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.

Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada – Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm


It is documented that the Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada was built by abbot Alfonso and his refugee monks who fled Córdoba on the site of an earlier church dedicated to Archangel Michael, probably a Visigothic structure, in the span of twelve months in 913, the historical moment when the Kingdom of León was founded. It is located in Gradefes, about 30 km east of León, slightly off the camino francés to Santiago de Compostela. San Miguel de Escalada is one of the best-preserved examples of Mozarabic architecture, a style of architecture created by conquered Christian builders who stayed in the Iberian Peninsula after the Arab invasion of 711, and later by the builders who migrated north but carrying with them artistic traditions of the Mozarabic architecture from the southern regions. After the disentitlement of ecclesiastical properties in 1836 in Spain, the monks had to leave the monastery, but the structures were registered as national monuments later in the 19th century. The extant monastery consists of the restored 10th century Mozarabic church, a tower and the chapel of San Fructuoso built in the early Romanesque style.

Exterior, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada (Castile-León)

The first sight of the Mozarabic church that leaves a strong impression on a visitor is the 12-bay colonnade of horseshoe-shaped arches of the porch, or an outdoor narthex, which was added to the church around 940 on the south façade.

South facade, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The horseshoe-shaped arch is the most distinct design element of Mozarabic architecture. On closer examination, one will discern that the south façade was built in two phases: the western seven bays of the colonnade have alfiz embellishing the arches, while the eastern five bays are left without the additional stonework.

South facade bays, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The last three columns to the east are set on a lower ground, necessitating placement of dosseret over the capitals in order to align the springing level for the arches, even with the slightly taller columns.

South facade arch detail, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

All columns appear to have been recycled, possibly from the nearby Roman city of Lancia, although capitals are not of the Classical Corinthian design, but freely, albeit imaginatively carved by stonecutters for the Mozarabic structure.

The church is laid out as a basilica plan with the porch added to the south as mentioned earlier. The nave and the slightly narrower aisles are divided by five large horseshoe-shaped arches on columns. The choir at the crossing is defined by a choir screen, or an iconostacion, as a Spanish writer called it, built of three somewhat smaller arches than the nave. The rectangular spaces to the north and south of the choir, embryonic transepts, though not expressed on the exterior are distinguished by arches from the aisles. Three apses of horseshoe-shaped plan are carved into a thick mass of masonry at the east end of the structure, all endowed with horseshoe-shaped arches of their own and vaulted in stone.

Elevation and plan, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Courtesy of Wikimedia

The entrance to the church is located at the midpoint of the nave behind the colonnade at south, and there is another entrance to the south transept several steps up from the lower ground.

“The visitor finds himself in an austere but surprisingly sophisticated ensemble,” to quote Kenneth John Conant. “The architectural membering, the proportions, the scale, the management of space and light are all very fastidious.” The nave framed by arcades on both walls and the choir screen is dimly lit from small clerestory windows above. Both the north and south aisles are devoid of any windows, except the door. The nave possesses that immaterial character of a Byzantine space.

Nave, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view to west from the choir screen shows that the main entrance on the west wall of the church which is indicated on the plan had been walled off.

Nave looking west, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view of the corner pier where the nave arch and the outer arch of the screen are joined shows that the master builder treated the east-west direction of the nave as primary, then the outer arch of the choir screen was simply brought to the pier without an attached column as it was done for the nave arcades.

Nave detail, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

As the three arches forming the choir screen are smaller while retaining the same proportion of the larger arches, their tops are lower. The master builder obviously judged that the screen needed more wall plane above the arches to achieve the desired spatial definition for the choir. The roof trusses are left without a ceiling, and one can see the church space is a parallelogram.

Ceiling, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The chancel in the central apse has a simple slab of stone as the altar. The cornice above the chancel arch mirrors the cornice over the choir screen.

Apse, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The carving on the capital above the attached chancel column highlights the caliber of the stone cutters, although the imagery is not yet meant to tell a biblical parable as are the Romanesque capitals of a century later.

Chancel capital, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The high skills of stone cutters is very much in evidence again on a simple block of stone placed as a low partition between the choir and the south transept.

Carved partition, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Monasterio de San Miguel de Escalada, Gradefes (Castile-León) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Another example is this capital on one of the columns supporting a horseshoe-shaped arch.

Location: 42.560000° -5.314722°

For more information about our guest writer, Jong-Soung Kimm, please see this link.

The Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe – Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kim


Readers of Via Lucis would remember that the Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe was featured in an article by Dennis some years ago. Whereas The focus of that blog was on the 11th and 12th century fresco painting on the church nave ceiling, the present article is intended to illustrate the unusual vaulting technique used in the abbey church.

As the founding charter of the Abbey of Notre-Dame of Saint-Savin was lost during the French wars of religion in the 16th century, the precise year of founding is unclear, but it is known that a cleric in Charlemagne’s court came upon the relics of the 5th century brothers Savin and Cyprien who fled their homeland in Macedonia to avoid persecution, but were martyred near the present town of Saint-Savin by the Gartempe river, and a Benedictine abbey was founded in their honor in the early decades of the 9th century with the blessing of Charlemagne. The abbey extant today was established in 1010 when Aumode, Countess of Poitou and Aquitaine, made a sizable donation for building the abbey. Bishops Odon II and Gervais undertook the building campaign for the abbey church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe between 1040 and 1090. The large block of convent to the south of the abbey church was built in the 13th century through donation from Count Alphonse of Poitiers, brother of St. Louis.

The abbey church of Saint-Savin is based on a Latin cross plan. It consists, from west to east, of a square narthex with a finely proportioned spire above; three bays of nave with half-round transverse arches and barrel-vault supported by compound piers; six bays also with barrel-vault, but without transverse arches; a square crossing with a crossing tower above; transepts to north and south; a deep choir/chancel with 2-meter wide ambulatory and five radiating chapels.

Ground plan, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne)

The nine bays of the nave measure 42 meters long, 6 meters wide, and 18 meters high at the zenith of the barrel vault. The surface of the nave vaulting measures 412 m2. The nave floor is slightly raised to east, creating an impression of the choir being elevated even higher than the level difference when seen from the west. The transepts and the choir were the first to be built, then the western three bays of the nave, finally the eastern six bays of the nave over the foundation of the Carolingian abbey. It was eventually completed in the 12th century in the general state seen today. The axis of the church is slightly deflected at the compound piers where the western three bays are joined to the six bays without the transverse arches.

In comparison with one of the “classic” Romanesque churches such as Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in Vézelay, it is immediately apparent that the space of Saint-Savin is organized with more Roman architectural elements. The 15-meter high sturdy cylindrical nave columns support semi-circular arches running length-wise in the east-west direction. Over the procession of these six semi-cylindrical arches, a continuous barrel vault is built for the nave. The unusual vaulting of the nave at Saint-Savin seamlessly transforms itself as a wedge of the groin-vault for each bay of aisles to the north and south. The aisles, about 5.5 meters wide, are almost as high as the nave, making Saint-Savin one of several hall churches constructed in the southwestern region of France. The nave is thus lighted not from clerestory windows, but from tall windows on the exterior walls of aisles. The barrel vault surface receives an adequate illumination for the justly famous fresco painting. Another unusual aspect of Saint Savin, a characteristic of the Poitevine Romanesque architecture, is that masonry surfaces are stuccoed and decorated with faux marbre in pale rose and pastel tone.

The Church

The convent block to the south and the abbey ensemble to the north greet visitors when approaching from the northeast across the Gartempe river. The five radiating chapels as well as the chapel on the north transept create a dynamic and sculptural massing.

Ensemble view from northeast, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The south façade of St.-Savin-sur-Gartempe abbey church shows the finely proportioned spire at the west built between the end of the 14th and the dawn of 15th centuries in the High Gothic style.

South facade, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view of the nave toward the choir shows 15-meter-high columns supporting half round arches in the east-west direction. A continuous barrel vault rests over the longitudinal seats for the nave.

Nave, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The axial view of the choir. The sturdy columns and capitals have the Classical proportion of the Corinthian order, but with carvings of imaginary animals and vegetation.

Axial view of choir, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view of the north aisle toward east. The use of faux marbre technique on the masonry is an important characteristic of the Poitevine Romanesque architecture.

North side aisle, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view from south aisle toward northeast shows generous windows on the exterior walls of a hall church, as opposed to the clerestory windows of a high nave-low aisle configuration, providing ample light for the vault fresco. The half round arches running length-wise facing the nave, transform themselves to a series of “pies” of the groin vaults of aisles.

South side aisle, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The axial view of the nave to west. The six nave bays to the east have continuous barrel vault resting on longitudinal seats without transverse arches defining each bay. The nave floor is a few steps below the narthex and the plaza outside.

Axial view of nave facing west, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The western three bays of the nave are framed by half round transverse arches resting on substantial compound piers. A tall tribune space over the narthex has a generous opening looking out to the nave.

Western bay, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View of the nave looking up toward the choir shows where the axis is slightly deflected at the intersection of the easternmost transverse arch and the continuous barrel vault.

View of nave looking up, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View of the fresco painting in the barrel vault of the eastern six bays of the nave (link to Dennis blog).

Nave vault, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view looking up to the crossing highlights the sturdy and impressive cross-shaped piers at the corners.

Crossing, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View of the central chapel on the axis of the chevet.

Central chapel, Abbatiale Saint Savin, Saint Savin-sur-Gartempe (Vienne) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

While the most important object for the high artistic esteem accorded to Saint-Savin is the fresco painting on the nave vaulting affectionately nick-named “Romanesque Sistine Chapel,” Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe is an important monument in the development of Romanesque architecture. It was inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage register in 1983.

Location: 46.566944, 0.864444

I would like to particularly thank Jong-Soung Kimm for the post. First of all, it is direly needed by the Via Lucis blog in my absence. Second, I grew up just up the road from Saint Savin in the town of Chauvigny, often written about in these pages. The Abbatiale Saint Savin in those days was dingy, underlit, and unloved by all except the locals and lovers of the Romanesque. It has now been beautifully restored and it is such a delight to see a study like this published here.

Come See Us at the Lancaster City ArtWalk (Dennis Aubrey)


Our “Painted Romanesque” exhibition will be on display at the Lancaster City ArtWalk next week. The ArtWalk is organized by Destination Downtown Lancaster as part of the Lancaster Festival, the city’s ten-day celebration of the arts (July 18-July 28). ArtWalk provides visual artists with a platform to share their talents and gifts to enrich the lives of the community members. Artists are chosen by a jury to display their artwork in Downtown Lancaster businesses from July 20-July 28.

This annual ArtWalk attracts an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 visitors each year. More than forty artists show and sell their work in numerous downtown venues while the closed city streets host a beer garden, music, and food trucks.

Our set of eight images will be at Art & Clay On Main at 150 W Main St, Lancaster, OH 43130 on Friday, July 20 from 6-10pm. PJ and I will be there speaking about our photography during that time.

North side aisle, Église Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Aubrey

We will also participate in the Artist’s Reception on Thursday, July 19 from 5-7pm at the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio at 145 E Main St, Lancaster, OH 43130. Again, members of the Via Lucis community are welcome to come to either event. Our lives have been so enriched by meeting many of you in the past and we hope to do so in this next month.

A Columbus, Ohio Exhibition (Dennis Aubrey)


We are very pleased to announce an upcoming exhibition at the McConnell Art Center in the Columbus suburb of Worthington. We will be featuring thirty-six photographs of Romanesque churches in an exhibition called “Light and Stone” from October 18, 2018 to January 6, 2019. In addition, there will be a reception at the gallery on October 19 from 6-8 pm.

McDonnell Art Center, Worthington (Ohio)

The McConnell Art Center (MAC) is a contemporary, multidisciplinary facility presenting and promoting the performing, visual and digital arts. The 20,000 square foot building features a 213 seat theatre, an exhibition gallery, four classrooms, a digital imaging studio, a dance studio and rotating exhibitions sprinkled throughout the facility.

The address for the exhibition is:

McConnell Art Center
777 Evening Street
Columbus, OH 43085

Our current exposition at the Marian Library at the University of Dayton ends on July 27, so this Columbus show will be the next time we have the opportunity to show our work in a solo show. We hope to see anyone from the Via Lucis community who happens to be in this area, especially for the reception. We extend an open invitation to you all.

Memories (Dennis Aubrey)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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