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.

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 New Project for Via Lucis (Dennis Aubrey)


As regular readers of the Via Lucis blog know, our work has focused almost exclusively on European Romanesque churches with an occasional foray into the Gothic. We make a regular trip between six to eight weeks to France (and sometimes Spain and Italy) for the photography and then spend the rest of the year writing about the churches that we photographed. It is not unusual for us to leave the cameras unused in their cases for the rest of the year.

We have discussed a US project and have made occasional trips to photograph the Washington National Cathedral, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, and even New England Congregational churches, but have never settled on a full-blown program. That has changed with our new book project, “Frontier Faith – Land of Cross-Tipped Churches”. When we came back in June from France, we decided to do a book proposal and submit it to a publisher, and it was accepted. We started research immediately and last week we started photography.

The Land of the Cross-Tipped Churches is an area in western Ohio radiating 22 miles from the Maria Stein Convent in Mercer County. The region was settled in the early years of statehood by German immigrants drawn by the presence of the communal Society of the Precious Blood. These settlers bought land in the land of dense forest, swamp and marshland that was very difficult to transit. Despite these difficulties, they flourished and carved a rich farmland to sustain their communities. To sustain their enduring Catholic faith, they built the churches that today are known as the Cross-Tipped Churches. This land remains today a culturally and visually distinctive area that is easily identified by twenty-eight Gothic and Romanesque Revival churches that dominate the skyline of the rural, flat farmland.

The churches are identified in “generations” of their construction. The first generation was 1845-1865, the second 1865-1885, and the third 1885-1905. There was a fourth “transitional” generation from 1905-1925. Saint Augustine Church in Minster is an example of the first generation. The Gothic Revival-style building was constructed in 1848 and in 1874 the original spire was removed and twin Gothic spires designed by local builder Anton Goehr were added.

West facade, Saint Augustine Church, Minster (Ohio) Photo by PJ McKey

Saint Michael’s Church in Fort Loramie is an example of a second-generation construction, dedicated in 1881. Like most of the Cross-Tipped Churches, it is built of brick.

Exterior, Saint Michael’s Church, Fort Loramie (Ohio) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The present Saint Michaels Church building is fairly unique in this region because it has a chevet like we see in the churches in Europe.

Chevet, Saint Michael’s Church, Fort Loramie (Ohio) Photo by PJ McKey

The Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics was founded in 1875 which makes it a second genration church. After Father J.M. Gartner entrusted his collection of relics to the Sisters at Maria Stein, Ohio, a beautiful new chapel was built in 1892. The collection, with over 1000 relics on display, is the second largest collection of its type in the United States (after Saint Anthony Chapel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). The chapel and relic chapel are the only interiors we have photographed at this time.

Chapel apse, National Marian Shrine of the Holy Relic, Maria Stein (Ohio) Photograph by Dennis Aubrey

We are presenting two churches from the transitional generation today. Saint Francis Church in Cranberry Prairie was constructed in 1906 and is a brick building with a slate roof in the Gothic style with a 112-foot tower.

Exterior, Saint Francis Church, Cranberry Prairie (Ohio) Photo by PJ McKey

The construction of Saint Bernard Church in Burkettsville, Ohio, began in 1915 but was halted due to the beginning of World War I. Building resumed in 1922 and was completed in 1924. The church is Romanesque style with twin domes, an open belfry and elaborate round stone arches over the doors and windows. The brick is buff colored with a red tile roof and has beautiful stained glass windows.

West facade, Saint Bernard Church, Burkettsville (Ohio) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We will not, of course, abandon our beloved Romanesque churches, but this project will give us something to concentrate on here in our Ohio home. The project should be ready for peer-review next Spring and then for publication in late 2018 or early 2019.

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°

Two Forgotten Cathedrals – Digne and Senez (Dennis Aubrey)


Today’s post is on two of the forgotten cathedrals of the Haute-Provence, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg in Digne-les-Bains and Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption in Senez. Both Digne and Senez lost their episcopal standing at the French Revolution, like so many other dioceses in the region. In fact, while we were shooting in this region of the Haute-Provence, we noted an abundance of former cathedrals. In what was known as the Province of Embrun (Alpes Maritimæ) there were cathedrals in Embrun, Digne, Glandèves, Grasse, Nice, Senez, and Vence. In the adjacent province of Aix (Narbonensis Secunda) there were cathedrals in Aix, Apt, Fréjus, Gap, Riez, and Sisteron.

They must all have administered to limited populations. Vence had a total of sixteen parishes, and when combined into one see with neighboring Grasse, they mustered only twenty-five together. Compare this to the diocese of Chartres which numbered 1,338 parishes. The reason for all these bishoprics in the area, so near each other, is because of a singularity – these correspond with the political divisions of the Romans, the civitates.

Digne’s Notre-Dame-du-Bourg suffered an earlier indignity. At the end of the 14th century, the population of Digne moved to higher ground to defend itself against attacks and they built a new church there, the Église Saint-Jérôme. In 1591, the Huguenot leader Lesdiguières (referred to in our article on Embrun) pillaged Notre-Dame-du-Bourg and the see was transferred to Saint-Jérôme in 1591. Now outside the walls, the Église Notre-Dame-du-Bourg was virtually abandoned and served as a necropolis. It was only in 1962 that she regained her status as co-cathedral with Saint-Jérôme.

Exterior from west, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

Of the two cathedrals, Notre-Dame-du-Bourg is by far more interesting to us. The first church was built in the 4th century around a baptistery, Notre-Dame de Consolation, and expanded a century later with a large church. The structure of the current church was built on this footprint in the 13th century and consecrated in 1330, and – except for a recent authentic restoration – has remained relatively unchanged.

When we arrived, the church was locked but the crypt, the former necropolis, was open as a museum for the archaeological digs that have been ongoing for a century. We talked to the two women who worked there and asked if there was a possibility of photographing inside the church. After some discussion, the senior staffer made a call and then told us to follow her. She unlocked the front door and let me in to the small vestry, which was separated from the church by a glass door. She said that I could photograph from that spot. She must have seen my disappointment because after about five minutes she opened the glass door from the inside and said that we could shoot inside “for a few minutes”. I told her that we would normally spend a minimum of two to three hours in a building like this, but she shook her head. She could only leave her colleague unsupervised for a few minutes.

Western portal, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

In the time allotted we took as many photos as we could manage. Notre-Dame-du-Bourg is basically a long hall church (164 feet) with a nave, no side aisles, and large blind arcades framing windows on the south. It is covered with a fine banded ogive barrel vault. There are two transepts with echeloned chapels in the east wall of each transept.

Nave, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave elevation shows the blind arcade leading to the cornice which hides the springing of the vault. Like her sister cathedral in Sisteron, Notre-Dame-du-Bourg has engaged columns topped by simple capitals that support the bands of the nave vault.

Nave from south transept, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The apse has a flat chevet pierced with three windows and is covered with a barrel vault. Above the crossing on the apse wall is a small oculus. The three windows are by the Canadian artist David Rabinowitch and were part of a 1998 ensemble replacing all of the windows in the church.

Apse, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

In the crypt, there is a Merovingian autel-cippe (funerary altar) dating from the 5th or 6th century on a mosaic platform that was preserved from the first church.

Autel paléochrétien et mosaïque (Source: Routard.com)

The superb 15th century fresco on the south wall represents the Last Judgment. The representation is quite complex, beginning with the top left that shows Christ in mandorla passing judgment. The top row shows the Seven Virtues – Humility, Liberality, Chastity, Patience, Charity, Abstinance, and Diligence. The second row shows the corresponding Seven Deadly Sins – Pride, Avarice, Lust, Anger, Envy, Gluttony, and Sloth. The bottom row shows the punishments in hell for each of the deadly sins above.

On the north wall of the nave is another century fresco of the Annunciation that we unfortunately did not have time to photograph.

Nave frescoes, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, Digne-les-Bains (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In discussing these small, remote cathedral towns, some mention must be made of Senez. Elise Whitlock Rose, one of my favorite observers of medieval cathedrals, wrote about this small village. “The hot sun of Provence, which ‘drinks a river as man drinks a glass of wine,’ shone on the long white route nationale that stretched out in well-kept monotony through a valley which might well have been named ‘Desolation.’ On either hand rose mountains that were great masses of bare, seared rocks, showing the ravages of forgotten glaciers; the soil that once covered them lay at their feet. Scarcely a shrub pushed out from the crevices, and even along the road, the few thin poplars found the poorest of nourishment.

Crossing a small bridge, there came into view an ancient village, a mere handful of clustered wooden roofs, irregular, broken, and decayed.

‘It was a city in the days when we were Romans,’ said the Courier, ‘and they say that there are treasures underneath our soil.'”

Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Senez (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence), Photo by Vida Hunt Francis (1906)

PJ and I wended our way down the same route nationale (albeit paved) and through the same unchanged bare, seared rocks, and crossed the same little bridge into what was probably the same little village with possibly the same chickens poking about the square. A young boy went by kicking a soccer ball and scattering the chickens. I hailed him and asked if it were possible to visit the locked church. He took me to a notice posted on a side door and pointed to a name, saying that this woman had the key, but she was not available right now. We would have to come back another day. He went down the small street kicking his ball and we were left in the quiet square in front of the ancien cathédrale. We would not shoot there this year, but will have to come back to Senez some other time. I think the patient Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption – and the chickens – will wait for us.

Note about the windows: One of the reasons that the we regret not being allowed more time to photograph at Notre-Dame du Bourg is that we could not photograph the stained glass windows by David Rabinowitch. Here is a wonderful article (in French) on these windows. The photographs alone are worth a perusal

Location: Digne 44.097253° 6.242990°
Senez 43.913174° 6.406927°