The Many-named Cathedral of Sisteron (Dennis Aubrey)


Sisteron is located on a deep defile, carved by the Durance as it rushes south out of the Alps. On one side is the town, clustering around the base of a commanding hill surmounted by a citadel. On the other side is the imperious Mont de la Baume, a precipitous rock casting its great shadow over the little town below. This strategic location controlled a major crossing of the Durance, described by Livy as “… of all the rivers of Gaul the most difficult to cross, and despite the volume of its waters, does not permit navigation.

Sisteron (Photo Mariano)

In this small provincial town stands one of the oldest cathedrals in France and a wonderful example of Provençal Romanesque, Notre Dame de Pomeriis, translated often to Notre Dame des Pommiers, Our Lady of the Apple Trees. Despite the fact that there are enormous apple and apricot orchards on the high plains just north of Sisteron, this is not the correct translation. Pomeriis refers to pomerium, the defensive space between the city and the ramparts where military regulations forbade construction. But the cathedral was built on the outskirts of town because there was no space within the walls and the topography left no choice for the builders – this was the only spot where the cathedral could see light between the two peaks. For this reason, the church is also known as Notre Dame hors-la-ville de Sisteron (“Notre Dame Outside-of-Town of Sisteron”)!

The official name of the church is the Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, but even this has changed over the years. The cathedral was built in the late 12th and early 13th century on the site of a chapel dedicated to the patron saint of the town, Saint Thyrse or, in the Latin form, Saint Thyrsius. Thyrsius was a Christian deacon of Smyrna, sent to Gaul in the second century with Andocheus to preach the Gospel in Gaul. They were both tortured and decapitated in Autun during the reign of Marcus Aurelius in 179. When the cathedral was built, it was renamed Notre Dame but preserved the name of the patron of Sisteron. We chose to label the cathedral “Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse” instead of “Notre Dame de Pomeriis”, “Notre Dame hors-la-ville de Sisteron” or even “Notre Dame des Pommiers” so as to not disparage on of the earliest Christian martyrs of Gaul.

Western façade, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

PJ and I know from personal experience that the cathedral is not in the center of town, although a neighborhood has certainly grown up around it. We passed by the cathedral without even seeing it and had to circle back. We found a parking place directly in front and had to go inside to make sure that it was the correct building. The front is simple but really gives no indication of the size of the cathedral within.

The plan of the cathedral shows a basilica form with a long nave and two side aisles terminating in a rounded apse. There are no transepts. On the outside of both side aisles are 1tth and 17th century chapels – five on the south and two on the north. On either side of the apse there is an echeloned chapel. The cathedral is 143 feet long, the nave is 25.5 feet wide and each side aisle is almost 14 feet wide. The height of the vault is meters long and 7.8 meters wide. The height of the vault is 52.5 feet.

Plan, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence)

In the shot of the nave, we can see the solid piers that support the banded barrel vault. Beyond the vault is the chancel crossing and finally the small, oven vaulted apse. There is very little natural light in the church – a small oculus in the crossing, a rose and two side aisle oculi in the western façade. For this reason it has been called a “beautiful, dark vessel”.

Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave elevation shows how the barrel vault springs directly from the nave walls with only a thin cornice disguising the liason. The engaged columns rise up to support the bands of the vault. Most of the capitals are simple and unadorned with the exception of a pair of figurative capitals in the north side aisle.

Nave elevation, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The north side aisle is dark and shadowed, like the rest of the church. But high up on the middle engaged column, we can see figurative capitals at the cornice level.

North side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The first of these capitals is on the north wall of the north side aisle and shows a pair of figures with plants coming out of both sides of the mouths.

Capital, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second is on the opposite side of the north side aisle and shows a mysterious composition of two faces, with a single elongated face on the edge. These figures are barely visible, situated high up in the darkness of the side aisles, visible only upon study. PJ pointed them out to me and I needed to photograph them and look at the results to know what was carved on those capitals. Even our small spotting scope could not reveal the details.

Capital, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Back in the nave, we come to the crossing. In the shot of the crossing dome, we can see the octagonal cupola high up in the tower, resting on four squinches in the shape of scallop shells. There is a Saint Michael’s chapel accessed by the clocher stairway that opens onto the cupola, but we didn’t know about it at the time.

Crossing dome, Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint-Thyrse, Sisteron (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is one more history of Sisteron that is quite famous (or infamous). The Marquise de Mirabeau, Louise de Cabris, was the sister of the great Mirabeau. As a young woman she was married to the Marquis de Cabris. While the young Marquis alternated his time spitting into basins of water to gauge the circumference of the aquatic movements and recovering from periodic bouts of insanity, his wife indulged in worldly extravagances, amorous adventures, even becoming her brother’s mistress!

Her father recognized the danger to the family and sent her to the convent in Sisteron “to repent of her sins at leisure in the Convent of the Ursalines.” But her brilliant wit and extravagant morals were not to be checked by these religious women. In the words of the witty Elise Whitlock Rose, “On pretense of business, all the lawyers flocked to see her; and with no pretense at all the garrison flocked to her train.” She shocked the good people of Sisteron so much that she was soon returned to the family estates in Grasse to continue her adventures and, in all likelihood, laugh at the good people of Sisteron.

Marquise de Mirabeau, by Vigee Le Brun. Oil on canvas. 1774

But perhaps the Sisteronais had the last laugh. Scandals, intrigues, lawsuits, defamations, and even incarcerations attended the comely Louise during the pre-revolutionary period. Fleeing prosecution, she emigrated to Genoa, where she became a laundress, nursing her poor fool of a husband who she had dragged into her exile.

Location: 44.195744° 5.943825°

The Mountain Cathedral of Embrun (Dennis Aubrey)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Location: 44.562322° 6.495066°

An Exhibition in Maria Stein (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I have a six-month exhibition at the Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics in Maria Stein, Ohio. This small exhibition, entitled “Painted Romanesque” will be at the shrine until December 2017 and features eight images from our Via Lucis collection.

Mother House and Relic Chapel of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, Maria Stein, Ohio (1923 Postcard)

We discovered the Maria Stein shrine last winter when we went to western Ohio to discuss an upcoming exhibition at the Marian Library at the International Marian Research Insitute at the University of Dayton. Michele Devitt, who works at the library, asked if we knew about the “Land of the Cross-tipped Churches” in Mercer County. Mercer County is a prosperous rural region that features a concentration of thirty-six large Catholic churches built in the 19th and early 20th century and now on the National Register of Historic Places. Driving through this flat agricultural land, the steeples with their crosses can be seen from great distances and often two or more can be seen from a single vantage point.

These churches were built by the Society of the Precious Blood from Switzerland under the leadership of the missionary priest Francis de Sales Brunner, who came to Ohio at the behest of the bishop of Cincinnati in the 1840’s. The original churches were replaced by Gothic revival churches in the late 19th and early 20th century. The parishes serve a mostly German community of Catholics.

North side aisle, Église Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Aubrey

The spiritual and physical center of the region is the Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics and its associated convent. Mother Maria Anna Brunner founded the Sisters of the Precious Blood in 1834 in Switzerland. The congregation expanded to the United States in 1844 and eight Precious Blood Sisters began perpetual adoration at Maria Stein on Sept. 24, 1846. Maria Anna Brunner’s son, Father Francis de Sales Brunner, was the leader of the Society of the Precious Blood. He was a collector of relics and dedicated to rescuing these fragments from the political chaos in Italy at the time. His collection and others acquired during the course of the 19th century made the Maria Stein Relic Chapel collection the second largest in the United States with 1,100 relics, exceeded in number of relics only by Saint Anthony’s Chapel in the Troy Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh with five thousand.

Nave from north side aisle, Église Saint-Julien, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The Sisters of the Precious Blood administered the Shrine until 2016 when it was entrusted to a non-profit foundation. We met with the Director, Don Rosenbeck, and set up the exhibition of Via Lucis Photographs. The show opens on June 23rd and will continue through the end of 2017.

Apse, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

If you are interested in seeing the exhibition, here is the contact information.

Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics
2291 St Johns Rd, Maria Stein, OH 45860
Phone: (419) 925-4532

The entire “Land of the Cross-Tipped Churches” is worth a visit, and the shrine of Maria Stein is a marvel. PJ and I will be photographing there and in the entire region very soon.

If you are interested in seeing the Exhibition Catalog, select this link to view the PDF version.

Cagots; the Despised – Amuse Bouche #40 (Dennis Aubrey)


” … cannibal, heretic, and delivered unto all vices.”

The people thus described in the Middle Ages were of no specific ethnicity or religious affiliation. They spoke the same language as their neighbors and practiced the same religion. But they were treated as inferior, stigmatized, and segregated. They had their own doors to churches, their own fonts, and when receiving communion, the wafer was thrown to them, or, if the sacrament was being administered by a sympathetic priest, on a wooden spoon.

Cagot font, Église de Saint-Savin-en-Lavedan, Saint Savin (Hautes-Pyrénées) Photo by PJ McKey

Thee were the cagots, common throughout the Pyrénées, and they were despised. They lived in their own segregated communities, the cagoteries, were restricted to certain trades, were not allowed to marry non-cagots, enter taverns, hold cabarets, use public fountains, sell food or wine, touch food in the market, work with livestock, or enter a mill. They could only marry within the cagot community. Even to the 20th century they were required to wear a special badge featuring the foot of a goose or duck.

Mark of the cagot

These were “untouchables” in western culture and their segregation in a caste system persisted even into the 20th century. There are theories that the cagots were descended from lepers or cretins, that they were remnants of the Saracen armies that intermarried with locals in the 9th century, or even that they were members of a fallen medieval guild of carpenters.

But the truth is that the cagots – these “pestiferous people” – are a mystery, gone from history except for a few remaining descendants and the physical remnants in the local churches.

Postscript – PJ has made a very interesting observation in the figure on the font in Oloron-Sainte-Marie. It appears that his lips are disfigured, as in a herpes-type malady. There are two variants of the virus; one affects the genitals and the other the lips and is thought to be hereditary. Herpes is highly contagious in skin-to-skin contact, which might explain many of the prohibitions. Also, when the virus is contracted, that person is infected for life. Herpes was certainly known at the time; it appeared in Central and Eastern Europe in the 5th century.

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Detail of Cagot font, Église de Saint-Savin-en-Lavedan, Saint Savin (Hautes-Pyrénées) Photo by PJ McKey

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 Monk in the Morvan Forest (Dennis Aubrey)


We are finally home again after two months photographing in France, Spain, and even a little bit of Italy. We drove 6,960 kilometers during that time at an arrive speed of 51 kilometers an hour, which translates to 4,344 miles and a dazzling 32 miles per hour. This demonstrates the narrowness of the country roads where we drive and the amount of time we spent in the Pyrénées and Alps. Until we hit the highway returning to Paris, the average speed was 48 kilometers per hour!

The trip ended in Vézelay at the Crispol hotel, which is almost like home to us. The Schori family is always so welcoming and the addition of the two children Max and Clémence makes it even brighter. It is always bittersweet leaving France. We love it there but we are always anxious to return home, this time to our new house amidst the Amish in Ohio. But this year was even harder because on our last full day, we went to visit Angelico Surchamp again at the monastery at La Pierre Qui Vire. Surchamp is our inspiration and our master, whose two hundred volumes of work documenting the Romanesque religious architecture of Europe is the bedrock on which we build. We arrived knowing that he resides in the infirmerie these days.

He was brought to the parloir in a wheelchair and we could see how feeble his 94 year-old frame is now, how much thinner. But when he recognized us, he lit up like a child and we had the most wonderful hour visit with him. Continually he would look out the window and smile at the blue sky with the great white clouds and remark at them, as if seeing them for the first time. C’est le don du Seigneur pour cette visite.

Teresa of Avila chapel, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

He tired easily but I thought he might want to go outside. He immediately agreed – to PJ’s horror. It was quite chilly outside and she was not sure that the nurse would appreciate us absconding with him. Surchamp rose as if to walk but agreed to let us wheel him out. We took the back way through the refectory and down the service elevator and out into the lower courtyard. We only stayed a few minutes because of the cold, but his eyes glowed brighter and he was transfixed by the site of the forest beyond.

When it was time for us to leave, we told him that we would see him next year. I asked if he would like us to take him to Vézelay to see the Basilique Sainte Madeleine, the church that started his great adventure almost seventy years ago, the first that he ever photographed. His eyes opened wide and he said almost rapturously, oh, oui, si Dieu le veut with a smile. And then he added that he would have to ask the abbot. I told him we would write the abbot about the plans and he repeated that he would have to get the permission of the abbot.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

And then 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.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I think he was saying goodbye. We return to France again next year and I can only hope that we see our master at that time. Until that time, we can rest content that he is at peace in the forests of the Morvan.

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

A Column Swallower in the Pyrénées – Amuse Bouche #39 (PJ McKey)


Regular readers of Via Lucis know the fondness PJ and I have for medieval grotesques. Among these are some of our favorites, the column swallowers. We have even found one of these gruesomely compelling engoulants in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum.

On this trip we were photographing in the Haute-Garonne region of the Pyrénées and PJ discovered one of the column swallowers hiding in the Templars’ Church in Montsaunès, peeking out from a column to the left of the altar.

Apse, Église Saint-Christophe des Templiers, Montsaunès (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Unlike many of its brethren, this version of the column swallower seems less monstrous and shows more surprise in his simian features. This was the only column swallower we saw this year in our travels – perhaps he was as surprised to see us as we were to see him!

Column Swallower, Église Saint-Christophe des Templiers, Montsaunès (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

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.