The Mountain Cathedral of Embrun (Dennis Aubrey)


The cathedral town of Embrun has long been a strategic site. It marks the start of the ascent to the Alpine passes and runs along the swift rushing waters of the Durance River. This was likely the route that Hannibal took when he invaded Italy in 218 BC. After the Roman conquest of Gaul, Eburodunum was a strategic trans-Alpine link from Spain and Gaul to Rome, being the key stop on the road from Arles to Briançon.

Embrun was a very early Christian site as well. Marcellinus of Gaul was named the first bishop of Embrun in 354. He built the first cathedral there, but it was destroyed in the invasion of 575 by the Lombards who came through the Montgenèvre Pass and debouched into the Durance Valley (now filled with the Lac de Serre-Ponçon just below Embrun). A new cathedral was built from 810 to 826 with help from Charlemagne, but in 916 the Saracens ransacked and destroyed the city and cathedral, and killed both the archbishop of Embrun and the bishop of Maurienne. The ruined cathedral was restored in the early 11th century and was finally rebuilt in its current form between 1170 and 1251. The Notre Dame du Réal that we see today is a transitional church alternating between Romanesque and Gothic forms.

Transitional though it may be, the cathedral is magnificent. The high vaulting and arches are composed of alternating white limestone and black shale. The vaulting is Gothic, but the nave arches are pure ogive Romanesque. The nave is large, about 170 feet long and 75 feet wide including the two sizeable side aisles. The western wall has a large Gothic-style rose window illuminating this open space. On the left we can see the large organ built in 1464 by Pierre Marchand. This was likely the gift of the Dauphin, the future Louis XI, and is the oldest working organ in France.

Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The superb open choir has a large iron grate protecting it, a gift from Louis XI, the “Universal Spider”. The name was derived from the words of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, who contended with Louis until his death at the Battle of Nancy. During that fatal battle he is reported to have cried out, “I struggle against a spider who is everywhere at once”. Louis was very devout, and on one occasion when he was very sick, he promised to gift a silver altar grate to the famous Virgin of Embrun. When he recovered, he changed it to an iron grate so that it would not tempt thieves to profane her altar with a mortal sin!

Apse from side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by PJ McKey

The south side aisle terminates in an ornate chapel. But of special interest are the four windows rising up toward the choir. These are stairs within the wall rising up to the stone choir loft visible behind the altar.

South side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The north side aisle columns show the remnants of 16th century frescoes on the massive nave piers.

North side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by PJ McKey

Of interest to antiquarians is the north portal, called the Réal. Until 1585 there was a 13th century fresco painted on the stone tympanum representing Notre Dame d’Embrun, also known as La Vierge des Trois Rois because Mary was receiving homage from the Magi. This black madonna was the object of a celebrated pilgrimage until it was destroyed by the Huguenots under Lesdiguières. It is said that Louis XI, who had been the Dauphin and ruler of the province, venerated the Madonna especially and wore a leaden image of her in his hat.

The north portal itself is the finest decoration of the cathedral. The fine columns supporting the archivolts are composed of marbles of different colors. The Lombardic porch features the same alternating limestone and shale stonework as the interior, while the rose and white columns of the porch are supported by a pair of stone lions. Years ago, there was a horseshoe nailed to this great wooden door, supposedly thrown by Lesdiguières’ horse as he was preparing to ride it into the church. The loss of this shoe is reputed by local legend to have saved the church from desecration, although it could not save the fresco of La Vierge des Trois Rois.

North porch, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Against the portal wall are a pair of interesting (and exhausted) atalantes supporting the rear porch columns.

Atlante on north portal, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by PJ McKey

In the south side aisle the Chapelle Notre Dame features a mosaic recalling this famous fresco, but the Virgin is no longer represented as black.

Chapelle Notre Dame, Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal, Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The cathedral of Embrun was our last major shoot for the 2017 trip and it was worth every hour. Louis XI, who has dominated our short history of the cathedral, has the last word. On his deathbed, his final words were to the Virgin of Embrun, Nôtre Dame d’Embrun, ma bonne maîtress, ayez pitié de moi.

Location: 44.562322° 6.495066°

Cagots; the Despised – Amuse Bouche #40 (Dennis Aubrey)


” … cannibal, heretic, and delivered unto all vices.”

The people thus described in the Middle Ages were of no specific ethnicity or religious affiliation. They spoke the same language as their neighbors and practiced the same religion. But they were treated as inferior, stigmatized, and segregated. They had their own doors to churches, their own fonts, and when receiving communion, the wafer was thrown to them, or, if the sacrament was being administered by a sympathetic priest, on a wooden spoon.

Cagot font, Église de Saint-Savin-en-Lavedan, Saint Savin (Hautes-Pyrénées) Photo by PJ McKey

Thee were the cagots, common throughout the Pyrénées, and they were despised. They lived in their own segregated communities, the cagoteries, were restricted to certain trades, were not allowed to marry non-cagots, enter taverns, hold cabarets, use public fountains, sell food or wine, touch food in the market, work with livestock, or enter a mill. They could only marry within the cagot community. Even to the 20th century they were required to wear a special badge featuring the foot of a goose or duck.

Mark of the cagot

These were “untouchables” in western culture and their segregation in a caste system persisted even into the 20th century. There are theories that the cagots were descended from lepers or cretins, that they were remnants of the Saracen armies that intermarried with locals in the 9th century, or even that they were members of a fallen medieval guild of carpenters.

But the truth is that the cagots – these “pestiferous people” – are a mystery, gone from history except for a few remaining descendants and the physical remnants in the local churches.

Postscript – PJ has made a very interesting observation in the figure on the font in Oloron-Sainte-Marie. It appears that his lips are disfigured, as in a herpes-type malady. There are two variants of the virus; one affects the genitals and the other the lips and is thought to be hereditary. Herpes is highly contagious in skin-to-skin contact, which might explain many of the prohibitions. Also, when the virus is contracted, that person is infected for life. Herpes was certainly known at the time; it appeared in Central and Eastern Europe in the 5th century.

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Detail of Cagot font, Église de Saint-Savin-en-Lavedan, Saint Savin (Hautes-Pyrénées) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Celebration in Chiomonte (Dennis Aubrey)


We are often traveling in Europe at the time of my birthday and every year that happens, PJ asks where I would like to celebrate. Usually it will be the Pont de l’Ouysse in the Dordogne or the Crispol in Vézelay, but this year I wanted to do something different. In 2015 when we went to Italy, we stopped halfway just on the Italian side of the Alps to stay at the Affittacamere Al Cantoun, a small hotel with a restaurant in the mountain town of Chiomonte, not far from Susa. We liked it so much that we stayed again on our return trip so that we could sample the wonderful cuisine of Paolo Aiello. So when PJ asked, this time I opted for a two-day stay in Chiomonte which we reached after a three hour run from Sisteron in the Provence through the Alpine passes. We stopped on the way to shoot the magnificent Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal in Embrun.

We arrived in Chiomonte and parked in a square across town after we determined that our car would not fit through the arch that led to the church parking lot we normally park in. As we hauled our baggage into the hotel courtyard we found Stefano, who runs the Afficamare, sitting at table with his parents Fernande and Gaspare.

Affittacamere Al Cantoun, Chiomonte

Stefano greeted us in English, which was a bonus. On our last visit, we spoke almost no Italian (and what I know comes from innumerable viewings of the Godfather trilogy) and what we did speak was cruelly corrupted with pidgin Spanish. The family spoke no English and we stumbled from one language to another trying to find a common tongue.

We had a lovely dinner that night, of course, with a bottle of the local Chiomonte wine to accompany. Paolo came out to talk and in the course of conversation I mentioned that we did not see his fabulous torre di polenta con funghi, a fabulous dish with alternating layers of polenta, wild mushrooms and a rich cream sauce. He apologised and said that was a spring dish when the mushrooms were readily available. He asked if we would like it for my birthday; he thought he could get fresh mushrooms the next day. I greedily replied to the affirmative.

The following day was my birthday and when we went down to breakfast, Stefano asked if we would like to shoot a church in a small village on the other side of the valley. PJ and I were eager to do so and we set a time. When we arrived at 2pm, Stefano, Paolo and their father were there to accompany us in the small car. We could see the church, just a few hundred yards away across the steep valley, but it took about 15 minutes to drive there. Stefano, used to driving in the area and knowing the secret protocols, drove much faster than I would have dared. It was possible he was trying to give me a thrill, because I have a fear of heights. We arrived in Ramats in good shape, though, and were met by a family friend, Giorgio, who opened the church for us. Giorgio made it easier to communicate because he spoke French (he has cousins on the “other side of the mountains”, meaning France).

Paolo, Giorgio, Gaspare, PJ, and Stefano

The church, the Chiesa Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, is mostly 15th century with a Romanesque apse. Unprepossessing on the exterior, it possesses vibrantly colored frescoes.

Nave, Cappella Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, Chiomonte (Piemonte) Photo by PJ McKey

There is some damage done to the 15th century frescoes, but for the most part they are in good condition, covering the vault, rear wall and sides of the apse.

Apse, Cappella Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, Chiomonte (Piemonte) Photo by PJ McKey

It astonished us to find frescoes like this in a tiny village perched on the side of a mountain in the Alps. This ensemble was created by an anonymous artist dubbed by art historians as the “Master of Cognet and Ramats”, referring to the frescoes at the nearby Cappella di Notre Dame del Coignet. The frescoes feature a fine annunciation on the apsidal arch and the life of Saint Anthony in the apse itself.

Apse frescoes, Cappella Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, Chiomonte (Piemonte) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We had a great time photographing the small church in Ramats, but then it was time to go home to get ready for my birthday dinner. And dinner did not disappoint! Not only did we have torre di polenta con funghi made with porcini mushrooms, but I had the boar stew, which was marvelous. After dinner, there was a fuss in the kitchen and then the entire family emerged with a birthday cake!

Birthday cake at Ristorante Al Cantoun, Chiomonte (Piedmont)

This cap to this perfect birthday was going to the town square to watch the final of the Champions League between Real Madrid and Juventus. We were torn in loyalties, because we are Real fans, but Juventus is in nearby Turin and we are big fans of their goalie, Gianluigi Buffon, and their now-departed midfield legend Andrea Pirlo. In the second half, Real scored three goals to take the match, but for me the amazing thing was watching PJ’s performance. Despite being happy for Real, she acted like it was a disaster of the first magnitude for the benefit of the Juventus fans surrounding us. Personally, I was in awe of the performance, worthy of Italian opera buffa or commedia dell’arte!

Watching Champions League Final in town square

The Aiello family made this day very special for me and we hold them dear in our hearts. The welcome, the cuisine, the fantastic alpine setting, all contributed to a most special celebration. All that is left is for us to learn to speak Italian so that we can do their welcome justice on our next visit!

The Monk in the Morvan Forest (Dennis Aubrey)


We are finally home again after two months photographing in France, Spain, and even a little bit of Italy. We drove 6,960 kilometers during that time at an arrive speed of 51 kilometers an hour, which translates to 4,344 miles and a dazzling 32 miles per hour. This demonstrates the narrowness of the country roads where we drive and the amount of time we spent in the Pyrénées and Alps. Until we hit the highway returning to Paris, the average speed was 48 kilometers per hour!

The trip ended in Vézelay at the Crispol hotel, which is almost like home to us. The Schori family is always so welcoming and the addition of the two children Max and Clémence makes it even brighter. It is always bittersweet leaving France. We love it there but we are always anxious to return home, this time to our new house amidst the Amish in Ohio. But this year was even harder because on our last full day, we went to visit Angelico Surchamp again at the monastery at La Pierre Qui Vire. Surchamp is our inspiration and our master, whose two hundred volumes of work documenting the Romanesque religious architecture of Europe is the bedrock on which we build. We arrived knowing that he resides in the infirmerie these days.

He was brought to the parloir in a wheelchair and we could see how feeble his 94 year-old frame is now, how much thinner. But when he recognized us, he lit up like a child and we had the most wonderful hour visit with him. Continually he would look out the window and smile at the blue sky with the great white clouds and remark at them, as if seeing them for the first time. C’est le don du Seigneur pour cette visite.

Teresa of Avila chapel, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

He tired easily but I thought he might want to go outside. He immediately agreed – to PJ’s horror. It was quite chilly outside and she was not sure that the nurse would appreciate us absconding with him. Surchamp rose as if to walk but agreed to let us wheel him out. We took the back way through the refectory and down the service elevator and out into the lower courtyard. We only stayed a few minutes because of the cold, but his eyes glowed brighter and he was transfixed by the site of the forest beyond.

When it was time for us to leave, we told him that we would see him next year. I asked if he would like us to take him to Vézelay to see the Basilique Sainte Madeleine, the church that started his great adventure almost seventy years ago, the first that he ever photographed. His eyes opened wide and he said almost rapturously, oh, oui, si Dieu le veut with a smile. And then he added that he would have to ask the abbot. I told him we would write the abbot about the plans and he repeated that he would have to get the permission of the abbot.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

And then he said, À mon âge, tout ce que je dois donner c’est ma mort – “At my age, all I have left to give is my death.” I told him that he had more to give than that, just the joy of our visit with him was a greater gift. He took my arm, looked at me with that old, wise look and said Nous sommes séparés par des milliers de kilomètres et un grand océan, mais nos coeurs sont proches.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I think he was saying goodbye. We return to France again next year and I can only hope that we see our master at that time. Until that time, we can rest content that he is at peace in the forests of the Morvan.

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

A Column Swallower in the Pyrénées – Amuse Bouche #39 (PJ McKey)


Regular readers of Via Lucis know the fondness PJ and I have for medieval grotesques. Among these are some of our favorites, the column swallowers. We have even found one of these gruesomely compelling engoulants in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum.

On this trip we were photographing in the Haute-Garonne region of the Pyrénées and PJ discovered one of the column swallowers hiding in the Templars’ Church in Montsaunès, peeking out from a column to the left of the altar.

Apse, Église Saint-Christophe des Templiers, Montsaunès (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Unlike many of its brethren, this version of the column swallower seems less monstrous and shows more surprise in his simian features. This was the only column swallower we saw this year in our travels – perhaps he was as surprised to see us as we were to see him!

Column Swallower, Église Saint-Christophe des Templiers, Montsaunès (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Medieval Surgery – Amuse Bouche #38 (Dennis Aubrey)


A couple of weeks ago, PJ and I had the pleasure to photograph the fine reconstructed Romanesque cathedral in the Pyrénéan town of Lescar where the royal family of Navarre was buried for some time. The reason we were excited to come, however, was the presence of the Romanesque mosaics in the apse that were rediscovered in the 19th century. The remaining fragments are in almost perfect condition.

One of the two panels is of particular interest – a hunter with a bow clearly has an artificial leg! It appears that this represents a Moorish soldier from Al-Andalus who lost his leg in the battles against the encroaching Christians during the Reconquista. After he was fitted with his artificial leg, he fought again against the Christians and was captured by Gui de Lons, who subsequently became the bishop of Lescar and founded the cathedral there. He served as a slave and later became a friend to the Bishop, who immortalized him in this mosaic in the apse.

Mosaic, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Lescar (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The donkey following the hunter has a purpose in the composition – not only is it following the hunter-master, but as shown in the next photograph, actually hauls the hunted prey, in this case a resisting wolf.

Lescar wolf

Mosaic detail, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Lescar (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have since discovered that the nearby church of Saint Aventin has a capital depicting one of the Saracen captors of Saint Aventin who also has the exact same leg prosthesis. This is certainly a subject for further investigation.

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 Val d’Aran – Tapas, tres Esglésies, and the Haro (Dennis Aubrey)


In the Middle Ages, there were areas in Europe that existed in an isolation almost inconceivable today. In the center of the Pyrénées, just south to the current border of Spain, is a small east-west valley tucked into the mountains. During the winter snows, the valley is almost completely inaccessible. But in that valley there are thirty villages, each with a Romanesque church built mostly in the 12th and 13th centuries. Every hillside reveals another, often perched just above that of an adjoining village just a few hundred yards away as the crow flies but miles away by twisting roads.

Today, these churches are intact, most in good condition, and all of them of a style consistent with each other, even to the baroque retables and the restorations. Unfortunately, only a few are open to visitors, so we did not have the greatest hope of seeing more than one or two in detail. But that changed when we met the remarkable Diana Falcon, a journalist who lives in Bossòst and offered to help us out in our work. Diana made arrangements for us to get into churches that were closed and gave us invaluable information about almost every church in the valley, all of which she knows well. She is a lover of the Romanesque and all things archaeological, her husband is an architect with a passion for Romanesque, and we could not have found a better guide!

With her help we planned our four days in the Val d’Aran and were able to see about a third of the churches. We started with the northernmost church in the town of Bossost, the gleisia Mair of Diu dera Purificacion.

South facade, Mair of Diu dera Purificacion, Bossost . (Lérida) Photo by PJ McKey

Small, like most of the churches in the Val d’Aran, the Mair of Diu dera Purificacion is unusual in that it has side aisles. We photographed for about an hour and a half and then decided to lunch on the square right next to the church. Tapas was the order of the day, with the stars being roasted salted green peppers and a fantastic Jamón ibérico. We even broke our norm by having an alcoholic beverage, a glass of wine for PJ and a beer for me.

Nave, Mair of Diu dera Purificacion, Bossost . (Lérida) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Arties is in the center of the valley and features a beautiful, complexly painted three-aisle church. This was one that Diana made special arrangements with Elisa Ros Barbosa of the Airau de Patrimòni Culturaur for us to visit and it was worth every second.

Apse, Santa Maria de Arties, Arties (Lérida) . Photo by PJ McKey

The 15th and 16th century frescoes cover much of the apse and the pillars of the crossing and are worth a study of their own. A detail from the Last Judgment and the fate of the damned brings to mind the great tympanum at the Basilique Sainte Foy in Conques. And notice that prominent among the condemned are a cardinal and a couple of kings! Subversive!

Fresco detail, Santa Maria de Arties, Arties (Lérida) . Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have noticed that most Spanish churches were renovated and decorated in the Baroque style and Diana confirmed our suspicians. The influx of wealth from the New World found its way across Spain and into these humble Romanesque churches. Today we find these additions in even the most modest churches. What is amazing is how well integrated the baroque is with the Romanesque.

North side aisle, Santa Maria de Arties, Arties (Lérida) . Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The third church in this little survey is Sant Andreu de Salardú, one of the grandest in the region. As we would expect, it is filled with baroque additions, but the extent of the fresco work is extraordinary – every surface is filled with the story of the church and the faith.

Crossing pillars, Sant Andreu de Salardú, Salardú (Lérida) Photo by PJ McKey

The vault below the crossing is a Sistine Chapel of its own with imagery rising up from the columns to the arches and then to the four segments of the groin vaulted crossing.

Painted crossing, Sant Andreu de Salardú, Salardú (Lérida) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Diana was a fount of information not just about the churches but every aspect of life in the Val. She told us of a festival in the village of Les, La Crèma deth Haro, that takes place on June 23 for the Feast of San Juan. A tall tree is stripped of its branches and bark, split open with wedges, and erected in the Place del Haro in the center of town. During the year, people place wishes written on pieces of paper into the wedges, and on the festival night the Haro is burned with great celebration.

Les 22/06/2013 Sociedad Fiesta de Sant Joan en la Vall D’Aran queman el Haro, Foto de RICARD CUGAT

We would not be in town for the Feast of San Juan but we went to view the Haro as it stood in the Plaza. There we stumbled upon something completely unexpected – the villagers were gathered to celebrate of the Shasclada deth haro, where the replacement haro is prepared for the next year. The entire population of the town was singing, dancing, and feasting as the men of the town hammered, cut and split to create the next haro.

Shasclada deth haro, (Lérida) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This festival predates the ascendancy of Christianity in the Val d’Aran and elsewhere in the Pyrénées, and we feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see the the Crèma deth Haro in real life. We are planning a return to the Val d’Aran, perhaps at the same time that we shoot the nearby Val de Boí, another treasure trove of Romanesque architecture. Our first call will be to Diana and her comprehensive knowledge of the area she loves so much.