François Villon and the mal-turned church (Dennis Aubrey)

I innocently recall
the distant bells
of Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné.
and quickly end my prayer
invoking Guillaume de Villon’s bald pate.

“An Angel”, Yukio Tsuji 1987

Today’s post has nothing to do with Romanesque or Gothic churches or anything else that we normally write about. Today is about the poet-thief François Villon and a church associated with him in Paris. We have never photographed the church and never will be able to because it is long-gone. But the story is fascinating.

I first heard of the Église Saint Benoit le Bétourné while researching our last post on the Église Saint-Géraud in Monsempron-Libos, a small town in the Lot-et-Garonne. The French Wikipedia article on the town reads, “La nouvelle église Notre-Dame de Libos est construite entre 1879 et 1891 à l’ouest de la place Centrale, cette église présente la rare particularité de n’être pas orientée comme traditionnellement vers le levant mais vers le couchant, et ce dès la construction, comme jadis, par exception, au Moyen-Âge à Paris, Saint Benoit le Bétourné ainsi nommé pour son inversion.”

“The new church Notre-Dame de Libos was constructed between 1879 and 1891 to the west of the Place Centrale. This church presents a particular rarity because it is not oriented traditionally toward the east, but towards the sunset, and this construction, was formerly an exception in the Middle Ages in Paris; Saint Benoit le Bétourné so named for its inversion.”

Église Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné in 1808, Paris ( Île-de-France)

I have always thought that I was reasonably well-versed in Parisian history – I can even take you to the spot on Rue de la Ferronnerie where Henri IV was assassinated by Ravaillac. But I was totally ignorant of Saint Benoit le Bétourné! According to the 14th century French scholar Raoul of Presles the original church on the site just a block from the Sorbonne was founded by Saint Denis of Paris. When I was young, the story of Saint Denis particularly fascinated me: Christian legend claimed that the decapitated 3rd century bishop picked up his head and walked several miles while preaching a sermon on repentance. He carried the head through Paris preaching. When he arrived at the site of the Église Saint Benoit le Bétourné in what is now the 5th arrondissement of Paris, he delivered a sermon on the Holy Trinity and dedicated it to “Benoît Sire Dieu” (“Blessed be the Lord our God”). The spelling changed over the centuries and so the church’s dedication seems to have shifted to honor the founder of the Benedictine order, Saint Benedict (in French “Benoît”) of Nursia. A later church was built on the site in the 6th century and dedicated to the martyrs Sergius and Bacchus.

Statue of Saint Denis, Notre Dame de Paris (Photograph by Thesupermat, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

The medieval church was built in the 13th century and the master builder for some reason placed the choir in the west, not the east. This led to the nickname “le bétourné” (“the [church] turned the wrong way round”). The church was rebuilt in the early 16th century by Francis I who had the altar placed in the traditional eastern position. Saint Benoit received a new nickname – “le bistourné” (“the twice-turned [church]”), later bowdlerised into “le bestourné”, possibly to bring it back closer to its old name.

There was a second name for the medieval church – “le Bétourné Mal Tourné” – meaning that it was built wrong. After Francis I’s renovation, the church was known as “le Bétourné Bene Versus”.

Église Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné in 1810, Paris (Île-de-France)

In 1831 the church was converted into the théâtre du Panthéon, which was itself demolished in 1854 to build rue des Écoles. From this old Parisian church, there remained the holy sepulcher which was entrusted to Saint Etienne du Mont. The church organ and a statue of the Virgin were sent to Saint Jacques du Haut Pas. The portal of the church was also installed in one of the courtyards of the Hotel de Cluny (installé dans une des cours de l’Hôtel de Cluny.)

Turgot map detail – 1739, Église Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné

The Église Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné has a strong tie to the original bad boy of French poetry, François Villon. François was born François Villon de Montcorbier in Paris in 1431 but his father died when he was a young boy. He was subsequently adopted by Guillaume de Villon who gave him his name, raised him, and eventually sent him to study for the priesthood at the nearby Collège de Navarre on the Rue Saint-André-des-Arts. Villon earned his Master of Arts in Theology degree in 1452, but he much preferred drinking and carousing in taverns.

He became a thief and on Christmas night of 1456 he participated in a robbery at the Collège de Navarre for which he was banished from Paris. He returned in 1461 but was involved in a brawl where a pontifical notary was stabbed to death. He was subjected the la question de l’eau (water torture) and convicted of murder. On appeal his sentence was reduced to ten years of exile. He left Paris in January 1463 and was never heard from again.

Anthony Bonner speculated the poet, as he left Paris, was “broken in health and spirit.” Bonner writes further: “He might have died on a mat of straw in some cheap tavern, or in a cold, dank cell; or in a fight in some dark street with another French coquillard; or perhaps, as he always feared, on a gallows in a little town in France. We will probably never know.”

Villon’s fate has disappeared into the swirling dark waters of history just like the wonderfully named Église Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné.

Église Saint-Géraud (Dennis Aubrey)

The present-day town of Monsempron-Libos is an amalgam of two separate communities. Monsempron was a fortified monastic village that developed around the Benedictine priory founded by the abbey in Aurillac in the 11th century. The town and the priory were built on a small hill overlooking the confluence of the Lot River and its tributary, the Lémance. There is a possibility that there had been an earlier Gallo-Roman settlement – if the “sempron” refers to the Roman family called Sempronia. Libos is a more recent town, a river port at the confluence of the two rivers. But it appears that there was a mill and some kind of custom house, because records indicate that the priory collected impots from both the mill and passing river traffic. In 1958 the communes were officially amalgamated.

The church of Saint-Géraud in Monsempron-Libos was founded as a Benedictine priory by monks from the Abbatiale Saint-Geraud in Aurillac and thereafter remained a dependency of that abbey. Records make it clear that the priory church was in existence by the year 1080.

Exterior, Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by MOSSOT (Wikipedia Commons)

The Romanesque portion of the church is the product of three building campaigns. The first construction was in the early 11th century and consisted of a crypt with a long nave and a triple-lobed chevet. In the beginning of the 12th century, reconstruction began with the current nave and side aisles, and the transept was crowned with a cupola and bell tower. In the 13th century, the chapel at the south arm of the transept was added. Further modifications were made in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries.

Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne)

Saint-Géraud was built in the form of a latin cross with a nave of four bays and side aisles. There are short transepts on either side of the crossing with apsidal chapels echeloned on either side of the choir. The nave is formed by the two rows of round columns topped with truncated capitals featuring birds and beasts. The bands of the barrel vault spring gracefully from narrow pilasters atop the capitals.

Nave, Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The 13th century south apsidal chapel was an interesting addition to the church. The diamond patterned decorations on the entrance arch are unique, especially when they spring from the plain pilasters. Inside we see the deep windows that fill the wall between the columns supporting the groin vault.

South apsidal chapel, Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

There is a wonderful proportion to the arches no matter which direction they are viewed from. Here we see the line of arches going off to the side aisle on the left, the crossing arches in the foreground and the nave arches in the background. And notice the beautiful round columns dividing the side aisle from the naves – they are solid and capable of supporting the barrel vaults but not heavy at all.

Transept to crossing, Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

PJ’s wonderful shot of the nave looking west from the choir is very revealing. We can clearly see the four bays of the nave with its floor below the level of the choir with the western wall pierced by two windows. We can also see the cupola over the crossing. The present day altar sits directly below this cupola. In the early 16th century this enlarged choir replaced the Romanesque apse.

Nave looking west from choir, Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

An interesting part of the church is the set of stairs that make up the first bay and its side aisles. This is almost certainly the work of the 16th century renovation of the choir, but the reason that the crossing and the choir needed to be higher than the level of the nave was because of the existence of the crypt.

View of crossing and chancel from north side aisle, Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave columns are topped with engaging small truncated capitals. Despite the fact that they than half the normal height of Romanesque capitals, the sculptors created wonderful compositions that took advantage of the shape.

Nave capital, Église Saint-Géraud, Monsempron-Libos (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We were quite anxious to shoot the 11th century crypt, which probably served as a sepulchre for the monks of the priory, but we were unable to gain entrance. This seems to be a great omission for our record of this marvelous church, so we will have to return some day to complete the mission.

Location: 44.4882, 0.9432

Pope Urban II and the Priory of Layrac (Dennis Aubrey)

The town of Layrac is about ten kilometers south of Agen in the present day département of the Lot-et-Garonne. The small river Gers cuts through the center of town just before it merges with the Garonne to the north of town. The area has been settled since the Paleolithic era. The medieval town was founded on the small promontory on the site of an abandoned Roman villa. The town achieved a certain importance because of the river traffic on the Garonne. With the founding of the priory of Saint-Martin-de-Layrac, the town grew more important, so much so that it received a customs charter in 1273 allowing it to collect tolls from passing river traffic.

We know quite a bit about the founding of the priory from a charter that dates from December 16, 1064. The donation was made by Hugues, viscount of Brulhois, and his elder brother Hunald, of the house of Béarn for the construction and maintenance of a priory. The name Brulhois (a Gallic word meaning “embankment, border”, “edge of wooded river”) is still known in Layrac from the wine appellation of that name (which happens to be situated next to Buzet, one of my favorites of that region). At the time, Hunald of Béarn was a monk at the abbey of Moissac where he became abbot in 1072. Hunald was a disciple of the famed Hugh of Cluny and he was known for his extreme piety. He is also known as the builder of the priory church in Layrac from a mosaic inscription (since lost, but preserved by antiquarians) that read: HAS AEDES SACRAS FVNDAVIT HVNALDVS – “This temple was founded by Hunald.”

A second inscription (also lost) is even more interesting: ANNO DOMINI MXCVI A PAPA VRBANO II CONSECRATVM EST HOC TEMPLUM IN HONOREM BEATORVM APOSTOLORVM PETRI AND PAVLI ATQVE BEATI MARTINI. “In the year of God 1096 Pope Urban II consecrates this temple in honor of Saints Peter and Paul and the blessed Martin”

Chevet and south façade, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The date of the Urban inscription is interesting because the Pope preached the First Crusade on November 27, 1095 in Clermont about 400 kilometers to the northeast. I was a bit confused why he would leave Clermont, travel all that distance to such an insignificant site as Layrac on his way back to Rome far to the east. I discovered that after speaking at Clermont, Urban went on a long preaching tour, spreading the message of the Crusade through much of France . Urban preached the cross at Limoges in December 1095, at Le Mans in February 1096, and at Nîmes in July 1096. He did not return to Italy until August 1096 well after the first Crusaders were on their way to Jerusalem. Given the date of the Layrac inscription, we can speculate that Urban visited to consecrate the church sometime between Limoge (December 1095) and Le Mans (February 1096), but that is a short period of time for all that travel. It is more likely that he visited Layrac after Le Mans and on his way to Nimes (July 1096).

The nave of the Église Saint Martin is enormous – almost 38 feet wide – and without side aisles. It is reputed to be the widest Romanesque nave, but I am not so sure – the nave at Saint-Avit-Sénieur might challenge for that honor. The vault is also ogive, banded at each bay. Engaged columns topped by capitals with acanthus leaves support the vault bands.

Nave, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The flat walls of the seven bays are pierced on each side by large rounded windows that flood the interior with light.

Nave elevation, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

There is a beautiful semi-circular apse with nine windows. Those windows and the colonettes that support them correspond to the lombard bands on the exterior chevet.

Apse, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is also a fine 18th century canopy or baldaquin in the choir. It frames the new altar area under the cupola in the transept crossing, an area that is ringed in by a stone balustrade. That crossing is topped by a cupola almost 33 feet across. The transepts have chapels echeloned to the east. These chapels can be seen in the exterior view on the eastern side of the transept.

Baldaquin, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

At the south side of the transept crossing there is a superb capital showing a grouping of fanciful lions. All of the details – from the well-coiffed heads and manes to the talon-like claws gripping the edge of the capital – are of the finest workmanship.

Capital, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

On the floor of the choir are the remnants of an early mosaic featuring Samson slaying the lion, illustrating Judges 14:5-6. “Then went Samson down, and his father and his mother, to Timnath, and came to the vineyards of Timnath: and, behold, a young lion roared against him. And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid, and he had nothing in his hand: but he told not his father or his mother what he had done.” This mosaic was recovered only in 1966. There was apparently another mosaic, still visible in 1714, that featured the cycle of David and Goliath. This disappeared during the restorations of the 19th century when the baldaquin was installed.

Mosaic, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Saint Martin has an elegant western portal with finely worked archivolts springing from slender columns topped with historiated capitals. The two flanking columns are topped with capitals as well, and from the abacus on top of each appear to have once supported a substantial arched porch of some kind.

Interestingly enough, there is also a south portal sheltered by a shallow porch that opens into the transept. There is no sign of this in the 15th century plan even though the workmanship of the portal appears Romanesque.

West portal, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The priory church of Saint Martin was inhabited by monks from the noble class who sought to emulate Hunald’s piety. Because they were men of means, the priory was able to finance hospitals, schools, and other charities. We can see from this reconstruction what the 15th century priory complex looked like. All of this contributed to the growth of the town of Layrac, and certainly to this gem of 12th century Romanesque construction.

Nave from apse, Église Saint Martin, Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne) Photo by PJ Aubrey

It is a wonderful fancy to imagine Urban II with his retinue at this smallish priory church in the Agenais … ““Thither came the Pope, Urban II, with a great retinue of bishops, priests, and cardinals .…” We can imagine the stamping horses, the flowing banners highlighting the new stone construction, and the blazes of color. I can almost see the blue of the sky. How this would have impressed the Layracais, both with the pageantry of the Pope and the honor paid to their founder, Hunald! Inevitably, Urban proceeds to his appointment at Nimes, the decorations are removed and the pageant clothing put away. The deserted parvis lapses into silence.

Note: After completing this post, I confirmed the supposition of the time of Urban’s visit to Layrac with the following confirmation of the Hughes/Hunald charter, dated May 1096: Privilegium Urbani Papæ II quo confirmat Hugoni, Abbati Cluniacensi, honorem cum Ecclesia Sancti Martini de Lairaco, quem Hunaldus dicto monasterio delegavit.

And to our surprise, we received further confirmation from one of our readers. Please take a look below at the comment from Jean-Luc Moreno.

Location: 44.13630 0.66028

A Tale of Two Cities – Oloron-Sainte-Marie – Part Two (Dennis Aubrey)

Our last post was about the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie in Oloron-Sainte-Marie. We left off the section about the Quartier Sainte-Marie with a cliffhanger – the church was in shambles after the depredations of the Vascones and the Saracens in the 8th century. But the bad news was not over yet. The church was once again rebuilt but the Vikings decided to make a foray inland and burned that one as well, leaving both the church and the town desolated. It wasn’t for another two hundred years that the decision was made to rebuilt yet again. Amat, bishop of Oloron , archbishop of Bordeaux, laid the first stone of the church in 1089 on the site of the previous cathedral. It was perched on the summit of the steep hill that dominated the rivers below.

The church was completed under Odon de Bénac, Amat’s successor. The entire structure – including the long barrel vault – was built of hard stone. Maybe the builders wanted to guard against the return of invaders and fire! If so, their plan was successful because Sainte-Croix has resisted even the ravages of time. The church we see today is essentially the church that was originally built (except for some ill-conceived exterior alterations). The rather ugly western face of the church was probably a remnant of the destroyed earlier church that was clumsily incorporated into the new church.

It is likely that this church was intended to be the new cathedral – there is indeed a fine structure just a short distance away that was probably meant to be the bishop’s palace. But it seems that the plains of the Quartier Sainte-Marie were more compelling and a new cathedral was built there. Sainte-Croix became, therefore, a substantial parish church.

The church was designed in the normal Benedictine Romanesque fashion of a nave, side aisles, an oven vaulted apse and echeloned chapels on either side of the altar, although there is no ambulatory. The nave itself is covered with a long, banded barrel vault. The first thing I noticed about this church was that despite its strength and solidity, there is symmetry and a fine proportion of its parts. Even the massive nave piers have engaged columns all around that give an appearance of lightness and elegance. Throughout, the round arches are repeated in every direction like the beat of a drum creating the rhythm of the church.

Nave, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But even with this, there is a strange change of perspective at each different area of the church, almost as if we are seeing a different space. Looking at the apse we that the semi-circular back wall is built on a blind arcade of seven arches leading to the second level of three windows. Above, a lovely oven vault completes the ensemble. Nothing else in the church would lead us to expect this sophisticated creation.

Altar, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The decoration of the apse is completely different as well, filled with 19th century murals by Bertrand Bernard and Romain Cazes. But this does not seem to matter because of the way all the vistas of the church change continuously. And the murals combine well with the several historiated capitals on the engaged columns.

Apse decoration, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The completely unadorned side aisles repeat the three bays of the nave except that they are topped with half-barrel vaults. This form allows the side aisle vaults to add additional support to the nave walls on the right.

Side aisle, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This extra support from the half-barrel vaults in the side aisles mean that the openings to the nave can be impressively large. If we compare this to the contemporary monastery church of Ripoll, we can see the difference in the scale of the nave arches.

Side aisle arches, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The crossing is the regionally-familiar ribbed star-shaped dome with eight branches that we see in Torres del Rio and the nearby Église Saint-Blaise at L’Hôpital-Saint-Blaise. The structure is supported by the four squinches in the shape of a scallop shell. This form is of Mozarab inspiration and is found close to or in Spain where that influence was greatest.

Transept Crossing, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

It is difficult to express how much this church moves me. The more I study it, the more impressed I am with the skill and vision of the builders. This is a church that was begun in 1089 and shows none of the advances of Romanesque architecture through the years – no ogive arches, no ribbed vaults. The side aisles have the half-barrel vaults like the previously referenced Monastir Santa Maria de Ripoll, which it resembles in many ways. But it is my opinion that the Église Sainte-Croix d’Oloron deserves even more attention as an example of the best of early Romanesque architecture.

Location: 43.1891° 0.6062°

A Tale of Two Cities – Oloron-Sainte-Marie – Part One (Dennis Aubrey)

The town of Oloron-Sainte-Marie is located at the confluence of two gaves, or mountain rivers in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques; the Aspe and the Ossau. This divides the town into three parts. To the west on the left bank of the Aspe is the ecclesiastic city with the imposing Cathédrale Sainte Marie. This area is known as the Quartier Sainte Marie. To the south on the high ground is the feudal city, which actually started life as a Celtic settlement and subsequently became the Roman oppidum called Iluro (which later became corrupted to “Oloron”). The history of Iluro disappeared with the Visigothic invasions that decimated the Roman province of Gallia Aquitania in the 5th century. Today the high ground of the Quartier Sainte Croix is dominated by the Église Sainte Croix, a fine Romanesque structure. There is the modern Quartier Notre Dame on the right bank of the Aspe but the church there, the Église Notre Dame, is Romanesque in style only, having been completed in 1893.

Nave, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the 4th century, the oppidum became the Christian city of Sainte Croix. The churches of the region were decimated with the invasions of the Visigoths in the following, but the Visigothic king Alaric II permitted Sainte Croix to be designated a bishopric. The first bishop was Gratus, who is celebrated in Oloron-Sainte-Marie every autumn during the Fêtes de la Saint Grat. From the festival logo shown here, my suspicion is that something of the original spirit of the festival has been lost in time.

Sainte Croix did not have much better luck in subsequent years. In the 6th century, the Vascones crossed the Pyrénées and pillaged the area, and in the 8th century the Saracen invasions left Sainte Croix in ruins. The city was almost deserted for two centuries. We will pick up the story of Sainte Croix and the town of Oloron in the next post, because today we will concentrate on the Cathédrale Sainte Marie.

The cathedral is a Romanesque structure built in the 12th century but only the western portal and parts of the transepts remain of that structure. The nave, composed of three great bays, was rebuilt in the 13th century after a fire caused by a riot destroyed the church. It was later raised to a greater height and side aisles added in the 14th century. Of this nave, only the two great pillars flanking the transept remain of the Romanesque church.

The travails of Sainte-Marie continued, unfortunately. The Protestant forces under Mongommery pillaged the cathedral in 1569 and it was not repaired until 1617. It was augmented in 1749 with the construction of the four lateral chapels and redecorated. The main restoration of the church by the Monuments Historique was finished in 1859.

Nave, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In this shot of the nave from the side aisle, we can see the lateral chapels that were added in 1749. We also get a sense of the strength of the structure with its massive engaged columns springing to the vaults above. We also see the nave windows that fill the space with light.

Nave from side aisle, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The ambulatory reveals the 14th century chevet and the sanctuary, enhanced with high arches. Having been rebuilt during a single time frame, this is the most harmonious part of cathedral. The high ogival windows fill the ambulatory with light.

Ambulatory, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

This shot of the side aisle from the ambulatory shows the 18th century decoration and the 14th century side aisles that were added at the same time as the nave height was raised.

Chapel, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The east end chevet is Gothic, of course, resulting from the 14th century reworking of the cathedral. The ambulatory chapels are clearly visible from the exterior forms.

Chevet, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The crowning glory of the Romanesque portion of the church is the magnificent sculpted west portal, one of the earliest of its kind. We are lucky that the wars and disasters of the past have spared this masterpiece. The unique iconography of this ensemble is thought to be the work of two master sculptures, one who is known as “The Master of Oloron.” His hand can be seen in the tympanum and its depiction of the descent from the cross, as well as the atlantes supporting the trumeau.

The descent illustrates John 19:38-40 – “And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus. And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. (KJV)”

West portal, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

The portal trumeau shows two figures straining to hold up the weight of the columns, indeed the cathedral itself. These atlantes by the Master of Oloron are some of many fascinating details to be found in this sculptural array.

Trumeau detail, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The portal is sheltered by an open narthex that empties directly onto the parvis. This Gothic portal was carved into the massive Romanesque tower that dominates the western profile of the cathedral. We can see from this shot that Sainte-Marie is an integral part of the local quartier that bears her name. We can see another of the atlantes supporting the exterior columns here.

Narthex to parvis, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ Aubrey

One of my personal favorite details of the portal are the figures on the central band of the archivolt. They represent the works of the seasons – in this case we see a wheelwright, a mason, and a cooper, but other vignettes include a butcher, forester, cobbler, smith, baker, cook, and even a musician.

Archivolt detail, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Another detail familiar to lovers of Romanesque sculpture are the squatting figures supporting the columns just to the north of the archivolt, clearly unhappy with their burden. The entire portal dates from about 1120, so this is one of the earliest depictions of this pair, others of which are found at the Église Saint Pierre des Tours in Aulnay-de-Saintonge and elsewhere.

Exterior capital detail, Cathédrale Sainte Marie, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Today Oloron-Sainte-Marie is known mostly as an important stop on the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela, the collection point for the Via Tolasana from Arles. While we were there we saw pilgrims in both the cathedral and the Église Sainte Crois. In the latter, we actually saw a pair of walkers changing their clothes in the middle of the church! I guess we surprised them in the otherwise empty church. Our next post will be about the interesting Romanesque church of Sainte-Croix.

Location: 43.187846 -0.615936

As so often happens, there is a story that goes with this post to show how history is ever-present in France, or at least it has been for me since I was a boy. We have wonderful family friends who live outside the small town of Vivonne just south of Poitiers. The Clain River runs through the Gayet’s property and I was fascinated by the fact that the Saracens followed the Clain on their way to despoil the city of Tours in 732. Just north of Poitiers the Saracen army was met by the forces of Charles Martel and was defeated on October 10, 732. This was the first check in the Muslim conquest of Europe. But even more fascinating to my young mind was a small hill crowned by a flat field that was owned by the Gayet family. It was a lieu-dit called the Champs d’Alaric. The local legend is that after the battle of Vouillé (where Clovis defeated Alaric II and the Visigoths) Alaric was buried with a great treasure on this spot. When we visited the Gayets, I often walked to this hill and and dreamt of the pageantry and tragedy of Alaric’s death.

We’re Planning Another Trip (Dennis Aubrey)

We had mentioned earlier that when I recovered my health we were going to take a trip to France, Corsica and Sardinia to photograph the Romanesque churches there. We finally decided that I would probably be well enough to travel in Fall 2019; it was a glorious plan and we were looking forward to investigating the new worlds of Corsica and Sardinia. But when we began planning in detail, we came to realize that it was too much, too soon. The long drives to Southern France, then traversing both Corsica and Sardinia north to south and back again meant that we would have to spend two months on the trip and that was probably a risk for me, especially in an area of Italy where I don’t speak the language.

So, we went back to the drawing board and came up with a wonderful alternative. We will spend three and a half weeks shooting Norman churches in England and Wales and three weeks traveling through France, partly to shoot churches and partly to visit friends that we have not seen since I got sick. What a trip we have planned!

We cross the channel from France from Cherbourg to Portsmith and spend time shooting in the Dorset, Wilshire, and Devon areas, move north into Somerset toward Wells and Bath, then into Wales for five days. My father’s side of the family came from Abercynrig in Wales and we will visit there as well as photograph the great churches of Heresfordshire and Gloucestershire. The we run further north to the Scottish borderlands to photograph the great cathedral churches in Durham and Carlisle. The last ten days we work our way south to Canterbury via Lincoln, Ely, Cambridge, Saint Albans, Waltham Abbey and Rochester. Overall we plan on photographing about 35 churches in the 24 days we will be in England; ambitious, but very exciting.

We then take a short break of three days in Ghent, just to relax and see the sights (echoing to the words of Jacques Brel, Entre les tours de Bruges et Gand). Then we go to Saint Quentin to photograph the great Gothic basilica there with its spectacular examples of entasis in the nave. Then we go to Amiens to photograph Notre-Dame d’Amiens, one of the greatest Gothic cathedrals in the world, also possessor of examples of entasis in the nave columns. The challenge of adequately capturing the intentional deformations in the columns is great, but I can’t wait to try. From Amiens we return to Chartres for three days to photograph the progress on the restoration and to see our many friends there. We stay in the most wonderful little hotel – the Parvis – which is literally a 150 feet from the west portal. Such a pleasure to park the car for three days and spend the rest of the time walking and photographing!

South ambulatory entrance, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by PJ McKey

After Chartres, we head to the Dordogne and Quercy to photograph the churches there. In Souillac, we stay at a hotel that I have visited year after year since 1986, the Pont de l’Ouysse, and we photograph one of our favorite churches, the Abbaye Sainte Marie de Souillac. with its astonishing sculptural ensemble.

Nave from east, Église Sainte Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

From the Quercy region, we head to the Puy de Dôme to another of our “homes” in France, the Cour Carrée in Perrier, near Issoire. The Vilette family has honored us with their friendship, culinary mastery and hospitality for years, and we always look forward to returning. It helps that the area is one of the richest in Romanesque masterpieces, including the nearby Basilique Saint Austremoine in Issoire.

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

From the Puy de Dôme we make our way to the final stop, the third in our holy trinity of hotels, the Crispol in Vézelay. Paule and Christian Schori have befriended and hosted us for over fifteen years and no trip to France is complete without staying with them at their wonderful hotel/restaurant. In addition, we always get the opportunity to visit our favorite Romanesque church in the world, the Basilique Sainte Madeleine.

North side aisle, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Another reason to visit (as if we needed one) is much more melancholy – we will make the trip to the Monastery of La Pierre Qui Vire and visit the grave of our beloved friend, Angelico Surchamp, who died last year. His last words to us were, ““We are separated by thousands of kilometers and a great ocean, but our hearts are close.” Now we are separated by eternity, but our hearts are still close.

PJ with Dom Angelico Surchamp in Le Villars

From Vezélay, we return home, via Boston. We have had such a good time planning this trip – having the confidence that we will be able to travel again and take up the mantle of our work. I can only imagine what it will feel like to be back in the saddle.

One thing we ask of our readers, however. We have never photographed in the English churches and cathedrals and would appreciate any tips that we can get. As you know, we have pretty much unfettered access in France, but don’t know if we will be so welcome in England. We will begin our research soon, but will be thankful for your knowledge and advice.

The Pegasus (Dennis Aubrey)

“Indeed during the Middle Ages there existed a sort of cinema in colors of which no trace has survived; just as in the sudden dawning of a larger hope amongst men who had not forgotten the dark age whence they had emerged but yesterday – a dawning symbolized by the great cathedrals soaring heavenwards – there was a splendid confidence in the future, not unlike that of America.”
André Malraux, “Voices of Silence”

André Malraux observed in Voices of Silence that medieval artists were not creating pictures or statues of Madonnas, they were actually creating a Madonna. They did not think that they were representing the reality, but creating it. They were saying “This is the Madonna” not “This is a picture of a Madonna.”

Notre Dame d'Estours, Eglise Saint Pierre, Monistrol d'Allier (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame d’Estours, Eglise Saint Pierre, Monistrol d’Allier (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

What must have life been like to create such an understanding. I think that we have made clear in this blog over the last few years that these medieval artisans were not in any way primitive or ignorant, but were instead capable of the most profound appreciations of the world and the most profound representations of their deep inner faith. I have come to suspect that they were capable of this because they understood the promise of that faith, they had Malraux’s “splendid confidence in the future”. In my own way, I came to that understanding on December 9, 1977.

On that night, I experienced an enormously powerful and vivid dream that comes as close to sustaining me with a life-giving faith as anything in my self-absorbed and solipsistic life. I still have the original middle-of-the-night transcription of the dream recorded in my journal, dated December 9, 1977:

“Violence dreams by the dozens lately – but the Pegasus dream made up for it. Having captured two men who turned into white horses, feeling threatened, the first horse leaping over the fence at me, I recognize that the second must be released – he is somehow in my power. The second horse climbs a 50’ wire fence and when atop leaps in the air – a beautiful white Pegasus – silver in the cloud-piercing moonlight. Transfixed by beauty – knowing that I can see it because it is there. The passers-by who mock my reverence cannot see it, but it is truly there – a vision of beauty. Donner, one of he men from the concrete pit, related to the Pegasus- stabs me in the back – it must be done – perhaps because I have seen the Pegasus – no malice. Knowing I will die soon I say – let me live for a week so I can see my parents. Death begins physically within, like an interior collapse. I go into the kitchen and see my father. I cry as I hug him and tell him I love him. The feeling of seeing Pegasus before I die, and when I see it I die … but having seen I can die. Pegasus comes from something I am punishing or lead to punishment … something I think wrong, but in reality it is a vessel for Pegasus.”

Study for Guernica horse, Pablo Picasso (1937)

Study for Guernica horse, Pablo Picasso (1937)

I still shudder with discovery as I read this. This was the last entry in my journal for about 17 months.

In the following nights I dreamt sections of the dream again. The first night the dream was complete, and the nights following I re-dreamt segments of the dream as if I were shooting coverage of a scene in a movie, explaining and amplifying different parts of the original dream – never changing, just amplifying. One of them was seeing the second white horse climb the fence, seeing up close how the wire tore into the living flesh of the horse, close enough that I could feel the hot gusting of his breath on my face.

But throughout this time of dreaming, there was a conviction, an absolute conviction, that this was a promise for my life – that I would see the Pegasus before I die, and having seen it, would be prepared to die. This has been my source of faith for my entire life, for my own “splendid confidence in the future”.

Sometimes in reflecting on my life, I wonder how a sane man can live his life based on such dreams? Where is the rational explanation for this disembodied voice speaking to me? I hear it clearly, but there is no visible source. Is this is a vision or a dream? At such moments I understand the Lakota Vision Quest.

Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Santa Maria del Popolo (Rome)

Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Santa Maria del Popolo (Rome)

I always wanted to have my sign, my vision from God to guide me, but have never admitted to it; to be transfixed by light on the road to Damascus where others may see the light but not hear the voice. I want to be in that beatified state where I don’t take photographs, but create churches.