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°

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.

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!