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.

The More Fool to Myself (Dennis Aubrey)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Saint and the Simpleton (Dennis Aubrey)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Location: 46.585211° 3.156842°

The Metropolitan and his Cathedral – Saint-Étienne de Sens (Dennis Aubrey)


The Department of Yonne in Burgundy is one of our favorite places in France and very fertile for our photographic explorations. It is home to the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay, the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne in Auxerre, the Collégliale Saint Lazare in Avallon and also the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens.

Today, Sens is a fairly quiet town of about 27,000 people, the second most important of the Yonne after Auxerre. One would have no idea from its current state just how important Sens was in the Middle Ages as the seat of the “Primate of Gaul,” perhaps the most important bishop in France and superior to the bishopric of Paris. For much of the early Middle Ages, the Kings of France were anointed here, not at Reims.

Sens was the capital of an ecclesiastical province composed of several neighboring dioceses and headed by a metropolitan, the archbishop designated by the Pope. At its height, the Archdiocese of Sens counted seven suffragans – subordinate bishops – at Chartres, Auxerre, Meaux, Paris, Orléans, Nevers, and Troyes. Only in 1622 was Paris raised to the status of a Metropolitan See and Chartres, Orléans, and Meaux were separated from Sens.

Nave, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sens was an important settlement long before the Middle Ages. It was the site of an oppidum of the Senones, a Celtic tribe of Gaul. Caesar called it Agedincum and it later became an administrative center of Roman Gaul, situated at the intersection of the roads from Troyes to Orléans and Lyons to Paris . The first recorded Christian activity on the site was founded by the Saints Savinian and Potentian, sent by the Bishop of Rome in the 4th Century to proselytize the Gauls. They were martyred in 390. Their church was rebuilt in the sixth or seventh century. In 731, the Saracens ranged far enough north that they besieged the town, which was rescued by its bishop.

In the ninth century, the earlier church was succeeded by a Carolingian edifice, but this burned in 982. The church was immediately reconstructed by the Bishop Seguin and consecrated a few years later.

Around 1135, the Archbishop of Sens, Henri Sanglier, decided to replace the Carolingian cathedral of the tenth century with a structure befitting the importance of the metropolitan see over which he presided. Archbishop Sanglier was a singular person in the French landscape. He was a friend of both Abbot Suger of Saint Denis and Bernard of Clairvaux. He twice gave refuge to Thomas à Becket during his struggles with King Henry II. The second time was after Becket was forced to leave the abbey of Pontigny after the English monarch threatened to close every Cistercian house in England. When he was welcomed to Sens, Becket enthused, “ô douce, encore, ô très douce France! Oui, elle est douce, vraiment douce, la France!”

At the time of Sanglier’s rebuilding, church architecture was dominated by the great Romanesque churches. Sanglier commissioned a new architect to build his new church, who proposed building with a revolutionary form of vaulting – the rib vaulting that had begun to appear in the Norman churches in France and England. Although the finished cathedral in Sens was not completed for four centuries, the main structure was the product of a single mind, Guillaume de Sens. While there is no direct documentary record, there is enough evidence that we can perhaps infer the identity of the architect.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Saint-Etienne was constructed in its original form between 1135-1164 and was consecrated on 19 April 1163 by Pope Alexandre III, who was then in exile in Sens. This makes Saint-Étienne the oldest Gothic cathedral in France. The first Gothic structure is the Abbey Church of Saint Denis, built by Suger, but it did not become a cathedral until the 20th Century.

There is an interesting side note to Guillaume de Sens. Becket was at Sens during the time of the building of Saint-Étienne and when he returned to Canterbury, he made plans to rebuild the cathedral there. He was assassinated before he could do so, but the architect who was hired to build was the same Guillaume de Sens. Some historians speculate that Becket made the recommendation. In 1180 while working on the construction, Guillaume fell fifty feet from the scaffolding. Crippled, he returned home to Sens where he died soon after.

Nave and sexpartite vaulting, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave and sexpartite vaulting, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The architecture of the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens is defined by three elements – the vaulting, the width of the nave, and the style of the nave pillars and columns.

The church features early Gothic sexpartite vaulting over a modest clerestory, and may even have been the first church to be completely vaulted in this manner. Like the Romanesque churches it was designed to supplant, there was a gallery between the aisle arcades and the clerestory level.

Crossing vault, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crossing vault, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The church’s size is fairly modest, perhaps because the builders were not completely confident in the new architectural style. Saint-Étienne feels Romanesque; it is perhaps more solid than beautiful.

The interior lacks height but is very wide. A comparison with the almost-contemporary Notre Dame de Paris is telling. Sens’ length is 113.5 meters, which is smaller than Notre Dame de Paris at 128 meters. The nave height is 24.4 meters, much lower than Paris’ 33.5 meters. The width of the nave, in contrast, is 15.25 meters, almost two full meters larger than Paris. This width is one of the distinguishing factors of the Saint-Étienne de Sens. It also makes clear the builders’ intent to cover the structure with a vault, since it is too large for a wooden roof.

Finally, there is an interesting variation in the nave arcade supports – alternating piers and columns between the bays. This was not an innovation at Sens, but a very interesting stylistic choice.

Alternating pillars and columns in nave, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Alternating pillars and columns in nave, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

In addition to the architectural details, Sens contains some magnificent stained glass throughout the cathedral.

Transept windows, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Transept windows, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

There are four in particular that are remarkable – the choir ambulatory lancets that were created at the beginning of the 13th Century, probably from Suger’s school at Saint Denis. They tell the story of Saint Eustache,the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan and finally the story of Thomas à Becket and his martyrdom at Canterbury.

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The cathedral is the heart of Sens, visible from a great distance across the Yonne plain. There is little in the modern town to suggest that it was at the center of the life in 12th Century France and home to one of the most powerful prelates in the Church. But stepping inside, we can see the care and pride of both the patron and the builder in the stone and glass of Saint-Étienne de Sens.

Ambulatory chapel, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory chapel, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 48.198142 3.284078

Improperia and the madness of it all – Dennis Aubrey


Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.
“The Masque of Pandora”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1875)

The long dark nights magnify our solitude and lay us to waste. The world is mad and we just don’t know what to do.

We are willing to take great risks for the sake of our purses. We know what the destruction of the rain forest means, but we are unwilling to stop. We know that the global climate is changing but we won’t cut back on the creation of greenhouse gases. We suborn slavery and tyranny for cheap products to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace. We destroy the last of animal species that are the product of millenia’s selection and evolution for the pleasure of the kill. And we destroy each other in a frenzy of bullets, bombs, hatred, bigotry and greed.

Romanesque crucifix Santa Majestat, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Romanesque crucifix Santa Majestat, Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet-et-Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

As individuals we believe ourselves peaceful and righteous, but somehow as a race we are possessed by a madness of blood-lust and destruction. We are so because in our little private worlds of peace and righteousness, we believe others are evil and mad. Demagogues have long been skilled at using our divisiveness for their own power. This is true the world over and has been now and forever.

We know this because our poets have remarked on it for the last two thousand five hundred years. In his tragedy Antigone, Sophocles quoted a proverb, Quem Jupiter vult perdere, dementat primus (Whom Jupiter would destroy he first drives mad). In the second century of the Christian era, Ahtenagoras of Athens wrote, At dæmon, homini quum struit aliquid malum, Pervertit illi primitus mentem suam (“The devil when he purports any evil against man, first perverts his mind.”)

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

In the 5th century, the Sanscrit poet Bhartṛhari wrote,

Nor do the gods appear in warrior’s armour clad
To strike them down with sword and spear
Those whom they would destroy
They first make mad.

Quoted in John Brough, Poems from the Sanskrit, (1968), p, 67

Fresco with cruciifix Basilique Notre Dame, Paray-le-Monial (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by PJ McKey

Fresco with cruciifix Basilique Notre Dame, Paray-le-Monial (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Is the madness that surrounds us a sign that we being destroyed, or that we are simply destroying ourselves? Is there a reason that we stand at the precipice of disrupting the careful balance of nature that nurtures life as we know it? We must ask the question, because there is a difference between the madness that we see today and that which preceded. Today the madness destroys not just men, but more apocalyptically, it threatens to obliterate a world.

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

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

There is a peculiar sculpted form of the crucifixion of Christ, known as the Improperia or the “outrages to Christ”. The implements of the pain inflicted on Jesus are attached to the crucifix. What would constitute the improperia to the body of humanity – torture, murder, war, sectarian politics, demagoguery, starvation, and greed? The implements of pain would be so numerous that we could not even see the wracked body beneath.

Improperia Crucifix, Cathedrale Sainte Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

Improperia Crucifix, Cathedrale Sainte Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

We can only hope that this suffering and madness eventually will yield a purpose and a meaning, that it is not hollow and purposeless. But try as I might, all I can hear is the echo of the words of William Butler Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming”.

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I long for our churches in France where PJ and I can sit quietly together, contemplating a monument to the higher purposes of our species.

Some of PJ’s Work (Dennis Aubrey)


We recently needed to select among our images for a set of fifteen that we considered the best that we have created. This was a daunting task; we had to choose from about 150,000 images to get it to .01%. Eleven of the fifteen eventually chosen were PJ’s and today I want to share a grouping of four of those that we have not shown in any previous posts.

These images are a tribute to her artistic sensibility and her ability to look deeply into these churches that we love so much. The first is a stunning and moody study of the ambulatory of the Collégiale Saint-Cerneuf in the Auvergne. The shapes, textures and colors combine to project the mystery of age and eternity in stone.

Ambulatory, Collégiale Saint-Cerneuf, Billom  (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Collégiale Saint-Cerneuf, Billom (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The next shot captures the essence of the Gothic Cathédrale Saint-Etienne in Bourges. In the view of the ambulatory we feel the incredible vertical thrust of architecture as the side aisle and nave recede into the far distance. I have seen many photographs of Gothic cathedrals but have never this particular expression of the architecture.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, Bourges  (Indre)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, Bourges (Indre) Photo by PJ McKey

Contrasting with the majesty and grandeur of the Gothic cathedral is the photograph of the humble chapel in the Ardèche village of Chassiers. In a space absolutely devoid of adornment, we feel a deep spirituality and belief that mark what is best in any religion.

Chapel, Chapelle Saint Benoit, Chassiers  (Ardèche)  Photo by PJ McKey

Chapel, Chapelle Saint Benoit, Chassiers (Ardèche) Photo by PJ McKey

Finally, one of my very favorites, the simple view into the Église Saint Pierre in Saint Gilles near Reims. We see past the old wooden door with its metal fittings into the spare interior and a distant Madonna. This typifies PJ’s artistry – I could photograph that simple church for days and would never see this in my photographic mind’s eye.

South portal, Église Saint Pierre, Saint Gilles (Marne)  Photo by PJ McKey

South portal, Église Saint Pierre, Saint Gilles (Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

Sometimes I am just compelled to point out how marvelous PJ’s work is, and ensure that these shots, that would otherwise never find a way onto the pages of Via Lucis, see the light of day.

Those Who Precede part 4 – Angelico Surchamp (Dennis Aubrey)


This last May at the beginning of our trip to France we had the opportunity to visit again with Dom Angelico Surchamp. He was no longer at the monastery at Notre Dame de Venère near Tournus, but instead at La Pierre qui Vire in Burgundy, which had been his home for decades when he worked on the Editions Zodiaque.

The monastery of La Pierre qui Vire is deep in the woods near the town of Saint-Léger-Vauban in the Morvan. The name (“The Stone that Spins”) is called after a lieu-dit that received its name from a dolmen, or a stone megalith composed of large stacked boulders. There are several different legends for the name of this dolmen; one of the most interesting is that on Christmas night, the upper stone turned to reveal a fabulous treasure. The monks from the monastery on this site are famous for two things – their books on Romanesque churches and their delicious soft cheese from cow’s milk.

Reception, Abbaye La Pierre Qui Vire, Saint-Léger-Vauban (Yonne)  Photo by Didier Long

Reception, Abbaye La Pierre Qui Vire, Saint-Léger-Vauban (Yonne) Photo by Didier Long

PJ and I entered the reception hall of the abbey and asked for Père Surchamp. The monk made a call on the phone and told us he would be out shortly. About five minutes later we heard the sound from the long hallway, the slapping of sandals on the flagstones moving slowly towards us. I waited as patiently as possible but finally jumped up to look around the corner. Surchamp was approaching with a cane and when he saw us, he burst into a huge smile. After the greetings, he took us to a small interview room with two windows. “The others are too severe” he said as we were seated.

Angelico Surchamp and Dennis Aubrey, Abbaye La Pierre Qui Vire, Saint-Léger-Vauban (Yonne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Angelico Surchamp and Dennis Aubrey, Abbaye La Pierre Qui Vire, Saint-Léger-Vauban (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

We gave him a copy of our book “Painted Romanesque” which we had printed for him and he spent the rest of the afternoon leafing through it while talking. On almost every page he would make some appropriate comment because he recognized the church or saw that it had been restored since his last visit.

We had made arrangements as usual to take him to lunch, but this time Surchamp said that he needed to ask permission from the abbot. Seeing our look of surprise, he smiled and said, “I am merely a monk here.” After he received permission, we took him to a nice restaurant, this time Le Morvan in the small town of Quarré-les-Tombes. The site of a Benedictine monk among the diners always causes quite a few heads to turn and the full restaurant here did not disappoint. But our waitress was very attentive. Normally we share a small bottle of wine when we dine but this time Surchamp fanned himself and said le chaleur while declining. But we all had a fine traditional French meal to bolster our conversation.

Le Morvan,  Quarré-les-Tombes

Le Morvan, Quarré-les-Tombes

During the meal, Surchamp reminded us that he was born in the town of Troyes, in fact he was born just off the parvis of the cathedral. We had just photographed the Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul two days earlier and had a wonderful discussion about the church. After about a two-hour lunch, we left the restaurant and returned our friend to the nearby monastery. It was clear that he was tired and we left him to his rest.

Nave, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, Troyes (Aube) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

People often counsel against meeting one’s idol because of the inevitability of disappointment, and certainly there is truth in that position. But the glow of the meeting with Surchamp lasted for days for both PJ and myself. He is an extraordinary artist and human being, animated by a deep unwavering faith. When he says “This was a blessing from God”, we know that he is absolutely sincere. Our blessing has been to spend time with him and to feel his anima enter into us, informing our own work at Via Lucis. On this trip more than any other, I felt his guidance. I listened to the churches in a different way and found the difference between work done for God and work done for man. And this small Frenchman from the cathedral town of Troyes allowed me to see with new eyes.

Note: the photograph of the reception hall at La Pierre qui Vire was taken by Didier Long who has a wonderful blog in French on WordPress, Spiritualités sans frontières. Long is a theologian who was once a monk at the monastery at La Pierre Qui Vire where among other things, he served as an editor of the Éditions Zodiaque. He was featured in a TED talk in 2012 (program is in French).