The Face of Mary Magdalene – Amuse Bouche #43 (Dennis Aubrey)


A recent article on the Marie Madeleine website (in French) featured a very interesting article on the work of the forensic scientist, Dr. Philippe Charlier. Charlier has done work on the remains of Henri IV, Charles III, Diane de Poitiers and other historical figures.

Charlier is best known for his forensic recreation of the likeness of Henri IV. He used CT imaging and digital facial reconstruction to create the following portrait of the French king.

Henri IV, reconstruction by Philippe Charlier

Charlier and his team recently analyzed the skull and hairs from the relics of Mary Magdalene from the Basilica de Sainte Madeleine in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. Using hundreds of digital models of the skull as a model, Charlier’s partner, artist-sculptor Philippe Froesh, sculpted a meticulous reconstruction of the face of the woman in the tomb at the Basilica. The result was an astonishing image of a fifty-five year old, dark-haired woman of Mediterranean aspect.

Mary Magdalene, as imaged by Philippe Froesh

The team has not been given permission to conduct DNA testing that might give further information on the relic, but PJ and I were both struck by the resemblance to a medieval sculpture of Mary Magdalene that we photographed in the church of Saint-Caprais in Mozac.

Resurrection capital, [Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ Aubrey

In closeup, the figure in the capital has the same eyes as Froesh’s sculpture. Although depicted as a younger woman the two images are remarkably similar, even down to the serious gaze.

Mary Magdeleine, Abbaye Saint-Pierre et Saint-Caprais de Mozac, Mozac (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ Aubrey

Meanwhile, we are looking forward to Charlier’s team’s next effort; an investigation of the controversial skull of Lazarus kept at the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure in Marseilles.

Exhibition in Lancaster, Ohio (Dennis Aubrey)


The first Via Lucis exhibition for the new year is a collection of 38 images of French Romanesque and Gothic churches at the Garret Gallery at the Fairfield County District Library. The exhibition opens this Sunday, January 20. We will have an open reception from 2pm to 4pm on that day and everyone is welcome to come.

Exhibition at Fairfield County District Library (January 2019)

The Main Library is located at 219 North Broad Street in Lancaster. The gallery is on the third floor, accessible by elevator.

Interested parties can order copies of the Exhibition Catalog.

We would love to see any members of the Via Lucis community who happen to be in this area, which is about an hour south of Columbus, Ohio. The gallery space is really superb and the photos are displayed to good effect. We will be speaking on Sunday about our work, and the exhibition will run through February 16.

We’re Planning Another Trip (Dennis Aubrey)


We had mentioned earlier that when I recovered my health we were going to take a trip to France, Corsica and Sardinia to photograph the Romanesque churches there. We finally decided that I would probably be well enough to travel in Fall 2019; it was a glorious plan and we were looking forward to investigating the new worlds of Corsica and Sardinia. But when we began planning in detail, we came to realize that it was too much, too soon. The long drives to Southern France, then traversing both Corsica and Sardinia north to south and back again meant that we would have to spend two months on the trip and that was probably a risk for me, especially in an area of Italy where I don’t speak the language.

So, we went back to the drawing board and came up with a wonderful alternative. We will spend three and a half weeks shooting Norman churches in England and Wales and three weeks traveling through France, partly to shoot churches and partly to visit friends that we have not seen since I got sick. What a trip we have planned!

We cross the channel from France from Cherbourg to Portsmith and spend time shooting in the Dorset, Wilshire, and Devon areas, move north into Somerset toward Wells and Bath, then into Wales for five days. My father’s side of the family came from Abercynrig in Wales and we will visit there as well as photograph the great churches of Heresfordshire and Gloucestershire. The we run further north to the Scottish borderlands to photograph the great cathedral churches in Durham and Carlisle. The last ten days we work our way south to Canterbury via Lincoln, Ely, Cambridge, Saint Albans, Waltham Abbey and Rochester. Overall we plan on photographing about 35 churches in the 24 days we will be in England; ambitious, but very exciting.

We then take a short break of three days in Ghent, just to relax and see the sights (echoing to the words of Jacques Brel, Entre les tours de Bruges et Gand). Then we go to Saint Quentin to photograph the great Gothic basilica there with its spectacular examples of entasis in the nave. Then we go to Amiens to photograph Notre-Dame d’Amiens, one of the greatest Gothic cathedrals in the world, also possessor of examples of entasis in the nave columns. The challenge of adequately capturing the intentional deformations in the columns is great, but I can’t wait to try. From Amiens we return to Chartres for three days to photograph the progress on the restoration and to see our many friends there. We stay in the most wonderful little hotel – the Parvis – which is literally a 150 feet from the west portal. Such a pleasure to park the car for three days and spend the rest of the time walking and photographing!

South ambulatory entrance, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by PJ McKey

After Chartres, we head to the Dordogne and Quercy to photograph the churches there. In Souillac, we stay at a hotel that I have visited year after year since 1986, the Pont de l’Ouysse, and we photograph one of our favorite churches, the Abbaye Sainte Marie de Souillac. with its astonishing sculptural ensemble.

Nave from east, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

From the Quercy region, we head to the Puy de Dôme to another of our “homes” in France, the Cour Carrée in Perrier, near Issoire. The Vilette family has honored us with their friendship, culinary mastery and hospitality for years, and we always look forward to returning. It helps that the area is one of the richest in Romanesque masterpieces, including the nearby Basilique Saint Austremoine in Issoire.

South side aisle, Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy de Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

From the Puy de Dôme we make our way to the final stop, the third in our holy trinity of hotels, the Crispol in Vézelay. Paule and Christian Schori have befriended and hosted us for over fifteen years and no trip to France is complete without staying with them at their wonderful hotel/restaurant. In addition, we always get the opportunity to visit our favorite Romanesque church in the world, the Basilique Sainte Madeleine.

North side aisle, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Another reason to visit (as if we needed one) is much more melancholy – we will make the trip to the Monastery of La Pierre Qui Vire and visit the grave of our beloved friend, Angelico Surchamp, who died last year. His last words to us were, ““We are separated by thousands of kilometers and a great ocean, but our hearts are close.” Now we are separated by eternity, but our hearts are still close.

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

From Vezélay, we return home, via Boston. We have had such a good time planning this trip – having the confidence that we will be able to travel again and take up the mantle of our work. I can only imagine what it will feel like to be back in the saddle.

One thing we ask of our readers, however. We have never photographed in the English churches and cathedrals and would appreciate any tips that we can get. As you know, we have pretty much unfettered access in France, but don’t know if we will be so welcome in England. We will begin our research soon, but will be thankful for your knowledge and advice.

The Pegasus (Dennis Aubrey)


“Indeed during the Middle Ages there existed a sort of cinema in colors of which no trace has survived; just as in the sudden dawning of a larger hope amongst men who had not forgotten the dark age whence they had emerged but yesterday – a dawning symbolized by the great cathedrals soaring heavenwards – there was a splendid confidence in the future, not unlike that of America.”
André Malraux, “Voices of Silence”

André Malraux observed in Voices of Silence that medieval artists were not creating pictures or statues of Madonnas, they were actually creating a Madonna. They did not think that they were representing the reality, but creating it. They were saying “This is the Madonna” not “This is a picture of a Madonna.”

Notre Dame d'Estours, Eglise Saint Pierre, Monistrol d'Allier (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame d’Estours, Eglise Saint Pierre, Monistrol d’Allier (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

What must have life been like to create such an understanding. I think that we have made clear in this blog over the last few years that these medieval artisans were not in any way primitive or ignorant, but were instead capable of the most profound appreciations of the world and the most profound representations of their deep inner faith. I have come to suspect that they were capable of this because they understood the promise of that faith, they had Malraux’s “splendid confidence in the future”. In my own way, I came to that understanding on December 9, 1977.

On that night, I experienced an enormously powerful and vivid dream that comes as close to sustaining me with a life-giving faith as anything in my self-absorbed and solipsistic life. I still have the original middle-of-the-night transcription of the dream recorded in my journal, dated December 9, 1977:

“Violence dreams by the dozens lately – but the Pegasus dream made up for it. Having captured two men who turned into white horses, feeling threatened, the first horse leaping over the fence at me, I recognize that the second must be released – he is somehow in my power. The second horse climbs a 50’ wire fence and when atop leaps in the air – a beautiful white Pegasus – silver in the cloud-piercing moonlight. Transfixed by beauty – knowing that I can see it because it is there. The passers-by who mock my reverence cannot see it, but it is truly there – a vision of beauty. Donner, one of he men from the concrete pit, related to the Pegasus- stabs me in the back – it must be done – perhaps because I have seen the Pegasus – no malice. Knowing I will die soon I say – let me live for a week so I can see my parents. Death begins physically within, like an interior collapse. I go into the kitchen and see my father. I cry as I hug him and tell him I love him. The feeling of seeing Pegasus before I die, and when I see it I die … but having seen I can die. Pegasus comes from something I am punishing or lead to punishment … something I think wrong, but in reality it is a vessel for Pegasus.”

Study for Guernica horse, Pablo Picasso (1937)

Study for Guernica horse, Pablo Picasso (1937)

I still shudder with discovery as I read this. This was the last entry in my journal for about 17 months.

In the following nights I dreamt sections of the dream again. The first night the dream was complete, and the nights following I re-dreamt segments of the dream as if I were shooting coverage of a scene in a movie, explaining and amplifying different parts of the original dream – never changing, just amplifying. One of them was seeing the second white horse climb the fence, seeing up close how the wire tore into the living flesh of the horse, close enough that I could feel the hot gusting of his breath on my face.

But throughout this time of dreaming, there was a conviction, an absolute conviction, that this was a promise for my life – that I would see the Pegasus before I die, and having seen it, would be prepared to die. This has been my source of faith for my entire life, for my own “splendid confidence in the future”.

Sometimes in reflecting on my life, I wonder how a sane man can live his life based on such dreams? Where is the rational explanation for this disembodied voice speaking to me? I hear it clearly, but there is no visible source. Is this is a vision or a dream? At such moments I understand the Lakota Vision Quest.

Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Santa Maria del Popolo (Rome)

Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Santa Maria del Popolo (Rome)

I always wanted to have my sign, my vision from God to guide me, but have never admitted to it; to be transfixed by light on the road to Damascus where others may see the light but not hear the voice. I want to be in that beatified state where I don’t take photographs, but create churches.

Happy Holidays to all our Via Lucis Friends!


A Radio Podcast Featuring Via Lucis


Last summer when we had our exhibition at the Marian Library at the University of Dayton, we were interviewed by Radio Maria. Here is a link to the interview (about 45 minutes long) where we talk about the Vierges Romanes and Black Madonnas that we photograph in France and Spain. Enjoy!

Rediscovered Gems (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I have been doing an enormous amount of work preparing for our exhibition this week at the McConnell Art Center in Columbus, Ohio. We had to select our photos, color correct and proof each one, arrange the printing, framing and wrapping the selection of thirty-eight images. We deliver the images tomorrow with all of the associated labels and the proof of the exhibition catalog.

One of the great joys of doing this was rediscovering images that we had forgotten, images that we liked so much that we included them in the show. Here are five that I particularly enjoyed. The first is Poitier’s Basilique Saint Hilaire. This shot of the strange upper ambulatory shows the complex nature of the rebuilding, additions, and renovations that have taken place over the centuries, as the purity of the original design have long been replaced by a hodgepodge of structures. It is easy to see the complexity in the ground plan.

Plan, Basilique Saint Hilaire, Poitiers (Vienne)

This photograph taken in the ambulatory shows the unique passageways on the sides of the chancel. From a photographic viewpoint, I love the welter of columns and arches in every direction and how the light varies from region to region.

Ambulatory, Basilique Saint Hilaire, Poitiers (Vienne) Photograph by Dennis Aubrey

PJ’s shot of the altar at Notre Dame de Nazareth in Vaison-la-Romaine is a beautifully balanced photograph, but I particularly love the way the chancel crossing looms in the darkness at the top. As happens so often, the lighting fixture is a distraction on the central column but there is nothing that can be done about that. The austere, undecorated stones of the building are shown to great advantage here.

Altar, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ Aubrey

This next shot of the altar at La Souterraine took me totally by surprise. What seems to be a simple, uncomplicated shot features a striking counterfocus in the internal elements. The diagonal line from the bible on the altar to the flowers to the stone font is trisected by the statue in the niche to the right. In addition, the shiny lightning bolt section of the floor in the foreground leads directly to both the font and the statue. This gives an unexpected sense of motion to the otherwise stable composition and is another example of PJ’s surprising eye for detail in composition.

Altar from side aisle, Église Notre Dame, La Souterraine (Creuse) Photo by PJ Aubrey

I am always a sucker for symmetry in these churches, and the photograph of the north side aisle at Coutances’ cathedral is a perfect illustration of that. This is just a simple shot but pleases me immeasurably, particularly the lighted central passage terminating at the stained glass window in the dark wall at the end.

North side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame, Coutances (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This next photograph of Saint Étienne in Blomac was astonishing to me – the composition, the color and the layering of detail give this great emotional resonance. PJ always talks about how these small churches hold the history of the communities. Every detail reaffirms that here – the flowers at the foot of Mary’s statue (supported by a wooden stump), the floor pattern, the rug at the altar, the metal table in the left foreground, and especially the collection of objects on the table next to the pillar. This is a shot that we both missed for years and then rediscovered.

Nave detail, Église Saint Étienne, Blomac (Aude) Photo by PJ Aubrey

This final shot was taken in 2007, our first year of photographing for Via Lucis. PJ has taken a split composition, usually a bad idea, and made it beautiful. The obvious charm is the vignette with the statue framed on the right side, with the candles in the photograph in perfect position as if lighting the scene. But the secondary framing is astonishing – both the left and right framing pillars are perfectly vertical, as we always try to accomplish with our tilt-shift lenses, but the interior pillars are all leaning. This is one of the graces of these old churches, how they settle over the years into compositions of their own.

Side chapel from aisle, Église Notre Dame, Cunault (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by PJ Aubrey

Our exhibition in Columbus is open for the rest of the year and we would love for readers who live in the area to come visit and let us know what you think. For those who are interested in the photographs but can’t attend, here is a link to the catalog.

McConnell Arts Center Catalog