The Saint and the Simpleton (Dennis Aubrey)


There are so many wonderful stories and legends associated with the churches we photograph in France, but none is more pleasing than that of Saint Menulphe and his friend, the Simpleton of Mailly-sur-Rose, a town in the Allier.

Statue of Saint Menoux, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Statue of Saint Menoux, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Menulphe was the son of an Irish king and very devout. He traveled to England, Brittany and France and was recognized for his sanctity. When the Pope heard of this and asked him to come to Rome, Menulphe walked the route in poverty, a mendicant with no possessions. On his return, he stopped in Mailly-sur-Rose, exhausted with his journey. During that time, Menulphe took pity on an innocent named Blaise who was the scapegoat for local children. One day he intervened as the young urchins threw stones at Blaise. He chided the boys and took the young man under his protection. Blaise was described as a simpleton, one who could barely speak, and never left Menulphe’s side. He couldn’t pronounce his protector’s name and “Menulfe” became “Menoux”.

When Menoux died, Blaise thought that the holy man was asleep. He spent his days and nights at the grave, conversing with his friend. One day visitors to the cemetery saw that the coffin had been dug up and that there was a hole in the side. They discovered Blaise laying on his stomach, with his head in the hole, talking to someone. The local people were scandalized but the curé said, “Poor Blaise, he is a better and more faithful friend than we are. Perhaps he is the least crazy of all.”

The Curé placed Menoux’s remains in a sandstone sarcophagus and had an opening cut into one side. Blaise spent the rest of his life conversing with his friend, and miraculously, the troubles of his mind faded to the point that he was able to serve mass. At the time of his death, Blaise had the reputation of being a simple, faithful man, as sensible as anyone.

La Débredinoire, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

La Débredinoire, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Thereafter, in memory of the miraculous healing of Blaise, parents led the bredins, the simple-minded, before the tomb of Menoux and placed their heads carefully into the sarcophagus – the débredinoire – hoping for the same healing that Blaise experienced. Eventually the site received such a number of pilgrims that the Benedictines built an abbey on the site under the direction of the Abbess Adalgasie and placed the sarcophagus with Menoux’s relics in the choir. They also changed the name of the village from Mailly-sur-Rose to Saint Menoux. The fairs held by the abbesses attracted vendors and buyers which led to the expansion of the village.

The church gives an idea of the importance of this abbey and the monastics who resided there. It was built in the classic Cluny style in the early part of the twelfth century. The nave has three tall, narrow bays with ogive arches covered with groin vaults.

Nave facing west, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave facing west, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The side aisles are, as usual, visually stunning. We see the long, uninterrupted flow to the ambulatory in the distance.

South side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

South side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The north side aisle, however, has a unique feature. Just to the west of the transept arch is a rather clumsily executed structure that contains a stairway leading to a defensive tower on the exterior. Poking up through the roof, that tower looks almost like a minaret.

North side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

North side aisle, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The raised apse is perhaps the finest element of the church. The choir has two elegant high bays topped with clerestory windows while the chancel features a seven bay hemicycle with an arcade of windows leading to the oven vault.

Apse, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The débredinoire of Saint Menoux is found centered behind the altar in the chancel. These reliquaries have been placed between the pillars of the central hemicycle arch and the tomb can be seen just behind.

Reliquaries, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Reliquaries, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

The oldest part of the church, built in the eleventh century, is the narthex on the west end of the church. This antechamber has beautiful arcades supporting a short barrel vault. Some of the pillars are topped with capitals, but it is clear that the restoration was not complete. Fragments of some of the original statuary are rather casually displayed in the arcades.

Narthex, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Narthex, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Today, the abbey is gone – only the church remains after the destruction of the French Revolution. The town of Saint Menoux is quiet and peaceful for its 1,009 residents. The church is not well tended; there are rat droppings and cobwebs throughout. Dust cakes the benches and the chairs, but pilgrims still frequent the Église Saint Menoux in order to use the débredinoire for relief from feeble-mindedness or headaches.

Lest we think that credulous in the Middle Ages were alone in these workings, look at this passage in “The Invisible Architecture” by George Prat (2000).

“For more than forty years I made fun of the débredinoire which I considered an example of public credulity … My surprise was great to see that the débredinoire works and is not a gimmick. The débredinoire is placed at the geometric center of the apse …. and is located at the junction point of the telluric current and four streams of water. … When one realizes that this is a machine from another age and can be activated by an ‘acupuncture point’ located nearby, we are amazed at the electrical energy released … The débredinoire is actually an instrument of care-giving; when used correctly, the equivalent a high intensity shock is given to the user. This is certainly very effective in the case of some nervous breakdowns.” People will always find a reason to believe if the need is great enough.

Demon Capital, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Demon Capital, Église Saint Menoux, Saint Menoux (Allier) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Our daughter Sarah suffers from debilitating migraines and PJ placed her own head in the sarcophagus in hopes of helping. I guess it doesn’t hurt to try! But you must be careful not to touch the tomb while inserting your head. You run the risk of absorbing the feeble-mindedness and headaches of all who preceded you!

If you are interested in seeing some other churches in this region, follow this link.

Location: 46.585211° 3.156842°

The Metropolitan and his Cathedral – Saint-Étienne de Sens (Dennis Aubrey)


The Department of Yonne in Burgundy is one of our favorite places in France and very fertile for our photographic explorations. It is home to the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay, the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne in Auxerre, the Collégliale Saint Lazare in Avallon and also the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens.

Today, Sens is a fairly quiet town of about 27,000 people, the second most important of the Yonne after Auxerre. One would have no idea from its current state just how important Sens was in the Middle Ages as the seat of the “Primate of Gaul,” perhaps the most important bishop in France and superior to the bishopric of Paris. For much of the early Middle Ages, the Kings of France were anointed here, not at Reims.

Sens was the capital of an ecclesiastical province composed of several neighboring dioceses and headed by a metropolitan, the archbishop designated by the Pope. At its height, the Archdiocese of Sens counted seven suffragans – subordinate bishops – at Chartres, Auxerre, Meaux, Paris, Orléans, Nevers, and Troyes. Only in 1622 was Paris raised to the status of a Metropolitan See and Chartres, Orléans, and Meaux were separated from Sens.

Nave, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sens was an important settlement long before the Middle Ages. It was the site of an oppidum of the Senones, a Celtic tribe of Gaul. Caesar called it Agedincum and it later became an administrative center of Roman Gaul, situated at the intersection of the roads from Troyes to Orléans and Lyons to Paris . The first recorded Christian activity on the site was founded by the Saints Savinian and Potentian, sent by the Bishop of Rome in the 4th Century to proselytize the Gauls. They were martyred in 390. Their church was rebuilt in the sixth or seventh century. In 731, the Saracens ranged far enough north that they besieged the town, which was rescued by its bishop.

In the ninth century, the earlier church was succeeded by a Carolingian edifice, but this burned in 982. The church was immediately reconstructed by the Bishop Seguin and consecrated a few years later.

Around 1135, the Archbishop of Sens, Henri Sanglier, decided to replace the Carolingian cathedral of the tenth century with a structure befitting the importance of the metropolitan see over which he presided. Archbishop Sanglier was a singular person in the French landscape. He was a friend of both Abbot Suger of Saint Denis and Bernard of Clairvaux. He twice gave refuge to Thomas à Becket during his struggles with King Henry II. The second time was after Becket was forced to leave the abbey of Pontigny after the English monarch threatened to close every Cistercian house in England. When he was welcomed to Sens, Becket enthused, “ô douce, encore, ô très douce France! Oui, elle est douce, vraiment douce, la France!”

At the time of Sanglier’s rebuilding, church architecture was dominated by the great Romanesque churches. Sanglier commissioned a new architect to build his new church, who proposed building with a revolutionary form of vaulting – the rib vaulting that had begun to appear in the Norman churches in France and England. Although the finished cathedral in Sens was not completed for four centuries, the main structure was the product of a single mind, Guillaume de Sens. While there is no direct documentary record, there is enough evidence that we can perhaps infer the identity of the architect.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Saint-Etienne was constructed in its original form between 1135-1164 and was consecrated on 19 April 1163 by Pope Alexandre III, who was then in exile in Sens. This makes Saint-Étienne the oldest Gothic cathedral in France. The first Gothic structure is the Abbey Church of Saint Denis, built by Suger, but it did not become a cathedral until the 20th Century.

There is an interesting side note to Guillaume de Sens. Becket was at Sens during the time of the building of Saint-Étienne and when he returned to Canterbury, he made plans to rebuild the cathedral there. He was assassinated before he could do so, but the architect who was hired to build was the same Guillaume de Sens. Some historians speculate that Becket made the recommendation. In 1180 while working on the construction, Guillaume fell fifty feet from the scaffolding. Crippled, he returned home to Sens where he died soon after.

Nave and sexpartite vaulting, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave and sexpartite vaulting, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The architecture of the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens is defined by three elements – the vaulting, the width of the nave, and the style of the nave pillars and columns.

The church features early Gothic sexpartite vaulting over a modest clerestory, and may even have been the first church to be completely vaulted in this manner. Like the Romanesque churches it was designed to supplant, there was a gallery between the aisle arcades and the clerestory level.

Crossing vault, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crossing vault, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The church’s size is fairly modest, perhaps because the builders were not completely confident in the new architectural style. Saint-Étienne feels Romanesque; it is perhaps more solid than beautiful.

The interior lacks height but is very wide. A comparison with the almost-contemporary Notre Dame de Paris is telling. Sens’ length is 113.5 meters, which is smaller than Notre Dame de Paris at 128 meters. The nave height is 24.4 meters, much lower than Paris’ 33.5 meters. The width of the nave, in contrast, is 15.25 meters, almost two full meters larger than Paris. This width is one of the distinguishing factors of the Saint-Étienne de Sens. It also makes clear the builders’ intent to cover the structure with a vault, since it is too large for a wooden roof.

Finally, there is an interesting variation in the nave arcade supports – alternating piers and columns between the bays. This was not an innovation at Sens, but a very interesting stylistic choice.

Alternating pillars and columns in nave, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Alternating pillars and columns in nave, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

In addition to the architectural details, Sens contains some magnificent stained glass throughout the cathedral.

Transept windows, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Transept windows, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

There are four in particular that are remarkable – the choir ambulatory lancets that were created at the beginning of the 13th Century, probably from Suger’s school at Saint Denis. They tell the story of Saint Eustache,the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan and finally the story of Thomas à Becket and his martyrdom at Canterbury.

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The cathedral is the heart of Sens, visible from a great distance across the Yonne plain. There is little in the modern town to suggest that it was at the center of the life in 12th Century France and home to one of the most powerful prelates in the Church. But stepping inside, we can see the care and pride of both the patron and the builder in the stone and glass of Saint-Étienne de Sens.

Ambulatory chapel, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory chapel, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 48.198142 3.284078

Color and Saint Austremoine (PJ McKey)


Every time we visit Saint Astremoine in Issoire, I cannot help but think of the impression it must of made in times less cluttered by man-made visual stimuli. This year during our visit I found myself in the south side of the ambulatory transfixed by the riot of patterns and color. I always try to capture what I’m experiencing but inevitably fall short. The camera can’t capture my emotional response to certain colors, to being surrounded in this place.

South side aisle, Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy de Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Saint Austremoine is joyous. The colors sing and there is nothing somber or fearful. This is a church that can only be experienced.

Ambulatory, Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy de Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

A trip into the crypt really felt like a descent into harder times. It evokes the seriousness of a martyr’s death and the burden of man striving for the light.

Crypt, Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy de Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

It was pure relief to go ascend into the church and emerge once again in the land of the living color.

Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy de Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

If you are interested in a previous post on this church, follow this link.

Location: 45.543522° 3.250213°

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.

The Magnificent Fragment of Donzy-le-Pré (Dennis Aubrey)


Most of the time when we enter a church we are overwhelmed with the sheer amount of material to shoot. There is the church itself – how it is built and laid out, the patterns of the arches and the arrangements of the volumes. But on top of that, there is a wealth of detail – sometimes sculpted or painted, but sometimes just a magnificent arrangement of stone. The tympanum at Conques has taken me the best part of two days to photograph and I’m still not sure that I’ve captured it. It has taken me four sessions in Vézelay to photograph just the capitals and I know that there are angles and details that have been missed. We almost always feel that we never have enough time to do the church justice.

Exterior, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

Exterior, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The Église Notre-Dame du Pré in the Burgundy town of Donzy-le-Pré might seem to be an exception because it is almost completely a ruin. All that remains of the Benedictine priority is the west narthex, the north tower and part of the south tower. The church itself is gone. One other element has survived mostly intact – the 12th century tympanum over the narthex entrance. Because the church is gone, I was able to spend some time photographing this sculpture and to find the right lens to do so. In this case, it was using a 400mm lens from a great distance so that the photos could be taken from almost straight on. In this way, I could avoid the sense of “looking up” at the sculpture.

Tympanum, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Tympanum, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In this shot of the tympanum figures, we see Virgin and Child seated on a throne in the Heavenly Jerusalem, flanked by the prophet Isaiah on the right and an angel on the left. Notice the superb carving of the archivolts. We can still see the traces of the polychrome painting when the light is right.

Tympanum, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Tympanum, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Over the Virgin is a wonderful detail that reminds me of the Conques tympanum. The hand of God reaches down in benediction over the scene.

Detail – Hand of God, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Detail – Hand of God, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Isaiah figure is well defined; he carries a scroll and a palm frond. The sensations of weight and volume in the folds and the knot on his tunic demonstrate such a fine touch of carving.

Isaiah detail, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Isaiah detail, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One of my favorite details is the addition of the tendons seen in the hands. These faint lines give more definition to the figure and demonstrates a knowledge of anatomy.

Isaiah hand detail, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Isaiah hand detail, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The tonsured angel on the left is framed both by his halo and the patterning of the different feathers of his open wings. In my imagination, he has just alighted to his position next to the Virgin and Child.

Angel, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Angel, Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But my favorite detail of this angel is the position of the feet on the slanted base of the tympanum composition. He is perched perfectly and we can see his feet holding tight on the slanted surface as the swirl of his robes enhance the feeling of movement.

Angel detail – Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Angel detail – Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Knowing that the Église Notre-Dame du Pré was a ruin meant that we had little expectation when we visited. Actually, the only reason that we stopped was because it was on the way of our oft-traveled route from Vézelay to La Charité-sur-Loire. But we were moved greatly by the magnificent ruin. It helped me realize what an extraordinary invention of the Romanesque was the tympanum sculpture.

Location: 47.366013° 3.111206°

The Chiaroscuro Church Part Deux (Dennis Aubrey)


Today we are featuring another shot continuing our examination of the wonderful chiaroscuro effects that we see in the Romanesque churches in France and Spain.

Eglise Abbatiale Lavaudieu, Lavaudieu  (Haute-Loire)

Eglise Abbatiale Lavaudieu, Lavaudieu (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This shot of the doorway was the result of an accident. The church in this little Auvergnat town was the third we had shot in the day and after two hours, I was exhausted and finished. While PJ continued to shoot in the apse area, I packed up my equipment and sat down to rest. At some point my gaze turned to the door and this is what I saw. Five minutes later, the equipment was set up and I took this single shot. The way the light from the doorway modeled the stone font and the arch of the south wall is marvelous.

Two Suns (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I look forward every year to our sabbatical in Europe to photograph the Romanesque and Gothic churches that are the backbone of Via Lucis. Of course we love visiting with our friends there, staying at our favorite hotels, eating the wonderful meals and drinking the wine. The churches themselves are glorious and we have never for a single moment tired of photographing them.

We have written often of how the churches move us profoundly and stir deep emotions. But the churches themselves are only part of that experience. Travel itself is important, the journey that we take across the Atlantic and into the heart of France. We leave the familiar and the security of the understood.

South side aisle, Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy de Dôme)  Photo by PJ McKey

South side aisle, Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy de Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Travel somehow clarifies experience like heat clarifies butter. By removing ourselves from familiar surroundings, we sometimes recognize the forces operating on us, and perhaps the place our life occupies in the world. It is the reason for the expatriate literary movements throughout history. As strangers, we see our world and ourselves more clearly.

In this way, Hemingway discovered his moveable feast, Sinclair Lewis his Babbitt, and Picasso his Demoiselles d’Avignon. In this way, PJ and I have discovered Sainte Madeleine of Vézelay, Saint Austremoine of Issoire, and Notre Dame de Chartres.

View from the tribunes, Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure)  Photo by PJ McKey

View from the tribunes, Notre Dame de Chartres (Eure) Photo by PJ McKey

On a visit to Turkey quite a few years ago, I felt that something inside me was changing. I remember thinking “Something is happening to me here if I let it sink in and let it take root. Something in me has changed. The world is somehow different to me.” Standing in the theater at Pergamum, the words of Euripides came to me; “I see two suns, two cities, two Thebes, each with seven gates, and you, you are a bull.” On the ground lay a fallen Corinthian capital, surrounded by living acanthus plants. The carvings on the fallen stones were the exact acanthus that encircled them.

I remember almost crying as I felt and understood the world differently, if only for a moment. I was somehow open to the new sensations, uninterrupted, uninterpreted, and unanalyzed. The ideas and sensations washed over me. But even at that moment I asked myself “Can I let it take root?” Or would I use the understanding brutally – corrupt it somehow into merely an anecdote.

Nave from narthex, Basilique Saint Julien, Brioude (Haute-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave from narthex, Basilique Saint Julien, Brioude (Haute-Loire) Photo by PJ McKey

That night, at a banquet in Izmir, ancient Smyrna and the birthplace of Homer, a belly dancer was brought in for our amusement. She danced for us, and then she danced with individuals at the table. It was inevitable that I, a foreigner, would be chosen to dance with her. For a moment that night, before the belly dancer was sent to me, I wondered what I would do it if happened. Would it be the false abandon of the Russian who just a moment before had danced, or would I have the natural joie de vivre of the large Turk a few minutes earlier? The moment came and I didn’t think. Three glasses of Turkish wine perhaps and I was dancing, smoothly, unconsciously. For the briefest of moments Dionysus lived with me, so close to his home in the wilds of Lydia. “And you, you are a bull.” The moment at Pergamum returned and I danced. And through all this, with the narcissism of the artist, the professional dancer watched herself in a mirror as she moved; unaware that the spirit of her god was just inches away.

Chancel of Cathédrale Saint-Trophime (Photo by PJ McKey)

Chancel of Cathédrale Saint-Trophime (Photo by PJ McKey)

Time is fleeting, and in our human art and architecture we try to capture what moves us in life. In the acanthus leaves at Pergamum I saw the intertwining of art and nature for the briefest moment. In the churches in our foreign lands, we see the remote currents of art, history, faith and philosophy feeding into our today, reminding us of the value of what is important in life for the long term, not just the brief raptures of fashion.

Capital, Salle de Justice, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital, Salle de Justice, Palais du Tau, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey