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.

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.

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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.

First Contact in France – Chartres (Dennis Aubrey)


Last week we finally arrived in France, got our car and drove immediately to Chartres. Our objective was the restored cathedral that we have been documenting for the last six years.

We had lunch with the magnificent Servane de Layre-Mathéus, president of Association Chartres, sanctuaire du monde who has raised so much money in service of her beloved cathedral. She described Chartres as the “Cathedral of Life.” “What don’t you see here that you see in all other cathedrals?” she asked. I could not come up with an answer. “Tombs, she said. “There are no tombs for the dead here.” Once she mentioned it, one could not miss the absence. This is the home of the beloved Virgin and it was not a place for death. The cathedral reflects that purpose now and the difference from the years prior to the restoration is marked.

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Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir). Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I won’t get into what I consider the ridiculous Martin Filler screed on the restoration (and I hesitate even to link to it). I am sorry that his personal preference for the dark, moody, cathedral with its “patina” is gone, but to call the current restoration “scandalous” is simply the work of a provocateur. The difference in the sensibility of the cathedral is enormous. One can actually see the architecture, appreciate the brilliance of the stained glass, and understand the purpose of the building.

The restoration of the interior is not quite finished. The two side aisles and the transepts are still waiting, and several bays of windows are not done. PJ’s shot from the northern side aisle to the nave and crossing shows the difference in the restored-unrestored areas.

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Side aisle to crossing, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir). Photo by PJ McKey

Shooting vaults in large cathedrals can be challenging when using a wide angle lens. It is not like I can lay down and just shoot up … the angles must all align properly, the tripod takes a special setup and I use a laser to center the shot. As a result, there is usually a small crowd of onlookers curious to see what I am doing; certainly there is an element of theater to it all.

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Nave vault, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir). Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But this shot was made more difficult by an example of bad photographic etiquette. I was almost completely finished with the setup, probably fifteen minutes’ work, when a woman came up and asked me to move, as a “professional courtesy”. She was with a photographer who needed to take a full nave shot for a postcard. I reluctantly agreed since I had another fifteen minutes or so of work, stowed my equipment and moved to the side aisle. There I saw what “professional courtesy” meant to her. She was standing next to a photographer with a small consumer camera taking handheld shots with a built-in flash from the back of the church! This is as useless as taking a picture at the Super Bowl using a consumer flash camera. I was furious; and to make it worse, they “chimped” over almost every photograph. Finally they finished and I was able to go back to my shot, but had to start from scratch. Some day I will do a post on photographer-to-photographer etiquette, one of my pet peeves.

Our only disappointment in the three days here was our inability to visit with the rector of the Cathedral, Gilles Fresson. This kind and generous man was completely consumed with the preparations for a broadcast of the Sunday mass on French television and his own interview on the history of the cathedral. Next year, for sure!

Chartres messe

Chartres Mass (cfrt Productions)

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.

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!

And we begin in Chartres (Dennis Aubrey)


Regular readers of Via Lucis know that we are planning our Spring/Summer trip to France and that we have posted about the upcoming section of the Pyrénées. That is the middle of the trip and today’s post is about the beginning.

2015_11_14_0a_cdg-646c0In April we fly into Paris via Reykjavík, Iceland. We do this for two reasons. First we do it because PJ hates to fly and we can break up the transatlantic section of the flight. Second, and most important, we go through the European Union customs in Iceland instead of Paris, and that is worth a great deal right there. Customs is a breeze in Reykjavík and when we arrive in Paris, we pass quickly through in the EU line. Anyone who has been caught in customs at Charles de Gaulle airport (voted in one poll the “world’s most hated airport”) when two or three international flights arrive at the same time knows exactly what this means.

We arrive at CDG about noon and will be on our way in our new car by 1:30 or so. We will head directly southwest to Chartres, where we will spend the next couple of days photographing the magnificent Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres. As you probably know, the cathedral is undergoing an extensive and somewhat contentious restoration. Some critics decry the loss of the “patina” of the church and its associated atmosphere. We believe that the restoration is magnificent and that the patina will be restored over time while the deterioration is stopped.

Apse from the tribunes, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by PJ McKey

Apse from the tribunes, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by PJ McKey

The last time we were in Chartres, the apse had just been completed and the teams were working on the side aisles. The nave was untouched. We understand now that both the side aisles and the nave have been completed, which means the interior is almost complete. Some sets of windows still are being restored, but it will be our first opportunity to see and photograph the restoration of Bay 140, financed by our great colleagues at the American Friends of Chartres, who previously financed the restoration of the superb evangelist lancets in the south transept.

The south transept lancets, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The south transept lancets, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Of course when we go to Chartres we have to visit with the indomitable Servane de Layre Mathéus, head of Chartres, Sanctuaire du Monde, a private French organization, which for 14 years has worked in close cooperation with the Historic Monuments Commission and supports the public efforts of the French government to restore this glorious cathedral. We also get to spend time with Gilles Fresson, historien et intendant of the cathedral. He is a fountain of knowledge about Notre Dame de Chartres and guides us through the walls and in the hidden corners of the structure.

South side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

South side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sirui P-204S monopod

Sirui P-204S monopod

In preparation for the work at Chartres, we have made some changes in equipment. PJ now has a new camera, the latest version of the estimable Canon 5D that she has used for a decade. It gives her much greater resolution and the “Live View” preview.

Our work demands that we use tripods because of the long exposures that we use in the churches. This works perfectly for most of the time, but there are times when the tripod is too bulky to us. For that reason, we also got PJ a monopod, the Sirui P-204S, to carry when she enters the upper warrens of the cathedral. No longer does she have to lug her tripod in those close and narrow confines. With this fine piece of equipment, she has a versatile monopod/tripod that folds down to just two feet and weighs less than three pounds.

It is hard to believe we are so short a time away from this trip. In two months we will be photographing Chartres again starting our France adventure for 2017. Can’t wait to show you the results of the photography and the restoration.

Unrestored Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by PJ McKey

Unrestored Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by PJ McKey