New Podcast Episode – Angelico Surchamp (Part 2)

PJ and I have just published Part 2 of our podcast appreciation of our friend and mentor, Dom Angelico Surchamp. As in Part 1, PJ and I converse and reminisce about our times with Surchamp and what he meant to us. The appreciation is purely conversational.

We wrote a memorial post after Surchamp’s passing in March of 2018. This makes a good summary of our relationship with the great Dom Angelico.

Dom Angelico Surchamp and PJ McKey, Église Sainte Marie Madeleine, Le Villars (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The podcast – “A Monk the Morvan” – can be found at the following locations.


A Via Lucis interview on “So Important”

Last week, PJ and I had the opportunity to do an interview with podcaster Monte Malin on his “So Important” site. Monte interviews about the things people are passionate about. He’s interviewed people on music (including the Ramones, Genesis and Sparks), Rabbi Chuck Diamond on the Tree of Life attack, film noir, and even Mr. Rogers. He coincidentally contacted us for the interview about the time we were preparing our own podcast and the timing was perfect.

Anyway, this interview on Monte’s podcast was such great fun and the result is an excellent conversation. Please take the time to go to the “So Important” site, listen, and follow Monte.

One note about our own podcasting effort. After doing the interview with Monte, I realized that the direction of our own could use adjustment. The first podcast about the sack of Béziers was just me talking. For the next episodes – the two-part series on Angelico Surchamp – PJ and I both present in the form of a conversation. It was much more enjoyable and hopefully the audience liked it as well.

François Villon and the mal-turned church (Dennis Aubrey)

I innocently recall
the distant bells
of Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné.
and quickly end my prayer
invoking Guillaume de Villon’s bald pate.

“An Angel”, Yukio Tsuji 1987

Today’s post has nothing to do with Romanesque or Gothic churches or anything else that we normally write about. Today is about the poet-thief François Villon and a church associated with him in Paris. We have never photographed the church and never will be able to because it is long-gone. But the story is fascinating.

I first heard of the Église Saint Benoit le Bétourné while researching our last post on the Église Saint-Géraud in Monsempron-Libos, a small town in the Lot-et-Garonne. The French Wikipedia article on the town reads, “La nouvelle église Notre-Dame de Libos est construite entre 1879 et 1891 à l’ouest de la place Centrale, cette église présente la rare particularité de n’être pas orientée comme traditionnellement vers le levant mais vers le couchant, et ce dès la construction, comme jadis, par exception, au Moyen-Âge à Paris, Saint Benoit le Bétourné ainsi nommé pour son inversion.”

“The new church Notre-Dame de Libos was constructed between 1879 and 1891 to the west of the Place Centrale. This church presents a particular rarity because it is not oriented traditionally toward the east, but towards the sunset, and this construction, was formerly an exception in the Middle Ages in Paris; Saint Benoit le Bétourné so named for its inversion.”

Église Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné in 1808, Paris ( Île-de-France)

I have always thought that I was reasonably well-versed in Parisian history – I can even take you to the spot on Rue de la Ferronnerie where Henri IV was assassinated by Ravaillac. But I was totally ignorant of Saint Benoit le Bétourné! According to the 14th century French scholar Raoul of Presles the original church on the site just a block from the Sorbonne was founded by Saint Denis of Paris. When I was young, the story of Saint Denis particularly fascinated me: Christian legend claimed that the decapitated 3rd century bishop picked up his head and walked several miles while preaching a sermon on repentance. He carried the head through Paris preaching. When he arrived at the site of the Église Saint Benoit le Bétourné in what is now the 5th arrondissement of Paris, he delivered a sermon on the Holy Trinity and dedicated it to “Benoît Sire Dieu” (“Blessed be the Lord our God”). The spelling changed over the centuries and so the church’s dedication seems to have shifted to honor the founder of the Benedictine order, Saint Benedict (in French “Benoît”) of Nursia. A later church was built on the site in the 6th century and dedicated to the martyrs Sergius and Bacchus.

Statue of Saint Denis, Notre Dame de Paris (Photograph by Thesupermat, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

The medieval church was built in the 13th century and the master builder for some reason placed the choir in the west, not the east. This led to the nickname “le bétourné” (“the [church] turned the wrong way round”). The church was rebuilt in the early 16th century by Francis I who had the altar placed in the traditional eastern position. Saint Benoit received a new nickname – “le bistourné” (“the twice-turned [church]”), later bowdlerised into “le bestourné”, possibly to bring it back closer to its old name.

There was a second name for the medieval church – “le Bétourné Mal Tourné” – meaning that it was built wrong. After Francis I’s renovation, the church was known as “le Bétourné Bene Versus”.

Église Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné in 1810, Paris (Île-de-France)

In 1831 the church was converted into the théâtre du Panthéon, which was itself demolished in 1854 to build rue des Écoles. From this old Parisian church, there remained the holy sepulcher which was entrusted to Saint Etienne du Mont. The church organ and a statue of the Virgin were sent to Saint Jacques du Haut Pas. The portal of the church was also installed in one of the courtyards of the Hotel de Cluny (installé dans une des cours de l’Hôtel de Cluny.)

Turgot map detail – 1739, Église Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné

The Église Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné has a strong tie to the original bad boy of French poetry, François Villon. François was born François Villon de Montcorbier in Paris in 1431 but his father died when he was a young boy. He was subsequently adopted by Guillaume de Villon who gave him his name, raised him, and eventually sent him to study for the priesthood at the nearby Collège de Navarre on the Rue Saint-André-des-Arts. Villon earned his Master of Arts in Theology degree in 1452, but he much preferred drinking and carousing in taverns.

He became a thief and on Christmas night of 1456 he participated in a robbery at the Collège de Navarre for which he was banished from Paris. He returned in 1461 but was involved in a brawl where a pontifical notary was stabbed to death. He was subjected the la question de l’eau (water torture) and convicted of murder. On appeal his sentence was reduced to ten years of exile. He left Paris in January 1463 and was never heard from again.

Anthony Bonner speculated the poet, as he left Paris, was “broken in health and spirit.” Bonner writes further: “He might have died on a mat of straw in some cheap tavern, or in a cold, dank cell; or in a fight in some dark street with another French coquillard; or perhaps, as he always feared, on a gallows in a little town in France. We will probably never know.”

Villon’s fate has disappeared into the swirling dark waters of history just like the wonderfully named Église Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné.

New Podcast Episode – Angelico Surchamp (Part 1)

One year after his death, PJ and I have just published a new podcast appreciation of our friend and mentor, Dom Angelico Surchamp. This broadcast – “A Monk the Morvan” – is in two parts. In both, PJ and I converse and reminisce about our times with Surchamp and what he meant to us. The appreciation is purely conversational.

Dom Angelico Surchamp, September 20, 2011

In the broadcast I make a reference to the following picture of “mes deux pères” at the Basilique Saint Philibert in Tournus. It is a shame that the only picture I have of “my two fathers” is this horrible iPhone catastrophe!

Mes deux pères – Angelico Surchamp and Don Aubrey

The podcast can be heard at the link above or found at the following locations.


Update: Part 2 of the Angelico Surchamp podcast has been published.

Église Saint-Géraud (Dennis Aubrey)

The present-day town of Monsempron-Libos is an amalgam of two separate communities. Monsempron was a fortified monastic village that developed around the Benedictine priory founded by the abbey in Aurillac in the 11th century. The town and the priory were built on a small hill overlooking the confluence of the Lot River and its tributary, the Lémance. There is a possibility that there had been an earlier Gallo-Roman settlement – if the “sempron” refers to the Roman family called Sempronia. Libos is a more recent town, a river port at the confluence of the two rivers. But it appears that there was a mill and some kind of custom house, because records indicate that the priory collected impots from both the mill and passing river traffic. In 1958 the communes were officially amalgamated.

The church of Saint-Géraud in Monsempron-Libos was founded as a Benedictine priory by monks from the Abbatiale Saint-Geraud in Aurillac and thereafter remained a dependency of that abbey. Records make it clear that the priory church was in existence by the year 1080.

Exterior, Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by MOSSOT (Wikipedia Commons)

The Romanesque portion of the church is the product of three building campaigns. The first construction was in the early 11th century and consisted of a crypt with a long nave and a triple-lobed chevet. In the beginning of the 12th century, reconstruction began with the current nave and side aisles, and the transept was crowned with a cupola and bell tower. In the 13th century, the chapel at the south arm of the transept was added. Further modifications were made in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries.

Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne)

Saint-Géraud was built in the form of a latin cross with a nave of four bays and side aisles. There are short transepts on either side of the crossing with apsidal chapels echeloned on either side of the choir. The nave is formed by the two rows of round columns topped with truncated capitals featuring birds and beasts. The bands of the barrel vault spring gracefully from narrow pilasters atop the capitals.

Nave, Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The 13th century south apsidal chapel was an interesting addition to the church. The diamond patterned decorations on the entrance arch are unique, especially when they spring from the plain pilasters. Inside we see the deep windows that fill the wall between the columns supporting the groin vault.

South apsidal chapel, Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

There is a wonderful proportion to the arches no matter which direction they are viewed from. Here we see the line of arches going off to the side aisle on the left, the crossing arches in the foreground and the nave arches in the background. And notice the beautiful round columns dividing the side aisle from the naves – they are solid and capable of supporting the barrel vaults but not heavy at all.

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

PJ’s wonderful shot of the nave looking west from the choir is very revealing. We can clearly see the four bays of the nave with its floor below the level of the choir with the western wall pierced by two windows. We can also see the cupola over the crossing. The present day altar sits directly below this cupola. In the early 16th century this enlarged choir replaced the Romanesque apse.

Nave looking west from choir, Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

An interesting part of the church is the set of stairs that make up the first bay and its side aisles. This is almost certainly the work of the 16th century renovation of the choir, but the reason that the crossing and the choir needed to be higher than the level of the nave was because of the existence of the crypt.

View of crossing and chancel from north side aisle, Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave columns are topped with engaging small truncated capitals. Despite the fact that they than half the normal height of Romanesque capitals, the sculptors created wonderful compositions that took advantage of the shape.

Nave capital, Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We were quite anxious to shoot the 11th century crypt, which probably served as a sepulchre for the monks of the priory, but we were unable to gain entrance. This seems to be a great omission for our record of this marvelous church, so we will have to return some day to complete the mission.

Location: 44.4882, 0.9432

Pope Urban II and the Priory of Layrac (Dennis Aubrey)

The town of Layrac is about ten kilometers south of Agen in the present day département of the Lot-et-Garonne. The small river Gers cuts through the center of town just before it merges with the Garonne to the north of town. The area has been settled since the Paleolithic era. The medieval town was founded on the small promontory on the site of an abandoned Roman villa. The town achieved a certain importance because of the river traffic on the Garonne. With the founding of the priory of Saint-Martin-de-Layrac, the town grew more important, so much so that it received a customs charter in 1273 allowing it to collect tolls from passing river traffic.

We know quite a bit about the founding of the priory from a charter that dates from December 16, 1064. The donation was made by Hugues, viscount of Brulhois, and his elder brother Hunald, of the house of Béarn for the construction and maintenance of a priory. The name Brulhois (a Gallic word meaning “embankment, border”, “edge of wooded river”) is still known in Layrac from the wine appellation of that name (which happens to be situated next to Buzet, one of my favorites of that region). At the time, Hunald of Béarn was a monk at the abbey of Moissac where he became abbot in 1072. Hunald was a disciple of the famed Hugh of Cluny and he was known for his extreme piety. He is also known as the builder of the priory church in Layrac from a mosaic inscription (since lost, but preserved by antiquarians) that read: HAS AEDES SACRAS FVNDAVIT HVNALDVS – “This temple was founded by Hunald.”

A second inscription (also lost) is even more interesting: ANNO DOMINI MXCVI A PAPA VRBANO II CONSECRATVM EST HOC TEMPLUM IN HONOREM BEATORVM APOSTOLORVM PETRI AND PAVLI ATQVE BEATI MARTINI. “In the year of God 1096 Pope Urban II consecrates this temple in honor of Saints Peter and Paul and the blessed Martin”

Chevet and south façade, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The date of the Urban inscription is interesting because the Pope preached the First Crusade on November 27, 1095 in Clermont about 400 kilometers to the northeast. I was a bit confused why he would leave Clermont, travel all that distance to such an insignificant site as Layrac on his way back to Rome far to the east. I discovered that after speaking at Clermont, Urban went on a long preaching tour, spreading the message of the Crusade through much of France . Urban preached the cross at Limoges in December 1095, at Le Mans in February 1096, and at Nîmes in July 1096. He did not return to Italy until August 1096 well after the first Crusaders were on their way to Jerusalem. Given the date of the Layrac inscription, we can speculate that Urban visited to consecrate the church sometime between Limoge (December 1095) and Le Mans (February 1096), but that is a short period of time for all that travel. It is more likely that he visited Layrac after Le Mans and on his way to Nimes (July 1096).

The nave of the Église Saint Martin is enormous – almost 38 feet wide – and without side aisles. It is reputed to be the widest Romanesque nave, but I am not so sure – the nave at Saint-Avit-Sénieur might challenge for that honor. The vault is also ogive, banded at each bay. Engaged columns topped by capitals with acanthus leaves support the vault bands.

Nave, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The flat walls of the seven bays are pierced on each side by large rounded windows that flood the interior with light.

Nave elevation, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

There is a beautiful semi-circular apse with nine windows. Those windows and the colonettes that support them correspond to the lombard bands on the exterior chevet.

Apse, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is also a fine 18th century canopy or baldaquin in the choir. It frames the new altar area under the cupola in the transept crossing, an area that is ringed in by a stone balustrade. That crossing is topped by a cupola almost 33 feet across. The transepts have chapels echeloned to the east. These chapels can be seen in the exterior view on the eastern side of the transept.

Baldaquin, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

At the south side of the transept crossing there is a superb capital showing a grouping of fanciful lions. All of the details – from the well-coiffed heads and manes to the talon-like claws gripping the edge of the capital – are of the finest workmanship.

Capital, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

On the floor of the choir are the remnants of an early mosaic featuring Samson slaying the lion, illustrating Judges 14:5-6. “Then went Samson down, and his father and his mother, to Timnath, and came to the vineyards of Timnath: and, behold, a young lion roared against him. And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid, and he had nothing in his hand: but he told not his father or his mother what he had done.” This mosaic was recovered only in 1966. There was apparently another mosaic, still visible in 1714, that featured the cycle of David and Goliath. This disappeared during the restorations of the 19th century when the baldaquin was installed.

Mosaic, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Saint Martin has an elegant western portal with finely worked archivolts springing from slender columns topped with historiated capitals. The two flanking columns are topped with capitals as well, and from the abacus on top of each appear to have once supported a substantial arched porch of some kind.

Interestingly enough, there is also a south portal sheltered by a shallow porch that opens into the transept. There is no sign of this in the 15th century plan even though the workmanship of the portal appears Romanesque.

West portal, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The priory church of Saint Martin was inhabited by monks from the noble class who sought to emulate Hunald’s piety. Because they were men of means, the priory was able to finance hospitals, schools, and other charities. We can see from this reconstruction what the 15th century priory complex looked like. All of this contributed to the growth of the town of Layrac, and certainly to this gem of 12th century Romanesque construction.

Nave from apse, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

It is a wonderful fancy to imagine Urban II with his retinue at this smallish priory church in the Agenais … ““Thither came the Pope, Urban II, with a great retinue of bishops, priests, and cardinals .…” We can imagine the stamping horses, the flowing banners highlighting the new stone construction, and the blazes of color. I can almost see the blue of the sky. How this would have impressed the Layracais, both with the pageantry of the Pope and the honor paid to their founder, Hunald! Inevitably, Urban proceeds to his appointment at Nimes, the decorations are removed and the pageant clothing put away. The deserted parvis lapses into silence.

Note: After completing this post, I confirmed the supposition of the time of Urban’s visit to Layrac with the following confirmation of the Hughes/Hunald charter, dated May 1096: Privilegium Urbani Papæ II quo confirmat Hugoni, Abbati Cluniacensi, honorem cum Ecclesia Sancti Martini de Lairaco, quem Hunaldus dicto monasterio delegavit.

And to our surprise, we received further confirmation from one of our readers. Please take a look below at the comment from Jean-Luc Moreno.

Location: 44.13630 0.66028

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

Our last post was about the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie in Oloron-Sainte-Marie. We left off the section about the Quartier Sainte-Marie with a cliffhanger – the church was in shambles after the depredations of the Vascones and the Saracens in the 8th century. But the bad news was not over yet. The church was once again rebuilt but the Vikings decided to make a foray inland and burned that one as well, leaving both the church and the town desolated. It wasn’t for another two hundred years that the decision was made to rebuilt yet again. Amat, bishop of Oloron , archbishop of Bordeaux, laid the first stone of the church in 1089 on the site of the previous cathedral. It was perched on the summit of the steep hill that dominated the rivers below.

The church was completed under Odon de Bénac, Amat’s successor. The entire structure – including the long barrel vault – was built of hard stone. Maybe the builders wanted to guard against the return of invaders and fire! If so, their plan was successful because Sainte-Croix has resisted even the ravages of time. The church we see today is essentially the church that was originally built (except for some ill-conceived exterior alterations). The rather ugly western face of the church was probably a remnant of the destroyed earlier church that was clumsily incorporated into the new church.

It is likely that this church was intended to be the new cathedral – there is indeed a fine structure just a short distance away that was probably meant to be the bishop’s palace. But it seems that the plains of the Quartier Sainte-Marie were more compelling and a new cathedral was built there. Sainte-Croix became, therefore, a substantial parish church.

The church was designed in the normal Benedictine Romanesque fashion of a nave, side aisles, an oven vaulted apse and echeloned chapels on either side of the altar, although there is no ambulatory. The nave itself is covered with a long, banded barrel vault. The first thing I noticed about this church was that despite its strength and solidity, there is symmetry and a fine proportion of its parts. Even the massive nave piers have engaged columns all around that give an appearance of lightness and elegance. Throughout, the round arches are repeated in every direction like the beat of a drum creating the rhythm of the church.

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

But even with this, there is a strange change of perspective at each different area of the church, almost as if we are seeing a different space. Looking at the apse we that the semi-circular back wall is built on a blind arcade of seven arches leading to the second level of three windows. Above, a lovely oven vault completes the ensemble. Nothing else in the church would lead us to expect this sophisticated creation.

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

The decoration of the apse is completely different as well, filled with 19th century murals by Bertrand Bernard and Romain Cazes. But this does not seem to matter because of the way all the vistas of the church change continuously. And the murals combine well with the several historiated capitals on the engaged columns.

Apse decoration, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The completely unadorned side aisles repeat the three bays of the nave except that they are topped with half-barrel vaults. This form allows the side aisle vaults to add additional support to the nave walls on the right.

Side aisle, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This extra support from the half-barrel vaults in the side aisles mean that the openings to the nave can be impressively large. If we compare this to the contemporary monastery church of Ripoll, we can see the difference in the scale of the nave arches.

Side aisle arches, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The crossing is the regionally-familiar ribbed star-shaped dome with eight branches that we see in Torres del Rio and the nearby Église Saint-Blaise at L’Hôpital-Saint-Blaise. The structure is supported by the four squinches in the shape of a scallop shell. This form is of Mozarab inspiration and is found close to or in Spain where that influence was greatest.

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

It is difficult to express how much this church moves me. The more I study it, the more impressed I am with the skill and vision of the builders. This is a church that was begun in 1089 and shows none of the advances of Romanesque architecture through the years – no ogive arches, no ribbed vaults. The side aisles have the half-barrel vaults like the previously referenced Monastir Santa Maria de Ripoll, which it resembles in many ways. But it is my opinion that the Église Sainte-Croix d’Oloron deserves even more attention as an example of the best of early Romanesque architecture.

Location: 43.1891° 0.6062°