Pope Urban II and the Priory of Layrac (Dennis Aubrey)

The town of Layrac is about ten kilometers south of Agen in the present day département of the Lot-et-Garonne. The small river Gers cuts through the center of town just before it merges with the Garonne to the north of town. The area has been settled since the Paleolithic era. The medieval town was founded on the small promontory on the site of an abandoned Roman villa. The town achieved a certain importance because of the river traffic on the Garonne. With the founding of the priory of Saint-Martin-de-Layrac, the town grew more important, so much so that it received a customs charter in 1273 allowing it to collect tolls from passing river traffic.

We know quite a bit about the founding of the priory from a charter that dates from December 16, 1064. The donation was made by Hugues, viscount of Brulhois, and his elder brother Hunald, of the house of Béarn for the construction and maintenance of a priory. The name Brulhois (a Gallic word meaning “embankment, border”, “edge of wooded river”) is still known in Layrac from the wine appellation of that name (which happens to be situated next to Buzet, one of my favorites of that region). At the time, Hunald of Béarn was a monk at the abbey of Moissac where he became abbot in 1072. Hunald was a disciple of the famed Hugh of Cluny and he was known for his extreme piety. He is also known as the builder of the priory church in Layrac from a mosaic inscription (since lost, but preserved by antiquarians) that read: HAS AEDES SACRAS FVNDAVIT HVNALDVS – “This temple was founded by Hunald.”

A second inscription (also lost) is even more interesting: ANNO DOMINI MXCVI A PAPA VRBANO II CONSECRATVM EST HOC TEMPLUM IN HONOREM BEATORVM APOSTOLORVM PETRI AND PAVLI ATQVE BEATI MARTINI. “In the year of God 1096 Pope Urban II consecrates this temple in honor of Saints Peter and Paul and the blessed Martin”

Chevet and south façade, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The date of the Urban inscription is interesting because the Pope preached the First Crusade on November 27, 1095 in Clermont about 400 kilometers to the northeast. I was a bit confused why he would leave Clermont, travel all that distance to such an insignificant site as Layrac on his way back to Rome far to the east. I discovered that after speaking at Clermont, Urban went on a long preaching tour, spreading the message of the Crusade through much of France . Urban preached the cross at Limoges in December 1095, at Le Mans in February 1096, and at Nîmes in July 1096. He did not return to Italy until August 1096 well after the first Crusaders were on their way to Jerusalem. Given the date of the Layrac inscription, we can speculate that Urban visited to consecrate the church sometime between Limoge (December 1095) and Le Mans (February 1096), but that is a short period of time for all that travel. It is more likely that he visited Layrac after Le Mans and on his way to Nimes (July 1096).

The nave of the Église Saint Martin is enormous – almost 38 feet wide – and without side aisles. It is reputed to be the widest Romanesque nave, but I am not so sure – the nave at Saint-Avit-Sénieur might challenge for that honor. The vault is also ogive, banded at each bay. Engaged columns topped by capitals with acanthus leaves support the vault bands.

Nave, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The flat walls of the seven bays are pierced on each side by large rounded windows that flood the interior with light.

Nave elevation, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

There is a beautiful semi-circular apse with nine windows. Those windows and the colonettes that support them correspond to the lombard bands on the exterior chevet.

Apse, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is also a fine 18th century canopy or baldaquin in the choir. It frames the new altar area under the cupola in the transept crossing, an area that is ringed in by a stone balustrade. That crossing is topped by a cupola almost 33 feet across. The transepts have chapels echeloned to the east. These chapels can be seen in the exterior view on the eastern side of the transept.

Baldaquin, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

At the south side of the transept crossing there is a superb capital showing a grouping of fanciful lions. All of the details – from the well-coiffed heads and manes to the talon-like claws gripping the edge of the capital – are of the finest workmanship.

Capital, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

On the floor of the choir are the remnants of an early mosaic featuring Samson slaying the lion, illustrating Judges 14:5-6. “Then went Samson down, and his father and his mother, to Timnath, and came to the vineyards of Timnath: and, behold, a young lion roared against him. And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid, and he had nothing in his hand: but he told not his father or his mother what he had done.” This mosaic was recovered only in 1966. There was apparently another mosaic, still visible in 1714, that featured the cycle of David and Goliath. This disappeared during the restorations of the 19th century when the baldaquin was installed.

Mosaic, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Saint Martin has an elegant western portal with finely worked archivolts springing from slender columns topped with historiated capitals. The two flanking columns are topped with capitals as well, and from the abacus on top of each appear to have once supported a substantial arched porch of some kind.

Interestingly enough, there is also a south portal sheltered by a shallow porch that opens into the transept. There is no sign of this in the 15th century plan even though the workmanship of the portal appears Romanesque.

West portal, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The priory church of Saint Martin was inhabited by monks from the noble class who sought to emulate Hunald’s piety. Because they were men of means, the priory was able to finance hospitals, schools, and other charities. We can see from this reconstruction what the 15th century priory complex looked like. All of this contributed to the growth of the town of Layrac, and certainly to this gem of 12th century Romanesque construction.

Nave from apse, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

It is a wonderful fancy to imagine Urban II with his retinue at this smallish priory church in the Agenais … ““Thither came the Pope, Urban II, with a great retinue of bishops, priests, and cardinals .…” We can imagine the stamping horses, the flowing banners highlighting the new stone construction, and the blazes of color. I can almost see the blue of the sky. How this would have impressed the Layracais, both with the pageantry of the Pope and the honor paid to their founder, Hunald! Inevitably, Urban proceeds to his appointment at Nimes, the decorations are removed and the pageant clothing put away. The deserted parvis lapses into silence.

Note: After completing this post, I confirmed the supposition of the time of Urban’s visit to Layrac with the following confirmation of the Hughes/Hunald charter, dated May 1096: Privilegium Urbani Papæ II quo confirmat Hugoni, Abbati Cluniacensi, honorem cum Ecclesia Sancti Martini de Lairaco, quem Hunaldus dicto monasterio delegavit.

And to our surprise, we received further confirmation from one of our readers. Please take a look below at the comment from Jean-Luc Moreno.

Location: 44.13630 0.66028

A Tale of Two Cities – Oloron-Sainte-Marie – Part Two (Dennis Aubrey)

Our last post was about the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie in Oloron-Sainte-Marie. We left off the section about the Quartier Sainte-Marie with a cliffhanger – the church was in shambles after the depredations of the Vascones and the Saracens in the 8th century. But the bad news was not over yet. The church was once again rebuilt but the Vikings decided to make a foray inland and burned that one as well, leaving both the church and the town desolated. It wasn’t for another two hundred years that the decision was made to rebuilt yet again. Amat, bishop of Oloron , archbishop of Bordeaux, laid the first stone of the church in 1089 on the site of the previous cathedral. It was perched on the summit of the steep hill that dominated the rivers below.

The church was completed under Odon de Bénac, Amat’s successor. The entire structure – including the long barrel vault – was built of hard stone. Maybe the builders wanted to guard against the return of invaders and fire! If so, their plan was successful because Sainte-Croix has resisted even the ravages of time. The church we see today is essentially the church that was originally built (except for some ill-conceived exterior alterations). The rather ugly western face of the church was probably a remnant of the destroyed earlier church that was clumsily incorporated into the new church.

It is likely that this church was intended to be the new cathedral – there is indeed a fine structure just a short distance away that was probably meant to be the bishop’s palace. But it seems that the plains of the Quartier Sainte-Marie were more compelling and a new cathedral was built there. Sainte-Croix became, therefore, a substantial parish church.

The church was designed in the normal Benedictine Romanesque fashion of a nave, side aisles, an oven vaulted apse and echeloned chapels on either side of the altar, although there is no ambulatory. The nave itself is covered with a long, banded barrel vault. The first thing I noticed about this church was that despite its strength and solidity, there is symmetry and a fine proportion of its parts. Even the massive nave piers have engaged columns all around that give an appearance of lightness and elegance. Throughout, the round arches are repeated in every direction like the beat of a drum creating the rhythm of the church.

Nave, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But even with this, there is a strange change of perspective at each different area of the church, almost as if we are seeing a different space. Looking at the apse we that the semi-circular back wall is built on a blind arcade of seven arches leading to the second level of three windows. Above, a lovely oven vault completes the ensemble. Nothing else in the church would lead us to expect this sophisticated creation.

Altar, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The decoration of the apse is completely different as well, filled with 19th century murals by Bertrand Bernard and Romain Cazes. But this does not seem to matter because of the way all the vistas of the church change continuously. And the murals combine well with the several historiated capitals on the engaged columns.

Apse decoration, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The completely unadorned side aisles repeat the three bays of the nave except that they are topped with half-barrel vaults. This form allows the side aisle vaults to add additional support to the nave walls on the right.

Side aisle, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This extra support from the half-barrel vaults in the side aisles mean that the openings to the nave can be impressively large. If we compare this to the contemporary monastery church of Ripoll, we can see the difference in the scale of the nave arches.

Side aisle arches, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The crossing is the regionally-familiar ribbed star-shaped dome with eight branches that we see in Torres del Rio and the nearby Église Saint-Blaise at L’Hôpital-Saint-Blaise. The structure is supported by the four squinches in the shape of a scallop shell. This form is of Mozarab inspiration and is found close to or in Spain where that influence was greatest.

Transept Crossing, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

It is difficult to express how much this church moves me. The more I study it, the more impressed I am with the skill and vision of the builders. This is a church that was begun in 1089 and shows none of the advances of Romanesque architecture through the years – no ogive arches, no ribbed vaults. The side aisles have the half-barrel vaults like the previously referenced Monastir Santa Maria de Ripoll, which it resembles in many ways. But it is my opinion that the Église Sainte-Croix d’Oloron deserves even more attention as an example of the best of early Romanesque architecture.

Location: 43.1891° 0.6062°

A Tale of Two Cities – Oloron-Sainte-Marie – Part One (Dennis Aubrey)

The town of Oloron-Sainte-Marie is located at the confluence of two gaves, or mountain rivers in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques; the Aspe and the Ossau. This divides the town into three parts. To the west on the left bank of the Aspe is the ecclesiastic city with the imposing Cathédrale Sainte Marie. This area is known as the Quartier Sainte Marie. To the south on the high ground is the feudal city, which actually started life as a Celtic settlement and subsequently became the Roman oppidum called Iluro (which later became corrupted to “Oloron”). The history of Iluro disappeared with the Visigothic invasions that decimated the Roman province of Gallia Aquitania in the 5th century. Today the high ground of the Quartier Sainte Croix is dominated by the Église Sainte Croix, a fine Romanesque structure. There is the modern Quartier Notre Dame on the right bank of the Aspe but the church there, the Église Notre Dame, is Romanesque in style only, having been completed in 1893.

Nave, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the 4th century, the oppidum became the Christian city of Sainte Croix. The churches of the region were decimated with the invasions of the Visigoths in the following, but the Visigothic king Alaric II permitted Sainte Croix to be designated a bishopric. The first bishop was Gratus, who is celebrated in Oloron-Sainte-Marie every autumn during the Fêtes de la Saint Grat. From the festival logo shown here, my suspicion is that something of the original spirit of the festival has been lost in time.

Sainte Croix did not have much better luck in subsequent years. In the 6th century, the Vascones crossed the Pyrénées and pillaged the area, and in the 8th century the Saracen invasions left Sainte Croix in ruins. The city was almost deserted for two centuries. We will pick up the story of Sainte Croix and the town of Oloron in the next post, because today we will concentrate on the Cathédrale Sainte Marie.

The cathedral is a Romanesque structure built in the 12th century but only the western portal and parts of the transepts remain of that structure. The nave, composed of three great bays, was rebuilt in the 13th century after a fire caused by a riot destroyed the church. It was later raised to a greater height and side aisles added in the 14th century. Of this nave, only the two great pillars flanking the transept remain of the Romanesque church.

The travails of Sainte-Marie continued, unfortunately. The Protestant forces under Mongommery pillaged the cathedral in 1569 and it was not repaired until 1617. It was augmented in 1749 with the construction of the four lateral chapels and redecorated. The main restoration of the church by the Monuments Historique was finished in 1859.

Nave, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In this shot of the nave from the side aisle, we can see the lateral chapels that were added in 1749. We also get a sense of the strength of the structure with its massive engaged columns springing to the vaults above. We also see the nave windows that fill the space with light.

Nave from side aisle, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The ambulatory reveals the 14th century chevet and the sanctuary, enhanced with high arches. Having been rebuilt during a single time frame, this is the most harmonious part of cathedral. The high ogival windows fill the ambulatory with light.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

This shot of the side aisle from the ambulatory shows the 18th century decoration and the 14th century side aisles that were added at the same time as the nave height was raised.

Chapel, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The east end chevet is Gothic, of course, resulting from the 14th century reworking of the cathedral. The ambulatory chapels are clearly visible from the exterior forms.

Chevet, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The crowning glory of the Romanesque portion of the church is the magnificent sculpted west portal, one of the earliest of its kind. We are lucky that the wars and disasters of the past have spared this masterpiece. The unique iconography of this ensemble is thought to be the work of two master sculptures, one who is known as “The Master of Oloron.” His hand can be seen in the tympanum and its depiction of the descent from the cross, as well as the atlantes supporting the trumeau.

The descent illustrates John 19:38-40 – “And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus. And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. (KJV)”

West portal, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The portal trumeau shows two figures straining to hold up the weight of the columns, indeed the cathedral itself. These atlantes by the Master of Oloron are some of many fascinating details to be found in this sculptural array.

Trumeau detail, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The portal is sheltered by an open narthex that empties directly onto the parvis. This Gothic portal was carved into the massive Romanesque tower that dominates the western profile of the cathedral. We can see from this shot that Sainte-Marie is an integral part of the local quartier that bears her name. We can see another of the atlantes supporting the exterior columns here.

Narthex to parvis, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

One of my personal favorite details of the portal are the figures on the central band of the archivolt. They represent the works of the seasons – in this case we see a wheelwright, a mason, and a cooper, but other vignettes include a butcher, forester, cobbler, smith, baker, cook, and even a musician.

Archivolt detail, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Another detail familiar to lovers of Romanesque sculpture are the squatting figures supporting the columns just to the north of the archivolt, clearly unhappy with their burden. The entire portal dates from about 1120, so this is one of the earliest depictions of this pair, others of which are found at the Église Saint Pierre des Tours in Aulnay-de-Saintonge and elsewhere.

Exterior capital detail, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Today Oloron-Sainte-Marie is known mostly as an important stop on the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela, the collection point for the Via Tolasana from Arles. While we were there we saw pilgrims in both the cathedral and the Église Sainte Crois. In the latter, we actually saw a pair of walkers changing their clothes in the middle of the church! I guess we surprised them in the otherwise empty church. Our next post will be about the interesting Romanesque church of Sainte-Croix.

Location: 43.187846 -0.615936

As so often happens, there is a story that goes with this post to show how history is ever-present in France, or at least it has been for me since I was a boy. We have wonderful family friends who live outside the small town of Vivonne just south of Poitiers. The Clain River runs through the Gayet’s property and I was fascinated by the fact that the Saracens followed the Clain on their way to despoil the city of Tours in 732. Just north of Poitiers the Saracen army was met by the forces of Charles Martel and was defeated on October 10, 732. This was the first check in the Muslim conquest of Europe. But even more fascinating to my young mind was a small hill crowned by a flat field that was owned by the Gayet family. It was a lieu-dit called the Champs d’Alaric. The local legend is that after the battle of Vouillé (where Clovis defeated Alaric II and the Visigoths) Alaric was buried with a great treasure on this spot. When we visited the Gayets, I often walked to this hill and and dreamt of the pageantry and tragedy of Alaric’s death.

The Pegasus (Dennis Aubrey)

“Indeed during the Middle Ages there existed a sort of cinema in colors of which no trace has survived; just as in the sudden dawning of a larger hope amongst men who had not forgotten the dark age whence they had emerged but yesterday – a dawning symbolized by the great cathedrals soaring heavenwards – there was a splendid confidence in the future, not unlike that of America.”
André Malraux, “Voices of Silence”

André Malraux observed in Voices of Silence that medieval artists were not creating pictures or statues of Madonnas, they were actually creating a Madonna. They did not think that they were representing the reality, but creating it. They were saying “This is the Madonna” not “This is a picture of a Madonna.”

Notre Dame d'Estours, Eglise Saint Pierre, Monistrol d'Allier (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame d’Estours, Eglise Saint Pierre, Monistrol d’Allier (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

What must have life been like to create such an understanding. I think that we have made clear in this blog over the last few years that these medieval artisans were not in any way primitive or ignorant, but were instead capable of the most profound appreciations of the world and the most profound representations of their deep inner faith. I have come to suspect that they were capable of this because they understood the promise of that faith, they had Malraux’s “splendid confidence in the future”. In my own way, I came to that understanding on December 9, 1977.

On that night, I experienced an enormously powerful and vivid dream that comes as close to sustaining me with a life-giving faith as anything in my self-absorbed and solipsistic life. I still have the original middle-of-the-night transcription of the dream recorded in my journal, dated December 9, 1977:

“Violence dreams by the dozens lately – but the Pegasus dream made up for it. Having captured two men who turned into white horses, feeling threatened, the first horse leaping over the fence at me, I recognize that the second must be released – he is somehow in my power. The second horse climbs a 50’ wire fence and when atop leaps in the air – a beautiful white Pegasus – silver in the cloud-piercing moonlight. Transfixed by beauty – knowing that I can see it because it is there. The passers-by who mock my reverence cannot see it, but it is truly there – a vision of beauty. Donner, one of he men from the concrete pit, related to the Pegasus- stabs me in the back – it must be done – perhaps because I have seen the Pegasus – no malice. Knowing I will die soon I say – let me live for a week so I can see my parents. Death begins physically within, like an interior collapse. I go into the kitchen and see my father. I cry as I hug him and tell him I love him. The feeling of seeing Pegasus before I die, and when I see it I die … but having seen I can die. Pegasus comes from something I am punishing or lead to punishment … something I think wrong, but in reality it is a vessel for Pegasus.”

Study for Guernica horse, Pablo Picasso (1937)

Study for Guernica horse, Pablo Picasso (1937)

I still shudder with discovery as I read this. This was the last entry in my journal for about 17 months.

In the following nights I dreamt sections of the dream again. The first night the dream was complete, and the nights following I re-dreamt segments of the dream as if I were shooting coverage of a scene in a movie, explaining and amplifying different parts of the original dream – never changing, just amplifying. One of them was seeing the second white horse climb the fence, seeing up close how the wire tore into the living flesh of the horse, close enough that I could feel the hot gusting of his breath on my face.

But throughout this time of dreaming, there was a conviction, an absolute conviction, that this was a promise for my life – that I would see the Pegasus before I die, and having seen it, would be prepared to die. This has been my source of faith for my entire life, for my own “splendid confidence in the future”.

Sometimes in reflecting on my life, I wonder how a sane man can live his life based on such dreams? Where is the rational explanation for this disembodied voice speaking to me? I hear it clearly, but there is no visible source. Is this is a vision or a dream? At such moments I understand the Lakota Vision Quest.

Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Santa Maria del Popolo (Rome)

Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Santa Maria del Popolo (Rome)

I always wanted to have my sign, my vision from God to guide me, but have never admitted to it; to be transfixed by light on the road to Damascus where others may see the light but not hear the voice. I want to be in that beatified state where I don’t take photographs, but create churches.

A Smiling Madonna – Amuse Bouche #42 (Dennis Aubrey)

In our many posts about the vierges romanes in France and Spain we have discussed their unique expressions. There is often a distant look, as if Mary is looking into the future, into the sacrifice that will be demanded of both herself and her Son. While there are exceptions like the triumphant Madonna in Saint-Aventin, most have serious expressions.

Today, however, while editing the photographs of the lovely Église Sainte Marie in Corneilla de Conflent I was shocked to find a smiling Madonna and Child.

West portal detail, Église Sainte Marie, Corneilla de Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Given the place of honor in the mandorla of the west portal tympanum, Mary is literally smiling. Jesus, however, is grinning! The effect is completely disconcerting. The sculptor must have had some unique vision to create this ensemble, but for the life of me I don’t know what it was. Perhaps after a lifetime of carving religious figures of the most solemn and serious character, this man or woman just felt that maybe there was room for some levity in religion, some expression of light-heartedness. Here in the remote Pyrénées, perhaps an expression of pleasure was warranted.

Whatever the reasoning, I found the image profoundly disturbing. As I tried to smile back, my lips were drawn back over my teeth in a grimace. I held the expression and went to the bathroom to see it in the mirror – it was grotesque! Coming back to the image I thought, even Jesus’ little bare feet seem to be smiling. The angels on either side also seem to be in on the joke.

West portal, Église Sainte Marie, Corneilla de Conflent (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

If there was ever a piece of sculpture that deserved to be featured as an amuse-bouche, it is this tympanum in Corneilla de Conflent.

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.

A Christmas Letter to My Father (Dennis Aubrey)

My mother and father have given me so many gifts that I don’t know how to ever repay them. By their example they imbued their family with a home filled with love and inspiration. For me, they encouraged a love of travel, of culture, and of history. When we lived in Europe they made sure that we knew the French, that we experienced their life and culture. That encouragement opened my eyes, heart, mind and soul to influences that mark me indelibly to this very day. I was so lucky to have them in my life for so long, but as the years passed, thoughts of mortality intruded into the conversation.

On February 7, 2013, I wrote to my father,

Dad, I know in my heart of hearts that some day I will lose you both, but refuse to believe it and try to convince myself that you will live forever. It is so hard to know that one day my life will go on and you will not be there. All that I can do is to cherish the fact that you are both in good health and part of our life. PJ loves you both – you have filled a void in her life, a corner of her heart that has been empty since she was seven years old. I am so proud to be your son.

Chateau d’Harcourt, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Cosmos (CHAUVIGNY DANS LA VIENNE)

Later that year, on June 11, 2013 at 8:13 pm, my father wrote a comment on a post that I had just published on growing up in Chauvigny, France. He wrote:

Dennis: Your mother and I recall another incident in Chauvigny. You remember that dinner time was when we all talked about what had happened that day. It was our time for stories from school or work or car repairs, as when Lucille took our Corvair station wagon to the local mechanic to have the carburetor repaired (it was the alternator). One evening it was obvious that you had something important to share. After we said grace you said, “Mom, Dad, do you realize we live where the Battle of Poitiers was fought?” We recognize that day as the one that began your love of history.

That note meant the world to me, reminded me of so much personal history and so many memories, but I never wrote him back.

Side aisle looking at apse, Église Notre Dame, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

We did lose him two years later, on July 6, 2015 in the same town – Santa Barbara – where he was born on January 14, 1928. In the intervening years he traveled the world over; the Middle East, New Zealand, Viet Nam, Japan, Korea, Africa, and almost every country in Europe, almost always accompanied by his beloved wife, my mother Lucille. She just turned 90 this month and is a force of nature, but she longs to be reunited with her husband of almost 70 years.

Donald Richard Aubrey (1928 – 2015)

So now, perhaps it is about time to write back to him:

Dad, no question that Chauvigny was a turning point for me. I had forgotten about Mom taking the car to get the carburetor repaired! Sounds like something I would do. But I remember the Battle of Poitiers at that time was the Charles Martel victory over the Saracens, and then later, the English defeat of the French and Jean II in the Hundred Year’s War. Later it also included the battle of Vouillé where Clovis defeated Alaric II – the same Alaric who was supposedly buried in the Champs d’Alaric near Vivonne on the Gayet’s property. The Église Saint George in Vivonne was where Ravaillac had his dream to assassinate Henry IV of Navarre. Just up the road from Vivonne is Lusignan, home to Guy de Lusignan, king of the crusader state of Jerusalem during the Crusades. It was as if oceans of history washed over us. And if that was not enough, from the Poitou we moved to Verdun!!!

I think it would have been impossible for me not to love history as I do. I have always cherished the way you encouraged me in this, walking the battlefields and talking to me. I love you and miss you so.

Your son,


Happy Holidays to all

The holiday season is time to be thankful, and PJ and I have much to celebrate. We are so pleased and proud to have found friends, colleagues, and fellow Romanesque enthusiasts from around the world here at Via Lucis. We would like to celebrate with this photo of Santa Eularia d’Unha in the Val d’Aran

Thank you all, best wishes and blessings to you all.