The Passing of a Giant (Dennis Aubrey)

Angelico Surchamp June 23, 1924 – March 1, 2018

The first time we saw Père Angelico Surchamp, the diminutive monk was with a group of admirers at the Convent of Notre Dame de Venière just outside of Tournus where he served as confessor to the nuns. One of the guests – obviously a great admirer – insisted on taking his picture. Smiling, Surchamp asked, “What am I? A national monument?” I remember thinking at the time, “Of course you are!”

Dom Angelico Surchamp, September 20, 2011

PJ and I have been planning our fall trip to Europe. As always, we put on the list a visit to the Abbaye de la Pierre-qui-Vire, home to our great mentor. The last time we saw him a year ago his health was failing and we were hoping that he would be well enough to receive us. This is not to be; today we received a letter from Father Mathias at the Monastery.

Chers amis,
Nous vous partageons le départ de notre Frère Angelico Surchamp.
Bien fraternellement.

This short announcement came with an obituary letter from Père Luc CORNUAU, Abbé of La Pierre-qui-Vire, giving the briefest summary of his life and accomplishments. The key phrase in the document is the following; “Artiste et moine, f. Angelico a cherché à unifier sa vie, non sans tension lors des évolutions de la liturgie après le Concile. Son regard pétillant et malicieux laissait entrevoir sa forte personnalité, et son sourire accueillant, sa simplicité ainsi que sa belle confiance en Dieu.” Translated, this reads “Artist and monk, Father Angelico sought to unify his life, not without tension during the changes in the liturgy after the Council. His sparkling and mischievous look revealed his strong personality, his welcoming smile, his simplicity and his trust in God.”

So few words, hinting at so much. But what nothing in the document says is what he accomplished for the history of architecture, specifically, Romanesque architecture. His chef d’oeuvre – the Éditions Zodiaque – is a monumental accomplishment in art history, a collection of over 200 volumes on Romanesque art and architecture. No work in the field is complete without these studies.

Frères Surchamp and Norberto photographing a church in Aragon, September 23, 1986 (Photo courtesy of Románico)

Our admiration for Surchamp is complete, but the sense of loss at his passing has nothing to do with his work. We have lost the luminous spirit of the small monk in the Morvan who had become our friend, our mentor, and our spiritual guide for Via Lucis.

We have one memento of our visits to him that carries his inimitable touch. On our first visit, we met him at the convent and then took him to lunch in Cuisery. Afterwards, he took us to see the Église Sainte Marie Madeleine in the village of Le Villars. He thought it would be interesting for us to photograph. At one point I was shooting the exterior capitals and joked with Père Surchamp that he had now to “sing for his supper”; I handed him the remote and asked him to take the shot. He smiled at me and said “Is the photographer the one who presses the button or the one who composes the shot?” I laughed and said, “Now we’re talking philosophy.” Here is the shot he took – posted in black and white, of course – and even though we never completed the discussion of who the photographer was, I have the pleasure of assigning the metadata and therefore attribute the photo to the master.

Portal of Église Sainte Marie Madeleine, Le Villars (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dom Angelico Surchamp

That night I asked PJ to express her thoughts on Surchamp. “We were so excited to meet him; I thought it was the meeting of the minds for the two of you. You found someone who you could talk to about the churches on a different level than anyone else, because there is a philosophy in his speaking of these places and the experience of photographing them. You can really understand him when you have done it, like we have. It means a great deal to hear him speak. I think that he looked at the churches as an artist, not just as a priest or a monk or from strictly a religious point of view, but also from an artistic point of view. Which is why you don’t have to be Catholic to love the places. He understands this on a very profound level, as I think we do.

And I love his explanation of the difference between Romanesque and Gothic – the Romanesque induces internal experience and reflection; Gothic induces external reflection. Gothic is the demonstration of the belief of spirituality while Romanesque is the experience of that belief.”

And this from a woman who professes not to speak French.

Surchamp’s artistic view of the world comes from his early love of and training in the fine arts. He was a student of the great Cubist painter Albert Gleize and was greatly influenced by Gleize’s work.

Paysage cubiste, Albert Gleize (1920)

PJ had further thoughts on Surchamp. “He sees the interaction of lights and planes, shapes and shadows. He wasn’t just shooting – most of the photography that you see from that era, they are shooting a picture of the church. But he’s really shooting like we shoot, he’s shooting something else. He is trying to capture the church, but he’s shooting deeper than ‘I want to show someone what this place looks like.’ He’s trying to express all of these other things – the interaction of the architecture with the light, it’s multidimensional feel.”

Paray-le-Monial from Bourgogne romane, La Nuit des Temps I, 1974 (6th ed.), pl. 50

Paray-le-Monial from Bourgogne romane, La Nuit des Temps I, 1974 (6th ed.), pl. 50

She continues, “He’s shooting as an artist – taking the religious content aside, you can see that he is shooting it the way an artist would. Of course it’s very realistic, there’s nothing more real than architecture, but like your shot of Fontenay that I love, that’s a perfect example. There’s nothing more realistic than that, but it also wonderfully abstract, and you can look at it and see the bands of light only, it’s abstract.”

As if to confirm this thought, when Surchamp saw PJ’s photograph of the side aisle at the Cathédrale Saint Front in Perigeueux, he smiled at her and said “You photograph as I photograph!”

Side aisle, Cathedrale Saint Front, Périgueux (Dordogne) Photo by PJ McKey

We were lucky enough to visit with Surchamp in the company of my parents some years ago. At the Basilique Saint Philibert de Tournus, we walked through the old columns of the nave together. We descended the steep stairs into the crypt, and seeing Surchamp in his black robes walking with his hands behind his back was like being taken back centuries in time. I could almost hear the plainsong chants of his Benedictine predecessors as he walked these stone floors among the strong pillars.

We mounted again up into the main floor of the abbey church, my father and Surchamp walked arm-in-arm. I thought, “These are my two fathers, my birth father and my spiritual father”.

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

Driving away, my parents were delighted to have met Surchamp – “He was everything you talked about,” my mother said. Indeed, and more, because my words can never do justice to this accomplished Benedictine monk who has become so important to our lives. “We do not reach beauty except in love, and love requires time and freedom.”

On our last visit with Surchamp at La Pierre qui Vire, he said, À mon âge, tout ce que je dois donner c’est ma mort – “At my age, all I have left to give is my death.” I told him that he had more to give than that, just the joy of our visit with him was a greater gift. He took my arm, looked at me with that old, wise look and said Nous sommes séparés par des milliers de kilomètres et un grand océan, mais nos coeurs sont proches.

“We are separated by thousands of kilometers and a great ocean, but our hearts are close.”

I felt at the time that he was saying goodbye, and it turns out that feeling was correct. He is back in the arms of his great, giving, and loving God who Surchamp cherished with all of his heart. We wish him farewell on his long journey into eternity. We will lay flowers on his grave when we return to our beloved France in September.

Here are links to our previous articles on père Angelico, José Surchamp

Those who precede (Part 2), Angelico Surchamp

Those who precede (Part 3), Angelico Surchamp

Those Who Precede part 4 – Angelico Surchamp

The Monk in the Morvan Forest

A Triumphant Madonna – Amuse Bouche #41 Dennis Aubrey

Saint-Aventin is a small town in the Larboust Valley in the Pyrénées, not far from Bagnères-de-Luchon. The eponymous church is located on a side road outside of town, actually a small lane rising to terrace partway up the hill. The church is a magnificent Romanesque structure which we will show in a later post and is distinguished by magnificent exterior sculptures. The most elegant of these is the Sedes Sapientiae virgin next to the door.

Regular readers of Via Lucis know our love of these figures, mostly carved in wood, but this one is unique. Most representation of the virgin are sorrowful, a mother knowing the doomed fate of her child at the hands of man. The child is normally seen as a small adult with a serious face looking straight out at the viewer (as does the Mother here). But here, the child Jesus looks up and shares with his mother a look of triumph, the conquest of temptation and evil.

Vierge Romane, Église Saint-Aventin, Saint-Aventin (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Beneath Mary’s feet are the heads of two demons, trampled into submission. The figures of birds and serpents are held at bay by the power of the Mother and Child, threatening but impotent.

I wish that I could translate the inscription but have not worked it out. Perhaps one of our readers can help?

And of course our readers came through – both Yuri de la Pena and Evelyne Clerc found the text: RES MIRANDA NIMIS MATER DEI ERAT VI NIMIS. This translates to “Thing worthy of admiration, the Mother of God is all powerful”. however, Project Gutenberg states, “In translating RES, avoid at all costs the word THING, or THINGS, and let the context guide you to the appropriate English word.” I will essay the following translation, “Of all who are worthy of admiration, the Mother of God is omnipotent.” This certainly fits with the triumphant Madonna.

Vierge Romane detail, Église Saint-Aventin, Saint-Aventin (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

A Mountain Masterpiece – Serrabone (Dennis Aubrey)

On an arid hilltop 2000 feet up in the region of the sacred Mont Canigou, there was a small 11th century parish church dedicated to Our Lady that served what could only have been the tiniest of communities. It was in the region of the eastern Pyrénées known as Aspres, derived from the Catalan word for “arid”, but was known by the name Serrabona, or “beautiful mountain”. Serrabona could only lend itself to the harshest life for the residents, and was indeed known as the desert. The hard life could only have been relieved by the trickle of pilgrims who came through on their way to Santiago Compostela. Things changed in 1082, however. Notre Dame de Serrabona was granted to a community of canons from the Order of Saint Augustine, who immediately began work expanding the church and creating a monastic community. Their new priory church was consecrated in 1151 by the Bishop of Elne.

North exterior view, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Most of the monastic buildings are long gone, leaving only the church and austere bell-tower. There is a wonderful fragment of the cloister on the south side, but the main architectural feature of the church itself is the ornate tribune, carved from the beautiful pink marble of the region. The tribune divides the nave into two parts, conventionally explained as one for the canons who resided at the priory, and the second for the faithful who came to the church for worship. It is also speculated that a choir would sing atop the platform.

The tribune is three arcades wide and two bays deep. The arcades are topped by a large cornice that creates a façade facing west. The sculpting on the façade is done in low relief and is similar to most of the religious sculpture in the region. The capitals supporting the cornice, however, are carved fully in the round.

Tribune, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

There are some questions about this tribune, however, that I am going to address in this post, having to do with asking why this ornate marble structure was placed in the remote, unadorned collegiate church frequented by a mere handful of canons.

The first question is whether or not the tribune was brought to Serrabone from another location. The ill-fitting way it is wedged into the nave is pointed to as evidence of this (notice how the right side is truncated against the north wall of the church). One school of academic research has even proposed that the original came from the abbey of Saint Michel de Cuxa. Stylistically the sculpture is very similar and was probably executed by the same school, but the marble is different. Both are made of the beautiful local pink marble, but Cuxa’s marble comes from the Babebany quarry near Conflent, which is forty kilometers distant from Serrabone. The marble for Serrabone comes from Bouleternère, a quarry only a dozen kilometers from the priory itself. It makes no sense that if the tribune was originally carved at Cuxa that the workers would go to distant Bouleternère for their marble when the rest of their famous abbey was made from the Babebany marble just twelve kilometers distant. This provides strong evidence that the carving was done in situ at Serrabone, or at least at the Bouleternère quarry.

Tribune panel, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The second question is whether the tribune was originally installed in one place at Serrabone and then moved to the center of the nave. Some experts claim that the tribune was moved to the nave in the 17th or 19th century. However, I read an interesting mathematical analysis by Paul Lemonde that demonstrates that the church was modified in the 12th century to accommodate the large tribune and that it was designed to serve as an interior portal to the church.

Tribune capital, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The third question is whether or not the tribune was intended as a rood screen, or jubé, a symbolic barrier between the clergy and the lay worshipers. I am not convinced that this is the case. First, it is almost impossible to see the altar from any place other than the center of the nave beyond the tribune. Second, all of the carving on the cornice is on the west side, the “lay” side of the nave.

East view of tribune, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Taking a cue from Paul Lemonde’s theory that the tribune is an interior portal of the church, I believe that the structure divided the nave into two parts – a nave and a narthex. The western section served as a place to gather pilgrims during the times where the canons were celebrating their monastic offices. Like the narthex at Vézelay or Tournus or any number of other Romanesque churches, this narthex featured sculpted instruction in the mysteries of the faith for the pilgrims.

Whatever the reasons that this magnificent structure was placed in this remote church, the result is a superb ensemble, among the finest works of Romanesque sculpture remaining to us. Unlike most Romanesque work, however, the figures on the tribune are not narrative, but symbolic. Only one – Saint Michael contending with a demonic dragon – is an example of story-telling. Instead we see a profusion of angels, vegetation, and human faces. There are symbols from the text of the Apocalypse, symbols of the Evangelists and a fantastical bestiary consisting of birds, eagles, lions, centaurs, stags, bulls, griffins and monkeys.

Griffins and centaurs, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

A close-up of the bird capital contending with a snake shows the splendid sculptural technique that looks like nothing less than a jeweled mosaic.

Tribune detail, Prieuré de Serrabone, Boule-d’Amont (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the end, the remote harshness of life defeated the canons and the priory was shut down amidst great scandal. Once again the priory became a parish church and was eventually abandoned altogether. By the early 1900’s it was in private hands. The owner, to our eternal appreciation, began the restoration and today the church is a glory of the French patrimony.

Location: 42.598, 2.6226

Cagots; the Despised – Amuse Bouche #40 (Dennis Aubrey)

” … cannibal, heretic, and delivered unto all vices.”

The people thus described in the Middle Ages were of no specific ethnicity or religious affiliation. They spoke the same language as their neighbors and practiced the same religion. But they were treated as inferior, stigmatized, and segregated. They had their own doors to churches, their own fonts, and when receiving communion, the wafer was thrown to them, or, if the sacrament was being administered by a sympathetic priest, on a wooden spoon.

Cagot font, Église de Saint-Savin-en-Lavedan, Saint Savin (Hautes-Pyrénées) Photo by PJ McKey

Thee were the cagots, common throughout the Pyrénées, and they were despised. They lived in their own segregated communities, the cagoteries, were restricted to certain trades, were not allowed to marry non-cagots, enter taverns, hold cabarets, use public fountains, sell food or wine, touch food in the market, work with livestock, or enter a mill. They could only marry within the cagot community. Even to the 20th century they were required to wear a special badge featuring the foot of a goose or duck.

Mark of the cagot

These were “untouchables” in western culture and their segregation in a caste system persisted even into the 20th century. There are theories that the cagots were descended from lepers or cretins, that they were remnants of the Saracen armies that intermarried with locals in the 9th century, or even that they were members of a fallen medieval guild of carpenters.

But the truth is that the cagots – these “pestiferous people” – are a mystery, gone from history except for a few remaining descendants and the physical remnants in the local churches.

Postscript – PJ has made a very interesting observation in the figure on the font in Oloron-Sainte-Marie. It appears that his lips are disfigured, as in a herpes-type malady. There are two variants of the virus; one affects the genitals and the other the lips and is thought to be hereditary. Herpes is highly contagious in skin-to-skin contact, which might explain many of the prohibitions. Also, when the virus is contracted, that person is infected for life. Herpes was certainly known at the time; it appeared in Central and Eastern Europe in the 5th century.


Detail of Cagot font, Église de Saint-Savin-en-Lavedan, Saint Savin (Hautes-Pyrénées) Photo by PJ McKey

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

A Column Swallower in the Pyrénées – Amuse Bouche #39 (PJ McKey)

Regular readers of Via Lucis know the fondness PJ and I have for medieval grotesques. Among these are some of our favorites, the column swallowers. We have even found one of these gruesomely compelling engoulants in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum.

On this trip we were photographing in the Haute-Garonne region of the Pyrénées and PJ discovered one of the column swallowers hiding in the Templars’ Church in Montsaunès, peeking out from a column to the left of the altar.

Apse, Église Saint-Christophe des Templiers, Montsaunès (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Unlike many of its brethren, this version of the column swallower seems less monstrous and shows more surprise in his simian features. This was the only column swallower we saw this year in our travels – perhaps he was as surprised to see us as we were to see him!

Column Swallower, Église Saint-Christophe des Templiers, Montsaunès (Haute-Garonne) Photo by PJ McKey

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

Medieval Surgery – Amuse Bouche #38 (Dennis Aubrey)

A couple of weeks ago, PJ and I had the pleasure to photograph the fine reconstructed Romanesque cathedral in the Pyrénéan town of Lescar where the royal family of Navarre was buried for some time. The reason we were excited to come, however, was the presence of the Romanesque mosaics in the apse that were rediscovered in the 19th century. The remaining fragments are in almost perfect condition.

One of the two panels is of particular interest – a hunter with a bow clearly has an artificial leg! It appears that this represents a Moorish soldier from Al-Andalus who lost his leg in the battles against the encroaching Christians during the Reconquista. After he was fitted with his artificial leg, he fought again against the Christians and was captured by Gui de Lons, who subsequently became the bishop of Lescar and founded the cathedral there. He served as a slave and later became a friend to the Bishop, who immortalized him in this mosaic in the apse.

Mosaic, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Lescar (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The donkey following the hunter has a purpose in the composition – not only is it following the hunter-master, but as shown in the next photograph, actually hauls the hunted prey, in this case a resisting wolf.

Lescar wolf

Mosaic detail, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, Lescar (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We have since discovered that the nearby church of Saint Aventin has a capital depicting one of the Saracen captors of Saint Aventin who also has the exact same leg prosthesis. This is certainly a subject for further investigation.

This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.

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.