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°

The Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe – Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kim


Readers of Via Lucis would remember that the Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe was featured in an article by Dennis some years ago. Whereas The focus of that blog was on the 11th and 12th century fresco painting on the church nave ceiling, the present article is intended to illustrate the unusual vaulting technique used in the abbey church.

As the founding charter of the Abbey of Notre-Dame of Saint-Savin was lost during the French wars of religion in the 16th century, the precise year of founding is unclear, but it is known that a cleric in Charlemagne’s court came upon the relics of the 5th century brothers Savin and Cyprien who fled their homeland in Macedonia to avoid persecution, but were martyred near the present town of Saint-Savin by the Gartempe river, and a Benedictine abbey was founded in their honor in the early decades of the 9th century with the blessing of Charlemagne. The abbey extant today was established in 1010 when Aumode, Countess of Poitou and Aquitaine, made a sizable donation for building the abbey. Bishops Odon II and Gervais undertook the building campaign for the abbey church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe between 1040 and 1090. The large block of convent to the south of the abbey church was built in the 13th century through donation from Count Alphonse of Poitiers, brother of St. Louis.

The abbey church of Saint-Savin is based on a Latin cross plan. It consists, from west to east, of a square narthex with a finely proportioned spire above; three bays of nave with half-round transverse arches and barrel-vault supported by compound piers; six bays also with barrel-vault, but without transverse arches; a square crossing with a crossing tower above; transepts to north and south; a deep choir/chancel with 2-meter wide ambulatory and five radiating chapels.

Ground plan, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne)

The nine bays of the nave measure 42 meters long, 6 meters wide, and 18 meters high at the zenith of the barrel vault. The surface of the nave vaulting measures 412 m2. The nave floor is slightly raised to east, creating an impression of the choir being elevated even higher than the level difference when seen from the west. The transepts and the choir were the first to be built, then the western three bays of the nave, finally the eastern six bays of the nave over the foundation of the Carolingian abbey. It was eventually completed in the 12th century in the general state seen today. The axis of the church is slightly deflected at the compound piers where the western three bays are joined to the six bays without the transverse arches.

In comparison with one of the “classic” Romanesque churches such as Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in Vézelay, it is immediately apparent that the space of Saint-Savin is organized with more Roman architectural elements. The 15-meter high sturdy cylindrical nave columns support semi-circular arches running length-wise in the east-west direction. Over the procession of these six semi-cylindrical arches, a continuous barrel vault is built for the nave. The unusual vaulting of the nave at Saint-Savin seamlessly transforms itself as a wedge of the groin-vault for each bay of aisles to the north and south. The aisles, about 5.5 meters wide, are almost as high as the nave, making Saint-Savin one of several hall churches constructed in the southwestern region of France. The nave is thus lighted not from clerestory windows, but from tall windows on the exterior walls of aisles. The barrel vault surface receives an adequate illumination for the justly famous fresco painting. Another unusual aspect of Saint Savin, a characteristic of the Poitevine Romanesque architecture, is that masonry surfaces are stuccoed and decorated with faux marbre in pale rose and pastel tone.

The Church

The convent block to the south and the abbey ensemble to the north greet visitors when approaching from the northeast across the Gartempe river. The five radiating chapels as well as the chapel on the north transept create a dynamic and sculptural massing.

Ensemble view from northeast, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The south façade of St.-Savin-sur-Gartempe abbey church shows the finely proportioned spire at the west built between the end of the 14th and the dawn of 15th centuries in the High Gothic style.

South facade, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view of the nave toward the choir shows 15-meter-high columns supporting half round arches in the east-west direction. A continuous barrel vault rests over the longitudinal seats for the nave.

Nave, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The axial view of the choir. The sturdy columns and capitals have the Classical proportion of the Corinthian order, but with carvings of imaginary animals and vegetation.

Axial view of choir, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view of the north aisle toward east. The use of faux marbre technique on the masonry is an important characteristic of the Poitevine Romanesque architecture.

North side aisle, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view from south aisle toward northeast shows generous windows on the exterior walls of a hall church, as opposed to the clerestory windows of a high nave-low aisle configuration, providing ample light for the vault fresco. The half round arches running length-wise facing the nave, transform themselves to a series of “pies” of the groin vaults of aisles.

South side aisle, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The axial view of the nave to west. The six nave bays to the east have continuous barrel vault resting on longitudinal seats without transverse arches defining each bay. The nave floor is a few steps below the narthex and the plaza outside.

Axial view of nave facing west, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The western three bays of the nave are framed by half round transverse arches resting on substantial compound piers. A tall tribune space over the narthex has a generous opening looking out to the nave.

Western bay, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View of the nave looking up toward the choir shows where the axis is slightly deflected at the intersection of the easternmost transverse arch and the continuous barrel vault.

View of nave looking up, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View of the fresco painting in the barrel vault of the eastern six bays of the nave (link to Dennis blog).

Nave vault, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view looking up to the crossing highlights the sturdy and impressive cross-shaped piers at the corners.

Crossing, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View of the central chapel on the axis of the chevet.

Central chapel, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

While the most important object for the high artistic esteem accorded to Saint-Savin is the fresco painting on the nave vaulting affectionately nick-named “Romanesque Sistine Chapel,” Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe is an important monument in the development of Romanesque architecture. It was inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage register in 1983.

Location: 46.566944, 0.864444

I would like to particularly thank Jong-Soung Kimm for the post. First of all, it is direly needed by the Via Lucis blog in my absence. Second, I grew up just up the road from Saint Savin in the town of Chauvigny, often written about in these pages. The Abbatiale Saint Savin in those days was dingy, underlit, and unloved by all except the locals and lovers of the Romanesque. It has now been beautifully restored and it is such a delight to see a study like this published here.

The Passing of a Giant (Dennis Aubrey)


Angelico Surchamp June 23, 1924 – March 1, 2018

The first time we saw Père Angelico Surchamp, the diminutive monk was with a group of admirers at the Convent of Notre Dame de Venière just outside of Tournus where he served as confessor to the nuns. One of the guests – obviously a great admirer – insisted on taking his picture. Smiling, Surchamp asked, “What am I? A national monument?” I remember thinking at the time, “Of course you are!”

Dom Angelico Surchamp, September 20, 2011

PJ and I have been planning our fall trip to Europe. As always, we put on the list a visit to the Abbaye de la Pierre-qui-Vire, home to our great mentor. The last time we saw him a year ago his health was failing and we were hoping that he would be well enough to receive us. This is not to be; today we received a letter from Father Mathias at the Monastery.

Chers amis,
Nous vous partageons le départ de notre Frère Angelico Surchamp.
Bien fraternellement.

This short announcement came with an obituary letter from Père Luc CORNUAU, Abbé of La Pierre-qui-Vire, giving the briefest summary of his life and accomplishments. The key phrase in the document is the following; “Artiste et moine, f. Angelico a cherché à unifier sa vie, non sans tension lors des évolutions de la liturgie après le Concile. Son regard pétillant et malicieux laissait entrevoir sa forte personnalité, et son sourire accueillant, sa simplicité ainsi que sa belle confiance en Dieu.” Translated, this reads “Artist and monk, Father Angelico sought to unify his life, not without tension during the changes in the liturgy after the Council. His sparkling and mischievous look revealed his strong personality, his welcoming smile, his simplicity and his trust in God.”

So few words, hinting at so much. But what nothing in the document says is what he accomplished for the history of architecture, specifically, Romanesque architecture. His chef d’oeuvre – the Éditions Zodiaque – is a monumental accomplishment in art history, a collection of over 200 volumes on Romanesque art and architecture. No work in the field is complete without these studies.

Frères Surchamp and Norberto photographing a church in Aragon, September 23, 1986 (Photo courtesy of Románico)

Our admiration for Surchamp is complete, but the sense of loss at his passing has nothing to do with his work. We have lost the luminous spirit of the small monk in the Morvan who had become our friend, our mentor, and our spiritual guide for Via Lucis.

We have one memento of our visits to him that carries his inimitable touch. On our first visit, we met him at the convent and then took him to lunch in Cuisery. Afterwards, he took us to see the Église Sainte Marie Madeleine in the village of Le Villars. He thought it would be interesting for us to photograph. At one point I was shooting the exterior capitals and joked with Père Surchamp that he had now to “sing for his supper”; I handed him the remote and asked him to take the shot. He smiled at me and said “Is the photographer the one who presses the button or the one who composes the shot?” I laughed and said, “Now we’re talking philosophy.” Here is the shot he took – posted in black and white, of course – and even though we never completed the discussion of who the photographer was, I have the pleasure of assigning the metadata and therefore attribute the photo to the master.

Portal of Église Sainte Marie Madeleine, Le Villars (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dom Angelico Surchamp

That night I asked PJ to express her thoughts on Surchamp. “We were so excited to meet him; I thought it was the meeting of the minds for the two of you. You found someone who you could talk to about the churches on a different level than anyone else, because there is a philosophy in his speaking of these places and the experience of photographing them. You can really understand him when you have done it, like we have. It means a great deal to hear him speak. I think that he looked at the churches as an artist, not just as a priest or a monk or from strictly a religious point of view, but also from an artistic point of view. Which is why you don’t have to be Catholic to love the places. He understands this on a very profound level, as I think we do.

And I love his explanation of the difference between Romanesque and Gothic – the Romanesque induces internal experience and reflection; Gothic induces external reflection. Gothic is the demonstration of the belief of spirituality while Romanesque is the experience of that belief.”

And this from a woman who professes not to speak French.

Surchamp’s artistic view of the world comes from his early love of and training in the fine arts. He was a student of the great Cubist painter Albert Gleize and was greatly influenced by Gleize’s work.

Paysage cubiste, Albert Gleize (1920)

PJ had further thoughts on Surchamp. “He sees the interaction of lights and planes, shapes and shadows. He wasn’t just shooting – most of the photography that you see from that era, they are shooting a picture of the church. But he’s really shooting like we shoot, he’s shooting something else. He is trying to capture the church, but he’s shooting deeper than ‘I want to show someone what this place looks like.’ He’s trying to express all of these other things – the interaction of the architecture with the light, it’s multidimensional feel.”

Paray-le-Monial from Bourgogne romane, La Nuit des Temps I, 1974 (6th ed.), pl. 50

Paray-le-Monial from Bourgogne romane, La Nuit des Temps I, 1974 (6th ed.), pl. 50

She continues, “He’s shooting as an artist – taking the religious content aside, you can see that he is shooting it the way an artist would. Of course it’s very realistic, there’s nothing more real than architecture, but like your shot of Fontenay that I love, that’s a perfect example. There’s nothing more realistic than that, but it also wonderfully abstract, and you can look at it and see the bands of light only, it’s abstract.”

As if to confirm this thought, when Surchamp saw PJ’s photograph of the side aisle at the Cathédrale Saint Front in Perigeueux, he smiled at her and said “You photograph as I photograph!”

Side aisle, Cathedrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

We were lucky enough to visit with Surchamp in the company of my parents some years ago. At the Basilique Saint Philibert de Tournus, we walked through the old columns of the nave together. We descended the steep stairs into the crypt, and seeing Surchamp in his black robes walking with his hands behind his back was like being taken back centuries in time. I could almost hear the plainsong chants of his Benedictine predecessors as he walked these stone floors among the strong pillars.

We mounted again up into the main floor of the abbey church, my father and Surchamp walked arm-in-arm. I thought, “These are my two fathers, my birth father and my spiritual father”.

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

Driving away, my parents were delighted to have met Surchamp – “He was everything you talked about,” my mother said. Indeed, and more, because my words can never do justice to this accomplished Benedictine monk who has become so important to our lives. “We do not reach beauty except in love, and love requires time and freedom.”

On our last visit with Surchamp at La Pierre qui Vire, he said, À mon âge, tout ce que je dois donner c’est ma mort – “At my age, all I have left to give is my death.” I told him that he had more to give than that, just the joy of our visit with him was a greater gift. He took my arm, looked at me with that old, wise look and said Nous sommes séparés par des milliers de kilomètres et un grand océan, mais nos coeurs sont proches.

“We are separated by thousands of kilometers and a great ocean, but our hearts are close.”

I felt at the time that he was saying goodbye, and it turns out that feeling was correct. He is back in the arms of his great, giving, and loving God who Surchamp cherished with all of his heart. We wish him farewell on his long journey into eternity. We will lay flowers on his grave when we return to our beloved France in September.

Here are links to our previous articles on père Angelico, José Surchamp

Those who precede (Part 2), Angelico Surchamp

Those who precede (Part 3), Angelico Surchamp

Those Who Precede part 4 – Angelico Surchamp

The Monk in the Morvan Forest

PJ’s Doors (Dennis Aubrey)


This post begins with a piece of music recommended by our dear friend Nathan Mizrachi. Since it was the inspiration for this post, Einaudi’s Primavera makes a perfect accompaniment for a moment that was Spring in itself.

Today, PJ gave me a series of pictures of doors that she has photographed in Romanesque churches in France over the last decade. I ran a number of errands and used the time to think about the shots, about what I would write to describe her fascination with these old portals. I thought about how these doors lead us into a long-gone world of spirituality, of generations of veneration by the residents of the small towns where the churches were found. I tried to find a key to these doors; a way in, a way to understand.

Église Saint Martin de Tours de Gausac, Gausac (Val d’Aran). Photo by PJ McKey

But my thoughts were muddled; I felt overwhelmed by polarizing political dialogue, the self-righteousness of both the ignorant and the educated. We have created the horrible condition where children are gunned down in their schools, where our political world is corrupted by special interests, and our culture debased by celebrity and fashion.

Église Saint Martin d’Ur, Ur (Pyrénées-Orientales). Photo by PJ McKey

After awhile, however, I just grew tired. I was tired because I am ill, I was tired because I felt inadequate to the task of writing, and most of all felt so tired about the world around me, wondering if a word that I wrote would mean anything to anybody.

Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet et Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales). Photo by PJ McKey

In this exhaustion, I needed something different, a momentary diversion, an infusion of beauty, if I could find it. So I put on Ludovico Einaudi’s Primavera on my car stereo and drove the back way home through the forest. In our rural area there was no traffic to distract me from the music. Suddenly, three does crossed in front of me on the road ahead. When they saw my car, they did what they usually do – they bolted up the side of the hill and disappeared into the trees.

Notre Dame d’Orcival, Orcival (Puy de Dôme). Photo by PJ McKey

For some reason, however, I stopped, rolled down the window. Then I turned up the music so that they could hear it clearly. Instantly, all three deer stopped and their ears peaked; they turned and stared down at me from forty feet away. I turned up the music even higher and just sat there, watching and waiting. Within thirty seconds, they had started down the hill and approached the car, eventually stopping just five feet away, staring at me. The music was so beautiful, the deer responded to that beauty and stood there listening, calm, unfrightened. The closest deer looked at me with an ethereal calmness, her brown eyes fixing mine, probably wondering why there were tears running down my cheeks.

Basilique Saint Fris, Bassoues (Gers) Photo by PJ McKey

Finally the music stopped and the deer looked up and around, then turned and silently disappeared into the trees. They left me alone, car idling in the middle of the two-lane road, sitting for some period of time. When I emerged from my reverie, I felt a certain calmness, that everything was temporary; my illness, the politics of this world, everything. Beauty still exists and the I still respond to it. PJ and I respond to it in our private Romanesque world. Even the animals of the forest respond, their hearts beating a synchronized duet with my own.

Église de Mailhat, Mailhat (Puy de Dôme). Photo by PJ McKey

And suddenly I thought of a small 90 year old French monk who lives in another woods at La Pierre Qui Vire in France. I thought of Angelico Surchamp who has loved these same churches as we have but for fifty years longer.

And I thought of what he said about beauty; “We do not reach beauty except in love, and love requires time and freedom.”. And PJ’s doors opened to me and I felt her love.

Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude de Nivelles – A Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm


Nivelles is a municipality in the Belgian province of Waloon Brabant with a population of around 28,000 in 2016. It is said that starting in the 4th millennium B.C., the region had gradually been cultivated as agricultural land by the Danubean settlers. The land was invaded by the Romans in the 1st century, and in turn by the Germanic tribes in the 3rd century. By the 7th century it belonged to the Frankish kingdom. The archaeological excavations of the site of the present Romanesque church have yielded traces of two Merovingian and three Carolingian houses of worship which stood there between the 7th and 10th centuries. The church was for a Benedictine nunnery which was founded in 650 by Itta of Aquitaine, widow of Pépin, the Elder of Landen. Their daughter, Gertrude was the first abbess, who would be declared a saint by Pope Clement XII in the 17th century.

During the Middle Ages, it was one of the larger abbeys in Europe due to a great number of pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela who would pass through Nivelles and pay homage to the would-be saint. By the 15th century the abbey was organized as a collegiate church for canonesses, and continued to function until the end of the 18th century when it was dissolved. While there is no reference to the successive master builders, it is documented that construction was begun at the dawn of the 11th century for the main body of the church that stands today, and it was consecrated by Wazo, Prince-Bishop of Liège in 1046 in the presence of Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor.

Exterior view from southwest across Grand’ Place, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The first sight of the Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude a visitor might catch when approaching the town center of Nivelles is its imposing westwork, completed in the last years of the 12th century, one and a half century after the church structure itself was dedicated.

Elevation view of Westwork, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

It has the hall-mark of a mature Romanesque architecture of the Rhineland as found in churches such as Worms or Maria Laach. The westwork had a Gothic central tower through stylistic transformation before the destruction in the World War II, but it was restored in the Romanesque style through a referendum of townspeople, at the time of post-WW II restoration. The westwork of Sainte-Gertrude has a very sculptural composition due to its semi-circular western apse expressed on the façade, together with a series of columned openings at multiple gallery levels on the slab-like vertical mass, a pair of cylindrical stair turrets with bells on either side of the block, and finally, the octagonal Romanesque central tower.

If it had been said that the Westwerk of Sainte-Gertrude is of the mature Rhineland Romanesque style, the main body of the church is built in the Ottonian style. The plan is laid out with a nave of eight bays in two compartments of four bays each, defined by half round diaphragm arches which spring from sturdy cross-shaped piers.

Plan, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant)

The longitudinal view of the nave toward east shows that there are two aisles, square eastern crossing with transepts of same width as the nave, and a rectangular western crossing and narrow transepts.

View of nave to east, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The nave arcades are as thick as the piers with only a hint of demarcation by a thin cornice. The groin vaultings of both the eastern and western transepts are lower than the timber nave ceiling, a design characteristic found in the Meuse valley region in the Ottonian architecture. The square-ended eastern apse with three lancet windows, raised over a crypt serves as the principal chancel today.

The modern altar is placed well into the nave on wooden extension of the choir.

View of nave and eastern sanctuary, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The church of Sainte-Gertrude has a length of 102 meters, a generous scale recalling “ the splendor of the Ottonian liturgy,” as poetically described by Donnay-Rocmans writing in a chronicle of the patrimony of Wallonia.

The view looking up at the timber ceiling of the crossing and the nave shows the relatively new carpentry, as the restoration after the bombing in 1940 was completed only 30 years ago.

View of wooden ceiling over the eastern crossing, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The axial view from the eastern choir toward the west amply illustrates the square crossing, spacious transepts as well as the substantial diaphragm arches demarcating the two halves of the nave.

View of nave from the eastern choir to west, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The groin vaults for the aisles were constructed at a later stage of the church building. The view of the north aisle shows off solidly bonded groin vaults with gilt ornaments of rib crossing.

View of north aisle to east, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view from the rectangular western crossing with a font toward west shows the semi-cylindrical western choir.

View of western choir from western crossing with font, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The closer view of the tribune level on the north wall of the apse brings to fore well-lit chambers beyond at the tribune level in the cylindrical volume.

View of north tribune at western choir, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The precision with which the dome for the western choir has been re-built gives a visitor an awareness of the painstaking efforts and high caliber of the post-WW II restoration architects and the craftsmen for the rebuilding project begun in the 60’s and completed two decades later.

View of dome over western choir, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view of the north wing at the western transept shows that the vaulting is at a lower height than the nave ceiling, as mentioned earlier (Photo 12).

View of north transept at western crossing, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Finally, the wall elevation scheme shows that while there is a cornice running the length of the nave.

Elevation scheme of northern nave wall, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The nave wall is basically flush, as though the arcades and clearstory windows are punched out of a sheer masonry plane.

View looking up toward nave ceiling, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

At Sainte-Gertrude in Nivelles, the unity of piers and arcades, and the pure surface of the nave wall all contribute to an ascetic spatial ambience, which one would almost describe as modern in sensibility.

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.