Medieval Surgery – Amuse Bouche #38 (Dennis Aubrey)


A couple of weeks ago, PJ and I had the pleasure to photograph the fine reconstructed Romanesque cathedral in the Pyrénéan town of Lescar where the royal family of Navarre was buried for some time. The reason we were excited to come, however, was the presence of the Romanesque mosaics in the apse that were rediscovered in the 19th century. The remaining fragments are in almost perfect condition.

One of the two panels is of particular interest – a hunter with a bow clearly has an artificial leg! It appears that this represents a Moorish soldier from Al-Andalus who lost his leg in the battles against the encroaching Christians during the Reconquista. After he was fitted with his artificial leg, he fought again against the Christians and was captured by Gui de Lons, who subsequently became the bishop of Lescar and founded the cathedral there. He served as a slave and later became a friend to the Bishop, who immortalized him in this mosaic in the apse.

Mosaic, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Lescar (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The donkey following the hunter has a purpose in the composition – not only is it following the hunter-master, but as shown in the next photograph, actually hauls the hunted prey, in this case a resisting wolf.

Lescar wolf

Mosaic detail, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Lescar (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have since discovered that the nearby church of Saint Aventin has a capital depicting one of the Saracen captors of Saint Aventin who also has the exact same leg prosthesis. This is certainly a subject for further investigation.

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.

The Val d’Aran – Tapas, tres Esglésies, and the Haro (Dennis Aubrey)


In the Middle Ages, there were areas in Europe that existed in an isolation almost inconceivable today. In the center of the Pyrénées, just south to the current border of Spain, is a small east-west valley tucked into the mountains. During the winter snows, the valley is almost completely inaccessible. But in that valley there are thirty villages, each with a Romanesque church built mostly in the 12th and 13th centuries. Every hillside reveals another, often perched just above that of an adjoining village just a few hundred yards away as the crow flies but miles away by twisting roads.

Today, these churches are intact, most in good condition, and all of them of a style consistent with each other, even to the baroque retables and the restorations. Unfortunately, only a few are open to visitors, so we did not have the greatest hope of seeing more than one or two in detail. But that changed when we met the remarkable Diana Falcon, a journalist who lives in Bossòst and offered to help us out in our work. Diana made arrangements for us to get into churches that were closed and gave us invaluable information about almost every church in the valley, all of which she knows well. She is a lover of the Romanesque and all things archaeological, her husband is an architect with a passion for Romanesque, and we could not have found a better guide!

With her help we planned our four days in the Val d’Aran and were able to see about a third of the churches. We started with the northernmost church in the town of Bossost, the gleisia Mair of Diu dera Purificacion.

South facade, Mair of Diu dera Purificacion, Bossost . (Lérida) Photo by PJ McKey

Small, like most of the churches in the Val d’Aran, the Mair of Diu dera Purificacion is unusual in that it has side aisles. We photographed for about an hour and a half and then decided to lunch on the square right next to the church. Tapas was the order of the day, with the stars being roasted salted green peppers and a fantastic Jamón ibérico. We even broke our norm by having an alcoholic beverage, a glass of wine for PJ and a beer for me.

Nave, Mair of Diu dera Purificacion, Bossost . (Lérida) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Arties is in the center of the valley and features a beautiful, complexly painted three-aisle church. This was one that Diana made special arrangements with Elisa Ros Barbosa of the Airau de Patrimòni Culturaur for us to visit and it was worth every second.

Apse, Santa Maria de Arties, Arties (Lérida) . Photo by PJ McKey

The 15th and 16th century frescoes cover much of the apse and the pillars of the crossing and are worth a study of their own. A detail from the Last Judgment and the fate of the damned brings to mind the great tympanum at the Basilique Sainte Foy in Conques. And notice that prominent among the condemned are a cardinal and a couple of kings! Subversive!

Fresco detail, Santa Maria de Arties, Arties (Lérida) . Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have noticed that most Spanish churches were renovated and decorated in the Baroque style and Diana confirmed our suspicians. The influx of wealth from the New World found its way across Spain and into these humble Romanesque churches. Today we find these additions in even the most modest churches. What is amazing is how well integrated the baroque is with the Romanesque.

North side aisle, Santa Maria de Arties, Arties (Lérida) . Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The third church in this little survey is Sant Andreu de Salardú, one of the grandest in the region. As we would expect, it is filled with baroque additions, but the extent of the fresco work is extraordinary – every surface is filled with the story of the church and the faith.

Crossing pillars, Sant Andreu de Salardú, Salardú (Lérida) Photo by PJ McKey

The vault below the crossing is a Sistine Chapel of its own with imagery rising up from the columns to the arches and then to the four segments of the groin vaulted crossing.

Painted crossing, Sant Andreu de Salardú, Salardú (Lérida) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Diana was a fount of information not just about the churches but every aspect of life in the Val. She told us of a festival in the village of Les, La Crèma deth Haro, that takes place on June 23 for the Feast of San Juan. A tall tree is stripped of its branches and bark, split open with wedges, and erected in the Place del Haro in the center of town. During the year, people place wishes written on pieces of paper into the wedges, and on the festival night the Haro is burned with great celebration.

Les 22/06/2013 Sociedad Fiesta de Sant Joan en la Vall D’Aran queman el Haro, Foto de RICARD CUGAT

We would not be in town for the Feast of San Juan but we went to view the Haro as it stood in the Plaza. There we stumbled upon something completely unexpected – the villagers were gathered to celebrate of the Shasclada deth haro, where the replacement haro is prepared for the next year. The entire population of the town was singing, dancing, and feasting as the men of the town hammered, cut and split to create the next haro.

Shasclada deth haro, (Lérida) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This festival predates the ascendancy of Christianity in the Val d’Aran and elsewhere in the Pyrénées, and we feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see the the Crèma deth Haro in real life. We are planning a return to the Val d’Aran, perhaps at the same time that we shoot the nearby Val de Boí, another treasure trove of Romanesque architecture. Our first call will be to Diana and her comprehensive knowledge of the area she loves so much.

One Day in Basque Country (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I were both very excited with the thought of going to Iparralde, the French Basque country. We have passed through the region on our travels, most notably when taking my mother to her town of origin, Eibar, in Spanish basque country. But this time we were spending a full week in the land filled with sounds of the mysterious language of the Basques, Euskara, that scholars claim is unrelated to any other language on earth. About 30% of the French Basques speak Euskara but the names of the towns Gipúzkoa, Hadarribia, and Getxo (and of course the perfectly named Oô) reflect this mysterious origin.

The other day we were to photograph three churches, including one in the remote southwestern area of the foothills, a collegiate church called Sainte-Engrâce. This was deep in a gorge, hidden almost in a great cul-de-sac at the base of the Pyrénées. What a find! Large and beautifully appointed, and with fine sculptural decoration, we were completely surprised at this remote masterpiece.

Apse, Collégiale Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

There were many capitals that we photographed, but my favorite features a creature that PJ calls the “head-snacker”. This capital shows a man with a mace confronting a demon who is indeed devouring a human, presumably a sinner.

Capital – man confronting demon, Collégiale Sainte-Engrâce. Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) . Photo by Dennis Aubrey

After Sainte-Engrâce, we drove back into the rolling foothills of the Béarn region to Sauveterre-de-Béarn. Sauveterre featured a mixed Romanesque-Gothic church with a completely intact western portal. Apparently the stone of the portal was so hard that it defeated the attempts of the iconoclasts of war and religion to destroy it.

Nave, Église Saint-André, Sauveterre-de-Béarn (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) . Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ’s photo of the portal shows the tympanum in situ, flanked by five colonettes on each side. I especially like the two arches at the base of the tympanum.

Western portal, Église Saint-André, Sauveterre-de-Béarn (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) . Photo by PJ McKey

The churches in Sainte-Engrâce and Sauveterre took quite a while to photograph and it was getting late as we headed back to our house in the tiny hameau of Estialescq. We were lucky enough to have a hot tub on the deck overlooking the mountains and were anxious to return. But first we had one more stop, the grand church in the pilgrimage town of Oloron-Sainte-Marie. The Église Sainte-Croix is massive and formidable and pure Romanesque. Nobody has ever added gothic elements or changed its fundamental style, and so it remains unchanged.

Nave elevation, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

The cupola is superb, featuring the eight-pointed star form that we see often in the southern reaches of the Compostella pilgrimage churches. The Église Sainte-Croix was the perfect way to end our perfect Basque day.

Crossing dome, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Well, actually the perfect way was to soak in our hot tub while drinking the famous sweet wine of Jurançon, the wine that was placed on the lips of the new-born infant who became Henry IV of France. A wine that many in the region still use to christen their new-borns! Which is exactly what we did!

Gascon Treasures (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I have spent the last ten days or so in Gascony photographing the churches here.  In addition to eating well, drinking copious amounts of wonderful Madiran wine, and driving through stunning country back roads, we have found dozens of churches.  Here is a selection of a few that we particularly like.

We are always sad to leave the Dordogne, even mores because we spent time with our friend Diane Quaid at Lacave. We tried to photograph Duravel when we left, but it was closed for renovations, so we could only hope that the Église Saint-Géraud in Monsempron-Libos would be productive. We underestimated what was there – a beautiful church full of fine Romanesque sculpture. PJ’s shot from echeloned chapel to the crossing shows what we found.

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Chapel to crossing, Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

The tiny church in Rouillac in the commune of Moncuq has recently been renovated, showing the fragments of the 12th century fresco to great advantage. I love this shot of PJ’s that conveys the clean, simple lines of the Romanesque architecture.

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Apse, Église Saint Pierre, Rouillac Montcuq (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

PJ and I were working our way through some of the smaller churches in the area and were disappointed by several – some were closed, others had almost nothing Romanesque remaining (“lower stonework on south facing walls”), so when we got to Nogaro, we were in heaven. This shot of the apse shows what we saw the minute we walked into the church. There will be a post on this church later, but we thought you might like to get a preview.

Nogaro crossing

Crossing and apse, Collégiale Saint Nicholas, Nogaro (Gers) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We will certainly do a post on the basilica of Saint Fris in Bassoues. The legend of the patron saint alone is worth a telling, but for now we will just show the view of the church with its upper and lower apses.

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Double apses, Basilique Saint Fris, Bassoues (Gers) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This region is filled with bastides, fortified towns that were built to protect the residents of an area during a time of constant warfare. Through the entire Hundred Years War and through the Wars of Religion, these walled enclaves were the only place of safety in the Aquitaine. Clermont-Dessus is one of these small bastide towns and it sheltered this modest hall church with a single half-round apse. There were a few capitals but not much other decoration.

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Nave, Chapelle Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Clermont-Dessus (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

The Église Saint Sever is one of the grandest churches we have come across in a region whose churches have suffered intense devastation from war. Though perhaps a bit over-restored, it is a fine example of the region’s Romanesque style.

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Crossing and apse, Église Saint Sever, Saint Sever (Landes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Right now we are in the foothills of the Pyrénées close to Pau. We are photographing the Compostela churches there before we turn east to the high Pyrénées. We will post more in the next couple of days, perhaps something from the extraordinary collection of capitals that we have discovered here.

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.

And then we head south (Dennis Aubrey)


In the ongoing chronicle of our upcoming trip, I started in the middle with the section on the Pyrénées, then went did a general post on our research, before finally starting the trip in Chartres.

Today I’m going to write about what comes after Chartres and up to the Pyrénées. I guess this sequence is kind of like the movie Memento in its disjointed structure. I hope this doesn’t create an “existential dread” like the movie, but I’ll stay on course after this.

We leave Chartres and head to Poitiers, or more accurately, Vivonne, just south of Poitiers. Vivonne is the home of our life-long friends, the Gayets and their home at Danlot. I have known Thérèse and Jean Gayet since the age of 12 and we have stayed in their home many times over the years. They even made a visit to my parents on Cape Cod in the 90’s. Jean passed away a few years ago, but Thérèse flourishes, a force of nature. She grew up in Poitiers and was the first to take me to Sainte Radegonde, one of my favorite churches.

Ambulatory chapel, Église Sainte-Radegonde, Poitiers (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory chapel, Église Sainte-Radegonde, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

We visit with her at the house, a lieu-dit called Danlot. It has the distinction of an iron bridge crossing the Clain River to their house, a bridge built by Gustave Eiffel. Even as a boy I was fascinated by the place. The Clain River was the same that was followed by the Saracens in 732 on their way to the fateful meeting with Charles Martel. On the Gayet’s property was a hill with a field atop called the Champs d’Alaric, the fields of Alaric II, the chieftain of the Visigoths who was defeated and slain by the Frankish king Clovis at nearby Vouillé. Local legend had it that after his death, Alaric was buried under this mound with his enormous treasure. And of course at this time my family lived in Chauvigny, so redolent of history. Is it any wonder that I grew up immersed in a cloud of history and legend?

Danlot, Vivonne (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Danlot, Vivonne (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We are going to spend three days in the area photographing a number of churches in the area. Our home base will be nearby Montmorillon, where we will have an apartment in the center of town overlooking the Église Notre Dame de Montmorillon.

From Montmorillon, we head to my omphalos, the center of my universe, Lacave and the church at Souillac. We stay in the hotel Pont de l’Ouysse, my favorite and one that I have been going to almost every year since 1986. At the Pont, we will have the great pleasure of a sojourn with our great friend Diane Quaid, an actress and hiker who will be in the area hiking the limestone causses for a week. We will have the opportunity to share the extraordinary cuisine of the Chambons père et fils during the visit. PJ will be hiking with Diane during this time, so I will be photographing alone. The following capital expresses my sentiments exactly.

Eglise Saint Pierre des Tours, Aulnay-de-Saintonge  (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Eglise Saint Pierre des Tours, Aulnay-de-Saintonge (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But I will get a chance to photograph one of my favorite churches, Sainte-Marie de Souillac and a number of smaller churches to the east and south that we have not been able to before.

View from east end of choir,  Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

View from east end of choir, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

After three days at the Pont, we head south towards Agen. We have rented a nice house for the five days we explore a cluster of churches between the cathedral town of Agen and Villeneuve-sur-Lot to the north. If time permits, we may even range a bit to the east to return to the great abbey church in Moissac and its famous cloister and tympanum.

Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

After Agen, we head toward the Pyrénées and a trip to the region with some of the oldest Romanesque churches in existence. From there, Provence!

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!