Memories (Dennis Aubrey)


Recognizing truth is a matter of experience because it involves distinguishing the real from the illusory. Experience itself is a product of memory. And memory is even more complex than truth. And so the pattern gets more multi-faceted the deeper we look, like one of Mandlebrot’s mathematical phantasms. What appears at first simple becomes infinitely complicated and intricate.

Side aisle, Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

Some memories we remember as dreams, in the present tense; others as historical phenomena that stay safely in the past. Some memories carry their meaning with them. Others mean something because of their relationship with something that occurred in the past. Others depend on the future to reveal their significance. This is the web that is woven back and forth, across and through time.

North side aisle, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Some memories lie dormant until something conjures them up. When my brother David and I were 11 and 12, our family moved back to France from the United States. We had lived in France before and as small boys we spoke the language fluently, but had been in America for the past six years and forgotten all we knew. For the first week or so after our return, we lay in bed in our hotel room at night before going to sleep, counting the French words we had newly learned. One day we might know twenty or thirty, the next day perhaps a dozen or so more. Then one warm summer afternoon we went for a walk in the countryside and passed through a small farming village. While walking along the road we smelled the very particular and very familiar smell of a French farm village. It was so clear to us that we knew that smell from our past. We remarked on it and left the significance behind. That night as we lay in bed, we tried to count the French words we knew, but couldn’t. Words and phrases flooded back to us and we couldn’t keep up with them. That smell of the farms unlocked the memories, and a language associated with those memories.

Side aisle of Notre Dame de Mont-Devant-Sassey (Haute-Marne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

There are certain things that are done to consciously preserve memories, to fix moments in time so that they will never be forgotten. We take pictures, write descriptions and letters, film with a camcorder, and still it is not possible to retain a memory in its entirety. Most of the time, parts are remembered and then the detail is filled in with ideas, interpretations, and transitions that have no relationship to the original. And then other times something happens in a moment that is unforgettable and complete, and as long as there is a portion of that singular memory, the entire memory will be complete. Once, in Los Angeles I was a driving on the streets. I slowed at a corner to make a right turn in heavy traffic. As I did, my eyes momentarily locked with those of a young 20 year old Latino standing on the corner. In the moment of our eyes locking was all the pride of millennia of human breeding; male challenge, virile and powerful, born to rule. As I continued around the corner his girlfriend came into view. We, too, locked eyes, but hers were bruised, swollen and battered. And the look in her eyes was that of utter despair and hopelessness, doomed somehow to be ruled. These two seconds are forever part of my being.

View from crossing, Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, Morienval (Oise) Photo by PJ Aubrey

My very first memory is like a black and white snapshot, clear and crisp, but in trying to understand it I fill in blanks for things I didn’t know at the age of 15 months when it happened. It is hard to keep the memory pure. Sitting on a lawn on a summer day by myself. It was not our home; we were visiting. On chairs across what seemed to be an enormous lawn were the adults, perhaps five or six, talking and watching me. My mother was in a sundress, I think. Behind them stood a house with a high front porch where the adults were sitting. In my memory, my parents seemed an immense distance away; it seemed that I had never been so far from them. Attached to the visual memory is a sensation of freedom, of being unfettered. All I did with the freedom, most likely, was to eat rolly-polly bugs and other nonsense I picked up around me, but the feeling is there half a century later.

Basilique Saint Hilaire, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

Most of my memories are visual, but some have multi-sensory character, like that of my Aunt Dell descending on us when we were children. She came in a wave of perfume, bright red kewpie doll lips, and thick pancake make up. When she lit on our face, we were dusted with dry powder and left with a big red smear of lipstick on her chosen target, usually a conspicuous cheek or forehead. And afterwards, a dry, not-unpleasant perfume lingered for hours. When I think of Dell I remember the red lips, the dusting with powder and the smell of perfume.

North Side Aisle, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But few memories are this complete. Most are like the medieval restorations of the 19th century French architect Viollet-le-Duc. He looked at the vestigial forms, the ruins of chateaux and churches, and tried to extrapolate them back to their original construction. In the end, these restorations became more and more the evocation of an imaginary Gothic age guided by his imaginative intelligence. They became fantasies on a medieval theme, until like some, like Pierrefonds, were no more real than the Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyland. In our human memory, we construct upon the framework of the conscious image and try to fill in the details. But if we are not careful, the details overwhelm the original memory, distort it, and in some cases replace the original with a reconstruction. And like a Viollet-le-Duc restoration, the original is subsumed by the fantasy.

From darkness to the light of Savannah (Dennis Aubrey)


I was diagnosed with Stage IV prostate cancer in late September and as can be imagined, life turned upside down. Oncology treatments started immediately and in March I started radiation.

There is a holistic practitioner locally who has dedicated enormous efforts on helping the “wellness” side of the equation and she has achieved great results, so much so that I felt pretty good through much of the radiation. But the last three weeks was devastating to my system and I was in pretty bad shape. Looking back on it now, it was much worse than I realized.

South side chapel, Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Savannah (Georgia) Photo by PJ Aubrey

I have one strange quirk when very ill. When I got sick in France in 2015, on our return to Cape Cod I entered a “nesting” phase – I bought new cupboards, a barbecue, a bench for our deck, and lots of other things for our home. I sat on the couch with my iPad and ordered continuously; I even bought a beautiful bronze chiminea! This year, I did the same thing, only it was artwork. I bought three paintings by Salvatore Grippi, prints by Irving Amen, Joan Miró, Pierre Bonnard – statues, glass sculpture by Shahid Khan and Richard Satava, and more, filling our home with beautiful things. We already had a plethora of art, but I filled every available wall, spending far more than I ever would have if my mind worked properly. I never understood why I did this, but during my cancer treatments, I was often up alone at night looking at the works, loving our home, and loving PJ so much. It was painful to see how my suffering hurt PJ and I longed for a way to make it up to her

Side aisle, Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Savannah (Georgia) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The solution was to celebrate the end of radiation with a road trip to Charleston and Savannah so that we could visit with our great friend Diane Quaid. Diane recently moved from Cape Cod to South Carolina near Hilton Head. Ten days after radiation was completed we started – I was feeling better at the beginning of the trip, but as we moved along, things deteriorated. We had some wonderful moments, but the trip was too much too soon, but I was bound and determined to go through with it.

Altar and south side chapel, Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Savannah (Georgia) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We loved the Georgia lowlands and ate wonderful meals of fresh local seafood. That was medicine in itself, but the highlight was the opportunity to photograph Savannah’s beautiful cathedral. The cathedral, in the old downtown of the city, is a wonderful structure. It is essentially a large hall church with a nave and side aisles but no transepts. Instead there are chapels on each side of the altar.

Nave, Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Savannah (Georgia) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The original cathedral was founded to serve a congregation of immigrants fleeing the insurrection in Haiti and the revolution in France. The first parish, the Congregation of Saint Jean-Baptiste, was formed at the end of the 18th century. The original French Gothic-style cathedral was dedicated in 1876 by the Archbishop of Baltimore. In 1898 a devastating fire destroyed everything except the outside walls and the two spires. Rebuilding began immediately and the cathedral we see today was dedicated on October 28, 1900.

Nave vault, Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Savannah (Georgia) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The first thing one notices upon entering the church are the paintings, The stained glass windows, executed by the Innsbruck Glassmakers in the Austrian Tyrol, were installed in the Cathedral around 1904. Christopher Murphy, a noted Savannah artist, planned and directed a team of artists in the painting of the murals.

Apse from south side aisle, Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Savannah (Georgia) Photo by PJ Aubrey

So now it is a month later and I am making real progress in my recovery. We are both back to work – preparing our various exhibitions and now, hopefully, returning to our beloved Via Lucis blog. Thank you all for your patience and your good wishes; you have helped more than you will ever know.

Nave elevation, Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Savannah (Georgia) Photo by PJ Aubrey

One final note; regular readers of Via Lucis may notice that the photographic credits for PJ’s photos now read “PJ Aubrey” instead of “PJ McKey”. We started this project before we were married and we used her professional name. She has now decided to use her married name. The change does not seem to have affected the quality of her photographs at all!

Happy Easter


We are fortunate in having found yet another medieval sculpture of the patron of secular Easter celebrations, Saint Saliento Lepus.

Saint Saliendo Lepus

Saint Saliendo Lepus

According to our research, Saint Saliendo Lepus was a 3rd century noble Roman rabbit who incurred the wrath of the Emperor Diocletian by hiding colored eggs in the forum. Enraged, Diocletian had him turned over to Plautian, prefect of the praetorium, who tortured him in an effort to force him to stop this practice, but when Saliento persisted, he was beheaded and served in a stew with lentils and onions. Though the legend is an ancient one, it is no more than that.

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

A Holiday Recommendation


Gordon Stewart visiting our home in Ohio, 2017

For those who might be looking for something calming during this holiday season, I recommend a book written by our great friend here at Via Lucis, Gordon Stewart.

Gordon has been a long-time contributor to the Via Lucis world and his magnificent sermon based upon one of my posts about Vézelay still moves me to tears. Hearing him, it is hard to remember that these are my words. This sensitivity to language and ideas is embodied fully in his blog, Views from the Edge.

He brings this magic to his new book, “Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness” is such a collection of sensitive, deeply felt essays. This link will connect you to his publishers page where the book is available for a discount, a perfect gift for the holidays.

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!

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”.