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!

Black and white in HDR (Dennis Aubrey)

This is a technical discussion on the use of HDR in our church photography. High Dynamic Range Photography (HDR) is a post-processing method of combining multiple exposures of a shot in order to provide a more balanced image and capture more of the contrast. We have examined in detail in a previous post but today we are examining a specific use of HDR – conversion to black and white.

We are beginning with a shot of the nave in the Collégiale Saint-Yrieix in the Limousin town of Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche, photographed in the late afternoon with the sun was pouring in from the exterior windows on the south in the nave. I tried to conventionally develop the shots into a satisfactory black and white version but nothing seemed to work. The contrasts were too extreme and I could not find the proper balance. This would be a good candidate for HDR.

I selected four widely different exposures to create the HDR image in Photoshop with the intention of capturing all the details of each in the combined final exposure.

Saint Yrieix composite

Saint Yrieix composite

The result of the base HDR is the following, which is unsatisfactory as any kind of finished image but it looked as it would be very good for the conversion to black and white. All of the windows were properly exposed; we can even see the mullions in the large nave windows as well as the detail in the stained glass of the apse. The colors and contrast are not very good, but that won’t matter in the conversion.

HDR master, Collégiale Saint-Yrieix, Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

HDR master, Collégiale Saint-Yrieix, Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In Lightroom I made the adjustments to the HDR master image. First I converted it to greyscale. The result is a clean neutral image that has little relationship to the feeling of the church at the time of photographing. The representation is simply flat and listless.

Greyscale version, Collégiale Saint-Yrieix, Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Greyscale version, Collégiale Saint-Yrieix, Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

At this point, I a made a series of manual adjustments including increasing the contrast, lowering the highlights and punching the shadows a bit. This is mostly done by “feel” to get to the look that was originally in my mind when beginning the process.

Black and white version, Collégiale Saint-Yrieix, Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Black and white version, Collégiale Saint-Yrieix, Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The result is a satisfactory black and white image of a difficult original composition. Conventional developing techniques combined with Photoshop’s HDR processing got me the image I was seeking.

Via Lucis Gigapan tests (Dennis Aubrey)

A couple of years ago, PJ and I spent a holiday weekend in Providence, partly just to have a nice getaway but also to shoot at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in East Providence and Saint Peter and Saint Paul Cathedral downtown. It was, as always, a pleasure to shoot in these beautiful structures, but we also tried out the Gigapan Epic Pro camera system.

Gigapan Epic Pro

In case you don’t know, the Gigapan is a robot-controlled camera mount that allows for ultra-high resolution stitched panoramas for the web. The two that we did at the churches were 40 images and 48 images. That means that we shot 8 rows x 6 columns of full-frame high resolution photos that were stitched into a single image. For the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Cathedral, that meant an image that measured 269,568 x 179,712 pixels. Printed at 300dpi, that would be an image 90″ x 60″.

Gigapan set up at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church

By using the Gigapan viewer online, one can look at the image at very high resolution. When you go to the links, make sure to zoom in to see the incredible detail available in the image. In the Saint Stephen’s church image you can zoom into the thermostat to the right of the altar near the two icons. At full resolution, you can read the time on the thermostat!

Saint Peter and Saint Paul Cathedral, Providence, Rhode Island

Saint Peter and Saint Paul Cathedral, Providence, Rhode Island

Here is the link to the Saint Stephen’s shot and here is the one for the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Cathedral.

We rented the unit from in Cordova, Tennessee. Based on this single transaction, we were quite pleased by the service and the quality of the rental equipment. The one-week rental allowed us to evaluate the technology before making a decision to buy or not. We’re not sure if we are going to make these panoramas a regular feature of Via Lucis, but are interested in hearing from you on the matter. Let us know what you think!

Via Lucis and the (Iconi)cloud (Part 1) – Dennis Aubrey


The Via Lucis site is a densely populated collection of over 2000 photographs, drawings, and maps, and over 350 articles, increasing at the rate of about 120 per year. Photographs are often used to illustrate specific church sites or general articles on medieval architecture, art, and history. This creates a tightly interleaved relationship of materials that is increasingly difficult to parse.

For example, if a reader would like to know about the Basilica of Saint-Etienne in Caen, it might be necessary to find articles on that church, its sister-church Sainte Trinité in Caen, its founder William the Conquerer, his wife Queen Mathilda, or his step-brother Bishop Odo. There are also references to Saint Etienne in our articles about medieval vaulting, sexpartite vaulting, and pseudo-sexpartite vaulting. There are also references and photos in articles about Norman Romanesque architecture and decor. And that is just material produced by and for Via Lucis!

When David McDonell approached us about using their new Iconicloud visualization Toolkit to represent the complex relationships of our materials, we were delighted, although a bit skeptical. Imagine our delight when we started looking at the prototype! We were able to see the clusters or clouds of similar materials grouped together. By clicking on an image thumbnail we were able to see the link to the original article, see the original photo in its native resolution, and scroll through all of the other images in that particular cloud. In this way we were able to find related images and articles with incredible ease.

MediaNetwork - Selected image clusters opened with linked mixed media resources e.g. image gallery and video playback, plus linkbacks to articles and additional links to related DBPedia/Wikipedia resources and Google Maps

MediaNetwork – Selected image clusters opened with linked mixed media resources e.g. image gallery and video playback, plus linkbacks to articles and additional links to related DBPedia/Wikipedia resources and Google Maps

We were also able to skim the surface of the mass of material and dive in at will and explore. Iconicloud presents an entirely different way of looking at the totality of a site. It works both as a “browsing” tool and as a research tool, serving as a powerful form of visual indexing. In the future, we can see how an image-intensive site – or for that matter any site replete with rich, mixed media content – that is organized using Iconicloud can tie into and correlate the local material into other relevant material across the massive library that is the worldwide web. This is a compelling step towards a visual, semantic web of knowledge, and we are excited to be part of this pioneering effort with David and his team.

In the next article, we will give a demo on how Iconicloud works, but meantime, here is some information on the company and on the Via Lucis ICONICLOUD demo. When the demo page comes up, select the ICONICLOUD “IC” demo in the upper right corner. And then enjoy the ride.

The Celestial Vault (Dennis Aubrey)

I’m going to try here to accomplish in short form something that is almost impossible – an overview of medieval vaulting. In theory, the task should be simple, but the subject is extremely complex. It starts with the barrel vault, a continuous sequence of arches that forms a tunnel and thereby covers an enclosed space. The first example is the simple barrel vault found in the Cistercian monastery of Senanque.

Barrel vault, Abbaye de Senanque, Senanque (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Barrel vault, Abbaye de Senanque, Senanque (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Because of the difficulty of building an entire vault in one pass, the vaults were segmented by bands and built sequentially. This saved significantly in materials (framing for an entire vault instead of framing for sections of vaults that could be reused) and allowed the load to be distributed somewhat by the bands down the piers and into the ground. The result was something like this in the image of the vaults of Saint Trophime in Arles.

Banded barrel vault, Cathédrale Saint-Trophime, Arles (Bouches-du-Rhône)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Banded barrel vault, Cathédrale Saint-Trophime, Arles (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The next step was the use of the groin vault, which is officially described as “the perpendicular intersection between two barrel vaults”. In this version of the vault, the seams between the intersecting vaults take some of the thrust and guide it down through the piers to the ground. This is a significant improvement over the barrel vault in that it eliminates the continuous lateral thrust on the side walls and allows for the insertion of windows in the walls. This can be seen in the rare groin vaulting over the nave at Vézelay.

Rare groin vault over a nave (Vézelay)

It is possible to construct a groin vault only over a squared volume. In most cases, the groin vault had to span two nave bays instead of one because the nave width was twice the width of a bay. This was a large area to cover and often resulted in weaknesses that caused the vault to collapse. To increase the strength of the groin vault, builders began adding another span between the two central pillars, resulting in a vault split into six parts, not four. This was the sexpartite vault. These two shots from the great cathedral of Laon show how the sexpartite vault looks.

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 have done an earlier post on the development of the sexpartite vault in Normandy that distinguishes between the pseudo-sexpartite and true sexpartite vaults.

Springing of the sexpartite vaulting at Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon

At this point, the medieval builders made the great discovery that the strength of the groin vault was the rib itself, so they started constructing the ribs and then filling them in. This broke the “square” rule and allowed oblong volumes to be vaulted. Because of construction and engineering exigencies, the art developed over time until it became the wonderful ribbed gothic vault, the quadripartite, so familiar in its simple and its flamboyant multiple ribbed versions.

Quadripartite vault, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Auxerre (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Quadripartite vault, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This is a story that becomes increasingly complex and difficult to sequence. I used to think that the Romanesque vaults were the records of the failure of medieval engineers, and that when they succeeded in overcoming the limitations of their early efforts, they evolved the quadripartite. But there is more to this story than mere engineering and construction. It is also the story of artistic vision and rhythm, of creating an effect that contributed to the overall visual design of the house of God. Its message was as important as its structure.

Our safety net (Dennis Aubrey)

As readers of this blog know, we recently narrowly escaped a major disaster when I accidentally deleted this blog in April. A supposedly unrecoverable event was saved by the good people at WordPress. Whew.

But it got me thinking, what happens if we lose our actual photographs? We have a 14 terabyte RAID 10 array to store the images and we back up on another 5TB drive, but what happens if the house burns down or someone breaks in and steals everything.

Thecus N7700 Pro NAS storage server

Thecus N7700 Pro NAS storage server

I thought about DVD’s offsite but that simply would not work since the library as it exists now would require 500 DVD’s. We decided on a Cloud-based safety net and signed up for an unlimited account on JustCloud and backed up our entire image library there. This screen capture shows the progress as of today.



The process is ridiculously simple. I dragged the Image Library icon onto the “Drag and Drop to Backup” area and it’s done. You can see that over 100,000 of our 198,000 files are safe already. What you don’t see is that this has taken about 16 days to upload over our online system. That means a month’s worth of uploads, day and night. But then we will be safe and our images accessible from anywhere in the world. That solves our anticipated problem of having duplicate databases when we buy our home in France. One final benefit is that we can do all of our backups to JustCloud as well.

So overall, I think it was the best solution. And we breathe just a bit easier.

More Mapping Changes (Dennis Aubrey)

We’ve recently responded to readers who want to know how to locate the churches that we write about. A number of our posts are explorations of one church exclusively and we list them on our Featured Churches page.

The other day I added the longitude and latitude coordinates to the page, and today, at the request of Arran Q. Henderson and Trish (Sounds like Wish), both of whom wanted to be able to see the churches on a map and explore nearby churches, we made a further change. We now have linked every single one of those churches to a custom Via Lucis Google Map.

It works like this. Each entry features the town and department, the church (linked to the article featuring that church) and then the coordinates (linked to the map).

Aubeterre-sur-Dronne (Charente)

Église Saint Jean
45.272057° 0.170893°

Once you have linked to the Google Map, you can zoom in to look at that one particular church or you can look at other churches in the area. In every case, the church marker contains basic information about the church and the link to the articles. Try it on this post and then go the Featured Churches page and explore away.