The Many-named Cathedral of Sisteron (Dennis Aubrey)


Sisteron is located on a deep defile, carved by the Durance as it rushes south out of the Alps. On one side is the town, clustering around the base of a commanding hill surmounted by a citadel. On the other side is the imperious Mont de la Baume, a precipitous rock casting its great shadow over the little town below. This strategic location controlled a major crossing of the Durance, described by Livy as “… of all the rivers of Gaul the most difficult to cross, and despite the volume of its waters, does not permit navigation.

Sisteron (Photo Mariano)

In this small provincial town stands one of the oldest cathedrals in France and a wonderful example of Provençal Romanesque, Notre Dame de Pomeriis, translated often to Notre Dame des Pommiers, Our Lady of the Apple Trees. Despite the fact that there are enormous apple and apricot orchards on the high plains just north of Sisteron, this is not the correct translation. Pomeriis refers to pomerium, the defensive space between the city and the ramparts where military regulations forbade construction. But the cathedral was built on the outskirts of town because there was no space within the walls and the topography left no choice for the builders – this was the only spot where the cathedral could see light between the two peaks. For this reason, the church is also known as Notre Dame hors-la-ville de Sisteron (“Notre Dame Outside-of-Town of Sisteron”)!

The official name of the church is the Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, but even this has changed over the years. The cathedral was built in the late 12th and early 13th century on the site of a chapel dedicated to the patron saint of the town, Saint Thyrse or, in the Latin form, Saint Thyrsius. Thyrsius was a Christian deacon of Smyrna, sent to Gaul in the second century with Andocheus to preach the Gospel in Gaul. They were both tortured and decapitated in Autun during the reign of Marcus Aurelius in 179. When the cathedral was built, it was renamed Notre Dame but preserved the name of the patron of Sisteron. We chose to label the cathedral “Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse” instead of “Notre Dame de Pomeriis”, “Notre Dame hors-la-ville de Sisteron” or even “Notre Dame des Pommiers” so as to not disparage on of the earliest Christian martyrs of Gaul.

Western façade, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

PJ and I know from personal experience that the cathedral is not in the center of town, although a neighborhood has certainly grown up around it. We passed by the cathedral without even seeing it and had to circle back. We found a parking place directly in front and had to go inside to make sure that it was the correct building. The front is simple but really gives no indication of the size of the cathedral within.

The plan of the cathedral shows a basilica form with a long nave and two side aisles terminating in a rounded apse. There are no transepts. On the outside of both side aisles are 1tth and 17th century chapels – five on the south and two on the north. On either side of the apse there is an echeloned chapel. The cathedral is 143 feet long, the nave is 25.5 feet wide and each side aisle is almost 14 feet wide. The height of the vault is meters long and 7.8 meters wide. The height of the vault is 52.5 feet.

Plan, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence)

In the shot of the nave, we can see the solid piers that support the banded barrel vault. Beyond the vault is the chancel crossing and finally the small, oven vaulted apse. There is very little natural light in the church – a small oculus in the crossing, a rose and two side aisle oculi in the western façade. For this reason it has been called a “beautiful, dark vessel”.

Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave elevation shows how the barrel vault springs directly from the nave walls with only a thin cornice disguising the liason. The engaged columns rise up to support the bands of the vault. Most of the capitals are simple and unadorned with the exception of a pair of figurative capitals in the north side aisle.

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The north side aisle is dark and shadowed, like the rest of the church. But high up on the middle engaged column, we can see figurative capitals at the cornice level.

North side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The first of these capitals is on the north wall of the north side aisle and shows a pair of figures with plants coming out of both sides of the mouths.

Capital, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second is on the opposite side of the north side aisle and shows a mysterious composition of two faces, with a single elongated face on the edge. These figures are barely visible, situated high up in the darkness of the side aisles, visible only upon study. PJ pointed them out to me and I needed to photograph them and look at the results to know what was carved on those capitals. Even our small spotting scope could not reveal the details.

Capital, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Back in the nave, we come to the crossing. In the shot of the crossing dome, we can see the octagonal cupola high up in the tower, resting on four squinches in the shape of scallop shells. There is a Saint Michael’s chapel accessed by the clocher stairway that opens onto the cupola, but we didn’t know about it at the time.

Crossing dome, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is one more history of Sisteron that is quite famous (or infamous). The Marquise de Mirabeau, Louise de Cabris, was the sister of the great Mirabeau. As a young woman she was married to the Marquis de Cabris. While the young Marquis alternated his time spitting into basins of water to gauge the circumference of the aquatic movements and recovering from periodic bouts of insanity, his wife indulged in worldly extravagances, amorous adventures, even becoming her brother’s mistress!

Her father recognized the danger to the family and sent her to the convent in Sisteron “to repent of her sins at leisure in the Convent of the Ursalines.” But her brilliant wit and extravagant morals were not to be checked by these religious women. In the words of the witty Elise Whitlock Rose, “On pretense of business, all the lawyers flocked to see her; and with no pretense at all the garrison flocked to her train.” She shocked the good people of Sisteron so much that she was soon returned to the family estates in Grasse to continue her adventures and, in all likelihood, laugh at the good people of Sisteron.

Marquise de Mirabeau, by Vigee Le Brun. Oil on canvas. 1774

But perhaps the Sisteronais had the last laugh. Scandals, intrigues, lawsuits, defamations, and even incarcerations attended the comely Louise during the pre-revolutionary period. Fleeing prosecution, she emigrated to Genoa, where she became a laundress, nursing her poor fool of a husband who she had dragged into her exile.

Location: 44.195744° 5.943825°

Reichenau-Oberzell, Abbey Church of Sankt Georg – A Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm


In 896, Hatto III, archbishop of Mainz and the abbot of Reichenau monastery traveled to Rome during the time of Pope Formosus, and came upon relics of Saint George and brought them to his monastery in Lake Constance (Bodensee), and the monastery in Oberzell became the resting place of important relics of Saint George including a piece of his skull. It is said that the 7th century early Christian church of San Giorgio Velabro in Rome played a part in Hatto’s acquisition of the relic. In the first centuries of the Middle Ages, veneration of St. George gradually spread from Italy to the Frankish land across the Alps.

The abbey church of Sankt Georg is situated on a gentle hill at the eastern tip of the Reichenau island in Lake Constance.

Exterior, Sankt Georg (Reichenau-Oberzell) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

It is a sample of late Carolingian architecture built at the end of the 9th century, and expanded in later times. It is laid out as a basilica plan with a nave, relatively wide for the time of its construction, two aisles with low ceiling, and a raised eastern choir over the crypt.

Plan, Sankt Georg (Reichenau-Oberzell)

It is reasonable to assume that the wide nave was called for because of its function as a shrine for Saint George. The nave is covered with painted high wooden ceiling. The master builder, heir as he was to the Carolingian builders with predilection for the cross form, vertically stacked three square elements, which are only slightly narrower than the nave: the crypt for enshrining the relic, a “crossing” and a square tower over it.

Nave, Sankt Georg (Reichenau-Oberzell) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

As there is no transept at Sankt Georg; reference of a “crossing” requires an elaboration. At Sankt Georg, the crossing is where the choir/chancel is located, and it is defined by tall walls on all four sides, with high, but narrow round arch openings on east and west, and low openings toward north and south, as there are no transept wings. It is what Kubach termed as “tied-off (abgeschnürte)” crossing, which we see in this architecture. The upper portion of the crossing walls extends above the nave roof to form the tower. It is easy to deduce that over the course of development from the late Carolingian to Ottonian architecture, the walls had gradually become piers at four corners of the crossing, as at Saint Michael in Hildesheim built about a century later. Today the crossing is covered by cross rib vault at about the level of the flat nave ceiling.

Crossing, Sankt Georg (Reichenau-Oberzell) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

A square eastern apse is joined to the crossing. A half round western apse was constructed at the beginning of the 11th century, and the main entrance is located at the western apse.

Western apse, Sankt Georg (Reichenau-Oberzell) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Western apse, Sankt Georg (Reichenau-Oberzell) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The columns defining the nave and aisles have pronounced entasis, and they are surmounted by cushion capitals of pure geometry with painted ornaments.

Nave columns, Sankt Georg (Reichenau-Oberzell) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Over the nave arcades running the length of the nave space, smooth and tall walls are covered with frescoes with small clerestory windows high near the ceiling. Both north and south walls of the nave serve as the surface for very highly regarded narrative cycle of Ottonian fresco paintings depicting Jesus’s miracles. They were restored in 1880, and form an important part of the UNESCO world cultural heritage designation of the entire island of Reichenau.

Location: 47.689241 9.082024

For more information about our guest writer, Jong-Soung Kimm, please see this link.

A Gatehouse and Westwork in the Romanesque architecture of Germany – Guest post by Jong-Soung Kimm


One of the earliest examples of the Carolingian architecture, if not the earliest, is the gatehouse for a former Benedictine abbey in Lorsch (between Worms and Darmstadt, Hesse) of ca.764 AD. It has come down to this day remarkably intact, belying its building in the mid-eighth century. Although it has been called Torhalle, the structure appears to have been a free-standing building in a spacious forecourt to the abbey, all but a trace today.

Some scholars see a connection between the form of this structure and the Arch of Constantine, while others link it to the Propylaeum of the old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In either case, it shows the Carolingian tendency to look for inspiration from the glory of the Constantinian era. Lorsch structure has two stories with stair turrets on either side, and a very tall, steeply sloped hip roof. Unlike triumphal arches, however, only the outer walls of the structure have arches, and the underside of the upper story is framed with flat ceiling between the outer walls. According to one account, on the upper story was located a chapel of St. Michael, a commonly found element which was placed at the westernmost spot of the ground of an abbey for the archangel to ward off the evil spirit.

Torhalle, Imperial Abbey of Lorsch, Lorsch (Hesse)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Torhalle, Imperial Abbey of Lorsch, Lorsch (Hesse) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The façade with three arcade openings is defined by four semi-cylindrical engaged columns with the Composite capitals, with a relatively thin architrave with shallow relief above; on the inner faces are placed shorter columns with capitals to support the half-round arches. Over the architrave are placed fluted pilasters, three bays per each arcade below, with Ionian capitals with very shallow relief. A zigzag pattern of beams, rather than half-round blind arcades, straddle these pilasters. The wall surfaces are filled in with hexagon- and square-shaped brown sandstone tiles, in a Roman technique called opus reticulatum. The wall articulation for the upper story at Lorsch relies on the use of an appliqué, like weaving in a textile as Frankl described, unlike the lower story with structural expression of columns and arches. The master builder, quite ingeniously, worked out all the geometrical relations of the sizes of tiles to the spaces to fill so that nothing is left to chances, including the incline of the aforementioned zigzag beams at 60 degrees to correspond to hexagons.

Torhalle, Imperial Abbey of Lorsch, Lorsch (Hesse)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Torhalle, Imperial Abbey of Lorsch, Lorsch (Hesse) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

If it had been said that Lorsch might be the earliest work of the Carolingian architecture, the Palatine Chapel in Aachen is the most important architecture of the Carolingian era. Charlemagne is said to have instructed his master builder, Odo of Metz to study San Vitale in Ravenna of 547 AD, another Roman capital. Little did Charlemagne or his court envision that what Odo did deliver would be a wholly new work of architecture, a work of the Western sensibility as contrasted to the immaterial space of the Eastern, or Byzantine church. The Palatine Chapel was consecrated by Pope Leo III in 805 AD to Virgin Mary.

Palatine Chapel, Aachen Cathedral, Aachen (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Palatine Chapel, Aachen Cathedral, Aachen (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The term Westwerk was invented in the nineteenth century to describe what Carolingian writers referred to as castellum or turris at the west end of a church. The westwork of the Palatine Chapel in Aachen, constructed as an integral element of Charlemagne’s palace compound, is placed on the axis of the Chapel facing a spacious rectangular forecourt which was connected to, and defined by an elevated walkway from the palace quarters. What is quite visibly different from a typical westwork is that, unlike a west façade for a church of a basilica plan, the westwork at Aachen is rather narrow, because it is joined to only one side of an octagon. It also has a prominent concave surface on the relatively narrow surface, reminiscent of the façade of the Palace of Exarchs in Ravenna built sometime after 712 AD. From the tribune level above the niche, Charlemagne would address the crowd. Additions of more height to the square tower, and a rather slender steeple built during the Gothic era resulted in the present westwork.

Westwork, Aachen Cathedral, Aachen (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Aachen Cathedral, Aachen (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The imperial abbey of Corvey in North Rhine-Westphalia was established sometime in the early part of the ninth century, and populated by monks from a Benedictine abbey of Corbie in Picardie, present-day France. The abbey church itself had been transformed into a Baroque architecture in the seventeenth century, but the westwork at Corvey, built between 873~85 AD, is the only Carolingian westwork extant today.

Westwork, Imperial Abbey of Corvey, Corvey (North Rhine-Westphalia)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Imperial Abbey of Corvey, Corvey (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

It is built as a sort of vertically organized church in itself: the ground level, a square plan of three bays by three bays, is built of sturdy square piers with groin vaulting like a hall crypt, with the axial bay leading to the abbey church; the central section of the exterior wall of the westwork projects forward from the generally flat surface up to the tribune level; stairs on either side lead to that tribune level, where a partially restored Carolingian chapel, called Johannischor at one time, gives us a glimpse of the space as it was built. The view of the west front clearly shows where, in the 12th century, additional tower floors were built with different stone coursing.

Interior detail, Imperial Abbey of Corvey, Corvey (North Rhine-Westphalia)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Interior detail, Imperial Abbey of Corvey, Corvey (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The westwork at the Cathedral of SS. Petrus and Gorgonius at Minden, constructed in the first half of the tenth century, presents to us another important example of what a Carolingian westwork might have appeared, although a twelfth century alteration has given it a markedly perpendicular emphasis.

Westwork, Cathedral of SS. Petrus and Gorgonius, Minden (North Rhine-Westphalia)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Cathedral of SS. Petrus and Gorgonius, Minden (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The westworks of St. Cyriakus in Gernrode, and St. Godehard in Hildesheim present a pair of cylindrical stair towers flanking a half-round western apse, one of the characteristic features of Ottonian architecture.

Westwork, Church of Saint Cyriakus, Gernrode (Saxony-Anhalt) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Church of Saint Cyriakus, Gernrode (Saxony-Anhalt) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Church of Saint Godehard, Hildesheim (Lower Saxony)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Church of Saint Godehard, Hildesheim (Lower Saxony) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Other notable examples of westwork in the Romanesque architecture in Germany include St. Pantaleon in Köln; Cathedral St. Stephen of Trier; Cathedral St. Peter of Worms; Cathedral SS. Mary and Stephen of Speyer; St. Kastor in Koblenz; and St. Georg in Limburg-an-der-Lahn.

Westwork, Church of Saint Pantaleon, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Church of Saint Pantaleon, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, High Cathedral Saint Stephen of Trier, Trier (Rhineland-Palatinate)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, High Cathedral Saint Stephen of Trier, Trier (Rhineland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Cathedral of Saint Peter, Worms (Rhineland-Palatinate)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Cathedral of Saint Peter, Worms (Rhineland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Basilica of Saint Castor, Koblenz (Rhineland Palatinate)   Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Basilica of Saint Castor, Koblenz (Rhineland Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork,   Cathedral of Saint George, Limburg an der Lahn (Hesse)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Cathedral of Saint George, Limburg an der Lahn
(Hesse) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

It would be appropriate to include here three Romanesque churches in Alsace with important examples of westwork: Saint Foy in Sélestat; Saint Etienne in Marmoutier; and finally, the abbey church of Murbach.

Église Sainte Foy, Sélestat (Bas-Rhin)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Église Sainte Foy, Sélestat (Bas-Rhin) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Abbaye Saint-Étienne de Marmoutier, Marmoutier (Bas-Rhin)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Abbaye Saint-Étienne de Marmoutier, Marmoutier (Bas-Rhin) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Abbaye de Murbach, Murbach (Haut-Rhin)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Westwork, Abbaye de Murbach, Murbach (Haut-Rhin) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

It is the eastern façade of Murbach with an impressive composition comparable to a westwerk which merits inclusion in the present essay.

For more information on Jong-Soung Kimm, please select this link.

The More Fool to Myself (Dennis Aubrey)


I am reposting this article from June 3, 2013 for a very special reason, which will be made clear by the post that will follow shortly But it is important to introduce Mr. Milton Hammer, one of my life mentors. It also, in light of our current political election cycle, completely expresses my sorrow and frustration.

As a very young man, I worked a year in a rare book shop in Santa Barbara, California. The shop was owned by a wonderful couple, Milton and Jessica Hammer, who encouraged my passion for books and my love of all things literary. I spent half my meager salary on books and was never happier than browsing among the treasures. When Milton and Jessica traveled across the country on buying trips, I waited anxiously for the boxed treasures to arrive – to open and catalogue them, the first to touch the wonders.

"The Mystic Mill" capital in Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

“The Mystic Mill” capital in Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One year while traveling they called me to see if a certain important shipment had arrived. I enthusiastically described the books and how I had cleaned and prepped them for pricing and shelving on their return. Milton asked how I liked the letter? What letter? I saw no letter. “Right on top of the books,” said Milton. “There was a letter that we wanted you to see right away.” But I had not seen any letter; I was distraught, even more so when Milton said it was a letter from D.H. Lawrence, one of my favorite writers at the time. It turned out that I was so anxious to look at the books that I threw all the packaging paper away and the letter was among that detritus. I immediately went out to the garbage dumpsters where I had cast the packaging, but this was also the garbage for El Paseo, a large Mexican restaurant next door. No matter, I climbed in all the bins and searched every fragment, in vain. I was covered in filth but all I felt was the shame of losing the precious letter, written by the hand of Lawrence. I still regret this loss.

I have talked often of my sympathetic understanding of medieval relics, and this story probably explains much. To see and hold a first edition of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was like a religious experience to me. I treasure my copy of Siegried Sassoon’s “To A Red Rose” with the hand-tinted illustration by Stephen Tennant.

Stephen Tennant illustration, "To a Red Rose" by Siegried Sassoon

Stephen Tennant illustration, “To a Red Rose” by Siegried Sassoon

One of the treasures I discovered all those years ago at Hammer’s Book Shop was Robert Burton’s “The Anatomy of Melancholy‬” originally published in 1621. I still have my copy of a later edition that was owned by the Hollywood producer Walter Wanger. One of my favorite passages was about the wise men of the past – Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Augustine, and others whose works have endured for centuries. In regard to these wise men, Burton described Bernard of Clairvaux‘s thoughts – “Saint Bernard will admit none into this catalogue of wise men, but only prophets and apostles; how they esteem themseves, you have heard before. We are worldly-wise, admire ourselves, and seek for applause, but hear Saint Bernard … the more wise thou art to others, the more fool to thyself.”

Two Devils Fighting, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Two Devils Fighting, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have lost the ability to see ourselves in this way. The secular rationalism that dominates the western world today has contributed little to the ethical universe but to give us the tools for rationally justifying just about anything, any behaviour no matter how reprehensible. Greed – rapacious desire – is not only condoned, but praised. Envy, insatiable desire, is stoked by an international popular culture where we are exposed to the excesses of the rich and famous and then model our happiness on those excesses. Pride, gluttony, lust, and sloth have been redefined and transmuted into virtues. And wrath? Uncontrolled hatred and anger? It has become the staple of our political life for both the Christian right and the secular left. And expecting our leaders to lie, we no longer hold them to any standard of truth.

If Bernard’s examination was true for the great thinkers of the ancient world, what would he have to say about public figures today? Would he thunder in a voice of righteousness like the prophets of old and lay bare the deceptions and oppression? Would that voice even be heard, or would he be another unheard cry in a lonely and barren desert?

Trumeau statue of Jeremiah, Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne)

Trumeau statue of Jeremiah, Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne) Photograph copyright PJ McKey (All Rights Reserved)

Last night PJ and I were talking and she said how she was so disturbed by the world today, how it moves so fast and is ruled by deception and fear. It breaks my heart to hear her talk like this because I can’t protect her. We can only live our close life with our art and books, family and friends. The flow of the world will nurture or destroy itself and we will be carried on the torrent like leaves on the Orinoco.

Postscript: Milton Hammer contributed a collection of books and letters to the Special Collections library at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The gift contains correspondence, photographs, and other material collected by Milton, much of it during his career as a rare book and manuscripts dealer. It features names like Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Napoleon Bonaparte and Harold Pinter. Box 1:1 is labelled with a name not nearly so distinguished but it has my complete curiosity. The name? “Dennis Aubrey”.

The Saint and the Simpleton (Dennis Aubrey)


There are so many wonderful stories and legends associated with the churches we photograph in France, but none is more pleasing than that of Saint Menulphe and his friend, the Simpleton of Mailly-sur-Rose, a town in the Allier.

Statue of Saint Menoux, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Statue of Saint Menoux, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Menulphe was the son of an Irish king and very devout. He traveled to England, Brittany and France and was recognized for his sanctity. When the Pope heard of this and asked him to come to Rome, Menulphe walked the route in poverty, a mendicant with no possessions. On his return, he stopped in Mailly-sur-Rose, exhausted with his journey. During that time, Menulphe took pity on an innocent named Blaise who was the scapegoat for local children. One day he intervened as the young urchins threw stones at Blaise. He chided the boys and took the young man under his protection. Blaise was described as a simpleton, one who could barely speak, and never left Menulphe’s side. He couldn’t pronounce his protector’s name and “Menulfe” became “Menoux”.

When Menoux died, Blaise thought that the holy man was asleep. He spent his days and nights at the grave, conversing with his friend. One day visitors to the cemetery saw that the coffin had been dug up and that there was a hole in the side. They discovered Blaise laying on his stomach, with his head in the hole, talking to someone. The local people were scandalized but the curé said, “Poor Blaise, he is a better and more faithful friend than we are. Perhaps he is the least crazy of all.”

The Curé placed Menoux’s remains in a sandstone sarcophagus and had an opening cut into one side. Blaise spent the rest of his life conversing with his friend, and miraculously, the troubles of his mind faded to the point that he was able to serve mass. At the time of his death, Blaise had the reputation of being a simple, faithful man, as sensible as anyone.

La Débredinoire, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

La Débredinoire, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Thereafter, in memory of the miraculous healing of Blaise, parents led the bredins, the simple-minded, before the tomb of Menoux and placed their heads carefully into the sarcophagus – the débredinoire – hoping for the same healing that Blaise experienced. Eventually the site received such a number of pilgrims that the Benedictines built an abbey on the site under the direction of the Abbess Adalgasie and placed the sarcophagus with Menoux’s relics in the choir. They also changed the name of the village from Mailly-sur-Rose to Saint Menoux. The fairs held by the abbesses attracted vendors and buyers which led to the expansion of the village.

The church gives an idea of the importance of this abbey and the monastics who resided there. It was built in the classic Cluny style in the early part of the twelfth century. The nave has three tall, narrow bays with ogive arches covered with groin vaults.

Nave facing west, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave facing west, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The side aisles are, as usual, visually stunning. We see the long, uninterrupted flow to the ambulatory in the distance.

South side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

South side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The north side aisle, however, has a unique feature. Just to the west of the transept arch is a rather clumsily executed structure that contains a stairway leading to a defensive tower on the exterior. Poking up through the roof, that tower looks almost like a minaret.

North side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

North side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The raised apse is perhaps the finest element of the church. The choir has two elegant high bays topped with clerestory windows while the chancel features a seven bay hemicycle with an arcade of windows leading to the oven vault.

Apse, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The débredinoire of Saint Menoux is found centered behind the altar in the chancel. These reliquaries have been placed between the pillars of the central hemicycle arch and the tomb can be seen just behind.

Reliquaries, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Reliquaries, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The oldest part of the church, built in the eleventh century, is the narthex on the west end of the church. This antechamber has beautiful arcades supporting a short barrel vault. Some of the pillars are topped with capitals, but it is clear that the restoration was not complete. Fragments of some of the original statuary are rather casually displayed in the arcades.

Narthex, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Narthex, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Today, the abbey is gone – only the church remains after the destruction of the French Revolution. The town of Saint Menoux is quiet and peaceful for its 1,009 residents. The church is not well tended; there are rat droppings and cobwebs throughout. Dust cakes the benches and the chairs, but pilgrims still frequent the Église Saint Menoux in order to use the débredinoire for relief from feeble-mindedness or headaches.

Lest we think that credulous in the Middle Ages were alone in these workings, look at this passage in “The Invisible Architecture” by George Prat (2000).

“For more than forty years I made fun of the débredinoire which I considered an example of public credulity … My surprise was great to see that the débredinoire works and is not a gimmick. The débredinoire is placed at the geometric center of the apse …. and is located at the junction point of the telluric current and four streams of water. … When one realizes that this is a machine from another age and can be activated by an ‘acupuncture point’ located nearby, we are amazed at the electrical energy released … The débredinoire is actually an instrument of care-giving; when used correctly, the equivalent a high intensity shock is given to the user. This is certainly very effective in the case of some nervous breakdowns.” People will always find a reason to believe if the need is great enough.

Demon Capital, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Demon Capital, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Our daughter Sarah suffers from debilitating migraines and PJ placed her own head in the sarcophagus in hopes of helping. I guess it doesn’t hurt to try! But you must be careful not to touch the tomb while inserting your head. You run the risk of absorbing the feeble-mindedness and headaches of all who preceded you!

If you are interested in seeing some other churches in this region, follow this link.

Location: 46.585211° 3.156842°

The Benedictine Monastery of Sant Pere de Galligants – A Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm


Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The Monastery was begun in 992 outside the walls of Girona when Ramón Borrell, count of Barcelona deeded to the monks the right over the property of Sant Pere. Borrell made further donation the following year to put the fledgling monastery on firmer footing. In 1117 Ramón Berenguer III of Barcelona merged the monastery with the Abbey of Sainte-Marie-de-Lagrasse in present day France, although Sant Pere kept its own abbot and a large degree of autonomy. Sant Pere was never a large community as it was not the parish church, and only baptisms were held at the church. The control of abbots over the monastery ceased in 1339 when King Pero III of Aragon made Girona a duchy of the kingdom of Aragon. It began to decline in importance in the 15th century, and was absorbed into other monasteries in 1592.

The Romanesque church that we see today dates from 1130. The western façade with a prominent, 3.5-meter diameter rose window and an unusual, squared top is thought to be a carryover from a previous church.

Western facade, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Western facade, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The church is built on the basilica plan of nave and two aisles, the crossing which is the same size as a typical bay, short north and south transepts, but with unusual deviations. The north transept has apses both on the east and the north faces, and a stair turret to the campanile; the south transept has two small apsidal chapels in tandem.

Plan, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Illustration by Jong-Soung Kimm

Plan, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona)

The nave is composed of four bays defined by substantial rectangular piers with semi-cylindrical pilasters with well-proportioned capitals, which in turn support sturdy transverse arches for the barrel vault.

Nave, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

A short bay to the east of the crossing framed by two pairs of columns with very delicate and elaborate capitals, precedes the chancel. These capitals for the chancel arch columns are thought to be the work of different artists than the stone carvers for the nave. Some of them have been attributed to the master of Cabestany. The chancel itself is laid out in a semi-circular plan divided into seven sectors, slender colonnettes separating each, and there are three windows on the curving chancel wall.

Chancel, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Chancel, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The oblique view looking up at the intersection of the nave vaulting and the chancel shows the oven vault for the chancel. The barrel vault continues over the crossing in the same direction as the nave, ending with a diaphragm wall with a quatrefoil oculus over the entry bay to the chancel.

Chancel entry bay, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Chancel entry bay, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The level difference between the nave floor and the chancel is much less than at some early Romanesque churches with crypts underneath, presumably because of the terrain sloping away toward the east. The nave floor is raised at the easternmost bay by one step, while another step raises the level of the crossing, and there are four steps to the level of the entry bay to the chancel. Finally, one additional step completes the gentle ascent to the chancel floor. The view from the north aisle toward the southeast illuminates the pure geometry of the nave arcades well, and also shows that each pier is set on a cross shape base.

Nave piers, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave piers, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The nave elevation scheme shows that the semi-circular tops of clerestory windows extend higher than the springing of the barrel vault.

Nave elevation, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave elevation, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view from the south transept toward the crossing and the north transept shows the north-facing apse (Photo 8), and the view from the north aisle toward the south transept shows the two apsidal chapels in tandem (Photo 9).

View from south transept, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View from south transept, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View from north transept, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View from north transept, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view looking straight up to the nave vaulting shows the high caliber of masons building the curving surface on the one hand, as well as the logic with which the master builder brought together all constituent parts toward a harmonious architecture on the other.

Nave vault, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave vault, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

As mentioned earlier, the terrain slopes away toward the east, making the apse and the campanile stand tall seen from the east. The exterior of the apse is built in a smooth semi-cylindrical shape, while the campanile is built on an octagonal plan, and it has two tiers. The upper tier of two stories feature double arches divided by columns, decorated with Lombard bands.

Chevet with campanile, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Chevet with campanile, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

In 1362 when the city walls were expanded to include Sant Pere within its walls, the campanile of the monastery was rebuilt for more defensive function. The cloister, while relatively small in size, is an excellent example of Catalan Romanesque architecture. The northern gallery attached to the church wall dates from 1154, while the other three galleries from 1190. The capitals of the columns have motifs very similar to those in the cloisters of Sant Cugat del Vallès, or those in the Cathedral of Girona.

Cloister, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Cloister, Monastir Sant Pere de Galligants, Girona (Girona) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The fact that the former Monasterio de Sant Pere de Galligants has been the home of the Archaeological Museum of Catalonia in Girona since 1857 is a measure of poetic justice, as it is one of the most “classical” and quintessential Catalan Romanesque churches.

Location: 41.98888 2.82638

For more information about our guest writer, Jong-Soung Kimm, please see this link.

Église Mont Saint Vincent (Dennis Aubrey)


Burgundy has one of the greatest concentrations of Romanesque churches in France. At its historical epicenter was the Abbey of Cluny, now unfortunately almost completely destroyed, the seat of power of the Benedictine monastic world for centuries. At the height of that power, the black-robed monks could boast over a thousand dependencies, monastic institutions which were considered as an extension of the “mother” house.

One of those dependencies was a priory only 20 miles away and built on one of the highest points in the Saône-et-Loire, a granite outcropping 601 meters high that dominates the beautiful and rich Charolais countryside below. The church, built around 1100, was dedicated to Saint Vincent.

PJ shooting the valley, Église Mont Saint Vincent (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The town of Mont Saint Vincent (population 334) hosts the beautiful Église Mont Saint Vincent, a priory church for five centuries until the monks left in 1506. Because the church possessed an important relic, a fragment of the True Cross, it was an important pilgrimage site.

PJ and I liked the church very much because it is the epitome of the Romanesque monastic church. It is heavy and massive, built as a Latin cross with a nave of four bays with side aisles. And unlike many of the Cluniac churches and attesting to its age, the nave and side aisle arches are perfect semicircles, and not ogive.

Nave, Église Mont Saint Vincent (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The main reason that we visited the Église Mont Saint Vincent was that it is one of two churches that feature transverse barrel vaults built perpendicular to the axis of the nave and supported by semicircular diaphragm arches. With its Cluniac sister of Saint Philibert in Tournus, we have the only examples of this unique solution to the stresses imposed by a barrel vault. Instead of a single long vault running the length of the nave and transmitting the stress outwards to the side walls, the four vaults cross the nave and transfer those stresses to the adjacent barrel vault, canceling each other out.

Transverse barrel vaults, Église Mont Saint Vincent (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

One of the structural advantages of the transverse barrel vaults was that fairly large windows could be built in the walls of the nave at the clerestory level.

Nave, Église Mont Saint Vincent (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Because the side aisles are covered with groin vaults, windows could be placed all along these passages as well. The combination of the clerestory and side aisle windows allows a great deal of light to penetrate into the church.

North side aisle, Église Mont Saint Vincent (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Mont Saint Vincent is very large and tall structure but no longer has a crossing tower, which makes it seem truncated. After the collapse of the vault of the choir in 1773, the pillars of the crossing were reinforced but they weren’t capable of sustaining the weight of the tower. It was was razed twenty years later in 1793 during the French Revolution.

The west face of the church is sheltered by a porch which is the same height as the nave and consists of two floors. The bottom floor is an open narthex with large arches and features a remarkable sheltered portal with a tympanum showing Christ in majesty between Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The sculptural style is very archaic, indicating that this is probably one of the oldest tympana in the region.

South view, Église Mont Saint Vincent (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

All in all, the Église Mont Saint Vincent ended up as one of our favorite discoveries of the 2011 trip. The church was beautiful in the transition to the late afternoon light. While it has not been so well restored as Saint Philibert in Tournus, the purity and perfection of her lines make the church a masterpiece of Romanesque design and workmanship. We respond to this purity and perfection and it recalls in us the great reason that these churches were built with such love and attention to detail. They were built to last because the faith on which they were based was eternal, and because of all things of the earth, only stone could approach that eternity.

Side aisle, Église Mont Saint Vincent (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 46.632259 4.480439