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”.

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°

Abbey Church of St. Servatius, Quedlinburg (Jong-Soung Kimm)


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.

Abbey Church of St. Servatius, Quedlinburg (Saxon-Anhalt) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Abbey Church of St. Servatius, Quedlinburg (Saxon-Anhalt) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

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.

Nave, Abbey Church of St. Servatius, Quedlinburg (Saxon-Anhalt) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave, Abbey Church of St. Servatius, Quedlinburg (Saxon-Anhalt) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

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.

Abbey Church of St. Servatius, Quedlinburg (Saxon-Anhalt) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Abbey Church of St. Servatius, Quedlinburg (Saxon-Anhalt) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

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.

North side aisle, Abbey Church of St. Servatius, Quedlinburg (Saxon-Anhalt) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

North side aisle, Abbey Church of St. Servatius, Quedlinburg (Saxon-Anhalt) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

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.

View of narthex, Abbey Church of St. Servatius, Quedlinburg (Saxon-Anhalt) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View of narthex, Abbey Church of St. Servatius, Quedlinburg (Saxon-Anhalt) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view of the north aisle looking toward the west shows the access to the north tower and the upper narthex.

North side aisle, Abbey Church of St. Servatius, Quedlinburg (Saxon-Anhalt) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

North side aisle, Abbey Church of St. Servatius, Quedlinburg (Saxon-Anhalt) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The south transept chapel is a picture of restraint itself, with a modest altar with a sculpture of Pieta.

South transept chapel, Abbey Church of St. Servatius, Quedlinburg (Saxon-Anhalt) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

South transept chapel, Abbey Church of St. Servatius, Quedlinburg (Saxon-Anhalt) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

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. ✜

Église Saint Etienne de Vignory (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

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

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

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.

Elevation of arcade at Saint Etienne-de-Vignory, Viollet-le-Duc (Image in the Public Domain)

Elevation of arcade at Saint Etienne-de-Vignory, Viollet-le-Duc (Image in the Public Domain)

In this view from the south side aisle, it is very interesting to see the nave windows through the arcades.

Nave arcade, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave arcade, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

Ambulatory, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

In the following shot, the ambulatory can be seen past the rather primitive hemicycle with its alternating square piers and round columns.

Apse, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

South side aisle, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

South side aisle, Eglise Saint-Étienne, Vignory (Haute-Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

Location: 48.277706° 5.104842°

Vigeois (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

Chevet, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Chevet, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Apse, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Apse, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze)  Photo by PJ McKey

Apse, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Nave, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Le Salut au Calvaire, Georges-Jean-Marie Haquette (1884), Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze)  Photo by PJ McKey

Le Salut au Calvaire, Georges-Jean-Marie Haquette (1884), Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Transept with Le Calvaire, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze)  Photo by PJ McKey

Transept with Le Calvaire, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze) Photo by PJ McKey

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.”

Capital - Christ in Mandorla, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – Christ in Mandorla, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Capital - Weighing of souls, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Capital – Weighing of souls, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

North portal, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

North portal, Abbaye Saint-Pierre du Vigeois, Vigeois (Corrèze) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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°

The Mason of God (Dennis Aubrey)


In a world where what passes for news are articles about the megalomaniac Donald Trump, the Kardashians, and the Jenners, we occasionally find something worth consideration.

On August 25 a funeral mass was celebrated in the Italian town of Montefortino at the chiesa della Madonna dell’Ambro. The recipient of the mass was a Capuchin friar, Padre Pietro Lavini who lived as a hermit in the Sibylline Mountains near Rubbiano Montefortino and along the Gola dell’Infernaccio, the Gorge of Hell. A thousand people attended the service of the man who died two weeks prior, on August 9, 2015.

Why did they come to this mass? What did Padre Pietro accomplish with his life as a hermit?

Padre Pietro Lavini, photo from Santuario Madonna dell'Ambro

Padre Pietro Lavini, photo from Santuario Madonna dell’Ambro

In 1971, Padre Pietro discovered the ruins of the Eremo di Santo Leonardo, an abandoned 12th century Benedictine monastery in the wilds of the Sibyllines. All that remained of the church were fallen stones and a single standing Romanesque arch. Pietro received permission from his monastic superiors and walked into the wilderness with the goal of single-handedly restoring the church. He spent the next 43 years working alone and by hand and rebuilt the church. When asked how he managed it alone, he responded that there were two in service of the restoration. God was the designer and he himself was the mason. He became known, in fact, as the muratore di Dio, the builder of God.

L'Eremo di Santo Leonardo

L’Eremo di Santo Leonardo

I’m pretty sure that Trump would characterize the small monk as a “loser” because he didn’t spend his life inflating his own reputation, sleeping with beautiful women and living in a gilded palace. There is no room in the Trump brand for someone who lives a life of sacrifice and renunciation, a life with values that run deeply in the search for the truth of the human soul. Trump lives in a tiny narrow band of reality that inflates its own importance by belittling the rest of the world. I’m sure that if he saw the abandoned meadow in the Sibyllines, all Trump could imagine would be an exclusive golf resort for his rich friends. Padre Pietro imagined an entire world in the fallen stones, and built it with his two hands.

Thanks to our friend Diane Quaid who brought the life of Pietro Lavini to our attention via this article in the Economist.

The Norman Birds of Prey (Dennis Aubrey)


“Then the wolves of slaughter rushed forward, they cared nothing for the water,
the host of vikings, west across the Blackwater,
across the shining stream they carried their shields, …
The roar of battle was lifted up there, ravens circled,
the bird of prey eager for carrion; there was bedlam in the land….
The onslaught of battle was terrible, warriors fell
on either side, young men lay dead.”

The Battle of Maldon, lines 96-98, 106-107, 111-112.

This post was inspired by a series of comments with Carrol Krause of the Housesandbooks blog on WordPress. She commented on the “Griffins” capital in the article Survival in the War Zone, identifying the hat as a Phrygian cap.

Romanesque griffins, Église Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Romanesque griffins, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But I began wondering what 11th century Norman sculptors would know about ancient Phrygian caps and started to do some research. What came to light was the Phrygian style Norman nasal helmet of that time. From being uniformly conical in shape, the skull of the nasal helmet became more varied during the 11th and 12th century. For much of that time nasal helmets with a forward deflected apex, often called the ‘Phrygian cap’ shape, were in widespread use.

Norman nasal helmet, Phrygian style (11th and 12th century)

Norman nasal helmet, Phrygian style (11th and 12th century)

At this point I began to suspect that this “Griffin” capital might have been a commentary on the Norse grant to the lands of Normandy after the 911 treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, between Charles the Simple (King Charles III of France) and Rollo, the leader of the Vikings. By the terms of the treaty, Rollo received the grant of lands of Upper Normandy with Rouen – at the mouth of the Seine – as their capital; Nottmannis Sequanensibus videlicet Rolloni suisque commitibus pro tutelar regni – to the Northmen of the Seine, namely Rollo and his followers, for defense of the Kingdom.

In return, the Viking duke would convert to Christianity, acknowledge the French king as his overlord and, protect France against wilder Vikings.

Established in their home at the mouth of the Seine, the raids on the nearby Celtic populations of Lower Normandy and Brittany increased in ferocity. Especially targeted were the churches and monasteries. Saint Philibert-de-Grandlieu, Quimper, Dol, Saint-Meén, Vannes, and Bayeux were all devastated. In both Brittany and Lower Normandy, the church, the nobles, and the general population suffered severely.

Lower Normandy really only became part of the permanent ducal realm of Normandy in the reign of William the Conqueror. That means that at the time of the construction of the nave of Sainte Marie-des-Monts (and the carving of the capitals), the region was hotly disputed and the invaders certainly had earned the enmity of the church. It is therefore very conceivable that the capitals would depict the marauding Normans as rapacious and ferocious birds of prey

Detail, centaur capital, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Detail, centaur capital, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There may be another piece of internal evidence. The capital immediately to the right of the “Griffin” depicts a helmeted centaur hunting a deer. In closeup, we can see that this particular helmet features what appears to be the nose guard shown in the picture of the Phrygian helmet. And on closer examination of the “Griffin” capital, it may be that the nose guards on those helmets are actually present. While it appears that the left-hand figure has been disfigured around the face, we can see the nose guard clearly in the figure on the right.

Romanesque griffins detail, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Romanesque griffins detail, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Sainte Marie-du-Mont (Manche) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

And finally, might not the pattern on the chests of the creatures represent chain mail, just as it is in the image of the Phrygian helmet?

This post is, of course, sheer speculation, but it was an enjoyable exercise. I would love to hear from someone who has more or better information, whether it supports the arguments in this article or not. The mystery of the helmeted griffins deserves the attention.

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