thirty-six large Catholic churches built in the 19th and early 20th century and now on the National Register of Historic Places. Driving through this flat agricultural land, the steeples with their crosses can be seen from great distances and often two or more can be seen from a single vantage point.

These churches were built by the Society of the Precious Blood from Switzerland under the leadership of the missionary priest Francis de Sales Brunner, who came to Ohio at the behest of the bishop of Cincinnati in the 1840’s. The original churches were replaced by Gothic revival churches in the late 19th and early 20th century. The parishes serve a mostly German community of Catholics.

North side aisle, Église Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Aubrey

The spiritual and physical center of the region is the Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics and its associated convent. Mother Maria Anna Brunner founded the Sisters of the Precious Blood in 1834 in Switzerland. The congregation expanded to the United States in 1844 and eight Precious Blood Sisters began perpetual adoration at Maria Stein on Sept. 24, 1846. Maria Anna Brunner’s son, Father Francis de Sales Brunner, was the leader of the Society of the Precious Blood. He was a collector of relics and dedicated to rescuing these fragments from the political chaos in Italy at the time. His collection and others acquired during the course of the 19th century made the Maria Stein Relic Chapel collection the second largest in the United States with 1,100 relics, exceeded in number of relics only by Saint Anthony’s Chapel in the Troy Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh with five thousand.

Nave from north side aisle, Église Saint-Julien, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The Sisters of the Precious Blood administered the Shrine until 2016 when it was entrusted to a non-profit foundation. We met with the Director, Don Rosenbeck, and set up the exhibition of Via Lucis Photographs. The show opens on June 23rd and will continue through the end of 2017.

Apse, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

If you are interested in seeing the exhibition, here is the contact information.

Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics
2291 St Johns Rd, Maria Stein, OH 45860
Phone: (419) 925-4532

The entire “Land of the Cross-Tipped Churches” is worth a visit, and the shrine of Maria Stein is a marvel. PJ and I will be photographing there and in the entire region very soon.

If you are interested in seeing the Exhibition Catalog, select this link to view the PDF version.

All Hail Covetotop (Dennis Aubrey)


This year’s trip to Europe has been filled with visits to friends old and new. We saw Servane de Layre-Matheus in Chartres, our lifelong friends Therese Gayet and her son Francois in Vivonne, France. We saw Albert and Monique Pinto for lunch in the Provençal town of Saignan in a wonderful local restaurant Au comptoir de Balthazar. We will see Angelico Surchamp at the Abbey of La Pierre qui Vire later this week. But we had the immense pleasure to finally meet one of our favorite bloggers, Covetotop, whose eponymous blog chronicles his native Catalonia and the Costa Brava, in English no less!

Covetotop is famously reclusive and even gives no details of his private life, not his name, his profession, where he lives. His blog does give specific instructions on how to contact him – “Telepathically: close your eyes and think aloud: “I wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop’s author … I wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop’s author … I wish to contact the fabulous Covetotop’s author …”.”

PJ and I followed the instructions to the letter and were actually able to make contact and schedule a luncheon during our visit to his beloved Empordà region of Catalonia. The day arrived for the lunch we arrived early, anxious not to miss a moment with him. We went into the restaurant, were shown to our table and speculated on what he must be like. PJ asked if I had a mental picture of him and surprisingly I realized that I didn’t. I knew he was well educated, witty, well-travelled, a gourmet who favored the best small restaurants of Catalonia, but no physical image. As we were speculating, we heard a tumult outside. We went to the window and saw hordes of small children waving Catalan flags running alongside a 1924 Hispano-Suiza H6 roadster painted the same bright yellow as the Catalan flag itself. It pulled to a stop in front of the restaurant and out stepped an impossibly handsome man dressed in a white suit, greeting the children and the adults who crowded around noisily. He looked up and saw us and flashed a brilliant smile in the sun and we knew it was he – it was Covetotop.

Covetotop’s car

As we sat to lunch, his graciousness made us feel immediately at home. When he asked how we were enjoying Catalonia, we mentioned that many of the Catalan churches were closed and our disappointment in not being able to photograph. Covetotop merely smiled and suggested we visit a few churches that he mentioned by name. Of course, when we arrived at each on the following day, they were open and we received full cooperation from the local residents in our work, including the ever-present children waving Catalan flags. In the town of Beget, though, with its stunning site and the picturesque church perched at one end of the village, we arrived during the hours of the siesta. But when the church warden heard the delighted cries of the children and realized that we had arrived, he rushed out of his house, pulling up his yellow and red suspenders and tucking in his shirt as he rushed to open the church for us.

Exterior, Església de Sant Cristòfol, Beget (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

Inside the Església de Sant Cristòfol in Beget, we were able to see on the ornate Baroque retable the “dressed Christ” that Covetotop told us about.

Nave and apse, Església de Sant Cristòfol, Beget (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

When it came time to order our meal, rather than try to select individually among the many offerings, Covetop recommended that we eat Pica Pica style, featuring a “little bit of this, a little bit of that”. There was a truitas de patata, the Catalan omelet, the croquetes de pollastre, the canelones de Can Roca, gambas, honeyed botifarra, fried carxofa, and the Anxoves de l’Escala, among many other splendid dishes.

Side aisle to nave, Sant Feliu de Beuda, Beuda (Girona). Photo by PJ McKey

As we progressed through a wonderful lunch of Catalan specialties, Covetotop gradually revealed more of his intensely private life. We learned his real name, but promised on our very lives never to reveal it to anyone. We found that he was born in the little village of Beuda and was baptised with great celebration by the entire community in the font of the church of Sant Feliu, a font filled with the local Empordà wines.

Baptismal font, Sant Feliu de Beuda, Beuda (Girona). Photo by PJ McKey

We found that he spent time in a Benedictine monastery in Austria before moving back to his native Catalonia. After spending years as a calligrapher working in traditional materials using handmade inks and tools, he began his current career crafting wooden fishing boats in a small village on the Mediterranean coast.

Altar, Sant Sepulcre de Palera, Beuda (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

Finally our lunch was finished and we faced the end to a fascinating visit with the enigma that is Covetotop. The empty plates that covered the table somehow reflected the physical and mental feast that we had shared together and we said our fond goodbyes. We will see the Empordà with new eyes now, and look forward to our next visit in the Costa Brava.

Side aisle, Sant Sepulcre de Palera, Beuda (Girona) Photo by PJ McKey

Our visit ended as it started, with the crowd waving their Catalan flags as the Hispano-Suiza disappeared down the road, like us, inspired by the visit from the great Covetotop.

This is clearly a fanciful post, not reflecting the exact nature of our encounter with Covetotop, but a fantasy based on how it should have gone if the universe were as fanciful and imaginative as Covetotop himself. While the details of Covetotop’s private life are obscured, there is one true personal fact included that we invite you to identify. Meanwhile, PJ and I continue to revel in our visit with our new friend.

In a further development, Covetotop has revealed fascinating private details of his life and our visit in his prequel to our visit. A must-read for Covetotop fans thirsty for knowledge!

And then we head south (Dennis Aubrey)


In the ongoing chronicle of our upcoming trip, I started in the middle with the section on the Pyrénées, then went did a general post on our research, before finally starting the trip in Chartres.

Today I’m going to write about what comes after Chartres and up to the Pyrénées. I guess this sequence is kind of like the movie Memento in its disjointed structure. I hope this doesn’t create an “existential dread” like the movie, but I’ll stay on course after this.

We leave Chartres and head to Poitiers, or more accurately, Vivonne, just south of Poitiers. Vivonne is the home of our life-long friends, the Gayets and their home at Danlot. I have known Thérèse and Jean Gayet since the age of 12 and we have stayed in their home many times over the years. They even made a visit to my parents on Cape Cod in the 90’s. Jean passed away a few years ago, but Thérèse flourishes, a force of nature. She grew up in Poitiers and was the first to take me to Sainte Radegonde, one of my favorite churches.

Ambulatory chapel, Église Sainte-Radegonde, Poitiers (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory chapel, Église Sainte-Radegonde, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

We visit with her at the house, a lieu-dit called Danlot. It has the distinction of an iron bridge crossing the Clain River to their house, a bridge built by Gustave Eiffel. Even as a boy I was fascinated by the place. The Clain River was the same that was followed by the Saracens in 732 on their way to the fateful meeting with Charles Martel. On the Gayet’s property was a hill with a field atop called the Champs d’Alaric, the fields of Alaric II, the chieftain of the Visigoths who was defeated and slain by the Frankish king Clovis at nearby Vouillé. Local legend had it that after his death, Alaric was buried under this mound with his enormous treasure. And of course at this time my family lived in Chauvigny, so redolent of history. Is it any wonder that I grew up immersed in a cloud of history and legend?

Danlot, Vivonne (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Danlot, Vivonne (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We are going to spend three days in the area photographing a number of churches in the area. Our home base will be nearby Montmorillon, where we will have an apartment in the center of town overlooking the Église Notre Dame de Montmorillon.

From Montmorillon, we head to my omphalos, the center of my universe, Lacave and the church at Souillac. We stay in the hotel Pont de l’Ouysse, my favorite and one that I have been going to almost every year since 1986. At the Pont, we will have the great pleasure of a sojourn with our great friend Diane Quaid, an actress and hiker who will be in the area hiking the limestone causses for a week. We will have the opportunity to share the extraordinary cuisine of the Chambons père et fils during the visit. PJ will be hiking with Diane during this time, so I will be photographing alone. The following capital expresses my sentiments exactly.

Eglise Saint Pierre des Tours, Aulnay-de-Saintonge  (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Eglise Saint Pierre des Tours, Aulnay-de-Saintonge (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But I will get a chance to photograph one of my favorite churches, Sainte-Marie de Souillac and a number of smaller churches to the east and south that we have not been able to before.

View from east end of choir,  Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

View from east end of choir, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

After three days at the Pont, we head south towards Agen. We have rented a nice house for the five days we explore a cluster of churches between the cathedral town of Agen and Villeneuve-sur-Lot to the north. If time permits, we may even range a bit to the east to return to the great abbey church in Moissac and its famous cloister and tympanum.

Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

After Agen, we head toward the Pyrénées and a trip to the region with some of the oldest Romanesque churches in existence. From there, Provence!

And we begin in Chartres (Dennis Aubrey)


Regular readers of Via Lucis know that we are planning our Spring/Summer trip to France and that we have posted about the upcoming section of the Pyrénées. That is the middle of the trip and today’s post is about the beginning.

2015_11_14_0a_cdg-646c0In April we fly into Paris via Reykjavík, Iceland. We do this for two reasons. First we do it because PJ hates to fly and we can break up the transatlantic section of the flight. Second, and most important, we go through the European Union customs in Iceland instead of Paris, and that is worth a great deal right there. Customs is a breeze in Reykjavík and when we arrive in Paris, we pass quickly through in the EU line. Anyone who has been caught in customs at Charles de Gaulle airport (voted in one poll the “world’s most hated airport”) when two or three international flights arrive at the same time knows exactly what this means.

We arrive at CDG about noon and will be on our way in our new car by 1:30 or so. We will head directly southwest to Chartres, where we will spend the next couple of days photographing the magnificent Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres. As you probably know, the cathedral is undergoing an extensive and somewhat contentious restoration. Some critics decry the loss of the “patina” of the church and its associated atmosphere. We believe that the restoration is magnificent and that the patina will be restored over time while the deterioration is stopped.

Apse from the tribunes, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by PJ McKey

Apse from the tribunes, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by PJ McKey

The last time we were in Chartres, the apse had just been completed and the teams were working on the side aisles. The nave was untouched. We understand now that both the side aisles and the nave have been completed, which means the interior is almost complete. Some sets of windows still are being restored, but it will be our first opportunity to see and photograph the restoration of Bay 140, financed by our great colleagues at the American Friends of Chartres, who previously financed the restoration of the superb evangelist lancets in the south transept.

The south transept lancets, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The south transept lancets, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Of course when we go to Chartres we have to visit with the indomitable Servane de Layre Mathéus, head of Chartres, Sanctuaire du Monde, a private French organization, which for 14 years has worked in close cooperation with the Historic Monuments Commission and supports the public efforts of the French government to restore this glorious cathedral. We also get to spend time with Gilles Fresson, historien et intendant of the cathedral. He is a fountain of knowledge about Notre Dame de Chartres and guides us through the walls and in the hidden corners of the structure.

South side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

South side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sirui P-204S monopod

Sirui P-204S monopod

In preparation for the work at Chartres, we have made some changes in equipment. PJ now has a new camera, the latest version of the estimable Canon 5D that she has used for a decade. It gives her much greater resolution and the “Live View” preview.

Our work demands that we use tripods because of the long exposures that we use in the churches. This works perfectly for most of the time, but there are times when the tripod is too bulky to us. For that reason, we also got PJ a monopod, the Sirui P-204S, to carry when she enters the upper warrens of the cathedral. No longer does she have to lug her tripod in those close and narrow confines. With this fine piece of equipment, she has a versatile monopod/tripod that folds down to just two feet and weighs less than three pounds.

It is hard to believe we are so short a time away from this trip. In two months we will be photographing Chartres again starting our France adventure for 2017. Can’t wait to show you the results of the photography and the restoration.

Unrestored Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by PJ McKey

Unrestored Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by PJ McKey

Researching our 2017 trip (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I are now a mere 10 weeks from leaving for Europe and the excitement mounts as the preparations intensify. We have been diligently researching our target areas for the Romanesque gems that delight us. There are many places on the internet, both amateur and official Patrimony sites, where we glean the information. How do we collate it all? Since the very beginning of the Via Lucis project in 2007 we have used Google Earth as the repository of information. Except for a few glitches, it has worked beautifully – as you can see from this map, we are able to track both the churches that we intend to photograph (with the orange icons) and the ones that we have photographed (red icons).

Google Earth database of churches

Google Earth database of churches

Each individual marker contains information on the churches that is important for our research – descriptions from the sponsoring Patrimony organization (in France, this would be the Patrimoine de France), relevant descriptions from expert sources (like the famed Éditions Zodiaque), links to other sites, and photographs. We often include address information (even though the icons are precisely placed over the chancel crossing of every church, if possible) and hours and rules of visitation.

Google Earth entry detail

Google Earth entry detail

We have also been developing the same database for Romanesque churches in England, Spain, Germany, and Italy. Those are, of course, much less exhaustive than the French database. Our French Gothic database is also under early stages of construction. If these seem like exhaustive databases, consider the real numbers. Our French database consists of about 1080 Romanesque churches, which represents less than 25% of the total number found in the country.

Based on these maps, we plan our itinerary for each trip. There are a couple of provisos – we must always stop in Lacave in the Lot to stay (and eat) at the Pont de l’Ouysse. As I have mentioned before, this is my omphalos, the center of my spiritual universe and I have gone there every trip since 1986. The Pont de l’Ouysse is always our “splurge” place but it is worth every penny. Second, we must stay at the Crispol in Vézelay. Vézelay is critical, of course, because of the presence of the magnificent Basilique Sainte Madeleine on top of the hill. But we must also go because across the valley is the Crispol hotel, run by the equally magnificent Paule Schori. She is a force of nature and has become a dear friend. We are so delighted to be spending three days with her again this year.

Hotel Crispol

Hotel Crispol

Finally, we are making one small two-day detour that has nothing to do with Romanesque churches at all. We are going to drive from Sisteron in the Provence through the old Alpine roads to the tiny Italian town of Chiomonte. Why would we do this? Part of it is to drive the old roads that I remember from my childhood. Chiomonte is known for the seven old fountains that adorned the chemin royal of the country. But our reason to visit is the Ristorante e Affittacamere Al Cantoun. The restaurant is a small building in an old private square. The young chef is Paolo Aiello and his Piemontese cooking is spectacular. We stayed there on our way into Italy in 2015 and again on our way back to France – we can get as excited about finding a great new restaurant as an old Romanesque church!

Ristorante Al Cantoun, Chiomonte

Ristorante Al Cantoun, Chiomonte

So the trip is planned, the lodging all booked, car reserved, airplane tickets purchased. We land in Paris on April 19 and go directly to Chartres, where we will spend two days photographing the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres. More on that in the next post!