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.

Two Close Calls (Dennis Aubrey)


Life is always a series of adventures, some of which we would gladly avoid. There have been two incidents recently that fall into that category. PJ and I bought a wonderful Salvatore Grippi painting at auction but it turned out to be too big to mail and a delivery by truck would have cost a fortune. So Mike Bruce, my brother in law, and I drove to Ithaca, New York to collect the painting. Of course, the day we selected for the pickup coincided with a snowstorm. We went to the auction house for the painting and Mike and I began our journey back to Columbus, Ohio. The first five hours of the drive were icy and snowy and we had to be very careful of the conditions. As a result, we didn’t talk as much as we normally would. After lunch, though, conditions were better and we sped merrily on our way. Mike and I were still busy chatting at about 8:30 at night on the freeway, so much so that I wasn’t paying attention to the gauges. I ran out of gas!!!!!!

We ended up on the side of the highway in the dark with trucks roaring by. It was 15 degrees outside. We called AAA but they didn’t have anyone immediately available. We were disturbed to hear that it would be 45 minutes, but as that time stretched to and hour and a half, we still had no help. The battery on the car died and our flashers didn’t work. Mike had a flashlight app on his cell and we used that until the battery died there. We were now in the dark and very vulnerable to the speeding traffic – we were just a dark shape five feet from the outside lane of the highway. We called the State Police, but they didn’t arrive until we had been on the side of the road for over two hours. Finally, after two and a half hours, AAA came to our rescue. … two and a half hours!!!!! Poor Mike almost froze through; I’m well-padded so there was no problem for me.

The worst part of the whole adventure is that we were just 25 miles from Mike’s house. On a positive note, we now have flashlights, flares, and light sticks in each of our cars.

Salvatore Grippi Still Life (1965)

The second adventure did not involve physical danger, but was even more distressing. Our Via Lucis photo library consists of about 120,000 images stored on a Thecus NAS server with a RAID 10 array This provides us with redundant protection, but we have more. We also have a full online backup. Call me paranoid.

The files are organized and edited in Adobe Lightroom, a tremendous application which allows us full control over the images. The editing is non-destructive; there is no change to the original image, but the instruction sets for the images are stored and applied as needed. We also have complete metadata on every single image. This Lightroom library must be stored locally for each of us. PJ’s was stored on an external hard drive. Don’t worry, there’s a point to all of this.

We recently got new desktop systems, very nice iMacs with 32 GB RAM. We needed to transition from the old computers to the new quickly because we were traveling. I set up the computers as normal, with a new 4TB backup drive. But I did not notice that PJ’s partition on the backup drive was full and she did not pay attention to the notice that the backups were not happening. Of course we had a disaster. PJ had a disk crash on the external hard drive that contained her library files for all of her Via Lucis work. She lost the library files that contained all of the metadata and edits for 10 years worth of work.

Here is an image of the missing files! There were five; France, Spain, Italy, USA, and Iceland (?). I checked everywhere for copies but nothing remained.


Finally, we sent the disk in to a company that specializes in recovering data, and although it was expensive ($2000+), after a month we got word that everything was recovered. We got the disk back yesterday and can go back to work and start posting again! Suffice it to say that double redundancy is the order of the day now.

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

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.

Guest Photos of Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues – Albert Pinto


PJ and I have been shooting Romanesque churches in France for so long and so intensely that we sometimes think we’ve seen them all. Recently our good friend Albert Pinto sent us three photographs of frescoes that have somehow been preserved at the Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues in Aveyron, about 20 miles south of Figeac. For all the times we have been in that region, we had never heard of the church.

Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues (Aveyron) Photo by MOSSOT, Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The church is quite ancient, quite possibly 10th century, which makes it pre-Romanesque. For centuries it served as a small priory but was abandoned and fell into disrepair. The church was only classified by the Monuments historique in 1988.

Saint with halo, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues (Aveyron), Photo by Albert Pinto

The survival of the frescoes in almost miraculous, as described by Pinto. At the time of his photographs, “that was used as a barn and devastated during centuries (same case as Fenollar). The Monuments historiques have since undertaken a restoration, but the frescoes seem to be in the same state as I found them.”

Eve at the Tree of Knowledge, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues (Aveyron), Photo by Albert Pinto

Thanks to Albert, we have another place to visit in one of our favorite areas of France, and can use it as another excuse to return to the Basilique Sainte Foy de Conques.

Two doves, Église Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Toulongergues (Aveyron), Photo by Albert Pinto

Location: 44.404371 2.027088

A Triumphant Madonna – Amuse Bouche #41 Dennis Aubrey


Saint-Aventin is a small town in the Larboust Valley in the Pyrénées, not far from Bagnères-de-Luchon. The eponymous church is located on a side road outside of town, actually a small lane rising to terrace partway up the hill. The church is a magnificent Romanesque structure which we will show in a later post and is distinguished by magnificent exterior sculptures. The most elegant of these is the Sedes Sapientiae virgin next to the door.

Regular readers of Via Lucis know our love of these figures, mostly carved in wood, but this one is unique. Most representation of the virgin are sorrowful, a mother knowing the doomed fate of her child at the hands of man. The child is normally seen as a small adult with a serious face looking straight out at the viewer (as does the Mother here). But here, the child Jesus looks up and shares with his mother a look of triumph, the conquest of temptation and evil.

Vierge Romane, Église Saint-Aventin, Saint-Aventin (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Beneath Mary’s feet are the heads of two demons, trampled into submission. The figures of birds and serpents are held at bay by the power of the Mother and Child, threatening but impotent.

I wish that I could translate the inscription but have not worked it out. Perhaps one of our readers can help?

And of course our readers came through – both Yuri de la Pena and Evelyne Clerc found the text: RES MIRANDA NIMIS MATER DEI ERAT VI NIMIS. This translates to “Thing worthy of admiration, the Mother of God is all powerful”. however, Project Gutenberg states, “In translating RES, avoid at all costs the word THING, or THINGS, and let the context guide you to the appropriate English word.” I will essay the following translation, “Of all who are worthy of admiration, the Mother of God is omnipotent.” This certainly fits with the triumphant Madonna.

Vierge Romane detail, Église Saint-Aventin, Saint-Aventin (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.