Our Dayton Opening (Dennis Aubrey)


Via Lucis has been very quiet lately, but it is not because nothing is happening. We are preparing a post on our recent trip to photograph Savannah’s Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist and working on our exhibition at the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton, which opens next week!

The exhibition of photos of Black Madonnas and Throne of Wisdom Madonnas takes place from June 25 to July 27 at the Marian Library. The Marian Library Gallery is on the seventh floor of Roesch Library at 300 College Park Drive, Dayton, Ohio 45469 and it is open from 8:30am to 4:30pm on Monday through Friday.

We will host a small reception on Wednesday, July 11 at 3:30pm. PJ and I would love to meet any members of the Via Lucis community who are in the region. If you are interested in coming, please email us and we will get you the information on the reception.

On an additional note, we have an upcoming show at the Lancaster Art Walk here in Lancaster, Ohio. We will be at the Artist’s Reception on Thursday, July 19 from 5-7pm at the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio at 145 E Main St, Lancaster, OH 43130. Our “Painted Romanesque” exhibition will be on display at Art & Clay On Main at 150 W Main St, Lancaster, OH 43130 on Friday, July 20 from 6-9pm. Again, members of the Via Lucis community are welcome to come to either event. Our lives have been so enriched by meeting many of you in the past and we hope to do so in this next month.

On the technical side, our prints for the Dayton exhibition were provided by Miller’s Professional Imaging in Columbia, Missouri. After an exhaustive national search for vendors and extensive proofing with Miller’s, we selected them. Their work is superb and they have the best customer service I have seen in years.

Our framing was done locally by The Frame Shop here in Lancaster. Cindy and Steve Smith have done many art works for us and when we asked for a bid on the exhibition, they matched the online prices and provided real wood frames instead of composite frames. First rate works from friendly local neighbors – we couldn’t ask for more.

If you are interested in ordering the exhibition catalog, please follow this link.

Happy Easter


We are fortunate in having found yet another medieval sculpture of the patron of secular Easter celebrations, Saint Saliento Lepus.

Saint Saliendo Lepus

Saint Saliendo Lepus

According to our research, Saint Saliendo Lepus was a 3rd century noble Roman rabbit who incurred the wrath of the Emperor Diocletian by hiding colored eggs in the forum. Enraged, Diocletian had him turned over to Plautian, prefect of the praetorium, who tortured him in an effort to force him to stop this practice, but when Saliento persisted, he was beheaded and served in a stew with lentils and onions. Though the legend is an ancient one, it is no more than that.

A Smiling Madonna – Amuse Bouche #42 (Dennis Aubrey)


In our many posts about the vierges romanes in France and Spain we have discussed their unique expressions. There is often a distant look, as if Mary is looking into the future, into the sacrifice that will be demanded of both herself and her Son. While there are exceptions like the triumphant Madonna in Saint-Aventin, most have serious expressions.

Today, however, while editing the photographs of the lovely Église Sainte Marie in Corneilla de Conflent I was shocked to find a smiling Madonna and Child.

West portal detail, Église Sainte Marie, Corneilla de Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Given the place of honor in the mandorla of the west portal tympanum, Mary is literally smiling. Jesus, however, is grinning! The effect is completely disconcerting. The sculptor must have had some unique vision to create this ensemble, but for the life of me I don’t know what it was. Perhaps after a lifetime of carving religious figures of the most solemn and serious character, this man or woman just felt that maybe there was room for some levity in religion, some expression of light-heartedness. Here in the remote Pyrénées, perhaps an expression of pleasure was warranted.

Whatever the reasoning, I found the image profoundly disturbing. As I tried to smile back, my lips were drawn back over my teeth in a grimace. I held the expression and went to the bathroom to see it in the mirror – it was grotesque! Coming back to the image I thought, even Jesus’ little bare feet seem to be smiling. The angels on either side also seem to be in on the joke.

West portal, Église Sainte Marie, Corneilla de Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

If there was ever a piece of sculpture that deserved to be featured as an amuse-bouche, it is this tympanum in Corneilla de Conflent.

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.

An Exhibition in Dayton


We are delighted to announce another Via Lucis exhibition, this time at the Marian Library of the International Marian Research Institute in Dayton, Ohio. The dates of the show will be June 25 to July 27, 2018.

The exhibition, entitled “The Throne of Wisdom”, features twenty-four photographs of Sedes Sapientiae madonnas, including Black Madonnas, from France.

Notre Dame de Prades, Eglise Saint Pierre, Prades (Pyrénées-Orientales)

The Marian Library was founded by the Marianists of the University of Dayton in 1943 to make the Blessed Virgin Mary better known, loved, and served. It is a special library whose presence on campus is a significant expression of the university’s Catholic and Marianist identity.

The Marian Library is recognized both nationally and internationally as a center for scholarship on the Blessed Virgin Mary. It serves the research needs of faculty and students of the International Marian Research Institute and of the broader University of Dayton community, and of visitors throughout the world.

Saint Mary’s Hall, Chapel, Saint Joseph Hall

The Marian Library is located at 300 College Park on the campus of the University of Dayton. We will provide more information on the exhibition as the dates draw nearer.

The Passing of a Giant (Dennis Aubrey)


Angelico Surchamp June 23, 1924 – March 1, 2018

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

Dom Angelico Surchamp, September 20, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paysage cubiste, Albert Gleize (1920)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

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

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

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

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

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

Those who precede (Part 2), Angelico Surchamp

Those who precede (Part 3), Angelico Surchamp

Those Who Precede part 4 – Angelico Surchamp

The Monk in the Morvan Forest

Dancers and Magi in the Pyrénées – Lacommande (Dennis Aubrey)


I’ve always wondered why certain saints were chosen as patrons for medieval churches. I can easily understand some of the choices – Saint Denis because he is the patron saint of France, Notre Dame in infinite variation, Saints Peter and Paul (or both as in Andlau, Ingrandes, ), or Saint Jacques. But there are many obscure saints who have their churches – Saint Menulphe, Saint Vosy, Saint Vigor, or Saint Cerneuf. We found one of these latter in the Pyrénées last year, the Église Saint Blaise in Lacommande.

Exterior, Église Saint Blaise, Lacommande (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

Saint Blaise was the bishop of the Roman-Armenian city of Sebastea who is believed to have begun as a healer then became a “physician of souls.” People often turned to Saint Blaise for healing miracles.

Catholic Online describes his death: ” In 316, the governor of Cappadocia and of Lesser Armenia, Agricola, arrested then-bishop Blaise for being a Christian. On their way to the jail, a woman set her only son, who was choking to death on a fish bone, at his feet.

Blaise cured the child, and though Agricola was amazed, he could not get Blaise to renounce his faith. Therefore, Agricola beat Blaise with a stick and tore at his flesh with iron combs before beheading him.”

Nave, Église Saint Blaise, Lacommande (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

There is little remaining of Saint Blaise’s church in Lacommande from that built between 1135 and 1140. The part that remains, however – the apse – is something well worth seeing and is decorated with a magnificent ensemble of well-preserved capitals that sit at eye level. It is such a pleasure to be able to investigate the capitals closely with the naked eye instead of using a 400mm lens to mechanically bring them closer.

These capitals are the work of the Master of Oloron and represent biblical and secular scenes, richly decorated and ornamented. We are focusing on four of the capitals for this post. The first two represent the story of the Magi bringing gifts to the infant Jesus. The first capital shows the Magi riding following the star to Bethlehem. The star is to the upper right of the central rider. A second rider can be seen on the left and a third appearing on the right. This is such a richly portrayed scene with the detailing of the horse’s livery, the crown and the vestments.

Capital – Magi, Église Saint Blaise, Lacommande (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second image is of an engaged capital showing two of the wise men presenting their gifts to the Mother and Child. Above them is the star of Bethlehem that served as their guide. Note that Mary and Jesus are shown in the Throne of Wisdom pose that was so popular in Romanesque times.

Capital – Gift of the Magi, Église Saint Blaise, Lacommande (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second shot is from the right hand side of the composition, showing the third Magi carrying his gift. This is a very clear demonstration of how in the hands of a master sculptor the capitals could be composed in three dimensions with a continuous narrative.

Capital – Gift of the Magi, Église Saint Blaise, Lacommande (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

These two Magi capitals are richly decorated and fine illustrations of a popular biblical narrative. The next two capitals, however, are completely secular and far more animated. The first of these shows in the central position a bearded man playing a bowed musical instrument much like a fiddle. The image seems to swirl to the music with curved forms within and above the composition.

Capital – Viol Player, Église Saint Blaise, Lacommande (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

The panel to the left, however, brings the capital to life. We see another musician playing a lyre and accompanying a frantically contorting dancer. Again, the swirling of the knot pattern above the capital and the sinuous vegetal forms within the capital create an enormous sense of movement.

Capital – Harpist and Dance, Église Saint Blaise, Lacommande (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

The adjacent capital completes the ensemble – a pair of horn players gaily offer up their music while dancing. The plant form behind them graphically echoes the sound from the instruments and brings the scene to vivid life. These four capitals are certainly worthy of the Maitre d’Oloron.

Capital – Two Horn Players, Église Saint Blaise, Lacommande (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

The fact that I was personally unaware of Saint Blaise was no impediment to enjoying the bounty of the sculpture inside. What I thought was true about Saint Blaise was that he was the patron saint after whom my brother Stephen Blaisdell Aubrey was named. This was completely wrong, of course, but PJ was not so ignorant. She remembers growing up as a Catholic school girl in Marion, Ohio, and attending mass for the Feast of Saint Blaise on February 3, the day before her birthday. The priest consecrated two candles, tied them together with a red ribbon signifying martyrdom, and then approached the children kneeling at the communion rail. She remembers that the priest placed the candles on her throat along with a few solemn words in Latin as the blessing. “This was one of the first signs of faith for me growing up,” she says. “As a child it was so mysterious and powerful. I always thought I would never get a sore throat.”

Location: 43.277125 -0.508496

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.