The Song of the Cathedrals (Dennis Aubrey)


Sometimes it feels like the world is old and tired. We are desolated by an election that showed just how far we have lost our way. We have lost scent of truth like a hound turning haplessly in circles sniffing forlornly. And then someone shows us something that elevates the spirit and makes us smile again.

For me, this someone was my long-ago ex-student Lee Pochapin, who posted this wonderful video of the Rockin’1000, an Italian project of one thousand volunteer musicians performing David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”. Watching it I personally felt the spirit of those thousands who built the great cathedrals so many centuries ago, cathedrals that are often the subject of this blog. To see such a communal spirit, working selflessly in common, makes me understand how those structures came to exist. The builders were singing the songs of the cathedrals, for where but in music can a multitude act freely in perfect unison?

concert-boy

Watching this made me feel for just a short moment like that young boy looking out in wonder at the people cheering him and all the others with their instruments. It makes me feel part of something larger again, something greater than my our little world. For that, I have to be thankful. Thanks, Lee.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, Bourges (Indre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, Bourges (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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°

Our 2015 Trip to Europe


The holiday season has been very intense for us but we have started to plan for our next trip to Europe in May and June. There will be some very familiar places where we will repeat our photographic exploits, but also an entirely new (for us) experience. We are going to Italy!

PJ and I were at dinner with our dear friend Diane Quaid in November and the conversation turned to bucket lists. PJ turned to me and asked if there was one place that I would like to go and I replied “Ravenna”. At that moment we decided to add Italy to our tour for 2015.

Europe Map 2015

So the general outline of the trip is as follows: In ➀ Vézelay we will stay at our home in the area, the Crispol Hotel, which will be our base for photographing and for a visit with Pere Angelico Surchamps at the nearby monastery of La Pierre Qui Vire, the birthplace of the Éditions Zodiaque. We are hoping that Janet Marquardt will be able to join us for the visit.

Dom Angelico Surchamp, September 20, 2011

Dom Angelico Surchamp, September 20, 2011

From Vézelay we will make a long drive to ➁ Milan to photograph the Duomo, Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie, Battistero Sant Ambrogio, Battistero San Lorenzo Maggiore, Chiesa di Santa Maria presso San Satiro, and the Basilica di San Simpliciano. From Milan we drive a couple of hours to ➂ Ravenna, where we will photograph the Battistero degli Ariani, Battistero Neoniano, Chiesa San Michele in Africisco, Basilica di San Giovanni Evangelista, and the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe. The amazing Byzantine churches with their famous mosaics are drawing us to this part of the world for almost two weeks.

Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe (Image in the Public Domain)

Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe (Image in the Public Domain)

From Ravenna we have a treat in store – three days in ➃ Florence with PJ’s brother Mark Krausz. We’ll take some time to enjoy the city but will probably not have time to really work on the churches. We’ll save that for a return visit. From Florence we spend a night in ➄ Modena. We hope to photograph the Duomo, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta in Cielo e San Geminiano.

From here, we head back to France, first the ➅ Le Puy area in the Haute Loire. We will shoot the Cathédrale Notre Dame du Puy and several of the remote churches of the area, including one of our favorites, the Abbaye Saint-André de Lavaudieu. From here we go about an hour north where we will stay just outside of ➆ Issoire at one of our favorite hotels in France, the lovely Cour Carrée in Perriers. I was sick here for six days on our last trip so we are looking forward to returning and enjoying the hospitality and cuisine of Jean-Luc Villette. While in the region, we will be photographing the many spectacular Romanesque churches in the Clermont-Ferrand area.

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

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

From Issoire we go to my omphalos, the Hotel Pont de l’Ouysse in ➇ Lacave in the Dordogne. I first fell in love with this hotel in 1986; PJ and I return every year to enjoy the cuisine and the region. From Lacave, we head to the ➈ Limousin where we will photograph the wonderful Romanesque churches surrounding Limoges – the Collégiale Saint-Pierre in Le Dorat, the Abbaye de Saint-Amand à Saint-Junien, the Église Bénévent-l’Abbaye, the Collégiale Saint-Léonard à Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat, the Église Saint-Pierre Saint-Paul à Solignac, and the Église Notre Dame de La Souterraine.

From the Limousin we go a short distance northwest to ➉ Poitiers to visit our family friend Thérese Gayet at their home at Danlot, and then visit the city itself, along with our old family stomping ground at Chauvigny. From Chauvigny we go to ➀➀ Bourges to photograph the cathedral, then to ➀➁ Chartres for three more days documenting the restoration there. And then finally, three days in ➀➂ Paris in an apartment on the Ile Saint Louis will finish our trip. We are so excited to return, especially since the last journey was truncated by my illness.

Apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ and I have a great deal of research to do, mostly on the churches in Italy. It will be our first time to work there and we need to know the regulations and practices of that country. If anyone has any information or suggestions to make, on Italy or even the Limousin region, please let us know. It will, of course, be gratefully received.

Our Lady of the Lake (Dennis Aubrey)


blason-thorLegend says that Notre Dame du Lac in the small Vaucluse town of Le Thor was built at the request of the Emperor Charlemagne in the ninth century to commemorate a miracle that occurred in the town. I have found two versions of the miracle. In the first, it appears that there was a local boy and his bull, both very pious. The bull, when brought to a particular pond to drink, would drop to his knees before drinking. Astonished at the piety of the animal, the villagers dragged the pond and discovered a statue of the Virgin in the mud. In the second version, a bull, guided by a star, scratched the ground with his hooves and unearthed the statue. This appears to be the version commemorated in the town blazon, although the first would seem to be more in keeping with the name of the church, Notre Dame du Lac. In either case, the town is ostensibly named after the bull, Le Thor being a variation of taureau, French for bull.

There is, however, a less romantic origin of the name. Thor might be a derivative of Thouzon, a fortified Benedictine monastery on a nearby hill that was created as a safe haven for residents. But whatever the origins, we know that the current church was built in the late 12th century. There is a reference from Bermond, Bishop of Cavaillon who donated to the Abbe of Saint André de Villeneuve-les-Avignon in 1202 the ecclesium novum Sactæ Mariæ, the new church of Sainte Marie, in Le Thor.

Exterior, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Exterior, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

The church dedicated to Notre Dame du Lac is distinguished as much by what is missing as by what exists – she lacks side aisles, side chapels and transepts. The church consists of a large nave with three bays covered with Gothic rib vaults, a square crossing under the octagonal cupola, and a small apse covered with a ribbed oven vault. The interior height of the church is notable, sixteen meters.

Nave, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The elevation shows that each bay is supported by massive piers with pilasters climbing up to carry the transverse arches. There is a clerestory window high up on the wall in each side of the bay. Notice that there are cornices for decoration and no capitals in the nave. In this elevation we can also see the arches that support the cupola and the scallop-shaped squinches supporting the dome.

Nave elevation, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave elevation, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

One interesting feature of the church is the tribune over the first bay in the west. This was conceived of for the original church, but was constructed of wood. That original wooden structure was replaced by this stone tribune in the 1950’s.

Tribune, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Tribune, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

The apse is simple but quite elegant. It features a seven-arched hemicycle with alternating windowed and blind arcades. The oven vault is ribbed, which we have not seen too often in Romanesque churches.

Apse, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

Apse, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

The spare interior does feature some wonderful sculptural touches. The finest are the capitals on the arcade pillars in the apse, most of which feature foliated subjects. There are also some wonderful decorations on the corbels supporting the apse cornice. The first is a wonderful smiling angel.

Angel cornice decoration, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Angel cornice decoration, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second is this charming figure squatting and supporting the weight of the heavy stone load above him. These are seen often in the Romanesque churches, but this is one of the more amusing of them.

Cornice detail, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cornice detail, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One of the glories of the church is the superb south portal. There is a combination of the decorated columns with their fine capitals, the three carved archivolts, the double door of the entrance with a tympanum, and the 17th century fresco above the doorway arch. This fresco is in very poor condition and did not photograph well. The portal area itself is covered with a ribbed vault.

South portal, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

South portal, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

The portal features wonderful carvings, far more in keeping with the Romanesque style than the spare interior. We can see how the elements have caused deterioration of the wonderful sculpture, but that is typical of churches throughout Europe.

Exterior capital, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Exterior capital, Église Notre Dame du Lac, Le Thor (Vaucluse) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

These churches are the property of the French people, not the Catholic Church, and their representatives are charged with keeping this religious and architectural patrimony intact. In 1834, the writer Prosper Mérimée was appointed the first inspector-general of historical monuments, a fortuitous choice. A man of learning and sophistication, he had a deep appreciation for the beauty and historical significance of the monuments in this care.

In 1837, following the request of Mérimée, the departmental prefects were asked to list the monuments of their department that they consider for priority restoration. In 1840, this led the Historic Monuments Commission to establish a list of a thousand monuments “for which relief was sought”. The importance of Notre Dame du Lac is demonstrated because it was classified in this first list of 1840.

Location: 43.929897° 4.994711°

A Short Video from Via Lucis


A couple of years ago, PJ and I made a few short videos from our photographs. This one features music from “Requiem for my Friend” by Zbigniew Preisner, including the astonishing “Lachrimosa.”

Note, this is best when viewed full screen.

In Tangled Thoughts (Dennis Aubrey)


In thoughts from visions of the night,
When deep sleep falleth upon men,
Fear came upon me, and trembling,
Which made all my bones to shake.
Then a spirit glided before my face –
The hair of my flesh rose up –
It stood still, but its form I could not discern;
A figure before mine eyes; Silence – and I heard a voice.

Eliphaz, Job IV v 12-16

We have a male cat named Rudy who is the very model of sweet affection unless he is disturbed in his comfortable rest. My belly, shoulders and thighs are a network of small cuts from the sharp claws that he digs into me when he must be moved from my lap or my shoulder (his favorite resting place). It is his protest to the change. Apparently, I am like him, because PJ calls us her “two old guys.”

For my part, when caught up in perplexing, tangled thoughts, I dig in my claws and try to hold on to the world that I love. As much as I try, I can’t seem to come to the heart of darkness that surrounds the world. I can recognize the evil and greed in the heart of man but don’t understand it.

Capital - Moses and the Golden Calf, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – Moses and the Golden Calf, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

It seems that the “how”, “what”, and “who” are easy enough to determine, at least by dint of research. The “why”, however, is less susceptible to explanation, because we have to plumb the murky waters of the human mind or the even more opaque depths of the human soul. On the Via Lucis blog, we write most often the “how” – stories of the churches that can be researched. Sometimes we attempt to examine the “why”. Often we cannot see the answer directly, but must infer it in some way from other evidence.

Corbel detail, Prieuré Sainte Gemme, Sainte Gemme (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Corbel detail, Prieuré Sainte Gemme, Sainte Gemme (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The plays of Shakespeare, for example, perfectly suited the exuberance of the Elizabethan age, but despite their brilliance, within a generation they had lost their popularity. The were replaced by the dark, cynical Jacobean dramas of Middleton, Webster, Tourneur, and Ford. We see The Revenger’s Tragedy, Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Duchess of Malfi, and The White Devil. While Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Kyd may have used the same plot elements, the pervasive evil and melancholy that dominates the later tragedies were not present.

Refectory tympanum detail, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Refectory tympanum detail, Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The brooding sense of hopelessness against tragedy reflects something in the world of England that was not present earlier. This was apparent even in the literature of the day; in 1621, Robert Burton published his eccentric treatise, the Anatomy of Melancholy, of which Samuel Johnson said “It is the only book that ever took me out of bed two hours sooner than I wished to rise.” But as John Aubrey wrote in his Brief Lives, “Mr. Burton, of whom ’tis whispered that, non obstante all his astrologie and his booke of Melanchollie, he ended his dayes in that chamber by hanging him selfe.”

Capital, Église Sainte Marie-du-Mont, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Église Sainte Marie-du-Mont, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We sense this profound change even if we cannot explain it with the Thirty Year’s War, the Gunpowder Plot, a pervasive fear of witches, or the great plague. We can only see it reflected, as it were, as a shadow in the art of the time.

When we try to understand the world of the Romanesque church, we are often forced to look at the same shadows for explanations of the “why”. I believe in some ways this was an enlightened and optimistic age, but there was always a darkness on the periphery. For all the promise of the redemption of the Christ, there was a sense of the brooding Old Testament Lord of Hosts standing watch over the struggle of good and evil, the combat for the souls of humankind.

Fall of Simon Magus, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d'Or)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Fall of Simon Magus, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d’Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Carl Jung states that people believed in evil as something outside of themselves because they project their shadow onto others. His Answer to Job gives an explanation for the difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New and suggests that that difference was created when God himself saw his own shadow projected on the stubborn and enduring Job. Jungian scholar Murray Stein claims Jung viewed the Book of Job as an example of God’s own religious experience:

“And out of this astonishing self-reflection, induced in God by Job’s stubborn righteousness, He, the Almighty, is pushed into a process of transformation that leads eventually to His incarnation as Jesus. God develops empathy and love through his confrontation with Job, and out of it a new relationship between God and humankind is born.”

In this world, even God must face his own shadow and reflect on himself in order to reveal his complete nature. Human beings must do likewise. Perhaps we cannot look directly as God could, but can only do so obliquely. But if we look at what we too often call art – the transitory, self-indulgent, and the numbingly inert creations that drown us – how will we manage to call forth love and empathy? Where do we look to duplicate the transformation that Jung described?

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

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

So for now, unable to answer this question, I am content to write. Rudy joins me late at night, makes himself comfortable on my desk, nestled in my arms as I type. His tail twitches idly as he rests his head on my forearm. We listen to “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” and for the briefest moment, and for him, all is right with the world.

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°