Last summer when we had our exhibition at the Marian Library at the University of Dayton, we were interviewed by Radio Maria. Here is a link to the interview (about 45 minutes long) where we talk about the Vierges Romanes and Black Madonnas that we photograph in France and Spain. Enjoy!
PJ and I love the Pyrénées mountains, and especially the eastern portion straddling France and Catalonia. While staying the town of Prades, we had an interesting experience. Despite having been there before, we found ourselves in a new place – Occitanie, or in Catalan Occitània. This is one of the new administrative regions in France since September 28, 2016 with a name derived from areas that showed a historic use of the Occitan language. We didn’t think too much about this until we went to a Catalan dance festival in town. During the introductions, the compère made a disparaging comment – “This is Catalonia,” he said, and followed that statement with a disdainful gesture behind him, “Occitània is somewhere back there!” all to great applause from the audience.
On this trip we visited the marvelous Église Sainte-Marie de La Cluse-Haute in Les Cluse, a small early Catalan church perched on the Col du Perthus, the last Pyrénéean pass between France and Spain. In the distance, one can see Vauban’s Fort de Bellegarde that once guarded the frontier. The church, located in La Cluse-Haute, was probably constructed in the 10th century and remodeled in the 11th, 12th and 14th centuries. The exterior of the church is simple and unadorned, with a 14th century bell-tower. An interesting vestige of the porch still exists in the form of the stone arch standing separated from the church itself. The portal itself is of white Céret marble.
The small interior consists of a central nave and two side aisles. The relatively massive piers support the round arches from which springs the barrel vault across the nave. The side aisles have half-barrel vaults supporting the nave arches and relieving the lateral pressure of the barrel vault. There are no transepts or a crossing tower.
The tiny oven-vaulted apse is flanked by two small echeloned chapels, communicated to by means of the narrow passages on the side of the apse. One can see in the photograph how the scale of the apse is so small and delicate compared to the sturdy piers and arches around it.
But small though it may be, the glory of the church is in that smal apse. There are some fragments of frescoes dating from the twelfth century which are in the same hand as those of famous frescoes of nearby San Martin de Fenollar.
In the center of the apse we see a Christ in Majesty accompanied by the symbols of the alpha and the omega. The works of the Maitre de Fenollar must have been astonishing at the time of their creation, but they have continued to fascinate and have actually change the courses of modern art. In June 1906 Picasso stayed ten weeks in the small town of Gósol and had his first intensive exposure to Catalan art. In 1911 Picasso and Braque spent time in Fenollar and Les Cluses studying the works, transfixed by the expressive power and dynamic use of color. Later many other artists made their pilgrimage to this area – Miro, Gris, Derain, and Dufy – and all walked away genuflecting at the altar of the distant Catalan genius.
Just to the right of the Christ is a wonderful figure of an angel. I think that the way the wings and the cloak follow the curve of the vault is simply brilliant in inspiration and execution. I have the same dumbfounded reaction to this as I did when I saw the “Temptation” capital at Plaimpied.
If there is any doubt that the work of the Catalan artists had an effect on Pablo Picasso, we only have to look at his work from the periods of his stay in the area and how it differed from the Blue and Pink periods that preceded it. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon see the same naive, schematic construction of the faces that we see in Les Cluses and Saint Martin de Fenollar, and even some of the same technical details, like the use of white accents around the eyes and other features. And it may just be my imagination, but the standing figure on the far right seems to be a mirror of the angel at Les Cluses.
But we don’t need Picasso, Miro, Braque or Dufy to appreciate the Maitre de Fenollar. His work stands among the finest of medieval painting, hidden in the smallest church in the most remote of villages in the Pyrénées.
Location: 42.482277° 2.843190°
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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”.
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.
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.
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.
The side aisles are, as usual, visually stunning. We see the long, uninterrupted flow to the ambulatory in the distance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Abbey on Burgberg of Quedlinburg (pronounced Kvedlinbuerg) was founded in 936 by Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor, at the request of his mother Queen Mathilda (later canonized as Saint Mathilda) in honor of Mathilda’s late husband and Otto’s father, King Heinrich I (Henry the Fowler) for unmarried daughters of nobility. Until its secularization in 1802, it was referred to as Reichsstift (Imperial Abbey) Quedlinburg. The abbey church is dedicated to St. Servatius of Tongeren (present day Netherlands) and St. Denis. Construction of the basilica plan church on the remains of no less than three earlier churches began sometime before 997, and was completed in 1021. The church was rebuilt, after a fire in 1070 caused a severe damage, to almost the present form we would assume, and rededicated in 1129 in the presence of Lothar III.
The abbey church, one of the masterpieces of the Ottonian Romanesque architecture, is composed of the nave, two aisles, transepts at the eastern end, and the raised choir above the crypt, the resting place of both Henry the Fowler and Mathilda. Both the north and south transepts also have shallow apsidal chapels. The view of the nave conveys a light-filled, airy space defined on either side by processions of precisely constructed niedersachsischer Stutzenwechsel, the pier – two column alternations. The capitals on columns, in contrast to the creative fantasies we observe on column capitals of southern Europe, show discipline and geometrical rigor while chiselling relatively shallow motifs of animals, flowers or purely geometrical design. The shape of the capitals comes across more as dosserets alone without the capitals of classical orders underneath.
The view of the nave elevation scheme shows the harmoniously proportioned piers, columns and arches resting on the dosseret-like capitals. Relatively generous clerestory windows let in abundance of light onto the beige-toned sandstone masonry, and transform the nave interior into a solemn, yet blissful space of meditation.
The view of the north aisle toward the nave, the raised choir and the southern nave wall shows off the high caliber of the master mason and the stone cutters well. Creativity is never lacking, but rather abundantly present, albeit within the intellectual and visual discipline. The column in foreground clearly shows an entasis.
The view from the choir toward the west shows a two level narthex. The entrance is located to the right (north side) of the narthex, as the west wall of the church abuts the abbey itself.
The view of the north aisle looking toward the west shows the access to the north tower and the upper narthex.
The south transept chapel is a picture of restraint itself, with a modest altar with a sculpture of Pieta.
The entire city of Quedlinburg is a UNESCO world cultural heritage site. In addition to the abbey church of St. Servatius, which alone would deserve the UNESCO recognition, there are over 1300 half-timber houses on cobble stone streets winding around the large Marktplatz situated at the center of the historic core.
Location: 51.785772° 11.137293°
✜ We are delighted to republish this article from Jong-Soung Kimm on our Via Lucis site. For more information on Mr. Kimm, please see this link. ✜
In the small town of Vignory, perhaps a dozen miles north of Chaumont in the Haute-Marne, is one of the oldest Romanesque churches in France. Built between 1032 and 1057 by Gui Vignory, the first Seigneur de Vignory, and his son Roger, the Église Saint Etienne preserves a nave, apse, and ambulatory that are essentially the same today as when they were built.
Saint Etienne has a simple layout; a nave and two side aisles lead directly to the chancel crossing and then to the apse and ambulatory. There are no transepts. The nave is a fine example of early Romanesque with nine bays under an open-timber roof, separated from the side aisles by a striking two-story arcade.
The arcade openings are quite wide, with solid square piers. Each arcade features a false tribune of twin bays with sculpted capitals, surmounted by large clerestory windows.
In this view from the south side aisle, it is very interesting to see the nave windows through the arcades.
The visual charm of the arcade is clear when viewed from the side aisles. The narrow columns of the tribune bays contrast sharply with the heavy capitals that top them and the powerful pillars that support the arcade. The open effect of the false tribunes allows light to penetrate from both sides of the aisles.
Some significant restoration work was done in the early days of the Monuments Historique. Prosper Merimée himself recognized the importance of the church in 1843 and selected the architect Émile Boeswilwald to oversee the work. The restoration took place from 1846 to 1863, during which time two Gothic arches at the beginning of the nave were demolished and replaced in the Romanesque style. The massive chancel arch was built at the same time with its seven windows above the perfectly rounded arch.
There is an interesting anomaly in the supports for the last arcade – notice how the piers have become columns. It is said that this is evidence that the eastern end – the chancel and apse – were of a slightly later period of construction than the nave itself. This can be seen as evidence that the nave is of an earlier Carolingian style and the east end more purely Romanesque.
Perhaps the most important feature of the church is the ambulatory, the oldest Romanesque ambulatory of its kind to be preserved today. There is one other that is comparable at the Église abbatiale de Saint Savin in Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe.
In the following shot, the ambulatory can be seen past the rather primitive hemicycle with its alternating square piers and round columns.
All in all, Saint Etienne is beautifully proportioned and fortunately preserved. The stonework is quite good and, despite its early age, the church has a number of sophisticated design elements carried over from its Carolingian predecessors. Because it was raining when we visited, we were not able to photograph the exteriors, including the fine chevet and 12th century crossing tower. Since we also need to go to the nearby Abbatiale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Montier-en-Der, very similar in age and design to Saint Etienne, we have a great excuse to return to this area.
Location: 48.277706° 5.104842°
Vigeois is about 35 miles almost due south of Limoges just four miles from the medieval town of Uzerche. The commune is small, about 1500 inhabitants but is home to one of the remarkable churches in the region and one of the important visits we planned to make in the Limousin. The church, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, is known less for its church than for its adornments. The church is 12th century but it lost its nave. The only Romanesque remnants are the east end, the apse and transepts. The nave was rebuilt in the 19th century.
The original nave was replaced in the 19th century; all that remains of the original church are the eastern portions, the transept and choir. The choir is interesting in that it has radiating chapels but no ambulatory like we have seen in Souillac, Cahors and nearby Solignac.
The apse is covered with an oven vault and lit by a series of seven windows above the hemicycle arcade. The arcade is composed alternately of bays and blind arches. Each bay has a small window and the blind arches have large windows, adding to the abundance of light in the choir.
The 19th century nave consists of two bays and is covered with an ogive barrel vault, supported by bands springing from pilasters on the north and south walls. The western wall is flat and plain, but all of these late additions fit well with the 12th century construction of the east end.
Vigeois also has a number of large and fine paintings adorning the walls. Normally these paintings would be found in dark side aisles, but at Saint-Pierre they are displayed on the open walls of the nave and transepts. One of the finest is an oil painting by Georges-Jean-Marie Haquette dating from 1884 called Le Salut au Calvaire. Four fisherman can be seen working their boat below a crucifix on the hill above them. The sky is dark and threatening and the seas turbulent, but they are bathed in the glow of sunlight. This painting, as all of the others in the church, was restored in 2002-2003 by Bruno Tilmant d’ Auxy, who has an atelier de restauration d’oeuvres d’art at Chateau Chervix about 35 miles from Vigeois.
There is a fine 17th century French oil called Le Calvaire. This moody depiction of the crucifixion shows the agonizing crucifixion isolated in bright light. The painting has a perfect setting on the expansive wall of the transept, lit by the large window on the exterior wall.
But the real artistic masterpieces of Vigeois are the capitals from the second quarter of the 12th century that are found both inside and outside of the church. There is a complete iconographic program at work here, but I will just show a couple of examples.
One of the interior capitals is a very interesting rendition of the temptation of Christ. First of all, Christ appears in a mandorla, indicative of his power and glory. On the right a monstrous-headed demon with clawed feet tempts him. On the left is an angel. This is an illustration of the First Temptation of Christ described in Matthew 4: “Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'” Notice that Jesus has a book opened on his lap, his only defense against the tempter. It is said that this book is open to Deuteronomy 8:3 which reads, “And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.”
There is a wonderful “Weighing of souls” capital on the exterior, with all of the elements that would be familiar to a medieval viewer. The soul of the candidate hovers between the demon and the angel. The angel holds the scales with the good and bad deeds in the balance, but the demon, as always, cheats by placing his hand on the scale trying to shift the balance to damnation. While not as dramatic as the Conques “Weighing of souls”, it is still a wonderful piece of narrative sculpture.
The north wall of the church contains a fine polylobed portal with fine sculptural detail. The left-hand capital features paired lions and the right are the figures of Saints Peter and Paul in mandorla. The top two lobes of the portal repeat the theme of paired lions.
While it is interesting to speculate what treasures the western end of the church might have contained, we have to content ourselves with the wonderful remnants in the apse and transepts.
Location: 45.379325° 1.515883°