A Tale of Two Cities – Oloron-Sainte-Marie – Part One (Dennis Aubrey)

The town of Oloron-Sainte-Marie is located at the confluence of two gaves, or mountain rivers in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques; the Aspe and the Ossau. This divides the town into three parts. To the west on the left bank of the Aspe is the ecclesiastic city with the imposing Cathédrale Sainte Marie. This area is known as the Quartier Sainte Marie. To the south on the high ground is the feudal city, which actually started life as a Celtic settlement and subsequently became the Roman oppidum called Iluro (which later became corrupted to “Oloron”). The history of Iluro disappeared with the Visigothic invasions that decimated the Roman province of Gallia Aquitania in the 5th century. Today the high ground of the Quartier Sainte Croix is dominated by the Église Sainte Croix, a fine Romanesque structure. There is the modern Quartier Notre Dame on the right bank of the Aspe but the church there, the Église Notre Dame, is Romanesque in style only, having been completed in 1893.

Nave, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the 4th century, the oppidum became the Christian city of Sainte Croix. The churches of the region were decimated with the invasions of the Visigoths in the following, but the Visigothic king Alaric II permitted Sainte Croix to be designated a bishopric. The first bishop was Gratus, who is celebrated in Oloron-Sainte-Marie every autumn during the Fêtes de la Saint Grat. From the festival logo shown here, my suspicion is that something of the original spirit of the festival has been lost in time.

Sainte Croix did not have much better luck in subsequent years. In the 6th century, the Vascones crossed the Pyrénées and pillaged the area, and in the 8th century the Saracen invasions left Sainte Croix in ruins. The city was almost deserted for two centuries. We will pick up the story of Sainte Croix and the town of Oloron in the next post, because today we will concentrate on the Cathédrale Sainte Marie.

The cathedral is a Romanesque structure built in the 12th century but only the western portal and parts of the transepts remain of that structure. The nave, composed of three great bays, was rebuilt in the 13th century after a fire caused by a riot destroyed the church. It was later raised to a greater height and side aisles added in the 14th century. Of this nave, only the two great pillars flanking the transept remain of the Romanesque church.

The travails of Sainte-Marie continued, unfortunately. The Protestant forces under Mongommery pillaged the cathedral in 1569 and it was not repaired until 1617. It was augmented in 1749 with the construction of the four lateral chapels and redecorated. The main restoration of the church by the Monuments Historique was finished in 1859.

Nave, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In this shot of the nave from the side aisle, we can see the lateral chapels that were added in 1749. We also get a sense of the strength of the structure with its massive engaged columns springing to the vaults above. We also see the nave windows that fill the space with light.

Nave from side aisle, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The ambulatory reveals the 14th century chevet and the sanctuary, enhanced with high arches. Having been rebuilt during a single time frame, this is the most harmonious part of cathedral. The high ogival windows fill the ambulatory with light.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

This shot of the side aisle from the ambulatory shows the 18th century decoration and the 14th century side aisles that were added at the same time as the nave height was raised.

Chapel, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The east end chevet is Gothic, of course, resulting from the 14th century reworking of the cathedral. The ambulatory chapels are clearly visible from the exterior forms.

Chevet, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The crowning glory of the Romanesque portion of the church is the magnificent sculpted west portal, one of the earliest of its kind. We are lucky that the wars and disasters of the past have spared this masterpiece. The unique iconography of this ensemble is thought to be the work of two master sculptures, one who is known as “The Master of Oloron.” His hand can be seen in the tympanum and its depiction of the descent from the cross, as well as the atlantes supporting the trumeau.

The descent illustrates John 19:38-40 – “And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus. And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. (KJV)”

West portal, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The portal trumeau shows two figures straining to hold up the weight of the columns, indeed the cathedral itself. These atlantes by the Master of Oloron are some of many fascinating details to be found in this sculptural array.

Trumeau detail, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The portal is sheltered by an open narthex that empties directly onto the parvis. This Gothic portal was carved into the massive Romanesque tower that dominates the western profile of the cathedral. We can see from this shot that Sainte-Marie is an integral part of the local quartier that bears her name. We can see another of the atlantes supporting the exterior columns here.

Narthex to parvis, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

One of my personal favorite details of the portal are the figures on the central band of the archivolt. They represent the works of the seasons – in this case we see a wheelwright, a mason, and a cooper, but other vignettes include a butcher, forester, cobbler, smith, baker, cook, and even a musician.

Archivolt detail, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Another detail familiar to lovers of Romanesque sculpture are the squatting figures supporting the columns just to the north of the archivolt, clearly unhappy with their burden. The entire portal dates from about 1120, so this is one of the earliest depictions of this pair, others of which are found at the Église Saint Pierre des Tours in Aulnay-de-Saintonge and elsewhere.

Exterior capital detail, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Today Oloron-Sainte-Marie is known mostly as an important stop on the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela, the collection point for the Via Tolasana from Arles. While we were there we saw pilgrims in both the cathedral and the Église Sainte Crois. In the latter, we actually saw a pair of walkers changing their clothes in the middle of the church! I guess we surprised them in the otherwise empty church. Our next post will be about the interesting Romanesque church of Sainte-Croix.

Location: 43.187846 -0.615936

As so often happens, there is a story that goes with this post to show how history is ever-present in France, or at least it has been for me since I was a boy. We have wonderful family friends who live outside the small town of Vivonne just south of Poitiers. The Clain River runs through the Gayet’s property and I was fascinated by the fact that the Saracens followed the Clain on their way to despoil the city of Tours in 732. Just north of Poitiers the Saracen army was met by the forces of Charles Martel and was defeated on October 10, 732. This was the first check in the Muslim conquest of Europe. But even more fascinating to my young mind was a small hill crowned by a flat field that was owned by the Gayet family. It was a lieu-dit called the Champs d’Alaric. The local legend is that after the battle of Vouillé (where Clovis defeated Alaric II and the Visigoths) Alaric was buried with a great treasure on this spot. When we visited the Gayets, I often walked to this hill and and dreamt of the pageantry and tragedy of Alaric’s death.

An Exhibition at the Jubilee Museum (Dennis Aubrey)

Via Lucis is fortunate to have our third exhibition of the new year, this time at the Jubilee Museum in Columbus, Ohio. The Jubilee Museum was established in 1998 by Fr. Kevin F. Lutz. Its purpose is to preserve the Catholic mind and memory as it is represented in art. The museum embraces liturgical art and secondarily any art that in some way tells the story directly or indirectly of Christ, Mary, the saints, and the history of the Catholic Church.

The museum is located at 57 South Grubb Street in Columbus and th exhibit runs from March 7, 2019 to April 12, 2019. The exhibition – entitled “Light & Stone” – features a selection of thirty-eight images of French Romanesque and Gothic churches. The photographs will be hung in the beautiful Tridentine Chapel.

Tridentine Chapel, Jubilee Museum, Columbus (Ohio)

There will be an opening reception on March 21 from 6:00pm – 7:30pm. We would love to see any members of the Via Lucis community who are in the area. It is always one of our great pleasures to meet in person those we only know through our blog.

As usual, we have an exhibition catalog for sale and it can be found at this link.

Podcast Update

Last week PJ and I published first podcast for Via Lucis on the Podbean platform, but since then we have been investigating other platforms. Right now the podcast is available also on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Blubrry. Click on the logos below to see the program on each platform.

The Blubrry site allows listeners a choice of ways to follow and listen, including Apple Podcasts, Android, and email, as well as a number of sharing options.

We are also planning to have a presence on Spotify, but that will take time since we need to have seven episodes to qualify. We’ll post when we have reached that threshold.


We are very excited about this extension of our Via Lucis world and are making plans for future episodes. The next will be a memoir of the great Fra Angelico Surchamp and this contributions to the field of Romanesque architecture with the Éditions Zodiaque. Surchamp was a great friend and mentor before his death last year and we hope this podcast will be both an introduction and tribute to him for our English-speaking audience. Please take the time to listen to these and comment. The only way that we will improve is to hear from you, those who are most familiar with our efforts here at Via Lucis for the last decade.

Our First Podcast!

PJ and I are proud to announce our first podcast for Via Lucis. We have been thinking about doing this for about three or four years, but just got around to it now. The first episode – the Sack of Béziers – was published today on the Podbean platform.

If this is something that our Via Lucis community likes, we will continue to do this in the future. Meanwhile, we encourage you to follow the podcast and to comment.

An Exhibition at the Shrine of Maria Stein (Dennis Aubrey)

PJ and I are delighted to have a second exhibition at the Shrine of Maria Stein in Maria Stein, Ohio. We are displaying twenty-four images of the Romanesque Sedes Sapientiae madonnas, including several Black Madonnas, from February 1 to May 31st.

These Vierges have some interesting characteristics; Mary is not usually a young mother, but a mature woman. The child is small, but is not depicted as an infant or a baby, but rather more like a small adult. Both look directly ahead at the beholder. In few of these sculptures will we find the maternal warmth of the Renaissance Madonna and Child or the sorrow of the Mater Dolorosa. Instead, there is often a distant look, as if Mary is looking into the future, into the sacrifice that will be demanded of both herself and her Son. When taken as a set, these Throne of Wisdom madonnas carry enormous symbolic power, which I find compelling. In the reborn and rejuvenated Romanesque world of France, these images symbolized the saving grace of the Church, and the protective embrace of one they considered the Mother of us all.

We will be hosting a reception at the venue on March 16, 2019 from 4:00pm to 6:00pm. If any of our readers are in the area, we would love to visit with you. We will be discussing the photographs in the exhibition and the wonders of these sculptures.

The Shrine of Maria Stein is located at 2291 St. Johns Road, Maria Stein OH 45860. 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.

The Sisters of the Precious Blood administered the Shrine until 2016 when it was entrusted to a non-profit foundation.

We have an exhibition catalog for these photos that is available for purchase. If you are interested, please go to this link.

Another radio interview (Dennis Aubrey)

Sacred Heart Radio in Cincinnati, Ohio contacted us recently for an interview. Today I was interviewed by Father Rob Jack for two segments. This interview is a kind of overview of Via Lucis and our love of Romanesque churches. The interview starts at about 36:35 and continues for about ten minutes. Part 2 begins at 50:08 and continues until 56:55.

Since 2001, Sacred Heart Radio has brought Catholic programming to the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Beginning with one station (WNOP, Newport’s famous “floating radio station”) and two employees, Sacred Heart Radio now operates an AM station at the 740 frequency (heard in Cincinnati and Covington), an FM station at the 89.5 frequency (heard in Hamilton, Ohio) and 910 AM in Middletown.

In addition to carrying programs from EWTN, Ave Maria Radio, and other networks, Sacred Heart Radio produces the Son Rise Morning Show heard across the country, as well as numerous seasonal programs heard throughout the year.

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

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

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

Henri IV, reconstruction by Philippe Charlier

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

Mary Magdalene, as imaged by Philippe Froesh

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

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

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

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

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