A Triumphant Madonna – Amuse Bouche #41 Dennis Aubrey


Saint-Aventin is a small town in the Larboust Valley in the Pyrénées, not far from Bagnères-de-Luchon. The eponymous church is located on a side road outside of town, actually a small lane rising to terrace partway up the hill. The church is a magnificent Romanesque structure which we will show in a later post and is distinguished by magnificent exterior sculptures. The most elegant of these is the Sedes Sapientiae virgin next to the door.

Regular readers of Via Lucis know our love of these figures, mostly carved in wood, but this one is unique. Most representation of the virgin are sorrowful, a mother knowing the doomed fate of her child at the hands of man. The child is normally seen as a small adult with a serious face looking straight out at the viewer (as does the Mother here). But here, the child Jesus looks up and shares with his mother a look of triumph, the conquest of temptation and evil.

Vierge Romane, Église Saint-Aventin, Saint-Aventin (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Beneath Mary’s feet are the heads of two demons, trampled into submission. The figures of birds and serpents are held at bay by the power of the Mother and Child, threatening but impotent.

I wish that I could translate the inscription but have not worked it out. Perhaps one of our readers can help?

Vierge Romane detail, Église Saint-Aventin, Saint-Aventin (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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 Divine Rain of Sainte-Engrâce (Dennis Aubrey)


Sainte-Engrâce is a tiny commune in a small pass deep in Basque country on the French side of the border with Spain. We made our way there on a slightly overcast day wending our way deeper and deeper into the the Pyrénéean foothills through the old pass between the Aquitaine and the Iberian peninsula. It was here that Duke Arimbert of the Franks was ambushed and defeated by the Basques in 635, just as the rear guard of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne was ambushed and defeated by those same Basques fifty miles west at the pass of Roncesvalles just 142 years later.

Today Saint Engrâce is literally a turnout from the road and has a population of 208, On the horizon loom the Pyrénées mountains feeding the cold rushing streams. Just to the south is the spectacular Gorges de Kakuetta.

Waterfall, Gorges de Kakouetta (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Ancalagon, Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

But for us, Sainte-Engrâce is home to a lovely 11th century Romanesque church in a spectacular setting, the Collégiale Sainte-Engrâce.

Exterior, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

Sainte-Engrâce (Urdatx-Santa-Grazi in Basque) is thoroughly Basque, as much as the Euskera language and the frontón where pelota is played in every town. The cemetery adjacent to the church is filled with Basque surnames and mysterious Hilarri, disc-shaped funerary steles, remnants of long-past pre-Christian Basque traditions.

Basque funerary stelae – Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

The church was built in the community of Urdaix in the late 11th century by a resident group of canons of Saint Augustine. The canons named their new church after a Lusitanian martyr of the 4th century. A young Christian girl from Braga, Engracia, was traveling with eighteen companions to marry a Christian noble of Roussillon. On the way through the town of Zaragosa in 303, Engracia learned of the persecution of Christians by the Roman governor Dacian. She attempted to persuade him to stop his persecution and she was martyred after the most brutal tortures, and her eighteen companions decapitated. Legend has it that thieves stole the arm of the martyred saint from her shrine in Zaragosa and fled to the mountains where they hid the arm in the hollow of an oak tree beside the Fountain of the Virgin Mother. A bull whose horns blazed “like two candles on the altar” knelt before the oak and the relic was discovered. The relic was placed in the sacristy of a nearby church but returned time and again to the oak. This was interpreted to mean that the saint wished a church to be built on this site and in 1085 the canons of Saint Augustine acceded to her wish.

Capital, Demon and priest, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Shortly after the construction of the church, a hospital was added to tend to pilgrims on their way to Santiago Compostela. About the same time as the completion of the church building, Sanche I, King of Navarre and Aragon, placed it under the suzerainty of the wealthy Benedictine monastery of Leyre in Navarre. This was not a pleasing result for the Augustinians, who finally arrived at an agreement in 1125. The collegiate was required to provide the monastery two river salmon each year and two cows on Ascension and the Feast of John the Baptist. This relationship continued until 1512.

South side aisle, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

The church is classic Romanesque, with a nave and two side aisles and an ornate side chapel on either side of the apse. The barrel vault is segmented by each of the three bays of the nave. The apse features a lovely painted oven vault featuring the Holy Trinity – Christ and God the Father seated with the Holy Spirit hovering above. This is almost certainly of a later date, probably early 15th century at the time that Sainte-Engrâce became a royal borough.

Nave, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One of the delights of the church are the superb capitals, found on the pillars of the side aisle and the altar. They vividly illustrate various stories from the Bible and the life of Jesus. One of my favorites is off the left side of the altar and depicts the Magi giving gifts to the infant Christ.

Capital detail, gifts of the Magi, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is another interesting legend about the martyrdom of Engracia, the Countless Martyrs of Zaragoza, Dacian wished to discover the extent of the Christian population and promised to allow them to practice their religion. But first they had to leave the city at a fixed time by a certain gate. As soon as they gathered to obey his order, Dacian ordered them executed. In order to prevent their veneration as martyrs, he burned the corpses and mixed their ashes with those of executed criminals. But a shower of rain fell and washed the ashes, separating them into two groups. The white ashes here those of the martyrs and were known as the “holy masses”, las santas masas. They were deposited in a church dedicated to Santa Engratia in Zaragosa where they are still preserved.

Apse from north side aisle, Église Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

As outlandish as this legend sounds, I understand its power completely. Who does not look around and wonder why the evil and the haughty seem to prosper in this world while the meek and those who daily create the bounty of the world are doomed to suffer? Our martyrs aren’t decapitated for their faith, but we still have martyrs who advocate for compassion, rational discourse, and social justice. Who does not wonder why these multitudes are not protected by the divine power who calls them “blessed”? Who does not hope for a divine rain to wash through the world and separate the saints from the criminals?

Just as a footnote, my mother comes from a Basque family in Eibar who came to the New World in the 16th century, settling in what became New Mexico. He was part of the expedition led by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Luján in 1540 in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola.

Location: 42.995493° -0.809957°

Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude de Nivelles – A Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm


Nivelles is a municipality in the Belgian province of Waloon Brabant with a population of around 28,000 in 2016. It is said that starting in the 4th millennium B.C., the region had gradually been cultivated as agricultural land by the Danubean settlers. The land was invaded by the Romans in the 1st century, and in turn by the Germanic tribes in the 3rd century. By the 7th century it belonged to the Frankish kingdom. The archaeological excavations of the site of the present Romanesque church have yielded traces of two Merovingian and three Carolingian houses of worship which stood there between the 7th and 10th centuries. The church was for a Benedictine nunnery which was founded in 650 by Itta of Aquitaine, widow of Pépin, the Elder of Landen. Their daughter, Gertrude was the first abbess, who would be declared a saint by Pope Clement XII in the 17th century.

During the Middle Ages, it was one of the larger abbeys in Europe due to a great number of pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela who would pass through Nivelles and pay homage to the would-be saint. By the 15th century the abbey was organized as a collegiate church for canonesses, and continued to function until the end of the 18th century when it was dissolved. While there is no reference to the successive master builders, it is documented that construction was begun at the dawn of the 11th century for the main body of the church that stands today, and it was consecrated by Wazo, Prince-Bishop of Liège in 1046 in the presence of Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor.

Exterior view from southwest across Grand’ Place, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The first sight of the Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude a visitor might catch when approaching the town center of Nivelles is its imposing westwork, completed in the last years of the 12th century, one and a half century after the church structure itself was dedicated.

Elevation view of Westwork, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

It has the hall-mark of a mature Romanesque architecture of the Rhineland as found in churches such as Worms or Maria Laach. The westwork had a Gothic central tower through stylistic transformation before the destruction in the World War II, but it was restored in the Romanesque style through a referendum of townspeople, at the time of post-WW II restoration. The westwork of Sainte-Gertrude has a very sculptural composition due to its semi-circular western apse expressed on the façade, together with a series of columned openings at multiple gallery levels on the slab-like vertical mass, a pair of cylindrical stair turrets with bells on either side of the block, and finally, the octagonal Romanesque central tower.

If it had been said that the Westwerk of Sainte-Gertrude is of the mature Rhineland Romanesque style, the main body of the church is built in the Ottonian style. The plan is laid out with a nave of eight bays in two compartments of four bays each, defined by half round diaphragm arches which spring from sturdy cross-shaped piers.

Plan, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant)

The longitudinal view of the nave toward east shows that there are two aisles, square eastern crossing with transepts of same width as the nave, and a rectangular western crossing and narrow transepts.

View of nave to east, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The nave arcades are as thick as the piers with only a hint of demarcation by a thin cornice. The groin vaultings of both the eastern and western transepts are lower than the timber nave ceiling, a design characteristic found in the Meuse valley region in the Ottonian architecture. The square-ended eastern apse with three lancet windows, raised over a crypt serves as the principal chancel today.

The modern altar is placed well into the nave on wooden extension of the choir.

View of nave and eastern sanctuary, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The church of Sainte-Gertrude has a length of 102 meters, a generous scale recalling “ the splendor of the Ottonian liturgy,” as poetically described by Donnay-Rocmans writing in a chronicle of the patrimony of Wallonia.

The view looking up at the timber ceiling of the crossing and the nave shows the relatively new carpentry, as the restoration after the bombing in 1940 was completed only 30 years ago.

View of wooden ceiling over the eastern crossing, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The axial view from the eastern choir toward the west amply illustrates the square crossing, spacious transepts as well as the substantial diaphragm arches demarcating the two halves of the nave.

View of nave from the eastern choir to west, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The groin vaults for the aisles were constructed at a later stage of the church building. The view of the north aisle shows off solidly bonded groin vaults with gilt ornaments of rib crossing.

View of north aisle to east, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view from the rectangular western crossing with a font toward west shows the semi-cylindrical western choir.

View of western choir from western crossing with font, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The closer view of the tribune level on the north wall of the apse brings to fore well-lit chambers beyond at the tribune level in the cylindrical volume.

View of north tribune at western choir, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The precision with which the dome for the western choir has been re-built gives a visitor an awareness of the painstaking efforts and high caliber of the post-WW II restoration architects and the craftsmen for the rebuilding project begun in the 60’s and completed two decades later.

View of dome over western choir, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view of the north wing at the western transept shows that the vaulting is at a lower height than the nave ceiling, as mentioned earlier (Photo 12).

View of north transept at western crossing, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Finally, the wall elevation scheme shows that while there is a cornice running the length of the nave.

Elevation scheme of northern nave wall, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The nave wall is basically flush, as though the arcades and clearstory windows are punched out of a sheer masonry plane.

View looking up toward nave ceiling, Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude, Nivelles (Walloon Brabant) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

At Sainte-Gertrude in Nivelles, the unity of piers and arcades, and the pure surface of the nave wall all contribute to an ascetic spatial ambience, which one would almost describe as modern in sensibility.

An Apology and a First for Via Lucis (Dennis Aubrey)


Via Lucis has moving moving in such stops and starts for the last few years, mainly because of illness and our move to Ohio, but since Spring when we photographed for seven weeks in Europe, it seemed that we were back on track – plenty of new material, a book on Cross-Tipped Churches. Suddenly, about three months ago, things stopped completely as illness struck again. This time it was a bit more serious – I was diagnosed with cancer and have been dealing with the illness itself as well as treatment protocols. Treatments will be completed in about two months, and hopefully there will be enough energy to keep working during this time. I am feeling better – most of which I attribute to my holistic practioner who has been of enormous assistance.

Abbaye Notre Dame de Fontenay, Fontenay (Côte-d’Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The first for Via Lucis is a magnificent post on a Belgian Romanesque church, the Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude de Nivelles by Jong-Soung Kimm. This is another wonderful example of how his architectural sensibility can be brought to bear on a description of the church. He actually sent this post to me over a month ago, and in trying to publish it, I made so many errors that it was a mess. Finally straightened it out today – I had put photographs from a different church into the post and didn’t realize it! No wonder I made a mess of it. Anyway, errors corrected, please read the post.

A Mountain Masterpiece – Serrabone (Dennis Aubrey)


On an arid hilltop 2000 feet up in the region of the sacred Mont Canigou, there was a small 11th century parish church dedicated to Our Lady that served what could only have been the tiniest of communities. It was in the region of the eastern Pyrénées known as Aspres, derived from the Catalan word for “arid”, but was known by the name Serrabona, or “beautiful mountain”. Serrabona could only lend itself to the harshest life for the residents, and was indeed known as the desert. The hard life could only have been relieved by the trickle of pilgrims who came through on their way to Santiago Compostela. Things changed in 1082, however. Notre Dame de Serrabona was granted to a community of canons from the Order of Saint Augustine, who immediately began work expanding the church and creating a monastic community. Their new priory church was consecrated in 1151 by the Bishop of Elne.

North exterior view, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Most of the monastic buildings are long gone, leaving only the church and austere bell-tower. There is a wonderful fragment of the cloister on the south side, but the main architectural feature of the church itself is the ornate tribune, carved from the beautiful pink marble of the region. The tribune divides the nave into two parts, conventionally explained as one for the canons who resided at the priory, and the second for the faithful who came to the church for worship. It is also speculated that a choir would sing atop the platform.

The tribune is three arcades wide and two bays deep. The arcades are topped by a large cornice that creates a façade facing west. The sculpting on the façade is done in low relief and is similar to most of the religious sculpture in the region. The capitals supporting the cornice, however, are carved fully in the round.

Tribune, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

There are some questions about this tribune, however, that I am going to address in this post, having to do with asking why this ornate marble structure was placed in the remote, unadorned collegiate church frequented by a mere handful of canons.

The first question is whether or not the tribune was brought to Serrabone from another location. The ill-fitting way it is wedged into the nave is pointed to as evidence of this (notice how the right side is truncated against the north wall of the church). One school of academic research has even proposed that the original came from the abbey of Saint Michel de Cuxa. Stylistically the sculpture is very similar and was probably executed by the same school, but the marble is different. Both are made of the beautiful local pink marble, but Cuxa’s marble comes from the Babebany quarry near Conflent, which is forty kilometers distant from Serrabone. The marble for Serrabone comes from Bouleternère, a quarry only a dozen kilometers from the priory itself. It makes no sense that if the tribune was originally carved at Cuxa that the workers would go to distant Bouleternère for their marble when the rest of their famous abbey was made from the Babebany marble just twelve kilometers distant. This provides strong evidence that the carving was done in situ at Serrabone, or at least at the Bouleternère quarry.

Tribune panel, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second question is whether the tribune was originally installed in one place at Serrabone and then moved to the center of the nave. Some experts claim that the tribune was moved to the nave in the 17th or 19th century. However, I read an interesting mathematical analysis by Paul Lemonde that demonstrates that the church was modified in the 12th century to accommodate the large tribune and that it was designed to serve as an interior portal to the church.

Tribune capital, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The third question is whether or not the tribune was intended as a rood screen, or jubé, a symbolic barrier between the clergy and the lay worshipers. I am not convinced that this is the case. First, it is almost impossible to see the altar from any place other than the center of the nave beyond the tribune. Second, all of the carving on the cornice is on the west side, the “lay” side of the nave.

East view of tribune, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Taking a cue from Paul Lemonde’s theory that the tribune is an interior portal of the church, I believe that the structure divided the nave into two parts – a nave and a narthex. The western section served as a place to gather pilgrims during the times where the canons were celebrating their monastic offices. Like the narthex at Vézelay or Tournus or any number of other Romanesque churches, this narthex featured sculpted instruction in the mysteries of the faith for the pilgrims.

Whatever the reasons that this magnificent structure was placed in this remote church, the result is a superb ensemble, among the finest works of Romanesque sculpture remaining to us. Unlike most Romanesque work, however, the figures on the tribune are not narrative, but symbolic. Only one – Saint Michael contending with a demonic dragon – is an example of story-telling. Instead we see a profusion of angels, vegetation, and human faces. There are symbols from the text of the Apocalypse, symbols of the Evangelists and a fantastical bestiary consisting of birds, eagles, lions, centaurs, stags, bulls, griffins and monkeys.

Griffins and centaurs, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

A close-up of the bird capital contending with a snake shows the splendid sculptural technique that looks like nothing less than a jeweled mosaic.

Tribune detail, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the end, the remote harshness of life defeated the canons and the priory was shut down amidst great scandal. Once again the priory became a parish church and was eventually abandoned altogether. By the early 1900’s it was in private hands. The owner, to our eternal appreciation, began the restoration and today the church is a glory of the French patrimony.

Location: 42.598, 2.6226

A Catalan Master for the Ages (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I love the Pyrénées mountains, and especially the eastern portion straddling France and Catalonia. While staying the town of Prades, we had an interesting experience. Despite having been there before, we found ourselves in a new place – Occitanie, or in Catalan Occitània. This is one of the new administrative regions in France since September 28, 2016 with a name derived from areas that showed a historic use of the Occitan language. We didn’t think too much about this until we went to a Catalan dance festival in town. During the introductions, the compère made a disparaging comment – “This is Catalonia,” he said, and followed that statement with a disdainful gesture behind him, “Occitània is somewhere back there!” all to great applause from the audience.

On this trip we visited the marvelous Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute in Les Cluse, a small early Catalan church perched on the Col du Perthus, the last Pyrénéean pass between France and Spain. In the distance, one can see Vauban’s Fort de Bellegarde that once guarded the frontier. The church, located in La Cluse-Haute, was probably constructed in the 10th century and remodeled in the 11th, 12th and 14th centuries. The exterior of the church is simple and unadorned, with a 14th century bell-tower. An interesting vestige of the porch still exists in the form of the stone arch standing separated from the church itself. The portal itself is of white Céret marble.

Western façade and clocher, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The small interior consists of a central nave and two side aisles. The relatively massive piers support the round arches from which springs the barrel vault across the nave. The side aisles have half-barrel vaults supporting the nave arches and relieving the lateral pressure of the barrel vault. There are no transepts or a crossing tower.

Nave, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The tiny oven-vaulted apse is flanked by two small echeloned chapels, communicated to by means of the narrow passages on the side of the apse. One can see in the photograph how the scale of the apse is so small and delicate compared to the sturdy piers and arches around it.

Apse from north side aisle, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

But small though it may be, the glory of the church is in that smal apse. There are some fragments of frescoes dating from the twelfth century which are in the same hand as those of famous frescoes of nearby San Martin de Fenollar.

Apse with frescoes, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

In the center of the apse we see a Christ in Majesty accompanied by the symbols of the alpha and the omega. The works of the Maitre de Fenollar must have been astonishing at the time of their creation, but they have continued to fascinate and have actually change the courses of modern art. In June 1906 Picasso stayed ten weeks in the small town of Gósol and had his first intensive exposure to Catalan art. In 1911 Picasso and Braque spent time in Fenollar and Les Cluses studying the works, transfixed by the expressive power and dynamic use of color. Later many other artists made their pilgrimage to this area – Miro, Gris, Derain, and Dufy – and all walked away genuflecting at the altar of the distant Catalan genius.

Christ Panocrator, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Just to the right of the Christ is a wonderful figure of an angel. I think that the way the wings and the cloak follow the curve of the vault is simply brilliant in inspiration and execution. I have the same dumbfounded reaction to this as I did when I saw the “Temptation” capital at Plaimpied.

Angel, Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute, Les Cluses (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

If there is any doubt that the work of the Catalan artists had an effect on Pablo Picasso, we only have to look at his work from the periods of his stay in the area and how it differed from the Blue and Pink periods that preceded it. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon see the same naive, schematic construction of the faces that we see in Les Cluses and Saint Martin de Fenollar, and even some of the same technical details, like the use of white accents around the eyes and other features. And it may just be my imagination, but the standing figure on the far right seems to be a mirror of the angel at Les Cluses.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso (1907)

But we don’t need Picasso, Miro, Braque or Dufy to appreciate the Maitre de Fenollar. His work stands among the finest of medieval painting, hidden in the smallest church in the most remote of villages in the Pyrénées.

Location: 42.482277° 2.843190°

Two Churches in the Cliffs (Dennis Aubrey)


The last four churches we have chronicled – the cathedrals of Embrun, Sisteron, Digne-les-Bains and Senez – have all been isolated and somewhat forlorn. They are tucked away in the extreme north of the popular Provence but off the beaten path. The next churches, are quite different. The town of Moustiers-Saite-Marie is near the famous Gorges du Verdon, one of the deepest and most beautiful river canyons in Europe, popular with cyclists, serious kayak enthusiasts and hikers. Moustiers itself is a popular little medieval tourist town, built on the face of a limestone cliff, and filled with boutique shops and ateliers. Part of its picturesque nature is created by a spring-fed waterfall that flows through the center of town.

In the center of the village is the church Notre Dame-de-l’Asspomtion, surrounded by restaurants and shops filled with faïence and other pottery. Tourists wander in, walk down the eight steps into the nave, stand in the center of the church, take a quick look around, flash a photo with a smartphone and quickly leave. But the church is worth much more than just a cursory glance.

Originally founded as a monastery in the 5th century, the monks were driven away by the Saracens and did not return until the 11th century. The church was rebuilt in the 12th century, and in 1336 the commendatory prior, Cardinal Pierre de Pratis (also known as Pierre Desprès), began rebuilding yet again. He only completed the choir before he died, which explains the extreme angle of the axis of the choir to the nave, inclining to the south. His plan was to rebuild the entire church at a slightly different angle, but the project was never completed, leaving us with the result that we see today.

The nave is actually quite long, five bays topped with an ogive barrel vault. As we quite often see in this area, the engaged columns rise up to support the bands of the vault.

Nave, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Pierre Desprès’ Gothic apse has a very unusual feature – a flat chevet with an ambulatory. It is also covered with a rib vault instead of the barrel vault.

Apse, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The altar is a re-purposed fourth-century white marble sarcophagus representing the passage of the Red Sea.

Altar, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The ambulatory is one of the most interesting features of the church, although these might be more accurately called extended side aisles since the two sides do not meet at the rear of the apse.

Ambulatory, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The church is wedged in among the surrounding buildings, but the glorious Lombard-style clocher is still easily visible. The tower is constructed in five levels. The top three levels consist of twin bays adorned with Lombard bands, the fourth level is a blind enclosure and the fifth and bottom, added in the 17th century, is an imposing buttress. The buttressing was added as additional support because the oscillations caused by the ringing of the bells threatened the stability of the clocher.

South facade with clocher, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is a second Romanesque church in Moustiers, the Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir, high up on the cliff that can be reached by a stone stairway of 262 steps (at one time this was 365 steps!). This chapel was built on the site of a 5th century Marian shrine, known prior to the 15th century as Notre-Dame de la Roche or Notre Dame d’Entre-Roches. There is a tradition that the first church was constructed by Charlemagne as fulfillment of a vow and then subsequently rebuilt in the 12th century. Notre Dame de Beauvoir was known for its suscitations – stillborn children were carried up and baptised there, at which time they would immediately come to life and would be granted a place in heaven. This was a well-known phenomenon in the region and also known at two neighboring churches.

Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence ) Photo by ICE-Marseille, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

I must conclude this narrative with a paean to our luncheon at La Treille Muscat right on the square of the church. PJ and I both had a first course of Poulpes en salad, cebettes, tomates et un peu de gingembre pour corser, émulsion de Yusu, a salad with octopus flavored with ginger and Yuzu emulsion. PJ, who never ate octopus before this trip, said it was the best salad she has ever had in her life. I would list all of the other courses that we had, but would sound like we have been too powerfully influenced by our dear friend Covetotop who we met the week prior to this meal!

Location: 43.847250° 6.222402°