✿ If I could be … ✿ (Dennis Aubrey)

If I were the photographer I wanted to be, would it be Helmar Lerski, whose faces burn into one’s soul with a “harsh and beautiful light”? Would I be Edouard Boubat, who made the ordinary marvelous? Certainly I would have thought that faces would be my subject, looking for the elusive and dangerous soul. But it turns out to be something completely different. I find my camera looking at churches constructed a thousand years ago by people who share everything with us today except for a sense of God which we have lost completely. Lost completely in the sense that they had. Do we have a living conscience like Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who was the dominant figure of his age, who in the 12th Century could humble kings and Popes? Do we have someone whose clarion call was to give all, give everything, and ask for nothing. He was fiery in his condemnations, but he censured the sin, not the sinner.

Eglise Saint Julien (Courville, Marne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Eglise Saint Julien (Courville, Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

These churches move me enormously, so I was prompted to learn what I could of the people that built them. To this end, I was always interested in history, in reading about the times and people who lived and built these churches. The great books of Johann Huizinga, Henry Adams and so many others were inspiring, but it was not the history that really gave me any sense of the knowledge, it was the art. To find out what is important to a people, we must see the promptings of their dreams as much as the promptings of their appetites.

Capital, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Art is something that is primary in man, it is fundamentally important. When we divorce art from the center of our life, we diminish ourselves. Young people who seem to live for their music understand this, even if the only prompting of that art is sex, drugs and rock and roll. It is important to them. It is fundamental and vital. Disparage it though we may, that love of art is important, even though it diminishes over time, even though it ossifies into recollection. But what if the art spoke of things higher, of aspirations more profound? What if the art attempted to express our most noble thoughts and feelings? And more to the point, what if it succeeded?

Notre Dame de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme)

Notre Dame de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I think that, in the 12th Century, religious architecture did just that. It reflected the best of the people and their civilization. In doing so, that art has lasted for centuries, leaving traces of the builders for us to find a thousand years later. And our cameras record those traces.

South porch of Notre Dame de Mont-Devant-Sassey (Haute-Marne)  Photo by PJ McKey

South porch of Notre Dame de Mont-Devant-Sassey (Haute-Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

✿ Gofridus me fecit ✿ (PJ McKey)

One incredible feature of Romanesque art in all forms is the fact that the creators are, for the most part, anonymous. No headlines, no public tributes or fame acknowledge their skill and accomplishments. It was enough to create for the greater glory and love of God. The capital sculpture in the churches offers a clear example of this. The skill level varies from the consummate artisan, to the local stone cutter who seems to have come to his task by default. The capitals read like pages in a book of Christian history. They are exploited to tell the bible stories that we all know as well as stories of suffering and survival, triumphs and failures over sin and its punishments. It was a stone canvas treated as a tool to teach, to guide, and to warn. Sin and its messenger, the devil, are always with us. We must be vigilant. This is serious business. The artisans took this assignment to heart. The capital sculptures were meant to be solemn messages.

Capital at Eglise Saint Pierre, Chauvigny

And then, in contrast, there is the Collégiale Saint-Pierre in Chauvigny. First, as a church, Chauvigny is a circus of pattern, shape, light and color. There exists a hint of what these churches must have looked like before the spoils of time stripped them of their fragile interior painting. From the capitals to the columns, to the very walls, there is no gloom, no sense of foreboding in this church. Rather, there is a feeling of joy and lightness. There is innocence here. Atop some of the gaily painted columns, swirling with color, demons are carved and painted. But as they surround the altar they are more like cartoon characters than the perils of hell and somehow we know they can’t really hurt us. In fact, it’s obvious. The artist of these whimsical creatures is Gofridus. We know that because, unlike so many others, he signed his worked. “Gofridus me fecit”, “Gofridus made me”. He signed the Visit of the Magi, center on the altar, visible to all.

Gofridus me fecit

I wonder what the church fathers thought when they first saw his work. I can’t imagine that these capitals achieved the desired effect – fear of sin and eternal damnation. I’ve seen and photographed hundreds of capitals and must say that those of Chauvigny are the only ones that make me smile. I’m charmed by them. At heart, Gofridus was an optimist; blessed are the innocent. Even the people of his sculptures look like children, ignorant of the dangers inherent in being human. These people cannot be corrupted. Their wide eyes and dreamlike expressions are more angelic than mortal. In any other hands, these scenes of demons tearing humans apart would be a nightmare. At the hands of Gofridus, the demons are powerless, strictly for show. The victims can hardly keep a straight face. Dennis lived in Chauvigny as a young boy and haunted this church. I think that Gofridus had quite an impact on him!

Capital at Eglise Saint Pierre, Chauvigny

And Gofridus was certainly bold. The capitals are oversized in proportion to the columns. This was a craftsman confident of his message and materials. His iconography is not unusual, for we see variations on these same themes and stories in many other churches of the time. But somehow in the hands of this artist the interpretation changed. His personality is evident. He cannot hide his playfulness or his exuberance. By signing his work perhaps he is acknowledging the primary collaboration of God and his creation, man. I don’t believe it was vanity. God and Gofridus were a team. God gave the talent and Gofridus used it for God’s work. God made him, so, what he makes is, therefore, from the hand of God. How could the priests argue with that?

“Trust me,” we hear him saying, “You’ll love it.”

If you are interested in seeing more of these images, please see the Via Lucis website.

✚ This is a repost of one of my favorite articles by PJ from a few years ago. ✚

Adorned Romanesque – Église Saint Sulpice de Marignac (Dennis Aubrey)

Many people comment on our photos that they are surprised by the amount of color that appears in the churches. Some prefer the austere unadorned stone and the consider the colored churches garish. But in reality, what we commonly perceive about the Romanesque churches is essentially false, the product of 19th century restorations. The fact is that the churches were filled with color. The capitals and statues were painted, the walls were covered in frescoes and the pillars adorned.

One of the comments on our post “Color and Saint Austremoine” was from The Wanderlust Gene, which stated, “I have to admit I’m amazed by all that colour – and all the yellow in the church you showed us yesterday. An old stick in the mud, eh – i so so love my romanesque sere and forceful … It’s so interesting! I remember when I learned that the Acropolis used to be lurid – I almost died with regret for it!”

This is not unusual, because the churches have a powerful dignity and beauty when stripped down without the ornamentation. They fit our notion of the serious purpose of the religious architecture.

Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But the Romanesque churches were books, teaching instruments in which the tenets of the Christian faith were explained to the people. The capitals served two purposes – they told bible stories and were symbolic representations of the spiritual struggles to achieve salvation. The Église Saint Sulpice de Marignac in the southwest deparment of the Charente-Maritime is a perfect illustration. Like most churches in the Aquitaine, Saint Sulpice was devastated by wars. The nave was rebuilt in the Gothic style, but the crossing and apse are pure Romanesque.

Crossing and apse, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

It is the Romanesque detailing in Saint Sulpice that we find so remarkable. In this photograph of the crossing arch, you can see the painted pillars and capitals – even the squinches are painted – but look carefully at the voussoirs. They are all carved in a unique shape, one that we have only seen in the Charente-Maritime. It makes the crossing arch look like a stack of books.

Crossing arch, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

In this closeup, it is possible to see the painted capital and the stacked-book voussoirs of the crossing arch.

Capital and stacked voussoir, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The apse as a whole is a remarkable ensemble featuring painted walls, pillars, and vaults, of course, but also a painted cornice band that circles the entire space connecting with the painted capitals to form a seamless band of instructive decoration.

Apse, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

Again in closeup, we can see the capital and part of the encircling cornice in the background.

Capital and decorated cornice, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This elegant and stylish decoration has a pedantic intent, but the contribution to the visual excitement of the structure is not forgotten. The bright color and the energy of the sculpture makes Saint Sulpice an occasion for pleasure and well as religion, and we can see it everywhere in the details of the ornament.

Altar, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

Dallas Stopover « Joe McNally’s Blog

Dallas Stopover « Joe McNally’s Blog.

Nothing to add here – Joe McNally’s blog says it all.

Full of Grace (Dennis Aubrey)

Sometimes when you are shooting at these beautiful churches you can lose all sense of time. On the day that we photographed the abbey church in Lavaudieu in the Auvergne, we had already shot the extraordinary Basilica Saint Julien in Brioude for three exhausting and exhilarating hours. We could have called it a day but we decided instead to push on to Lavaudieu. We entered the small hilltop village, pushing our leased car up through the narrow medieval streets. We didn’t know precisely where the church was, but experience has shown that they are almost always at the top of the hill in the center of a town. The streets were so narrow that we had to pull in the side mirrors for fear of knocking them off the car, what we called “taking in the ears”.

Near the top we hit a dead-end with a tight right hand turn and no room to maneuver. This did not look good at all. We sat at the intersection trying to figure out what to do and it boiled down to a simple choice. We could somehow maneuver the car to make the turn or back the car up several hundred feet to the previous intersection. I don’t know how we did it, but we managed the tightest possible three-point turn and got through the intersection. We found ourselves at a small tree-lined square in front of the church.

Nave with frescoes at Eglise Abbatiale Lavaudieu (Haute-Loire)

Inside, a beautiful painted church awaited us, quiet and patient. As we admired the frescoes and the superb barrel vault, we found the energy to start our shooting. We spent two hours in the church, moving from one shot to the next, happily capturing all that she had to offer. Finally, after two hours, I was finished, exhausted. PJ was in the distance, still shooting, so I carefully took my equipment apart and put it away for the day. Then I sat down in the last row of pews and happened to turn around. The waning afternoon light was coming through the open west entrance out onto the floor, just barely lighting the stone font.

Eglise Abbatiale Lavaudieu, Lavaudieu (Haute-Loire)

It was a perfect opportunity for a photograph, just waiting there for me. Sometimes the best shots are the result of work, planning and diligence. Sometimes, the gods smile on us and favor us with something beyond what we are capable of planning.

Those who precede … (Dennis Aubrey)

The Via Lucis collection of photographs of Romanesque churches has historical precedents, of course. There are thousands and thousands of photographs in existence, many of them superb professional images, but there are two great historical collections that I would like to honor in this post.

As discussed in previous posts, the French government established the Commission des Monuments Historiques in 1837. The French poet and writer Prosper Mérimée, author of Carmen and other works, was appointed the first Inspector General of Monuments. In 1851 he commissioned the Missions Héliographiques, a group of five photographers whose task was to photograph various monuments throughout France so that the Monuments Historique could select among them for restoration projects. The photographers Edouard Baldus, Hippolyte Bayard, Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq and O. Mestral were selected as documentarians. The intention was to create a tool to help in the selection, not to create artistic images of the monuments.

HENRI LE SECQ. Strasbourg Cathedral, 1851. Calotype. International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, N.Y.

This was the early days of photography. The first permanent photograph was taken in 1826, the first daguerreotype in 1839. The calotype (a negative process using paper sheets coated with silver chloride which could be used to produce positive prints) was invented in only 1840. Mérimée selected the calotype process to be used by the Missions Héliographiques. The photographers produced 300 images in the summer and fall of 1851, the first systematic photographic program of documenting churches and other state monuments.

Aubeterre, France Central Portal of the Church of Saint-Jacques, Gustave Le Gray (1851) (Image in the Public Domain)

Since this time, the Commission des Monuments Historiques has photographically documented French monuments and art works to an extraordinary degree. The artworks selected by the Commission can be found in the exhaustive catalogs online at the Patrimoine de France website, one of our chief sources of information on Romanesque churches and Vierges Romanes.

One hundred years later, another remarkable photographic journey was undertaken by three monks at the Benedictine monastery in the tiny community of La Pierre Qui Vire on the edge of the Yonne and the Côte-d’Or. From 1950-1995 they traveled throughout France and Europe photographing Romanesque churches as photographer-pilgrims. The team, headed by Dom Angelico Surchamp, eventually started their own publishing house at the monastery, Éditions Zodiaque, which printed many superb volumes illustrated with their extraordinary photography.

Images from the Basilique de Saulieu, Bourgogne Romane by Éditions Zodiaque

For a fascinating history of this project, I recommend that you download the article La Pierre-qui-Vire and Zodiaque: A Monastic Pilgrimage of Medieval Dimensions by Janet T. Marquardt of Eastern Illinois University. There is also a permanent link to Peregrinations, International Society for the Study of Pilgrimage Art on the sidebar of this site.

PJ and I feel that we follow in the footsteps of these illustrious predecessors in our photographic work of these great monuments of the Middle Ages. We have the advantages of being able to learn from the tremendous information that they provided on these churches. We also have the advantages of modern digital technology; high-resolution Canon cameras and lenses, superb editing and archiving software on powerful computing platforms (Adobe Lightroom and Apple Computers), masses of data available on the internet, and the extraordinary Google Earth as method of compiling large amounts of data in a geographic database.

Via Lucis Romanesque database for France on Google Earth (Red indicates that the churches have been shot already)

But despite all of the advantages, we have one thing in common with the brothers from La Pierre Qui Vire and the five pioneers sent out by Prosper Mérimée in 1851 – when we enter the church, we must sit alone in the quiet and let the building communicate to us. Light and stone must speak, and we must listen.

Two graceful vaults (Dennis Aubrey)

It seems to me that I’ve spent a lot of time talking very seriously about these Romanesque and Gothic churches, so much so that perhaps it may appear that my view of them is pretentious and self-important. I haven’t spent much time talking about how simply beautiful they are.

The graceful vaulting of the Basilique Saint Hilaire, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Trying to figure out a modern counterpart to these churches that evoke the same feeling, I reflected; what about the photography of Julius Shulman, who chronicled (and perhaps helped define) the rise of modernism? His work is extraordinary and it allows us to enter into and understand the works of the modernist architects.

Maybe it was an extraordinary exhibit of a group of Claude Monet’s series of paintings of the cathedral Notre Dame de Rouen in Normandy. He painted the western portal of the cathedral more than twenty times, the exact same scene under different light conditions. More than anything else in my life, that series of pictures distilled how light completely changes the image that we perceive, indeed that light is the only thing that allows us to see at all. PJ and I witness this ourselves when we shoot in Vézelay – the Basilique Sainte Madeleine changes with both the time of the day and the time of the year, always revealing new and more dramatic moments.

But the prize has to go to something much more populist, and less erudite. It is the sheer beauty of watching Zinedine Yazid Zidane play soccer.

The graceful vaulting of Zinedine Zidane

What Zidane evokes in me is a powerful sensation of beauty; a sense of physical grace, serenity, and elegance, something almost otherworldly. These are the exact same sensations I get in one of the great Romanesque or Gothic churches, and like Monet’s images of Rouen, the passing moments reveal new and deeper beauties. Perhaps the fact that today is a rainy day in August, a bit colder and rawer than I would have expected after a week of warmth and sun, but until today’s meditation, I never would have guessed that the closest approximation to my enjoyment of the Romanesque comes to me from this great French athlete.