A Column Swallower in the Pyrénées – Amuse Bouche #39 (PJ McKey)

Regular readers of Via Lucis know the fondness PJ and I have for medieval grotesques. Among these are some of our favorites, the column swallowers. We have even found one of these gruesomely compelling engoulants in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum.

On this trip we were photographing in the Haute-Garonne region of the Pyrénées and PJ discovered one of the column swallowers hiding in the Templars’ Church in Montsaunès, peeking out from a column to the left of the altar.

Apse, Église Saint-Christophe des Templiers, Montsaunès (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Unlike many of its brethren, this version of the column swallower seems less monstrous and shows more surprise in his simian features. This was the only column swallower we saw this year in our travels – perhaps he was as surprised to see us as we were to see him!

Column Swallower, Église Saint-Christophe des Templiers, Montsaunès (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

Medieval Surgery – Amuse Bouche #38 (Dennis Aubrey)

A couple of weeks ago, PJ and I had the pleasure to photograph the fine reconstructed Romanesque cathedral in the Pyrénéan town of Lescar where the royal family of Navarre was buried for some time. The reason we were excited to come, however, was the presence of the Romanesque mosaics in the apse that were rediscovered in the 19th century. The remaining fragments are in almost perfect condition.

One of the two panels is of particular interest – a hunter with a bow clearly has an artificial leg! It appears that this represents a Moorish soldier from Al-Andalus who lost his leg in the battles against the encroaching Christians during the Reconquista. After he was fitted with his artificial leg, he fought again against the Christians and was captured by Gui de Lons, who subsequently became the bishop of Lescar and founded the cathedral there. He served as a slave and later became a friend to the Bishop, who immortalized him in this mosaic in the apse.

Mosaic, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Lescar (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The donkey following the hunter has a purpose in the composition – not only is it following the hunter-master, but as shown in the next photograph, actually hauls the hunted prey, in this case a resisting wolf.

Lescar wolf

Mosaic detail, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Lescar (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have since discovered that the nearby church of Saint Aventin has a capital depicting one of the Saracen captors of Saint Aventin who also has the exact same leg prosthesis. This is certainly a subject for further investigation.

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

The Val d’Aran – Tapas, tres Esglésies, and the Haro (Dennis Aubrey)

In the Middle Ages, there were areas in Europe that existed in an isolation almost inconceivable today. In the center of the Pyrénées, just south to the current border of Spain, is a small east-west valley tucked into the mountains. During the winter snows, the valley is almost completely inaccessible. But in that valley there are thirty villages, each with a Romanesque church built mostly in the 12th and 13th centuries. Every hillside reveals another, often perched just above that of an adjoining village just a few hundred yards away as the crow flies but miles away by twisting roads.

Today, these churches are intact, most in good condition, and all of them of a style consistent with each other, even to the baroque retables and the restorations. Unfortunately, only a few are open to visitors, so we did not have the greatest hope of seeing more than one or two in detail. But that changed when we met the remarkable Diana Falcon, a journalist who lives in Bossòst and offered to help us out in our work. Diana made arrangements for us to get into churches that were closed and gave us invaluable information about almost every church in the valley, all of which she knows well. She is a lover of the Romanesque and all things archaeological, her husband is an architect with a passion for Romanesque, and we could not have found a better guide!

With her help we planned our four days in the Val d’Aran and were able to see about a third of the churches. We started with the northernmost church in the town of Bossost, the gleisia Mair of Diu dera Purificacion.

South facade, Mair of Diu dera Purificacion, Bossost . (Lérida) Photo by PJ McKey

Small, like most of the churches in the Val d’Aran, the Mair of Diu dera Purificacion is unusual in that it has side aisles. We photographed for about an hour and a half and then decided to lunch on the square right next to the church. Tapas was the order of the day, with the stars being roasted salted green peppers and a fantastic Jamón ibérico. We even broke our norm by having an alcoholic beverage, a glass of wine for PJ and a beer for me.

Nave, Mair of Diu dera Purificacion, Bossost . (Lérida) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Arties is in the center of the valley and features a beautiful, complexly painted three-aisle church. This was one that Diana made special arrangements with Elisa Ros Barbosa of the Airau de Patrimòni Culturaur for us to visit and it was worth every second.

Apse, Santa Maria de Arties, Arties (Lérida) . Photo by PJ McKey

The 15th and 16th century frescoes cover much of the apse and the pillars of the crossing and are worth a study of their own. A detail from the Last Judgment and the fate of the damned brings to mind the great tympanum at the Basilique Sainte Foy in Conques. And notice that prominent among the condemned are a cardinal and a couple of kings! Subversive!

Fresco detail, Santa Maria de Arties, Arties (Lérida) . Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have noticed that most Spanish churches were renovated and decorated in the Baroque style and Diana confirmed our suspicians. The influx of wealth from the New World found its way across Spain and into these humble Romanesque churches. Today we find these additions in even the most modest churches. What is amazing is how well integrated the baroque is with the Romanesque.

North side aisle, Santa Maria de Arties, Arties (Lérida) . Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The third church in this little survey is Sant Andreu de Salardú, one of the grandest in the region. As we would expect, it is filled with baroque additions, but the extent of the fresco work is extraordinary – every surface is filled with the story of the church and the faith.

Crossing pillars, Sant Andreu de Salardú, Salardú (Lérida) Photo by PJ McKey

The vault below the crossing is a Sistine Chapel of its own with imagery rising up from the columns to the arches and then to the four segments of the groin vaulted crossing.

Painted crossing, Sant Andreu de Salardú, Salardú (Lérida) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Diana was a fount of information not just about the churches but every aspect of life in the Val. She told us of a festival in the village of Les, La Crèma deth Haro, that takes place on June 23 for the Feast of San Juan. A tall tree is stripped of its branches and bark, split open with wedges, and erected in the Place del Haro in the center of town. During the year, people place wishes written on pieces of paper into the wedges, and on the festival night the Haro is burned with great celebration.

Les 22/06/2013 Sociedad Fiesta de Sant Joan en la Vall D’Aran queman el Haro, Foto de RICARD CUGAT

We would not be in town for the Feast of San Juan but we went to view the Haro as it stood in the Plaza. There we stumbled upon something completely unexpected – the villagers were gathered to celebrate of the Shasclada deth haro, where the replacement haro is prepared for the next year. The entire population of the town was singing, dancing, and feasting as the men of the town hammered, cut and split to create the next haro.

Shasclada deth haro, (Lérida) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This festival predates the ascendancy of Christianity in the Val d’Aran and elsewhere in the Pyrénées, and we feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see the the Crèma deth Haro in real life. We are planning a return to the Val d’Aran, perhaps at the same time that we shoot the nearby Val de Boí, another treasure trove of Romanesque architecture. Our first call will be to Diana and her comprehensive knowledge of the area she loves so much.

One Day in Basque Country (Dennis Aubrey)

PJ and I were both very excited with the thought of going to Iparralde, the French Basque country. We have passed through the region on our travels, most notably when taking my mother to her town of origin, Eibar, in Spanish basque country. But this time we were spending a full week in the land filled with sounds of the mysterious language of the Basques, Euskara, that scholars claim is unrelated to any other language on earth. About 30% of the French Basques speak Euskara but the names of the towns Gipúzkoa, Hadarribia, and Getxo (and of course the perfectly named Oô) reflect this mysterious origin.

The other day we were to photograph three churches, including one in the remote southwestern area of the foothills, a collegiate church called Sainte-Engrâce. This was deep in a gorge, hidden almost in a great cul-de-sac at the base of the Pyrénées. What a find! Large and beautifully appointed, and with fine sculptural decoration, we were completely surprised at this remote masterpiece.

Apse, Collégiale Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

There were many capitals that we photographed, but my favorite features a creature that PJ calls the “head-snacker”. This capital shows a man with a mace confronting a demon who is indeed devouring a human, presumably a sinner.

Capital – man confronting demon, Collégiale Sainte-Engrâce. Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) . Photo by Dennis Aubrey

After Sainte-Engrâce, we drove back into the rolling foothills of the Béarn region to Sauveterre-de-Béarn. Sauveterre featured a mixed Romanesque-Gothic church with a completely intact western portal. Apparently the stone of the portal was so hard that it defeated the attempts of the iconoclasts of war and religion to destroy it.

Nave, Église Saint-André, Sauveterre-de-Béarn (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) . Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ’s photo of the portal shows the tympanum in situ, flanked by five colonettes on each side. I especially like the two arches at the base of the tympanum.

Western portal, Église Saint-André, Sauveterre-de-Béarn (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) . Photo by PJ McKey

The churches in Sainte-Engrâce and Sauveterre took quite a while to photograph and it was getting late as we headed back to our house in the tiny hameau of Estialescq. We were lucky enough to have a hot tub on the deck overlooking the mountains and were anxious to return. But first we had one more stop, the grand church in the pilgrimage town of Oloron-Sainte-Marie. The Église Sainte-Croix is massive and formidable and pure Romanesque. Nobody has ever added gothic elements or changed its fundamental style, and so it remains unchanged.

Nave elevation, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

The cupola is superb, featuring the eight-pointed star form that we see often in the southern reaches of the Compostella pilgrimage churches. The Église Sainte-Croix was the perfect way to end our perfect Basque day.

Crossing dome, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Well, actually the perfect way was to soak in our hot tub while drinking the famous sweet wine of Jurançon, the wine that was placed on the lips of the new-born infant who became Henry IV of France. A wine that many in the region still use to christen their new-borns! Which is exactly what we did!

Gascon Treasures (Dennis Aubrey)

PJ and I have spent the last ten days or so in Gascony photographing the churches here.  In addition to eating well, drinking copious amounts of wonderful Madiran wine, and driving through stunning country back roads, we have found dozens of churches.  Here is a selection of a few that we particularly like.

We are always sad to leave the Dordogne, even mores because we spent time with our friend Diane Quaid at Lacave. We tried to photograph Duravel when we left, but it was closed for renovations, so we could only hope that the Église Saint-Géraud in Monsempron-Libos would be productive. We underestimated what was there – a beautiful church full of fine Romanesque sculpture. PJ’s shot from echeloned chapel to the crossing shows what we found.


Chapel to crossing, Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

The tiny church in Rouillac in the commune of Moncuq has recently been renovated, showing the fragments of the 12th century fresco to great advantage. I love this shot of PJ’s that conveys the clean, simple lines of the Romanesque architecture.


Apse, Église Saint Pierre, Rouillac Montcuq (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

PJ and I were working our way through some of the smaller churches in the area and were disappointed by several – some were closed, others had almost nothing Romanesque remaining (“lower stonework on south facing walls”), so when we got to Nogaro, we were in heaven. This shot of the apse shows what we saw the minute we walked into the church. There will be a post on this church later, but we thought you might like to get a preview.

Nogaro crossing

Crossing and apse, Collégiale Saint Nicholas, Nogaro (Gers) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We will certainly do a post on the basilica of Saint Fris in Bassoues. The legend of the patron saint alone is worth a telling, but for now we will just show the view of the church with its upper and lower apses.


Double apses, Basilique Saint Fris, Bassoues (Gers) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This region is filled with bastides, fortified towns that were built to protect the residents of an area during a time of constant warfare. Through the entire Hundred Years War and through the Wars of Religion, these walled enclaves were the only place of safety in the Aquitaine. Clermont-Dessus is one of these small bastide towns and it sheltered this modest hall church with a single half-round apse. There were a few capitals but not much other decoration.


Nave, Chapelle Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Clermont-Dessus (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

The Église Saint Sever is one of the grandest churches we have come across in a region whose churches have suffered intense devastation from war. Though perhaps a bit over-restored, it is a fine example of the region’s Romanesque style.


Crossing and apse, Église Saint Sever, Saint Sever (Landes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Right now we are in the foothills of the Pyrénées close to Pau. We are photographing the Compostela churches there before we turn east to the high Pyrénées. We will post more in the next couple of days, perhaps something from the extraordinary collection of capitals that we have discovered here.

First Contact in France – Chartres (Dennis Aubrey)

Last week we finally arrived in France, got our car and drove immediately to Chartres. Our objective was the restored cathedral that we have been documenting for the last six years.

We had lunch with the magnificent Servane de Layre-Mathéus, president of Association Chartres, sanctuaire du monde who has raised so much money in service of her beloved cathedral. She described Chartres as the “Cathedral of Life.” “What don’t you see here that you see in all other cathedrals?” she asked. I could not come up with an answer. “Tombs, she said. “There are no tombs for the dead here.” Once she mentioned it, one could not miss the absence. This is the home of the beloved Virgin and it was not a place for death. The cathedral reflects that purpose now and the difference from the years prior to the restoration is marked.


Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir). Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I won’t get into what I consider the ridiculous Martin Filler screed on the restoration (and I hesitate even to link to it). I am sorry that his personal preference for the dark, moody, cathedral with its “patina” is gone, but to call the current restoration “scandalous” is simply the work of a provocateur. The difference in the sensibility of the cathedral is enormous. One can actually see the architecture, appreciate the brilliance of the stained glass, and understand the purpose of the building.

The restoration of the interior is not quite finished. The two side aisles and the transepts are still waiting, and several bays of windows are not done. PJ’s shot from the northern side aisle to the nave and crossing shows the difference in the restored-unrestored areas.


Side aisle to crossing, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir). Photo by PJ McKey

Shooting vaults in large cathedrals can be challenging when using a wide angle lens. It is not like I can lay down and just shoot up … the angles must all align properly, the tripod takes a special setup and I use a laser to center the shot. As a result, there is usually a small crowd of onlookers curious to see what I am doing; certainly there is an element of theater to it all.


Nave vault, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir). Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But this shot was made more difficult by an example of bad photographic etiquette. I was almost completely finished with the setup, probably fifteen minutes’ work, when a woman came up and asked me to move, as a “professional courtesy”. She was with a photographer who needed to take a full nave shot for a postcard. I reluctantly agreed since I had another fifteen minutes or so of work, stowed my equipment and moved to the side aisle. There I saw what “professional courtesy” meant to her. She was standing next to a photographer with a small consumer camera taking handheld shots with a built-in flash from the back of the church! This is as useless as taking a picture at the Super Bowl using a consumer flash camera. I was furious; and to make it worse, they “chimped” over almost every photograph. Finally they finished and I was able to go back to my shot, but had to start from scratch. Some day I will do a post on photographer-to-photographer etiquette, one of my pet peeves.

Our only disappointment in the three days here was our inability to visit with the rector of the Cathedral, Gilles Fresson. This kind and generous man was completely consumed with the preparations for a broadcast of the Sunday mass on French television and his own interview on the history of the cathedral. Next year, for sure!

Chartres messe

Chartres Mass (cfrt Productions)

Happy Easter

We are fortunate in having found yet another medieval sculpture of the patron of secular Easter celebrations, Saint Saliento Lepus.

Saint Saliendo Lepus

Saint Saliendo Lepus

According to our research, Saint Saliendo Lepus was a 3rd century noble Roman rabbit who incurred the wrath of the Emperor Diocletian by hiding colored eggs in the forum. Enraged, Diocletian had him turned over to Plautian, prefect of the praetorium, who tortured him in an effort to force him to stop this practice, but when Saliento persisted, he was beheaded and served in a stew with lentils and onions. Though the legend is an ancient one, it is no more than that.