Our Dayton Opening (Dennis Aubrey)


Via Lucis has been very quiet lately, but it is not because nothing is happening. We are preparing a post on our recent trip to photograph Savannah’s Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist and working on our exhibition at the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton, which opens next week!

The exhibition of photos of Black Madonnas and Throne of Wisdom Madonnas takes place from June 25 to July 27 at the Marian Library. The Marian Library Gallery is on the seventh floor of Roesch Library at 300 College Park Drive, Dayton, Ohio 45469 and it is open from 8:30am to 4:30pm on Monday through Friday.

We will host a small reception on Wednesday, July 11 at 3:30pm. PJ and I would love to meet any members of the Via Lucis community who are in the region. If you are interested in coming, please email us and we will get you the information on the reception.

On an additional note, we have an upcoming show at the Lancaster Art Walk here in Lancaster, Ohio. We will be at 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. Our “Painted Romanesque” exhibition will be on display at Art & Clay On Main at 150 W Main St, Lancaster, OH 43130 on Friday, July 20 from 6-9pm. 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.

PJ at the exhibit of photos, July 2018

On the technical side, our prints for the Dayton exhibition were provided by Miller’s Professional Imaging in Columbia, Missouri. After an exhaustive national search for vendors and extensive proofing with Miller’s, we selected them. Their work is superb and they have the best customer service I have seen in years.

Our framing was done locally by The Frame Shop here in Lancaster. Cindy and Steve Smith have done many art works for us and when we asked for a bid on the exhibition, they matched the online prices and provided real wood frames instead of composite frames. First rate works from friendly local neighbors – we couldn’t ask for more.

If you are interested in ordering the exhibition catalog, please follow this link.

The Saint and the Simpleton (Dennis Aubrey)


There are so many wonderful stories and legends associated with the churches we photograph in France, but none is more pleasing than that of Saint Menulphe and his friend, the Simpleton of Mailly-sur-Rose, a town in the Allier.

Statue of Saint Menoux, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Statue of Saint Menoux, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Menulphe was the son of an Irish king and very devout. He traveled to England, Brittany and France and was recognized for his sanctity. When the Pope heard of this and asked him to come to Rome, Menulphe walked the route in poverty, a mendicant with no possessions. On his return, he stopped in Mailly-sur-Rose, exhausted with his journey. During that time, Menulphe took pity on an innocent named Blaise who was the scapegoat for local children. One day he intervened as the young urchins threw stones at Blaise. He chided the boys and took the young man under his protection. Blaise was described as a simpleton, one who could barely speak, and never left Menulphe’s side. He couldn’t pronounce his protector’s name and “Menulfe” became “Menoux”.

When Menoux died, Blaise thought that the holy man was asleep. He spent his days and nights at the grave, conversing with his friend. One day visitors to the cemetery saw that the coffin had been dug up and that there was a hole in the side. They discovered Blaise laying on his stomach, with his head in the hole, talking to someone. The local people were scandalized but the curé said, “Poor Blaise, he is a better and more faithful friend than we are. Perhaps he is the least crazy of all.”

The Curé placed Menoux’s remains in a sandstone sarcophagus and had an opening cut into one side. Blaise spent the rest of his life conversing with his friend, and miraculously, the troubles of his mind faded to the point that he was able to serve mass. At the time of his death, Blaise had the reputation of being a simple, faithful man, as sensible as anyone.

La Débredinoire, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

La Débredinoire, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Thereafter, in memory of the miraculous healing of Blaise, parents led the bredins, the simple-minded, before the tomb of Menoux and placed their heads carefully into the sarcophagus – the débredinoire – hoping for the same healing that Blaise experienced. Eventually the site received such a number of pilgrims that the Benedictines built an abbey on the site under the direction of the Abbess Adalgasie and placed the sarcophagus with Menoux’s relics in the choir. They also changed the name of the village from Mailly-sur-Rose to Saint Menoux. The fairs held by the abbesses attracted vendors and buyers which led to the expansion of the village.

The church gives an idea of the importance of this abbey and the monastics who resided there. It was built in the classic Cluny style in the early part of the twelfth century. The nave has three tall, narrow bays with ogive arches covered with groin vaults.

Nave facing west, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave facing west, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The side aisles are, as usual, visually stunning. We see the long, uninterrupted flow to the ambulatory in the distance.

South side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

South side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The north side aisle, however, has a unique feature. Just to the west of the transept arch is a rather clumsily executed structure that contains a stairway leading to a defensive tower on the exterior. Poking up through the roof, that tower looks almost like a minaret.

North side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

North side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The raised apse is perhaps the finest element of the church. The choir has two elegant high bays topped with clerestory windows while the chancel features a seven bay hemicycle with an arcade of windows leading to the oven vault.

Apse, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The débredinoire of Saint Menoux is found centered behind the altar in the chancel. These reliquaries have been placed between the pillars of the central hemicycle arch and the tomb can be seen just behind.

Reliquaries, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Reliquaries, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The oldest part of the church, built in the eleventh century, is the narthex on the west end of the church. This antechamber has beautiful arcades supporting a short barrel vault. Some of the pillars are topped with capitals, but it is clear that the restoration was not complete. Fragments of some of the original statuary are rather casually displayed in the arcades.

Narthex, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Narthex, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Today, the abbey is gone – only the church remains after the destruction of the French Revolution. The town of Saint Menoux is quiet and peaceful for its 1,009 residents. The church is not well tended; there are rat droppings and cobwebs throughout. Dust cakes the benches and the chairs, but pilgrims still frequent the Église Saint Menoux in order to use the débredinoire for relief from feeble-mindedness or headaches.

Lest we think that credulous in the Middle Ages were alone in these workings, look at this passage in “The Invisible Architecture” by George Prat (2000).

“For more than forty years I made fun of the débredinoire which I considered an example of public credulity … My surprise was great to see that the débredinoire works and is not a gimmick. The débredinoire is placed at the geometric center of the apse …. and is located at the junction point of the telluric current and four streams of water. … When one realizes that this is a machine from another age and can be activated by an ‘acupuncture point’ located nearby, we are amazed at the electrical energy released … The débredinoire is actually an instrument of care-giving; when used correctly, the equivalent a high intensity shock is given to the user. This is certainly very effective in the case of some nervous breakdowns.” People will always find a reason to believe if the need is great enough.

Demon Capital, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Demon Capital, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Our daughter Sarah suffers from debilitating migraines and PJ placed her own head in the sarcophagus in hopes of helping. I guess it doesn’t hurt to try! But you must be careful not to touch the tomb while inserting your head. You run the risk of absorbing the feeble-mindedness and headaches of all who preceded you!

If you are interested in seeing some other churches in this region, follow this link.

Location: 46.585211° 3.156842°

Color and Saint Austremoine (PJ McKey)


Every time we visit Saint Astremoine in Issoire, I cannot help but think of the impression it must of made in times less cluttered by man-made visual stimuli. This year during our visit I found myself in the south side of the ambulatory transfixed by the riot of patterns and color. I always try to capture what I’m experiencing but inevitably fall short. The camera can’t capture my emotional response to certain colors, to being surrounded in this place.

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

Saint Austremoine is joyous. The colors sing and there is nothing somber or fearful. This is a church that can only be experienced.

Ambulatory, Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy de Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

A trip into the crypt really felt like a descent into harder times. It evokes the seriousness of a martyr’s death and the burden of man striving for the light.

Crypt, Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy de Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

It was pure relief to go ascend into the church and emerge once again in the land of the living color.

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

If you are interested in a previous post on this church, follow this link.

Location: 45.543522° 3.250213°

The Gods Speak Still (Dennis Aubrey)


“I believe that this great peaceful region of France will be a sacred spot for man, and when the critics have killed off the poets this will be the refuge and the cradle of poets to come. France will someday exist no more but the Dordogne will live on just as dreams live on and nourish the souls of men.” (Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi)

My favorite place in the world is just off the Dordogne near the town of Lacave, about ten miles from the great pilgrimage site of Rocamador, but that is another story. Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne is a beautiful quiet town at the edge of the Lot and the Corrèze that features an almost intact medieval center dominated by the Église Saint Pierre. This church has one of the great tympana in France and features a Vierge Romane which some consider a Black Madonna. How a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture, with such a Madonna and the magnificent carving of the tympanum, survived the tumult of the Hundred Years’ War, the Wars of Religion, and the French Revolution is beyond my understanding.

Side aisle of Église Abbatiale Saint-Pierre, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne  (Corrèze)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle of Église Abbatiale Saint-Pierre, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne (Corrèze) Photo by PJ McKey

One day when PJ and I were photographing here, this side chapel in the church was peaceful and quiet, filled with soft colors and dark corners. I was preparing to photograph across the choir when suddenly the sun broke through and flooded the chapel with a bright light from stained glass. Everything was transformed in that instant. It was the kind of a moment that, had I been on my knees praying desperately for help, I would have known that God himself had vouchsafed my relief. As it was, it was a gift, just a short moment, solely for me.

Reliquary, Église Abbatiale Saint-Pierre, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne (Corrèze)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Reliquary, Église Abbatiale Saint-Pierre, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I once had a moment like this on Cape Cod. The morning had a hard gray, overcast sky as I drove by the osprey nest near the entrance to the island where I live. As I passed, the male osprey opened his wings, lifted off the nest, and glided a hundred yards to a dead tree on the wetlands. At the exact moment that he settled facing me on a bare branch with wings spread fully out, the sun broke through the clouds and morning light beams of pure brilliant gold streamed around him. Something surged within me and I felt that this must signify something. A million people might have remarked at the sudden appearance of the sunlight, but only I saw this noble bird burnished in gold.

Reliquary Notre Dame de Beaulieu, Église Abbatiale Saint-Pierre, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne (Corrèze)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Reliquary Notre Dame de Beaulieu, Église Abbatiale Saint-Pierre, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

For so many millennia, this was how the gods talked to us, to mankind. Perhaps they still do. Perhaps we just don’t know how to listen anymore.

And perhaps a thunderous din prevents us from hearing. We have forgotten that truth is not screamed from the podium or the pulpit, but is discovered in quiet corners, like these, lit by candles. The very meaning of truth is debased by those who use it for their own ends. There should be a special corner in Dante’s Hell for them, where they scream eternally for mercy in a world filled with the deaf.

The Saint and the Simpleton (Dennis Aubrey)


There are so many wonderful stories and legends associated with the churches we photograph in France, but none is more pleasing than that of Saint Menulphe and his friend, the Simpleton of Mailly-sur-Rose, a town in the Allier.

Statue of Saint Menoux, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Statue of Saint Menoux, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Menulphe was the son of an Irish king and very devout. He traveled to England, Brittany and France and was recognized for his sanctity. When the Pope heard of this and asked him to come to Rome, Menulphe walked the route in poverty, a mendicant with no possessions. On his return, he stopped in Mailly-sur-Rose, exhausted with his journey. During that time, Menulphe took pity on an innocent named Blaise who was the scapegoat for local children. One day he intervened as the young urchins threw stones at Blaise. He chided the boys and took the young man under his protection. Blaise was described as a simpleton, one who could barely speak, and never left Menulphe’s side. He couldn’t pronounce his protector’s name and “Menulfe” became “Menoux”.

When Menoux died, Blaise thought that the holy man was asleep. He spent his days and nights at the grave, conversing with his friend. One day visitors to the cemetery saw that the coffin had been dug up and that there was a hole in the side. They discovered Blaise laying on his stomach, with his head in the hole, talking to someone. The local people were scandalized but the curé said, “Poor Blaise, he is a better and more faithful friend than we are. Perhaps he is the least crazy of all.”

The Curé placed Menoux’s remains in a sandstone sarcophagus and had an opening cut into one side. Blaise spent the rest of his life conversing with his friend, and miraculously, the troubles of his mind faded to the point that he was able to serve mass. At the time of his death, Blaise had the reputation of being a simple, faithful man, as sensible as anyone.

La Débredinoire, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

La Débredinoire, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Thereafter, in memory of the miraculous healing of Blaise, parents led the bredins, the simple-minded, before the tomb of Menoux and placed their heads carefully into the sarcophagus – the débredinoire – hoping for the same healing that Blaise experienced. Eventually the site received such a number of pilgrims that the Benedictines built an abbey on the site under the direction of the Abbess Adalgasie and placed the sarcophagus with Menoux’s relics in the choir. They also changed the name of the village from Mailly-sur-Rose to Saint Menoux. The fairs held by the abbesses attracted vendors and buyers which led to the expansion of the village.

The church gives an idea of the importance of this abbey and the monastics who resided there. It was built in the classic Cluny style in the early part of the twelfth century. The nave has three tall, narrow bays with ogive arches covered with groin vaults.

Nave facing west, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave facing west, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The side aisles are, as usual, visually stunning. We see the long, uninterrupted flow to the ambulatory in the distance.

South side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

South side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The north side aisle, however, has a unique feature. Just to the west of the transept arch is a rather clumsily executed structure that contains a stairway leading to a defensive tower on the exterior. Poking up through the roof, that tower looks almost like a minaret.

North side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

North side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The raised apse is perhaps the finest element of the church. The choir has two elegant high bays topped with clerestory windows while the chancel features a seven bay hemicycle with an arcade of windows leading to the oven vault.

Apse, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The débredinoire of Saint Menoux is found centered behind the altar in the chancel. These reliquaries have been placed between the pillars of the central hemicycle arch and the tomb can be seen just behind.

Reliquaries, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Reliquaries, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The oldest part of the church, built in the eleventh century, is the narthex on the west end of the church. This antechamber has beautiful arcades supporting a short barrel vault. Some of the pillars are topped with capitals, but it is clear that the restoration was not complete. Fragments of some of the original statuary are rather casually displayed in the arcades.

Narthex, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Narthex, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Today, the abbey is gone – only the church remains after the destruction of the French Revolution. The town of Saint Menoux is quiet and peaceful for its 1,009 residents. The church is not well tended; there are rat droppings and cobwebs throughout. Dust cakes the benches and the chairs, but pilgrims still frequent the Église Saint Menoux in order to use the débredinoire for relief from feeble-mindedness or headaches.

Lest we think that credulous in the Middle Ages were alone in these workings, look at this passage in “The Invisible Architecture” by George Prat (2000).

“For more than forty years I made fun of the débredinoire which I considered an example of public credulity … My surprise was great to see that the débredinoire works and is not a gimmick. The débredinoire is placed at the geometric center of the apse …. and is located at the junction point of the telluric current and four streams of water. … When one realizes that this is a machine from another age and can be activated by an ‘acupuncture point’ located nearby, we are amazed at the electrical energy released … The débredinoire is actually an instrument of care-giving; when used correctly, the equivalent a high intensity shock is given to the user. This is certainly very effective in the case of some nervous breakdowns.” People will always find a reason to believe if the need is great enough.

Demon Capital, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Demon Capital, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Our daughter Sarah suffers from debilitating migraines and PJ placed her own head in the sarcophagus in hopes of helping. I guess it doesn’t hurt to try! But you must be careful not to touch the tomb while inserting your head. You run the risk of absorbing the feeble-mindedness and headaches of all who preceded you!

If you are interested in seeing some other churches in this region, follow this link.

Location: 46.585211° 3.156842°

Avallon’s Pudding Church (Dennis Aubrey)


The Cousin River in the department of the Yonne rises in the lake district of the Morvan National Park about 3 miles southwest of the medieval town of Saulieu. It wends its way about 45 kilometers as the crow flies to the town of Sermizelles where it joins with the Cure. One of its most picturesque reaches is the shaded Vallée du Cousin between Pontaubert and Avallon. This three-mile stretch of the river is home to hikers, fishermen, and families on picnics. The dominant sounds are the rustling of leaves and the murmurings of the river. The Vallée ends below a rocky outcropping topped by the town of Avallon, ten miles from Vézelay.

As might be expected from its dominating position, there have been churches in this town since at least the fourth century. There is evidence that there was a pre-Carolingian structure and in 846 a new church dedicated to Our Lady was founded by Girart de Roussillon, the founder of the original convent at Saint-Père-sous-Vézelay.

In the heart of the old city, surrounded by walls and towers, is the Collégiale Saint Lazare. PJ referred to this church as a “pudding”, which confused me completely. She said it was like a puddingstone, a rock conglomerate of different pebbles and sand that is common in Massachusetts. She couldn’t have been more right – Saint Lazare is one of the most eccentric mélanges we have seen. The choir is 2.5 meters below the portal and requires 17 steps for the descent. The west facade is not perpendicular to the axis of the nave, but at an extreme angle. There are no transepts but there is a double chapel for the canons on the south side of the apse. The south side aisle is significantly wider than the north. In addition, attached to the south wall of the church is the Chapelle Saint-Pierre d’Avallon, built in the 15th century on the site of another older church. It served as the parish church during the revolution but now is an exhibition hall.

Plan de l'église Saint-Lazare d'Avallon, "Description des villes et campagnes du département de l'Yonne" (1870) Victor Petit

Plan de l’église Saint-Lazare d’Avallon, “Description des villes et campagnes du département de l’Yonne” (1870) Victor Petit

The church is a Collégiale, or collegiate church, home to a group of non-monastic clerics who lived together communally and served an extended territory. Sometime after the year 1000, Henry I, Duke of Burgundy, donated a relic of Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Christ, to the Collégiale. This gift was to change the fortunes of the community.

Construction of the current structure began in 1080, and the Collégiale was consecrated in 1106 by Pope Paschal. Because of the important relics of Lazarus, the church was renamed Saint Lazare. It was during this time that the pilgrims on to way to Santiago de Compostela began to visit the relic, a piece of his skull that was reputed to fend off leprosy. The pilgrimage was an easy detour because Avallon is only ten miles from the famed Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay. The community adopted the Benedictine rule and became part of the Cluniac order and under its direction expanded the church to accommodate the throngs of pilgrims.

Under the Cluniac rule, the church underwent significant expansion. Part of that modification was the construction of the famed western facade, which comprises two elaborately sculpted portals. The one on the left is the original central portal which has lost its tympanum. The north portal was destroyed in a storm in 1633 when the great tower collapsed, but the south portal is almost complete.

West facade, Collégiale Saint Lazare, Avallon (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West facade, Collégiale Saint Lazare, Avallon (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The door was bricked up in the 17th century but the sculpture on the lintel, archivolts, and tympanum still preserves much of its deep-carved detail. Most of the damage done to this ensemble was done in the Wars of Revolution and the French Revolution. The wonderful twisted columns are a special bonus.

We have visited here many times and always find the massive doors wide open. The nave drops down in three levels to the apse giving the church a theatrical aspect.

Nave, Collégiale Saint Lazare, Avallon (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Collégiale Saint Lazare, Avallon (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The pillars are cruciform with four engaged columns topped with floral capitals. The capitals of the nave and choir show a varied plant decoration of vines, acanthus leaves, arum fruit, and flowers.

Nave detail, Collégiale Saint Lazare, Avallon (Yonne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave detail, Collégiale Saint Lazare, Avallon (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

The apse consists of four central arches of double columns and capitals, with the oven vault characteristic of the Cluny school. The stained glass windows and the frescoes of the vault, the trompe l’oeil, are 19th century. Under the chancel is an ancient crypt, now ruined, walled and inaccessible. Several construction periods have been identified, the oldest dating back to the first building from the 4th century, another of the date of Girart’s structure. The relics of St. Lazarus were kept in this crypt since the 11th century.

Apse, Collégiale Saint Lazare, Avallon (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Collégiale Saint Lazare, Avallon (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The aisles lead directly down to side chapels in echelon on each side of the apse.

Side aisle and chapel, Collegiale Saint Lazare, Avallon (Yonne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle and chapel, Collegiale Saint Lazare, Avallon (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

This shot of the same aisle shows very clearly the difference in elevation from the choir to the western facade.

North side aisle, Collégiale Saint Lazare, Avallon (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

North side aisle, Collégiale Saint Lazare, Avallon (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In this shot, we see the great doors to the west of the church, surmounted by an elaborately decorated organ stall above the open narthex. This richly carved wood platform supports 19th century pipe organ built by Paul Chazelle from the nearby town of Cruzy-le-Châtel.

West bay and door, Collégiale Saint Lazare, Avallon (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

West bay and door, Collégiale Saint Lazare, Avallon (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

An interesting sidelight is that there is a second Romanesque church in Avallon, the Église Saint-Martin-du-Bourg. Set off the main road going to the Autoroute, it is now a private domicile. PJ and I have wandered all through this, courtesy of our friends, the Schori’s of the Hotel Crispol, our home in the Vézelay. Paule, the proprietress of the hotel, has become a good friend and it was through her good offices that we first met Angelico Surchamp. It turns out that Paule’s son-in-law bought the church and is converting it into residences. PJ and I looked at one on the second floor that had the tops of the nave arcade pillars with their capitals embedded in the walls.

Église Saint Martin-du-Bourg, Avallon (Yonne), Photo cc Fanny Schertzer (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5)

Église Saint Martin-du-Bourg, Avallon (Yonne), Photo cc Fanny Schertzer (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5)

We are both very fond of Avallon and consider it our local market town. When we are desperate for Wifi, we head to the McDonalds (the only one in the entire region) where we can get a good cup of espresso and use the internet to our heart’s content. We look forward to the return and our next visit to the Collégiale Saint Lazare.

Location: 47.486173° 3.907699°

Auxerre’s jewels (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I love the town of Auxerre for many reasons. It is the closest thing to a city to our beloved Vézelay, it has a lovely medieval center and is the home to our favorite soccer team, AJ Auxerre, brought to prominence by the iconic Guy Roux. It was amazing that a town of 40,000 could support a Ligue 1 team; it is like Tupelo, Mississippi with an NFL franchise. We always try to work our schedule so that we can see the team play. Last year was disastrous and Icaunais were relegated from the top French league to Ligue 2 for the first time in 35 years. It was a heavy blow.

Guy Roux, AJ Auxerre

Guy Roux, AJ Auxerre

Auxerre is typical of medieval French towns – sited on a hill over a river crowned with churches. On the hill to the right is the Abbey of Saint-Germain d’Auxerre. On the left, surviving the damages of the Hundred Years War, a sacking by Protestants in the Wars of Religion, and the humiliations of the French Revolution, the Cathédrale Saint Etienne still stands proudly atop the hill overlooking the Yonne River.

Auxerre from across the Yonne, Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Auxerre from across the Yonne, Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Auxerre was an important episcopal site in the Middle Ages, and renowned for learning and the sanctity of its bishops. Of the thirty-seven bishops between the years 330-1030, twenty-four became saints of the Church. No other church of France glories in a similar list of bishops honored as saints. The cathedral is the fifth Christian structure on this site – the first was outgrown and replaced, two were destroyed by fire, and then a Romanesque cathedral consecrated in 1057. In 1215 the bishop William Seignelay demolished the Romanesque church and built the present Gothic structure, named after Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr. William started the construction at his own personal expense and the cathedral was substantially completed in only thirty years.

Saint Etienne was recognized early by the Patrimoine de France and classified as a historical monument in 1840. There have been some programs of restoration over the years, but the cathedral looks today as it did in this photograph from 1851. Saint Etienne was never completed and the south tower is built only up on the first two levels. It gives the exterior a strange, incomplete look.

Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne)  Photographe : Baldus, Edouard-Denis, 1851

Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photographe : Baldus, Edouard-Denis, 1851

The sculpture and the stained glass windows (including forty from the school of Chartres in the choir) that fill the cathedral are remarkable, as is the interior architecture. As might be expected from a church that was built in so short a time, the architecture is altogether of a complete, harmonious design. The interior is majestic, almost austere.

The nave is composed of five bays, but there is an interesting fact about this. The Gothic church was constructed in an unusual way. The eastern apse and the western portal were constructed at the same time, connected by the Romanesque nave. Only when the two extreme elements were completed were the remaining four connecting bays of the nave rebuilt.

Nave, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

That nave is 12 meters wide and 30 meters high. The elevation features a main arcade to the side aisles, a blind triforium and massive clerestory windows. We can also see the well-proportioned columns, which feature a central column with engaged shafts to support the various elements of the nave arcade and vaulting.

Nave from the choir,  Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave from the choir, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

The roof of the nave rises 30 meters above the floor and terminates in a quadripartite rib vault. The original design was for sexpartite vaulting but this changed once the nave construction began.

Quadripartite vault, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Quadripartite vault, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The elegant side aisles are 13 meters high and feature a vista past the spacious, well-lit transepts into the curve of the ambulatory. Each bay of the side aisle features a chapel.

North side aisle, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

North side aisle, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The double-bay transepts are deep and each features a superb rose window. In the picture below, the closest bay is actually the entrance to the ambulatory.

North transept, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

North transept, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

The apse features a seven segment hemicycle leading to the ambulatory beyond. It is from this vantage point that we can best appreciate the stained glass windows from the Chartres school.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is one remaining vestige of the Romanesque cathedral, the crypt. The crypt has a set of superb murals including a rare figure of Christ astride a white horse, called the Christ of the Apocalypse. (CORRECTION: THIS MURAL IS IN THE CRYPT AT THE ABBAYE SAINT GERMAIN IN AUXERRE. THANKS TO JAN ROGOZINSKI FOR THE INFORMATION).

Christ of the Apocalypse, Abbaye Saint Germain, Auxerre (Yonne)  Photo from Diocese website unattributed

Christ of the Apocalypse, Abbaye Saint Germain, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo from Diocese website unattributed

Because the Gothic cathedral was built on the footprint of that crypt, the apse has an unusual feature – there is only a single radiating chapel at the back of the ambulatory, corresponding to the chapel in the crypt below.

Apsidal chapel, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apsidal chapel, Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

When PJ and I did our talk at Harvard in March, we attended a dinner at the home of the French consul in Cambridge. During that dinner, PJ had a conversation with a distinguished academic and the subject of Auxerre came up. He belittled the town as a backwater with a “bunch of empty churches.” We both bridled at this patronizing attitude. It brought to mind the verse of the Burgundy poet Alphonse de Lamartine who wrote:

Je sens que dans ce vide une oreille m’écoute,
Qu’un invisible ami, dans la nef répandu,
M’attire à lui, me parle un langage entendu,
Se communique à moi dans un silence intime,
Et dans son vaste sein m’enveloppe et m’abîme.

Saint Etienne does envelop us and communicate in the intimate silence. To us, Auxerre is a vital town with direct links to past greatness and respect for those who preceded. The Cathédrale Saint Etienne is evidence of this and, along with Guy Roux, is a jewel in her crown.

Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Auxerre (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

By the way, this is not the first time that we have discussed soccer in the same breath as our beloved churches. If you are interested, here is another featuring Two Graceful Vaults.

Location: 47.797867° 3.572721°