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,

Dennis

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.

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?

And of course our readers came through – both Yuri de la Pena and Evelyne Clerc found the text: RES MIRANDA NIMIS MATER DEI ERAT VI NIMIS. This translates to “Thing worthy of admiration, the Mother of God is all powerful”. however, Project Gutenberg states, “In translating RES, avoid at all costs the word THING, or THINGS, and let the context guide you to the appropriate English word.” I will essay the following translation, “Of all who are worthy of admiration, the Mother of God is omnipotent.” This certainly fits with the triumphant Madonna.

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.