Two Churches in the Cliffs (Dennis Aubrey)


The last four churches we have chronicled – the cathedrals of Embrun, Sisteron, Digne-les-Bains and Senez – have all been isolated and somewhat forlorn. They are tucked away in the extreme north of the popular Provence but off the beaten path. The next churches, are quite different. The town of Moustiers-Saite-Marie is near the famous Gorges du Verdon, one of the deepest and most beautiful river canyons in Europe, popular with cyclists, serious kayak enthusiasts and hikers. Moustiers itself is a popular little medieval tourist town, built on the face of a limestone cliff, and filled with boutique shops and ateliers. Part of its picturesque nature is created by a spring-fed waterfall that flows through the center of town.

In the center of the village is the church Notre Dame-de-l’Asspomtion, surrounded by restaurants and shops filled with faïence and other pottery. Tourists wander in, walk down the eight steps into the nave, stand in the center of the church, take a quick look around, flash a photo with a smartphone and quickly leave. But the church is worth much more than just a cursory glance.

Originally founded as a monastery in the 5th century, the monks were driven away by the Saracens and did not return until the 11th century. The church was rebuilt in the 12th century, and in 1336 the commendatory prior, Cardinal Pierre de Pratis (also known as Pierre Desprès), began rebuilding yet again. He only completed the choir before he died, which explains the extreme angle of the axis of the choir to the nave, inclining to the south. His plan was to rebuild the entire church at a slightly different angle, but the project was never completed, leaving us with the result that we see today.

The nave is actually quite long, five bays topped with an ogive barrel vault. As we quite often see in this area, the engaged columns rise up to support the bands of the vault.

Nave, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Pierre Desprès’ Gothic apse has a very unusual feature – a flat chevet with an ambulatory. It is also covered with a rib vault instead of the barrel vault.

Apse, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The altar is a re-purposed fourth-century white marble sarcophagus representing the passage of the Red Sea.

Altar, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The ambulatory is one of the most interesting features of the church, although these might be more accurately called extended side aisles since the two sides do not meet at the rear of the apse.

Ambulatory, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The church is wedged in among the surrounding buildings, but the glorious Lombard-style clocher is still easily visible. The tower is constructed in five levels. The top three levels consist of twin bays adorned with Lombard bands, the fourth level is a blind enclosure and the fifth and bottom, added in the 17th century, is an imposing buttress. The buttressing was added as additional support because the oscillations caused by the ringing of the bells threatened the stability of the clocher.

South facade with clocher, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is a second Romanesque church in Moustiers, the Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir, high up on the cliff that can be reached by a stone stairway of 262 steps (at one time this was 365 steps!). This chapel was built on the site of a 5th century Marian shrine, known prior to the 15th century as Notre-Dame de la Roche or Notre Dame d’Entre-Roches. There is a tradition that the first church was constructed by Charlemagne as fulfillment of a vow and then subsequently rebuilt in the 12th century. Notre Dame de Beauvoir was known for its suscitations – stillborn children were carried up and baptised there, at which time they would immediately come to life and would be granted a place in heaven. This was a well-known phenomenon in the region and also known at two neighboring churches.

Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence ) Photo by ICE-Marseille, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

I must conclude this narrative with a paean to our luncheon at La Treille Muscat right on the square of the church. PJ and I both had a first course of Poulpes en salad, cebettes, tomates et un peu de gingembre pour corser, émulsion de Yusu, a salad with octopus flavored with ginger and Yuzu emulsion. PJ, who never ate octopus before this trip, said it was the best salad she has ever had in her life. I would list all of the other courses that we had, but would sound like we have been too powerfully influenced by our dear friend Covetotop who we met the week prior to this meal!

Location: 43.847250° 6.222402°

Two Forgotten Cathedrals – Digne and Senez (Dennis Aubrey)


Today’s post is on two of the forgotten cathedrals of the Haute-Provence, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg in Digne-les-Bains and Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption in Senez. Both Digne and Senez lost their episcopal standing at the French Revolution, like so many other dioceses in the region. In fact, while we were shooting in this region of the Haute-Provence, we noted an abundance of former cathedrals. In what was known as the Province of Embrun (Alpes Maritimæ) there were cathedrals in Embrun, Digne, Glandèves, Grasse, Nice, Senez, and Vence. In the adjacent province of Aix (Narbonensis Secunda) there were cathedrals in Aix, Apt, Fréjus, Gap, Riez, and Sisteron.

They must all have administered to limited populations. Vence had a total of sixteen parishes, and when combined into one see with neighboring Grasse, they mustered only twenty-five together. Compare this to the diocese of Chartres which numbered 1,338 parishes. The reason for all these bishoprics in the area, so near each other, is because of a singularity – these correspond with the political divisions of the Romans, the civitates.

Digne’s Notre-Dame-du-Bourg suffered an earlier indignity. At the end of the 14th century, the population of Digne moved to higher ground to defend itself against attacks and they built a new church there, the Église Saint-Jérôme. In 1591, the Huguenot leader Lesdiguières (referred to in our article on Embrun) pillaged Notre-Dame-du-Bourg and the see was transferred to Saint-Jérôme in 1591. Now outside the walls, the Église Notre-Dame-du-Bourg was virtually abandoned and served as a necropolis. It was only in 1962 that she regained her status as co-cathedral with Saint-Jérôme.

Exterior from west, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

Of the two cathedrals, Notre-Dame-du-Bourg is by far more interesting to us. The first church was built in the 4th century around a baptistery, Notre-Dame de Consolation, and expanded a century later with a large church. The structure of the current church was built on this footprint in the 13th century and consecrated in 1330, and – except for a recent authentic restoration – has remained relatively unchanged.

When we arrived, the church was locked but the crypt, the former necropolis, was open as a museum for the archaeological digs that have been ongoing for a century. We talked to the two women who worked there and asked if there was a possibility of photographing inside the church. After some discussion, the senior staffer made a call and then told us to follow her. She unlocked the front door and let me in to the small vestry, which was separated from the church by a glass door. She said that I could photograph from that spot. She must have seen my disappointment because after about five minutes she opened the glass door from the inside and said that we could shoot inside “for a few minutes”. I told her that we would normally spend a minimum of two to three hours in a building like this, but she shook her head. She could only leave her colleague unsupervised for a few minutes.

Western portal, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

In the time allotted we took as many photos as we could manage. Notre-Dame-du-Bourg is basically a long hall church (164 feet) with a nave, no side aisles, and large blind arcades framing windows on the south. It is covered with a fine banded ogive barrel vault. There are two transepts with echeloned chapels in the east wall of each transept.

Nave, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave elevation shows the blind arcade leading to the cornice which hides the springing of the vault. Like her sister cathedral in Sisteron, Notre-Dame-du-Bourg has engaged columns topped by simple capitals that support the bands of the nave vault.

Nave from south transept, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The apse has a flat chevet pierced with three windows and is covered with a barrel vault. Above the crossing on the apse wall is a small oculus. The three windows are by the Canadian artist David Rabinowitch and were part of a 1998 ensemble replacing all of the windows in the church.

Apse, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

In the crypt, there is a Merovingian autel-cippe (funerary altar) dating from the 5th or 6th century on a mosaic platform that was preserved from the first church.

Autel paléochrétien et mosaïque (Source: Routard.com)

The superb 15th century fresco on the south wall represents the Last Judgment. The representation is quite complex, beginning with the top left that shows Christ in mandorla passing judgment. The top row shows the Seven Virtues – Humility, Liberality, Chastity, Patience, Charity, Abstinance, and Diligence. The second row shows the corresponding Seven Deadly Sins – Pride, Avarice, Lust, Anger, Envy, Gluttony, and Sloth. The bottom row shows the punishments in hell for each of the deadly sins above.

On the north wall of the nave is another century fresco of the Annunciation that we unfortunately did not have time to photograph.

Nave frescoes, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In discussing these small, remote cathedral towns, some mention must be made of Senez. Elise Whitlock Rose, one of my favorite observers of medieval cathedrals, wrote about this small village. “The hot sun of Provence, which ‘drinks a river as man drinks a glass of wine,’ shone on the long white route nationale that stretched out in well-kept monotony through a valley which might well have been named ‘Desolation.’ On either hand rose mountains that were great masses of bare, seared rocks, showing the ravages of forgotten glaciers; the soil that once covered them lay at their feet. Scarcely a shrub pushed out from the crevices, and even along the road, the few thin poplars found the poorest of nourishment.

Crossing a small bridge, there came into view an ancient village, a mere handful of clustered wooden roofs, irregular, broken, and decayed.

‘It was a city in the days when we were Romans,’ said the Courier, ‘and they say that there are treasures underneath our soil.'”

Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Senez (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence), Photo by Vida Hunt Francis (1906)

PJ and I wended our way down the same route nationale (albeit paved) and through the same unchanged bare, seared rocks, and crossed the same little bridge into what was probably the same little village with possibly the same chickens poking about the square. A young boy went by kicking a soccer ball and scattering the chickens. I hailed him and asked if it were possible to visit the locked church. He took me to a notice posted on a side door and pointed to a name, saying that this woman had the key, but she was not available right now. We would have to come back another day. He went down the small street kicking his ball and we were left in the quiet square in front of the ancien cathédrale. We would not shoot there this year, but will have to come back to Senez some other time. I think the patient Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption – and the chickens – will wait for us.

Note about the windows: One of the reasons that the we regret not being allowed more time to photograph at Notre-Dame du Bourg is that we could not photograph the stained glass windows by David Rabinowitch. Here is a wonderful article (in French) on these windows. The photographs alone are worth a perusal

Location: Digne 44.097253° 6.242990°
Senez 43.913174° 6.406927°

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°

The Mountain Cathedral of Embrun (Dennis Aubrey)


The cathedral town of Embrun has long been a strategic site. It marks the start of the ascent to the Alpine passes and runs along the swift rushing waters of the Durance River. This was likely the route that Hannibal took when he invaded Italy in 218 BC. After the Roman conquest of Gaul, Eburodunum was a strategic trans-Alpine link from Spain and Gaul to Rome, being the key stop on the road from Arles to Briançon.

Embrun was a very early Christian site as well. Marcellinus of Gaul was named the first bishop of Embrun in 354. He built the first cathedral there, but it was destroyed in the invasion of 575 by the Lombards who came through the Montgenèvre Pass and debouched into the Durance Valley (now filled with the Lac de Serre-Ponçon just below Embrun). A new cathedral was built from 810 to 826 with help from Charlemagne, but in 916 the Saracens ransacked and destroyed the city and cathedral, and killed both the archbishop of Embrun and the bishop of Maurienne. The ruined cathedral was restored in the early 11th century and was finally rebuilt in its current form between 1170 and 1251. The Notre Dame du Réal that we see today is a transitional church alternating between Romanesque and Gothic forms.

Transitional though it may be, the cathedral is magnificent. The high vaulting and arches are composed of alternating white limestone and black shale. The vaulting is Gothic, but the nave arches are pure ogive Romanesque. The nave is large, about 170 feet long and 75 feet wide including the two sizeable side aisles. The western wall has a large Gothic-style rose window illuminating this open space. On the left we can see the large organ built in 1464 by Pierre Marchand. This was likely the gift of the Dauphin, the future Louis XI, and is the oldest working organ in France.

Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The superb open choir has a large iron grate protecting it, a gift from Louis XI, the “Universal Spider”. The name was derived from the words of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, who contended with Louis until his death at the Battle of Nancy. During that fatal battle he is reported to have cried out, “I struggle against a spider who is everywhere at once”. Louis was very devout, and on one occasion when he was very sick, he promised to gift a silver altar grate to the famous Virgin of Embrun. When he recovered, he changed it to an iron grate so that it would not tempt thieves to profane her altar with a mortal sin!

Apse from side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by PJ McKey

The south side aisle terminates in an ornate chapel. But of special interest are the four windows rising up toward the choir. These are stairs within the wall rising up to the stone choir loft visible behind the altar.

South side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The north side aisle columns show the remnants of 16th century frescoes on the massive nave piers.

North side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by PJ McKey

Of interest to antiquarians is the north portal, called the Réal. Until 1585 there was a 13th century fresco painted on the stone tympanum representing Notre Dame d’Embrun, also known as La Vierge des Trois Rois because Mary was receiving homage from the Magi. This black madonna was the object of a celebrated pilgrimage until it was destroyed by the Huguenots under Lesdiguières. It is said that Louis XI, who had been the Dauphin and ruler of the province, venerated the Madonna especially and wore a leaden image of her in his hat.

The north portal itself is the finest decoration of the cathedral. The fine columns supporting the archivolts are composed of marbles of different colors. The Lombardic porch features the same alternating limestone and shale stonework as the interior, while the rose and white columns of the porch are supported by a pair of stone lions. Years ago, there was a horseshoe nailed to this great wooden door, supposedly thrown by Lesdiguières’ horse as he was preparing to ride it into the church. The loss of this shoe is reputed by local legend to have saved the church from desecration, although it could not save the fresco of La Vierge des Trois Rois.

North porch, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Against the portal wall are a pair of interesting (and exhausted) atalantes supporting the rear porch columns.

Atlante on north portal, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by PJ McKey

In the south side aisle the Chapelle Notre Dame features a mosaic recalling this famous fresco, but the Virgin is no longer represented as black.

Chapelle Notre Dame, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The cathedral of Embrun was our last major shoot for the 2017 trip and it was worth every hour. Louis XI, who has dominated our short history of the cathedral, has the last word. On his deathbed, his final words were to the Virgin of Embrun, Nôtre Dame d’Embrun, ma bonne maîtress, ayez pitié de moi.

Location: 44.562322° 6.495066°

First Contact in France – Chartres (Dennis Aubrey)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chartres messe

Chartres Mass (cfrt Productions)

And we begin in Chartres (Dennis Aubrey)


Regular readers of Via Lucis know that we are planning our Spring/Summer trip to France and that we have posted about the upcoming section of the Pyrénées. That is the middle of the trip and today’s post is about the beginning.

2015_11_14_0a_cdg-646c0In April we fly into Paris via Reykjavík, Iceland. We do this for two reasons. First we do it because PJ hates to fly and we can break up the transatlantic section of the flight. Second, and most important, we go through the European Union customs in Iceland instead of Paris, and that is worth a great deal right there. Customs is a breeze in Reykjavík and when we arrive in Paris, we pass quickly through in the EU line. Anyone who has been caught in customs at Charles de Gaulle airport (voted in one poll the “world’s most hated airport”) when two or three international flights arrive at the same time knows exactly what this means.

We arrive at CDG about noon and will be on our way in our new car by 1:30 or so. We will head directly southwest to Chartres, where we will spend the next couple of days photographing the magnificent Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres. As you probably know, the cathedral is undergoing an extensive and somewhat contentious restoration. Some critics decry the loss of the “patina” of the church and its associated atmosphere. We believe that the restoration is magnificent and that the patina will be restored over time while the deterioration is stopped.

Apse from the tribunes, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by PJ McKey

Apse from the tribunes, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by PJ McKey

The last time we were in Chartres, the apse had just been completed and the teams were working on the side aisles. The nave was untouched. We understand now that both the side aisles and the nave have been completed, which means the interior is almost complete. Some sets of windows still are being restored, but it will be our first opportunity to see and photograph the restoration of Bay 140, financed by our great colleagues at the American Friends of Chartres, who previously financed the restoration of the superb evangelist lancets in the south transept.

The south transept lancets, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The south transept lancets, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Of course when we go to Chartres we have to visit with the indomitable Servane de Layre Mathéus, head of Chartres, Sanctuaire du Monde, a private French organization, which for 14 years has worked in close cooperation with the Historic Monuments Commission and supports the public efforts of the French government to restore this glorious cathedral. We also get to spend time with Gilles Fresson, historien et intendant of the cathedral. He is a fountain of knowledge about Notre Dame de Chartres and guides us through the walls and in the hidden corners of the structure.

South side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

South side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sirui P-204S monopod

Sirui P-204S monopod

In preparation for the work at Chartres, we have made some changes in equipment. PJ now has a new camera, the latest version of the estimable Canon 5D that she has used for a decade. It gives her much greater resolution and the “Live View” preview.

Our work demands that we use tripods because of the long exposures that we use in the churches. This works perfectly for most of the time, but there are times when the tripod is too bulky to us. For that reason, we also got PJ a monopod, the Sirui P-204S, to carry when she enters the upper warrens of the cathedral. No longer does she have to lug her tripod in those close and narrow confines. With this fine piece of equipment, she has a versatile monopod/tripod that folds down to just two feet and weighs less than three pounds.

It is hard to believe we are so short a time away from this trip. In two months we will be photographing Chartres again starting our France adventure for 2017. Can’t wait to show you the results of the photography and the restoration.

Unrestored Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by PJ McKey

Unrestored Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by PJ McKey

Researching our 2017 trip (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I are now a mere 10 weeks from leaving for Europe and the excitement mounts as the preparations intensify. We have been diligently researching our target areas for the Romanesque gems that delight us. There are many places on the internet, both amateur and official Patrimony sites, where we glean the information. How do we collate it all? Since the very beginning of the Via Lucis project in 2007 we have used Google Earth as the repository of information. Except for a few glitches, it has worked beautifully – as you can see from this map, we are able to track both the churches that we intend to photograph (with the orange icons) and the ones that we have photographed (red icons).

Google Earth database of churches

Google Earth database of churches

Each individual marker contains information on the churches that is important for our research – descriptions from the sponsoring Patrimony organization (in France, this would be the Patrimoine de France), relevant descriptions from expert sources (like the famed Éditions Zodiaque), links to other sites, and photographs. We often include address information (even though the icons are precisely placed over the chancel crossing of every church, if possible) and hours and rules of visitation.

Google Earth entry detail

Google Earth entry detail

We have also been developing the same database for Romanesque churches in England, Spain, Germany, and Italy. Those are, of course, much less exhaustive than the French database. Our French Gothic database is also under early stages of construction. If these seem like exhaustive databases, consider the real numbers. Our French database consists of about 1080 Romanesque churches, which represents less than 25% of the total number found in the country.

Based on these maps, we plan our itinerary for each trip. There are a couple of provisos – we must always stop in Lacave in the Lot to stay (and eat) at the Pont de l’Ouysse. As I have mentioned before, this is my omphalos, the center of my spiritual universe and I have gone there every trip since 1986. The Pont de l’Ouysse is always our “splurge” place but it is worth every penny. Second, we must stay at the Crispol in Vézelay. Vézelay is critical, of course, because of the presence of the magnificent Basilique Sainte Madeleine on top of the hill. But we must also go because across the valley is the Crispol hotel, run by the equally magnificent Paule Schori. She is a force of nature and has become a dear friend. We are so delighted to be spending three days with her again this year.

Hotel Crispol

Hotel Crispol

Finally, we are making one small two-day detour that has nothing to do with Romanesque churches at all. We are going to drive from Sisteron in the Provence through the old Alpine roads to the tiny Italian town of Chiomonte. Why would we do this? Part of it is to drive the old roads that I remember from my childhood. Chiomonte is known for the seven old fountains that adorned the chemin royal of the country. But our reason to visit is the Ristorante e Affittacamere Al Cantoun. The restaurant is a small building in an old private square. The young chef is Paolo Aiello and his Piemontese cooking is spectacular. We stayed there on our way into Italy in 2015 and again on our way back to France – we can get as excited about finding a great new restaurant as an old Romanesque church!

Ristorante Al Cantoun, Chiomonte

Ristorante Al Cantoun, Chiomonte

So the trip is planned, the lodging all booked, car reserved, airplane tickets purchased. We land in Paris on April 19 and go directly to Chartres, where we will spend two days photographing the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres. More on that in the next post!