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.

Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada – Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm


It is documented that the Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada was built by abbot Alfonso and his refugee monks who fled Córdoba on the site of an earlier church dedicated to Archangel Michael, probably a Visigothic structure, in the span of twelve months in 913, the historical moment when the Kingdom of León was founded. It is located in Gradefes, about 30 km east of León, slightly off the camino francés to Santiago de Compostela. San Miguel de Escalada is one of the best-preserved examples of Mozarabic architecture, a style of architecture created by conquered Christian builders who stayed in the Iberian Peninsula after the Arab invasion of 711, and later by the builders who migrated north but carrying with them artistic traditions of the Mozarabic architecture from the southern regions. After the disentitlement of ecclesiastical properties in 1836 in Spain, the monks had to leave the monastery, but the structures were registered as national monuments later in the 19th century. The extant monastery consists of the restored 10th century Mozarabic church, a tower and the chapel of San Fructuoso built in the early Romanesque style.

Exterior, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada (Castile-León)

The first sight of the Mozarabic church that leaves a strong impression on a visitor is the 12-bay colonnade of horseshoe-shaped arches of the porch, or an outdoor narthex, which was added to the church around 940 on the south façade.

South facade, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The horseshoe-shaped arch is the most distinct design element of Mozarabic architecture. On closer examination, one will discern that the south façade was built in two phases: the western seven bays of the colonnade have alfiz embellishing the arches, while the eastern five bays are left without the additional stonework.

South facade bays, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The last three columns to the east are set on a lower ground, necessitating placement of dosseret over the capitals in order to align the springing level for the arches, even with the slightly taller columns.

South facade arch detail, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

All columns appear to have been recycled, possibly from the nearby Roman city of Lancia, although capitals are not of the Classical Corinthian design, but freely, albeit imaginatively carved by stonecutters for the Mozarabic structure.

The church is laid out as a basilica plan with the porch added to the south as mentioned earlier. The nave and the slightly narrower aisles are divided by five large horseshoe-shaped arches on columns. The choir at the crossing is defined by a choir screen, or an iconostacion, as a Spanish writer called it, built of three somewhat smaller arches than the nave. The rectangular spaces to the north and south of the choir, embryonic transepts, though not expressed on the exterior are distinguished by arches from the aisles. Three apses of horseshoe-shaped plan are carved into a thick mass of masonry at the east end of the structure, all endowed with horseshoe-shaped arches of their own and vaulted in stone.

Elevation and plan, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Courtesy of Wikimedia

The entrance to the church is located at the midpoint of the nave behind the colonnade at south, and there is another entrance to the south transept several steps up from the lower ground.

“The visitor finds himself in an austere but surprisingly sophisticated ensemble,” to quote Kenneth John Conant. “The architectural membering, the proportions, the scale, the management of space and light are all very fastidious.” The nave framed by arcades on both walls and the choir screen is dimly lit from small clerestory windows above. Both the north and south aisles are devoid of any windows, except the door. The nave possesses that immaterial character of a Byzantine space.

Nave, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view to west from the choir screen shows that the main entrance on the west wall of the church which is indicated on the plan had been walled off.

Nave looking west, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view of the corner pier where the nave arch and the outer arch of the screen are joined shows that the master builder treated the east-west direction of the nave as primary, then the outer arch of the choir screen was simply brought to the pier without an attached column as it was done for the nave arcades.

Nave detail, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

As the three arches forming the choir screen are smaller while retaining the same proportion of the larger arches, their tops are lower. The master builder obviously judged that the screen needed more wall plane above the arches to achieve the desired spatial definition for the choir. The roof trusses are left without a ceiling, and one can see the church space is a parallelogram.

Ceiling, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The chancel in the central apse has a simple slab of stone as the altar. The cornice above the chancel arch mirrors the cornice over the choir screen.

Apse, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The carving on the capital above the attached chancel column highlights the caliber of the stone cutters, although the imagery is not yet meant to tell a biblical parable as are the Romanesque capitals of a century later.

Chancel capital, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The high skills of stone cutters is very much in evidence again on a simple block of stone placed as a low partition between the choir and the south transept.

Carved partition, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Another example is this capital on one of the columns supporting a horseshoe-shaped arch.

Location: 42.560000° -5.314722°

For more information about our guest writer, Jong-Soung Kimm, please see this link.

The Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe – Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kim


Readers of Via Lucis would remember that the Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe was featured in an article by Dennis some years ago. Whereas The focus of that blog was on the 11th and 12th century fresco painting on the church nave ceiling, the present article is intended to illustrate the unusual vaulting technique used in the abbey church.

As the founding charter of the Abbey of Notre-Dame of Saint-Savin was lost during the French wars of religion in the 16th century, the precise year of founding is unclear, but it is known that a cleric in Charlemagne’s court came upon the relics of the 5th century brothers Savin and Cyprien who fled their homeland in Macedonia to avoid persecution, but were martyred near the present town of Saint-Savin by the Gartempe river, and a Benedictine abbey was founded in their honor in the early decades of the 9th century with the blessing of Charlemagne. The abbey extant today was established in 1010 when Aumode, Countess of Poitou and Aquitaine, made a sizable donation for building the abbey. Bishops Odon II and Gervais undertook the building campaign for the abbey church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe between 1040 and 1090. The large block of convent to the south of the abbey church was built in the 13th century through donation from Count Alphonse of Poitiers, brother of St. Louis.

The abbey church of Saint-Savin is based on a Latin cross plan. It consists, from west to east, of a square narthex with a finely proportioned spire above; three bays of nave with half-round transverse arches and barrel-vault supported by compound piers; six bays also with barrel-vault, but without transverse arches; a square crossing with a crossing tower above; transepts to north and south; a deep choir/chancel with 2-meter wide ambulatory and five radiating chapels.

Ground plan, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne)

The nine bays of the nave measure 42 meters long, 6 meters wide, and 18 meters high at the zenith of the barrel vault. The surface of the nave vaulting measures 412 m2. The nave floor is slightly raised to east, creating an impression of the choir being elevated even higher than the level difference when seen from the west. The transepts and the choir were the first to be built, then the western three bays of the nave, finally the eastern six bays of the nave over the foundation of the Carolingian abbey. It was eventually completed in the 12th century in the general state seen today. The axis of the church is slightly deflected at the compound piers where the western three bays are joined to the six bays without the transverse arches.

In comparison with one of the “classic” Romanesque churches such as Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in Vézelay, it is immediately apparent that the space of Saint-Savin is organized with more Roman architectural elements. The 15-meter high sturdy cylindrical nave columns support semi-circular arches running length-wise in the east-west direction. Over the procession of these six semi-cylindrical arches, a continuous barrel vault is built for the nave. The unusual vaulting of the nave at Saint-Savin seamlessly transforms itself as a wedge of the groin-vault for each bay of aisles to the north and south. The aisles, about 5.5 meters wide, are almost as high as the nave, making Saint-Savin one of several hall churches constructed in the southwestern region of France. The nave is thus lighted not from clerestory windows, but from tall windows on the exterior walls of aisles. The barrel vault surface receives an adequate illumination for the justly famous fresco painting. Another unusual aspect of Saint Savin, a characteristic of the Poitevine Romanesque architecture, is that masonry surfaces are stuccoed and decorated with faux marbre in pale rose and pastel tone.

The Church

The convent block to the south and the abbey ensemble to the north greet visitors when approaching from the northeast across the Gartempe river. The five radiating chapels as well as the chapel on the north transept create a dynamic and sculptural massing.

Ensemble view from northeast, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The south façade of St.-Savin-sur-Gartempe abbey church shows the finely proportioned spire at the west built between the end of the 14th and the dawn of 15th centuries in the High Gothic style.

South facade, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view of the nave toward the choir shows 15-meter-high columns supporting half round arches in the east-west direction. A continuous barrel vault rests over the longitudinal seats for the nave.

Nave, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The axial view of the choir. The sturdy columns and capitals have the Classical proportion of the Corinthian order, but with carvings of imaginary animals and vegetation.

Axial view of choir, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view of the north aisle toward east. The use of faux marbre technique on the masonry is an important characteristic of the Poitevine Romanesque architecture.

North side aisle, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view from south aisle toward northeast shows generous windows on the exterior walls of a hall church, as opposed to the clerestory windows of a high nave-low aisle configuration, providing ample light for the vault fresco. The half round arches running length-wise facing the nave, transform themselves to a series of “pies” of the groin vaults of aisles.

South side aisle, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The axial view of the nave to west. The six nave bays to the east have continuous barrel vault resting on longitudinal seats without transverse arches defining each bay. The nave floor is a few steps below the narthex and the plaza outside.

Axial view of nave facing west, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The western three bays of the nave are framed by half round transverse arches resting on substantial compound piers. A tall tribune space over the narthex has a generous opening looking out to the nave.

Western bay, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View of the nave looking up toward the choir shows where the axis is slightly deflected at the intersection of the easternmost transverse arch and the continuous barrel vault.

View of nave looking up, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View of the fresco painting in the barrel vault of the eastern six bays of the nave (link to Dennis blog).

Nave vault, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view looking up to the crossing highlights the sturdy and impressive cross-shaped piers at the corners.

Crossing, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View of the central chapel on the axis of the chevet.

Central chapel, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

While the most important object for the high artistic esteem accorded to Saint-Savin is the fresco painting on the nave vaulting affectionately nick-named “Romanesque Sistine Chapel,” Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe is an important monument in the development of Romanesque architecture. It was inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage register in 1983.

Location: 46.566944, 0.864444

I would like to particularly thank Jong-Soung Kimm for the post. First of all, it is direly needed by the Via Lucis blog in my absence. Second, I grew up just up the road from Saint Savin in the town of Chauvigny, often written about in these pages. The Abbatiale Saint Savin in those days was dingy, underlit, and unloved by all except the locals and lovers of the Romanesque. It has now been beautifully restored and it is such a delight to see a study like this published here.

Come See Us at the Lancaster City ArtWalk (Dennis Aubrey)


Our “Painted Romanesque” exhibition will be on display at the Lancaster City ArtWalk next week. The ArtWalk is organized by Destination Downtown Lancaster as part of the Lancaster Festival, the city’s ten-day celebration of the arts (July 18-July 28). ArtWalk provides visual artists with a platform to share their talents and gifts to enrich the lives of the community members. Artists are chosen by a jury to display their artwork in Downtown Lancaster businesses from July 20-July 28.

This annual ArtWalk attracts an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 visitors each year. More than forty artists show and sell their work in numerous downtown venues while the closed city streets host a beer garden, music, and food trucks.

Our set of eight images will be at Art & Clay On Main at 150 W Main St, Lancaster, OH 43130 on Friday, July 20 from 6-10pm. PJ and I will be there speaking about our photography during that time.

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

We will also participate in the Artist’s Reception on Thursday, July 19 from 5-7pm at the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio at 145 E Main St, Lancaster, OH 43130. Again, members of the Via Lucis community are welcome to come to either event. Our lives have been so enriched by meeting many of you in the past and we hope to do so in this next month.

A Columbus, Ohio Exhibition (Dennis Aubrey)


We are very pleased to announce an upcoming exhibition at the McConnell Art Center in the Columbus suburb of Worthington. We will be featuring thirty-six photographs of Romanesque churches in an exhibition called “Light and Stone” from October 18, 2018 to January 6, 2019. In addition, there will be a reception at the gallery on October 19 from 6-8 pm.

McDonnell Art Center, Worthington (Ohio)

The McConnell Art Center (MAC) is a contemporary, multidisciplinary facility presenting and promoting the performing, visual and digital arts. The 20,000 square foot building features a 213 seat theatre, an exhibition gallery, four classrooms, a digital imaging studio, a dance studio and rotating exhibitions sprinkled throughout the facility.

The address for the exhibition is:

McConnell Art Center
777 Evening Street
Columbus, OH 43085

Our current exposition at the Marian Library at the University of Dayton ends on July 27, so this Columbus show will be the next time we have the opportunity to show our work in a solo show. We hope to see anyone from the Via Lucis community who happens to be in this area, especially for the reception. We extend an open invitation to you all.

Memories (Dennis Aubrey)


Recognizing truth is a matter of experience because it involves distinguishing the real from the illusory. Experience itself is a product of memory. And memory is even more complex than truth. And so the pattern gets more multi-faceted the deeper we look, like one of Mandlebrot’s mathematical phantasms. What appears at first simple becomes infinitely complicated and intricate.

Side aisle, Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

Some memories we remember as dreams, in the present tense; others as historical phenomena that stay safely in the past. Some memories carry their meaning with them. Others mean something because of their relationship with something that occurred in the past. Others depend on the future to reveal their significance. This is the web that is woven back and forth, across and through time.

North side aisle, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Some memories lie dormant until something conjures them up. When my brother David and I were 11 and 12, our family moved back to France from the United States. We had lived in France before and as small boys we spoke the language fluently, but had been in America for the past six years and forgotten all we knew. For the first week or so after our return, we lay in bed in our hotel room at night before going to sleep, counting the French words we had newly learned. One day we might know twenty or thirty, the next day perhaps a dozen or so more. Then one warm summer afternoon we went for a walk in the countryside and passed through a small farming village. While walking along the road we smelled the very particular and very familiar smell of a French farm village. It was so clear to us that we knew that smell from our past. We remarked on it and left the significance behind. That night as we lay in bed, we tried to count the French words we knew, but couldn’t. Words and phrases flooded back to us and we couldn’t keep up with them. That smell of the farms unlocked the memories, and a language associated with those memories.

Side aisle of Notre Dame de Mont-Devant-Sassey (Haute-Marne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

There are certain things that are done to consciously preserve memories, to fix moments in time so that they will never be forgotten. We take pictures, write descriptions and letters, film with a camcorder, and still it is not possible to retain a memory in its entirety. Most of the time, parts are remembered and then the detail is filled in with ideas, interpretations, and transitions that have no relationship to the original. And then other times something happens in a moment that is unforgettable and complete, and as long as there is a portion of that singular memory, the entire memory will be complete. Once, in Los Angeles I was a driving on the streets. I slowed at a corner to make a right turn in heavy traffic. As I did, my eyes momentarily locked with those of a young 20 year old Latino standing on the corner. In the moment of our eyes locking was all the pride of millennia of human breeding; male challenge, virile and powerful, born to rule. As I continued around the corner his girlfriend came into view. We, too, locked eyes, but hers were bruised, swollen and battered. And the look in her eyes was that of utter despair and hopelessness, doomed somehow to be ruled. These two seconds are forever part of my being.

View from crossing, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise) Photo by PJ Aubrey

My very first memory is like a black and white snapshot, clear and crisp, but in trying to understand it I fill in blanks for things I didn’t know at the age of 15 months when it happened. It is hard to keep the memory pure. Sitting on a lawn on a summer day by myself. It was not our home; we were visiting. On chairs across what seemed to be an enormous lawn were the adults, perhaps five or six, talking and watching me. My mother was in a sundress, I think. Behind them stood a house with a high front porch where the adults were sitting. In my memory, my parents seemed an immense distance away; it seemed that I had never been so far from them. Attached to the visual memory is a sensation of freedom, of being unfettered. All I did with the freedom, most likely, was to eat rolly-polly bugs and other nonsense I picked up around me, but the feeling is there half a century later.

Basilique Saint Hilaire, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

Most of my memories are visual, but some have multi-sensory character, like that of my Aunt Dell descending on us when we were children. She came in a wave of perfume, bright red kewpie doll lips, and thick pancake make up. When she lit on our face, we were dusted with dry powder and left with a big red smear of lipstick on her chosen target, usually a conspicuous cheek or forehead. And afterwards, a dry, not-unpleasant perfume lingered for hours. When I think of Dell I remember the red lips, the dusting with powder and the smell of perfume.

North Side Aisle, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But few memories are this complete. Most are like the medieval restorations of the 19th century French architect Viollet-le-Duc. He looked at the vestigial forms, the ruins of chateaux and churches, and tried to extrapolate them back to their original construction. In the end, these restorations became more and more the evocation of an imaginary Gothic age guided by his imaginative intelligence. They became fantasies on a medieval theme, until like some, like Pierrefonds, were no more real than the Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyland. In our human memory, we construct upon the framework of the conscious image and try to fill in the details. But if we are not careful, the details overwhelm the original memory, distort it, and in some cases replace the original with a reconstruction. And like a Viollet-le-Duc restoration, the original is subsumed by the fantasy.

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.