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.

A Christmas Letter to My Father (Dennis Aubrey)


My mother and father have given me so many gifts that I don’t know how to ever repay them. By their example they imbued their family with a home filled with love and inspiration. For me, they encouraged a love of travel, of culture, and of history. When we lived in Europe they made sure that we knew the French, that we experienced their life and culture. That encouragement opened my eyes, heart, mind and soul to influences that mark me indelibly to this very day. I was so lucky to have them in my life for so long, but as the years passed, thoughts of mortality intruded into the conversation.

On February 7, 2013, I wrote to my father,

Dad, I know in my heart of hearts that some day I will lose you both, but refuse to believe it and try to convince myself that you will live forever. It is so hard to know that one day my life will go on and you will not be there. All that I can do is to cherish the fact that you are both in good health and part of our life. PJ loves you both – you have filled a void in her life, a corner of her heart that has been empty since she was seven years old. I am so proud to be your son.

Chateau d’Harcourt, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Cosmos (CHAUVIGNY DANS LA VIENNE)

Later that year, on June 11, 2013 at 8:13 pm, my father wrote a comment on a post that I had just published on growing up in Chauvigny, France. He wrote:

Dennis: Your mother and I recall another incident in Chauvigny. You remember that dinner time was when we all talked about what had happened that day. It was our time for stories from school or work or car repairs, as when Lucille took our Corvair station wagon to the local mechanic to have the carburetor repaired (it was the alternator). One evening it was obvious that you had something important to share. After we said grace you said, “Mom, Dad, do you realize we live where the Battle of Poitiers was fought?” We recognize that day as the one that began your love of history.

That note meant the world to me, reminded me of so much personal history and so many memories, but I never wrote him back.

Side aisle looking at apse, Église Notre Dame, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

We did lose him two years later, on July 6, 2015 in the same town – Santa Barbara – where he was born on January 14, 1928. In the intervening years he traveled the world over; the Middle East, New Zealand, Viet Nam, Japan, Korea, Africa, and almost every country in Europe, almost always accompanied by his beloved wife, my mother Lucille. She just turned 90 this month and is a force of nature, but she longs to be reunited with her husband of almost 70 years.

Donald Richard Aubrey (1928 – 2015)

So now, perhaps it is about time to write back to him:

Dad, no question that Chauvigny was a turning point for me. I had forgotten about Mom taking the car to get the carburetor repaired! Sounds like something I would do. But I remember the Battle of Poitiers at that time was the Charles Martel victory over the Saracens, and then later, the English defeat of the French and Jean II in the Hundred Year’s War. Later it also included the battle of Vouillé where Clovis defeated Alaric II – the same Alaric who was supposedly buried in the Champs d’Alaric near Vivonne on the Gayet’s property. The Église Saint George in Vivonne was where Ravaillac had his dream to assassinate Henry IV of Navarre. Just up the road from Vivonne is Lusignan, home to Guy de Lusignan, king of the crusader state of Jerusalem during the Crusades. It was as if oceans of history washed over us. And if that was not enough, from the Poitou we moved to Verdun!!!

I think it would have been impossible for me not to love history as I do. I have always cherished the way you encouraged me in this, walking the battlefields and talking to me. I love you and miss you so.

Your son,

Dennis

The Infinite Interior (Dennis Aubrey)


The subconscious is ceaselessly murmuring, and it is by listening to these murmurs that one hears the truth. ― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie

Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

There is a conceptual difference between Gothic and Romanesque churches and cathedrals. While the Romanesque builders paved the way for the Gothic, there is a deep and wide chasm between the two worlds. It starts on the outside – Gothic cathedrals make you want to sit on a bench and admire the exterior. One enters later and experiences the wonders of the soaring internal architecture.

The exterior of Romanesque church architecture is different, much simpler. It is dominated by three features – the clocher, west front, and the chevet. The clocher (or belltower), like the contemporary church steeple, identifies the structure from the distance as a church.

Église Saint-Révérien, Saint-Révérien (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

Église Saint-Révérien, Saint-Révérien (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The west front is usually the decorated main entrance to the church and sometimes contains one or two towers. And the chevet is the extreme end of the chancel or choir, usually dominated by the rounded ambulatory chapels. Other than these elements, there is little else that distinguishes the outside of the church, because the goal of the medieval builder was not the exterior, but the creation of interior space.

Eglise de Mailhat, Mailhat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Eglise de Mailhat, Mailhat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Within the Romanesque church there are a multitude of elements that define the space. The groundplan alone yields a narthex, nave, side aisles, transepts, chancel crossing, apse, choir and ambulatory. The vertical elements include arcades, tribunes, triforia, clerestories, and vaults, all combined in harmonious order creating rhythms of arches and bands the length and breadth of the church.

Abbaye Saint Pierre de Beaumont, Beaumont (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Abbaye Saint Pierre de Beaumont, Beaumont (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The careful arrangement of these elements represents the artistic struggle to define the architecture of belief in an architecture of stone. While they share many of the same structural elements, the Romanesque and Gothic styles reflect different worlds. The Gothic churches speak to our minds, hearts, and aspiring imagination. We admire the achievement of the architecture and are transported by the beauty, elegance, and sophistication. Inside and out, they remind us of the medieval glory of God and a universal order explained by the Christian faith.

Looking west from apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Looking west from apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Romanesque churches don’t inspire admiration for the exterior; they invite you immediately within. And in these shadowed interiors with their unlit corners, we sense a space that reflects an understanding of the human soul and a darker human imagination.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

We sense a faith that does not illuminate brightly like a torch, but acts like a flickering beacon in the distance. We sense the distance we must travel and the dangers we must overcome in order to reach that light. We acknowledge the fear of evil and the terrors of the dark. In the protective embrace of the Romanesque church, we hear the murmuring of subconscious phantoms and sense the truths of which they speak.

Eglise Saint Pierre, Saint Gilles (Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

Eglise Saint Pierre, Saint Gilles (Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

Happy Holidays to all


The holiday season is time to be thankful, and PJ and I have much to celebrate. We are so pleased and proud to have found friends, colleagues, and fellow Romanesque enthusiasts from around the world here at Via Lucis. We would like to celebrate with this photo of Santa Eularia d’Unha in the Val d’Aran

Thank you all, best wishes and blessings to you all.

The Divine Rain of Sainte-Engrâce (Dennis Aubrey)


Sainte-Engrâce is a tiny commune in a small pass deep in Basque country on the French side of the border with Spain. We made our way there on a slightly overcast day wending our way deeper and deeper into the the Pyrénéean foothills through the old pass between the Aquitaine and the Iberian peninsula. It was here that Duke Arimbert of the Franks was ambushed and defeated by the Basques in 635, just as the rear guard of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne was ambushed and defeated by those same Basques fifty miles west at the pass of Roncesvalles just 142 years later.

Today Saint Engrâce is literally a turnout from the road and has a population of 208, On the horizon loom the Pyrénées mountains feeding the cold rushing streams. Just to the south is the spectacular Gorges de Kakuetta.

Waterfall, Gorges de Kakouetta (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Ancalagon, Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

But for us, Sainte-Engrâce is home to a lovely 11th century Romanesque church in a spectacular setting, the Collégiale Sainte-Engrâce.

Exterior, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

Sainte-Engrâce (Urdatx-Santa-Grazi in Basque) is thoroughly Basque, as much as the Euskera language and the frontón where pelota is played in every town. The cemetery adjacent to the church is filled with Basque surnames and mysterious Hilarri, disc-shaped funerary steles, remnants of long-past pre-Christian Basque traditions.

Basque funerary stelae – Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

The church was built in the community of Urdaix in the late 11th century by a resident group of canons of Saint Augustine. The canons named their new church after a Lusitanian martyr of the 4th century. A young Christian girl from Braga, Engracia, was traveling with eighteen companions to marry a Christian noble of Roussillon. On the way through the town of Zaragosa in 303, Engracia learned of the persecution of Christians by the Roman governor Dacian. She attempted to persuade him to stop his persecution and she was martyred after the most brutal tortures, and her eighteen companions decapitated. Legend has it that thieves stole the arm of the martyred saint from her shrine in Zaragosa and fled to the mountains where they hid the arm in the hollow of an oak tree beside the Fountain of the Virgin Mother. A bull whose horns blazed “like two candles on the altar” knelt before the oak and the relic was discovered. The relic was placed in the sacristy of a nearby church but returned time and again to the oak. This was interpreted to mean that the saint wished a church to be built on this site and in 1085 the canons of Saint Augustine acceded to her wish.

Capital, Demon and priest, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Shortly after the construction of the church, a hospital was added to tend to pilgrims on their way to Santiago Compostela. About the same time as the completion of the church building, Sanche I, King of Navarre and Aragon, placed it under the suzerainty of the wealthy Benedictine monastery of Leyre in Navarre. This was not a pleasing result for the Augustinians, who finally arrived at an agreement in 1125. The collegiate was required to provide the monastery two river salmon each year and two cows on Ascension and the Feast of John the Baptist. This relationship continued until 1512.

South side aisle, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

The church is classic Romanesque, with a nave and two side aisles and an ornate side chapel on either side of the apse. The barrel vault is segmented by each of the three bays of the nave. The apse features a lovely painted oven vault featuring the Holy Trinity – Christ and God the Father seated with the Holy Spirit hovering above. This is almost certainly of a later date, probably early 15th century at the time that Sainte-Engrâce became a royal borough.

Nave, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One of the delights of the church are the superb capitals, found on the pillars of the side aisle and the altar. They vividly illustrate various stories from the Bible and the life of Jesus. One of my favorites is off the left side of the altar and depicts the Magi giving gifts to the infant Christ.

Capital detail, gifts of the Magi, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is another interesting legend about the martyrdom of Engracia, the Countless Martyrs of Zaragoza, Dacian wished to discover the extent of the Christian population and promised to allow them to practice their religion. But first they had to leave the city at a fixed time by a certain gate. As soon as they gathered to obey his order, Dacian ordered them executed. In order to prevent their veneration as martyrs, he burned the corpses and mixed their ashes with those of executed criminals. But a shower of rain fell and washed the ashes, separating them into two groups. The white ashes here those of the martyrs and were known as the “holy masses”, las santas masas. They were deposited in a church dedicated to Santa Engratia in Zaragosa where they are still preserved.

Apse from north side aisle, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

As outlandish as this legend sounds, I understand its power completely. Who does not look around and wonder why the evil and the haughty seem to prosper in this world while the meek and those who daily create the bounty of the world are doomed to suffer? Our martyrs aren’t decapitated for their faith, but we still have martyrs who advocate for compassion, rational discourse, and social justice. Who does not wonder why these multitudes are not protected by the divine power who calls them “blessed”? Who does not hope for a divine rain to wash through the world and separate the saints from the criminals?

Just as a footnote, my mother comes from a Basque family in Eibar who came to the New World in the 16th century, settling in what became New Mexico. He was part of the expedition led by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Luján in 1540 in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola.

Location: 42.995493° -0.809957°

An Apology and a First for Via Lucis (Dennis Aubrey)


Via Lucis has moving moving in such stops and starts for the last few years, mainly because of illness and our move to Ohio, but since Spring when we photographed for seven weeks in Europe, it seemed that we were back on track – plenty of new material, a book on Cross-Tipped Churches. Suddenly, about three months ago, things stopped completely as illness struck again. This time it was a bit more serious – I was diagnosed with cancer and have been dealing with the illness itself as well as treatment protocols. Treatments will be completed in about two months, and hopefully there will be enough energy to keep working during this time. I am feeling better – most of which I attribute to my holistic practioner who has been of enormous assistance.

Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontenay, Fontenay (Côte-d’Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The first for Via Lucis is a magnificent post on a Belgian Romanesque church, the Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude de Nivelles by Jong-Soung Kimm. This is another wonderful example of how his architectural sensibility can be brought to bear on a description of the church. He actually sent this post to me over a month ago, and in trying to publish it, I made so many errors that it was a mess. Finally straightened it out today – I had put photographs from a different church into the post and didn’t realize it! No wonder I made a mess of it. Anyway, errors corrected, please read the post.