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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shasclada deth haro, (Lérida) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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

Gascon Treasures (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I have spent the last ten days or so in Gascony photographing the churches here.  In addition to eating well, drinking copious amounts of wonderful Madiran wine, and driving through stunning country back roads, we have found dozens of churches.  Here is a selection of a few that we particularly like.

We are always sad to leave the Dordogne, even mores because we spent time with our friend Diane Quaid at Lacave. We tried to photograph Duravel when we left, but it was closed for renovations, so we could only hope that the Église Saint-Géraud in Monsempron-Libos would be productive. We underestimated what was there – a beautiful church full of fine Romanesque sculpture. PJ’s shot from echeloned chapel to the crossing shows what we found.

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Chapel to crossing, Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

The tiny church in Rouillac in the commune of Moncuq has recently been renovated, showing the fragments of the 12th century fresco to great advantage. I love this shot of PJ’s that conveys the clean, simple lines of the Romanesque architecture.

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Apse, Église Saint Pierre, Rouillac Montcuq (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

PJ and I were working our way through some of the smaller churches in the area and were disappointed by several – some were closed, others had almost nothing Romanesque remaining (“lower stonework on south facing walls”), so when we got to Nogaro, we were in heaven. This shot of the apse shows what we saw the minute we walked into the church. There will be a post on this church later, but we thought you might like to get a preview.

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Crossing and apse, Collégiale Saint Nicholas, Nogaro (Gers) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We will certainly do a post on the basilica of Saint Fris in Bassoues. The legend of the patron saint alone is worth a telling, but for now we will just show the view of the church with its upper and lower apses.

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Double apses, Basilique Saint Fris, Bassoues (Gers) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This region is filled with bastides, fortified towns that were built to protect the residents of an area during a time of constant warfare. Through the entire Hundred Years War and through the Wars of Religion, these walled enclaves were the only place of safety in the Aquitaine. Clermont-Dessus is one of these small bastide towns and it sheltered this modest hall church with a single half-round apse. There were a few capitals but not much other decoration.

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Nave, Chapelle Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Clermont-Dessus (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

The Église Saint Sever is one of the grandest churches we have come across in a region whose churches have suffered intense devastation from war. Though perhaps a bit over-restored, it is a fine example of the region’s Romanesque style.

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Crossing and apse, Église Saint Sever, Saint Sever (Landes) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Right now we are in the foothills of the Pyrénées close to Pau. We are photographing the Compostela churches there before we turn east to the high Pyrénées. We will post more in the next couple of days, perhaps something from the extraordinary collection of capitals that we have discovered here.

First Contact in France – Chartres (Dennis Aubrey)


Last week we finally arrived in France, got our car and drove immediately to Chartres. Our objective was the restored cathedral that we have been documenting for the last six years.

We had lunch with the magnificent Servane de Layre-Mathéus, president of Association Chartres, sanctuaire du monde who has raised so much money in service of her beloved cathedral. She described Chartres as the “Cathedral of Life.” “What don’t you see here that you see in all other cathedrals?” she asked. I could not come up with an answer. “Tombs, she said. “There are no tombs for the dead here.” Once she mentioned it, one could not miss the absence. This is the home of the beloved Virgin and it was not a place for death. The cathedral reflects that purpose now and the difference from the years prior to the restoration is marked.

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Nave, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir). Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I won’t get into what I consider the ridiculous Martin Filler screed on the restoration (and I hesitate even to link to it). I am sorry that his personal preference for the dark, moody, cathedral with its “patina” is gone, but to call the current restoration “scandalous” is simply the work of a provocateur. The difference in the sensibility of the cathedral is enormous. One can actually see the architecture, appreciate the brilliance of the stained glass, and understand the purpose of the building.

The restoration of the interior is not quite finished. The two side aisles and the transepts are still waiting, and several bays of windows are not done. PJ’s shot from the northern side aisle to the nave and crossing shows the difference in the restored-unrestored areas.

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Side aisle to crossing, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir). Photo by PJ McKey

Shooting vaults in large cathedrals can be challenging when using a wide angle lens. It is not like I can lay down and just shoot up … the angles must all align properly, the tripod takes a special setup and I use a laser to center the shot. As a result, there is usually a small crowd of onlookers curious to see what I am doing; certainly there is an element of theater to it all.

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Nave vault, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir). Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But this shot was made more difficult by an example of bad photographic etiquette. I was almost completely finished with the setup, probably fifteen minutes’ work, when a woman came up and asked me to move, as a “professional courtesy”. She was with a photographer who needed to take a full nave shot for a postcard. I reluctantly agreed since I had another fifteen minutes or so of work, stowed my equipment and moved to the side aisle. There I saw what “professional courtesy” meant to her. She was standing next to a photographer with a small consumer camera taking handheld shots with a built-in flash from the back of the church! This is as useless as taking a picture at the Super Bowl using a consumer flash camera. I was furious; and to make it worse, they “chimped” over almost every photograph. Finally they finished and I was able to go back to my shot, but had to start from scratch. Some day I will do a post on photographer-to-photographer etiquette, one of my pet peeves.

Our only disappointment in the three days here was our inability to visit with the rector of the Cathedral, Gilles Fresson. This kind and generous man was completely consumed with the preparations for a broadcast of the Sunday mass on French television and his own interview on the history of the cathedral. Next year, for sure!

Chartres messe

Chartres Mass (cfrt Productions)

And we begin in Chartres (Dennis Aubrey)


Regular readers of Via Lucis know that we are planning our Spring/Summer trip to France and that we have posted about the upcoming section of the Pyrénées. That is the middle of the trip and today’s post is about the beginning.

2015_11_14_0a_cdg-646c0In April we fly into Paris via Reykjavík, Iceland. We do this for two reasons. First we do it because PJ hates to fly and we can break up the transatlantic section of the flight. Second, and most important, we go through the European Union customs in Iceland instead of Paris, and that is worth a great deal right there. Customs is a breeze in Reykjavík and when we arrive in Paris, we pass quickly through in the EU line. Anyone who has been caught in customs at Charles de Gaulle airport (voted in one poll the “world’s most hated airport”) when two or three international flights arrive at the same time knows exactly what this means.

We arrive at CDG about noon and will be on our way in our new car by 1:30 or so. We will head directly southwest to Chartres, where we will spend the next couple of days photographing the magnificent Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres. As you probably know, the cathedral is undergoing an extensive and somewhat contentious restoration. Some critics decry the loss of the “patina” of the church and its associated atmosphere. We believe that the restoration is magnificent and that the patina will be restored over time while the deterioration is stopped.

Apse from the tribunes, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by PJ McKey

Apse from the tribunes, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by PJ McKey

The last time we were in Chartres, the apse had just been completed and the teams were working on the side aisles. The nave was untouched. We understand now that both the side aisles and the nave have been completed, which means the interior is almost complete. Some sets of windows still are being restored, but it will be our first opportunity to see and photograph the restoration of Bay 140, financed by our great colleagues at the American Friends of Chartres, who previously financed the restoration of the superb evangelist lancets in the south transept.

The south transept lancets, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The south transept lancets, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Of course when we go to Chartres we have to visit with the indomitable Servane de Layre Mathéus, head of Chartres, Sanctuaire du Monde, a private French organization, which for 14 years has worked in close cooperation with the Historic Monuments Commission and supports the public efforts of the French government to restore this glorious cathedral. We also get to spend time with Gilles Fresson, historien et intendant of the cathedral. He is a fountain of knowledge about Notre Dame de Chartres and guides us through the walls and in the hidden corners of the structure.

South side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

South side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sirui P-204S monopod

Sirui P-204S monopod

In preparation for the work at Chartres, we have made some changes in equipment. PJ now has a new camera, the latest version of the estimable Canon 5D that she has used for a decade. It gives her much greater resolution and the “Live View” preview.

Our work demands that we use tripods because of the long exposures that we use in the churches. This works perfectly for most of the time, but there are times when the tripod is too bulky to us. For that reason, we also got PJ a monopod, the Sirui P-204S, to carry when she enters the upper warrens of the cathedral. No longer does she have to lug her tripod in those close and narrow confines. With this fine piece of equipment, she has a versatile monopod/tripod that folds down to just two feet and weighs less than three pounds.

It is hard to believe we are so short a time away from this trip. In two months we will be photographing Chartres again starting our France adventure for 2017. Can’t wait to show you the results of the photography and the restoration.

Unrestored Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by PJ McKey

Unrestored Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by PJ McKey

Researching our 2017 trip (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I are now a mere 10 weeks from leaving for Europe and the excitement mounts as the preparations intensify. We have been diligently researching our target areas for the Romanesque gems that delight us. There are many places on the internet, both amateur and official Patrimony sites, where we glean the information. How do we collate it all? Since the very beginning of the Via Lucis project in 2007 we have used Google Earth as the repository of information. Except for a few glitches, it has worked beautifully – as you can see from this map, we are able to track both the churches that we intend to photograph (with the orange icons) and the ones that we have photographed (red icons).

Google Earth database of churches

Google Earth database of churches

Each individual marker contains information on the churches that is important for our research – descriptions from the sponsoring Patrimony organization (in France, this would be the Patrimoine de France), relevant descriptions from expert sources (like the famed Éditions Zodiaque), links to other sites, and photographs. We often include address information (even though the icons are precisely placed over the chancel crossing of every church, if possible) and hours and rules of visitation.

Google Earth entry detail

Google Earth entry detail

We have also been developing the same database for Romanesque churches in England, Spain, Germany, and Italy. Those are, of course, much less exhaustive than the French database. Our French Gothic database is also under early stages of construction. If these seem like exhaustive databases, consider the real numbers. Our French database consists of about 1080 Romanesque churches, which represents less than 25% of the total number found in the country.

Based on these maps, we plan our itinerary for each trip. There are a couple of provisos – we must always stop in Lacave in the Lot to stay (and eat) at the Pont de l’Ouysse. As I have mentioned before, this is my omphalos, the center of my spiritual universe and I have gone there every trip since 1986. The Pont de l’Ouysse is always our “splurge” place but it is worth every penny. Second, we must stay at the Crispol in Vézelay. Vézelay is critical, of course, because of the presence of the magnificent Basilique Sainte Madeleine on top of the hill. But we must also go because across the valley is the Crispol hotel, run by the equally magnificent Paule Schori. She is a force of nature and has become a dear friend. We are so delighted to be spending three days with her again this year.

Hotel Crispol

Hotel Crispol

Finally, we are making one small two-day detour that has nothing to do with Romanesque churches at all. We are going to drive from Sisteron in the Provence through the old Alpine roads to the tiny Italian town of Chiomonte. Why would we do this? Part of it is to drive the old roads that I remember from my childhood. Chiomonte is known for the seven old fountains that adorned the chemin royal of the country. But our reason to visit is the Ristorante e Affittacamere Al Cantoun. The restaurant is a small building in an old private square. The young chef is Paolo Aiello and his Piemontese cooking is spectacular. We stayed there on our way into Italy in 2015 and again on our way back to France – we can get as excited about finding a great new restaurant as an old Romanesque church!

Ristorante Al Cantoun, Chiomonte

Ristorante Al Cantoun, Chiomonte

So the trip is planned, the lodging all booked, car reserved, airplane tickets purchased. We land in Paris on April 19 and go directly to Chartres, where we will spend two days photographing the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres. More on that in the next post!

A trip to the Mountains in May (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I are planning another mammoth photography session in France and Spain this year. We’ll be gone about two months and will photograph most of the southern periphery of France, through the Pyrénées and up through Provence. We will, of course, visit our favorite spots in Chartres, Poitiers, Vézelay and the Souillac, but this is primarily new territory for us. The new stuff begins south of the Dordogne, where we will spend a week between Villeneuve-sur-Lot and Agen. From there, we head to the mountainous border between France and Spain, the Pyrénées, where we will spend a full month.

We begin our trip in virgin Pyrénées territory for us, the extreme southwest of France. In the area around Vic-en-Bigorre ①  we are planning to photograph eight important churches, most of which are part of the Compostella pilgrimage route. We are particularly excited to photograph the mosaics at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption de Lescar.

The Pyrénées section of the trip

The Pyrénées section of the trip

From Vic-en-Bigorre, we head southwest towards the main route into Spain at Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port, but will be using Oloron-Sainte-Marie② as our headquarters. This will be the base as we explore the last French churches on the Compostella route before the Roncesvalles pass.

From Oloron, we make a short drive to Luz-Saint-Sauveur③. The purpose here is to shoot the Église Saint-Savin in Saint Savin and see the Vierge noire des croisades. She is no longer a Black Madonna, but is a compelling vierge romane. In Luz itself is a Templars’ church, Eglise des Templiers de Luz with its own vierge romane.

Next is Bagnères-de-Luchon④ in the Haute-Garonne which we will use to explore a line of six mountain churches in Bonnemazon, Cazaux Frechet, Mont, Saint Aventin, Cazaril-Laspènes and the Spanish town of Bossòst.

Église Saint Julien et Sainte Basilisse, Jujols (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

Église Saint Julien et Sainte Basilisse, Jujols (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

After Bagnères-de-Luchon, we leave France briefly and drive south to the Val d’Aran⑤ in Spain. This is one of two narrow valleys in the Pyrénées region of Spain with a string of beautiful Romanesque churches. The other, the Vall de Boí, is only about fifteen miles south of here but we don’t have the time to shoot there and we are saving these spectacular churches for a later trip. In the Val d’Aran we shoot nine churches, if possible, arrayed on an approximately twenty mile east-west line. Nine churches is a lot to photograph in three days, but we have been offered the logistics assistance of our very kind AirBnB host in the town of Escunhau.

We then return to France and drive northeast to Saint-Lizier⑥, a town with a population of 1500 souls but boasts two cathedrals that testify past prominence.

Exterior of Eglise à Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines, Saint Genis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales)

Exterior of Eglise à Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines, Saint Genis-des-Fontaines (Pyrénées-Orientales)

From Saint-Lizier we continue southeast to the Ariège⑦. Centered on the town of Luzenac is a cluster of four beautiful Romanesque churches.

After Saint-Lizier we are back in familiar territory, the Pyrénées-Orientales, Catalan country. We stop first in Angoustrine-Villeneuve-des-Escaldes⑧. This is at the west end of the long valley that extends from the Mediterranean coast near Perpignan to the heart of the mountains.

Our next stop is a favorite, Prades⑨, home to the music festival founded by Pablo Casals. The Romanesque heritage in this part of the world is astounding, but one of the highlights is that we will return to the Abbaye de Saint-Martin du Canigou and visit with our friend, Sister Anne-de-Jésus.

PJ and Sister Anne-de-Jésus, Abbaye de Saint-Martin du Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ and Sister Anne-de-Jésus, Abbaye de Saint-Martin du Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

From Prades we return to Spain for a week. We’ll spend a couple of days relaxing in Cadaqués⑩ on the Mediterranean.

Cadaqués, photo by Covetotop

Cadaqués, photo by Covetotop

We then return to work and head west to the small town of Besalú①①, home to no less than five churches. There are many eminent churches in the region but we are intrigued with La Vall de Bianya, a narrow east-west valley filled with Romanesque churches.

We are particularly excited that we will get to meet our WordPress friend Covetotop, whose blog is the best chronicle of the Catalan countryside that we have found. At his suggestion we will dine at the Restaurant Can Roca in Esponellá, just outside of Besalú.

Restaurant Can Roca, Esponellà. Photo by Covetotop

Restaurant Can Roca, Esponellà. Photo by Covetotop

This will end our month in the Pyrénées and we proceed to the Provence for a week. There we will continue our strict diet of Romanesque churches, fine food, and wonderful local wines.

The More Fool to Myself (Dennis Aubrey)


I am reposting this article from June 3, 2013 for a very special reason, which will be made clear by the post that will follow shortly But it is important to introduce Mr. Milton Hammer, one of my life mentors. It also, in light of our current political election cycle, completely expresses my sorrow and frustration.

As a very young man, I worked a year in a rare book shop in Santa Barbara, California. The shop was owned by a wonderful couple, Milton and Jessica Hammer, who encouraged my passion for books and my love of all things literary. I spent half my meager salary on books and was never happier than browsing among the treasures. When Milton and Jessica traveled across the country on buying trips, I waited anxiously for the boxed treasures to arrive – to open and catalogue them, the first to touch the wonders.

"The Mystic Mill" capital in Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

“The Mystic Mill” capital in Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One year while traveling they called me to see if a certain important shipment had arrived. I enthusiastically described the books and how I had cleaned and prepped them for pricing and shelving on their return. Milton asked how I liked the letter? What letter? I saw no letter. “Right on top of the books,” said Milton. “There was a letter that we wanted you to see right away.” But I had not seen any letter; I was distraught, even more so when Milton said it was a letter from D.H. Lawrence, one of my favorite writers at the time. It turned out that I was so anxious to look at the books that I threw all the packaging paper away and the letter was among that detritus. I immediately went out to the garbage dumpsters where I had cast the packaging, but this was also the garbage for El Paseo, a large Mexican restaurant next door. No matter, I climbed in all the bins and searched every fragment, in vain. I was covered in filth but all I felt was the shame of losing the precious letter, written by the hand of Lawrence. I still regret this loss.

I have talked often of my sympathetic understanding of medieval relics, and this story probably explains much. To see and hold a first edition of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was like a religious experience to me. I treasure my copy of Siegried Sassoon’s “To A Red Rose” with the hand-tinted illustration by Stephen Tennant.

Stephen Tennant illustration, "To a Red Rose" by Siegried Sassoon

Stephen Tennant illustration, “To a Red Rose” by Siegried Sassoon

One of the treasures I discovered all those years ago at Hammer’s Book Shop was Robert Burton’s “The Anatomy of Melancholy‬” originally published in 1621. I still have my copy of a later edition that was owned by the Hollywood producer Walter Wanger. One of my favorite passages was about the wise men of the past – Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Augustine, and others whose works have endured for centuries. In regard to these wise men, Burton described Bernard of Clairvaux‘s thoughts – “Saint Bernard will admit none into this catalogue of wise men, but only prophets and apostles; how they esteem themseves, you have heard before. We are worldly-wise, admire ourselves, and seek for applause, but hear Saint Bernard … the more wise thou art to others, the more fool to thyself.”

Two Devils Fighting, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Two Devils Fighting, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have lost the ability to see ourselves in this way. The secular rationalism that dominates the western world today has contributed little to the ethical universe but to give us the tools for rationally justifying just about anything, any behaviour no matter how reprehensible. Greed – rapacious desire – is not only condoned, but praised. Envy, insatiable desire, is stoked by an international popular culture where we are exposed to the excesses of the rich and famous and then model our happiness on those excesses. Pride, gluttony, lust, and sloth have been redefined and transmuted into virtues. And wrath? Uncontrolled hatred and anger? It has become the staple of our political life for both the Christian right and the secular left. And expecting our leaders to lie, we no longer hold them to any standard of truth.

If Bernard’s examination was true for the great thinkers of the ancient world, what would he have to say about public figures today? Would he thunder in a voice of righteousness like the prophets of old and lay bare the deceptions and oppression? Would that voice even be heard, or would he be another unheard cry in a lonely and barren desert?

Trumeau statue of Jeremiah, Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne)

Trumeau statue of Jeremiah, Abbatiale Saint Pierre, Moissac (Tarn-et-Garonne) Photograph copyright PJ McKey (All Rights Reserved)

Last night PJ and I were talking and she said how she was so disturbed by the world today, how it moves so fast and is ruled by deception and fear. It breaks my heart to hear her talk like this because I can’t protect her. We can only live our close life with our art and books, family and friends. The flow of the world will nurture or destroy itself and we will be carried on the torrent like leaves on the Orinoco.

Postscript: Milton Hammer contributed a collection of books and letters to the Special Collections library at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The gift contains correspondence, photographs, and other material collected by Milton, much of it during his career as a rare book and manuscripts dealer. It features names like Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Napoleon Bonaparte and Harold Pinter. Box 1:1 is labelled with a name not nearly so distinguished but it has my complete curiosity. The name? “Dennis Aubrey”.