The Shadows of Grandeur (Dennis Aubrey)


This post is based on an exchange with Trish Worth on our post “The Capitals of Conques” last week. She wonders what the original builders would think with the current unpainted versions of their masterpieces. “We find them beautiful, but they probably wouldn’t. But then some of your commenters have said they don’t like the colours. Yet, if we could see all these sculptures in their bright colours, we probably wouldn’t use the term ‘dark ages’ any more.”

Ambulatory, Église Saint George, Bourbon-l’Archambault (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Église Saint George, Bourbon-l’Archambault (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

My response talked about Rose Macaulay’s famous “Pleasure of Ruins”. I thought mostly of her “random excursion into a fantastic world,” les ombres de la grandeur. It takes an effort of imagination to reconstruct the power and magnificence of history from the shadows left to us. We can imagine the stupefying magnificence of these lost civilizations because we are overwhelmed by the mere ruins. Because the ruins are by definition incomplete, we are can only reconstruct them in our imagination. This act of creation engages us to a degree independent from mere history. We are personally engaged – emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.

Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Since we see these churches today as spare and uncolored, the colors of the stone seem natural, and we imaginatively project backwards to a Middle Ages where this was also natural. We prefer our imaginative creation to the historical reality. In the same way we like to think of the Parthenon and its statuary as unadorned marble, not brightly painted. The “classical” beauty is more elegant and perfect in this imaginative world that we create in our minds.

Choir, looking west, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Choir, looking west, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, Laon (Aisne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In the same way some people like to think of life in the Middle Ages as brutish and short, that we are somehow better served in our own time than they were in theirs. It is often claimed that the average lifespan for peasants was 30 years or so. Given the high infant mortality, death in war, and childbirth, this may be the case. Investigation of thousands of skeletal remains from more than forty Merovingian cemeteries and excavations of a 9th to 11th century cemetery at Münsterhof in Zurich showed that women’s life expectancy was significantly less than men until they passed child-bearing age. By the age of 40, the gap began to close and by age of 60, the life expectancy was equal for men and women. That means that if one could survive childhood, there was a good chance of living to the age of 50 or 60. In other words, it wasn’t that much different than life in Europe in the 19th century. The brutish and cruel life that we imagined is not accurate.

Side aisle, Église Saint Martin, Artonne (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Église Saint Martin, Artonne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Most of the time the churches that we investigate are more than ruins. Many are complete and living churches, but they are not of the world that we live in today. We can see and touch the buildings, but their spirit is of another time. Too often they are museums, architectural relics, and tourist destinations. Can one imagine that Notre Dame de Paris, with its long snaking lines of visitors far outside the western portal, ever truly served as a place of worship? In a way, viewing these buildings is like walking through a ghost town in the American West. The buildings stand, but they are filled with the driest sands and winds and weeds.

Crypt stairs in Eglise Notre Dame, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse)  (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

Crypt stairs in Eglise Notre Dame, Mont-devant-Sassy (Meuse) (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

To get past this barrenness, we often try to understand with our minds, and just as often are led to a dead end. Many people look at the churches as the relic of a barbarous faith represented by the excesses of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Wars of Religion, and the Albigensian Crusade, but nobody built these wonderful structures to commemorate such brutality. The predispositions of the mind prevent the viewer from going further. An atheist might see them – as I have often seen expressed – as a vain and wasted glorification. But these ideas merely confirm our own vested intellectual pretensions.

Cloister, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruere-Allychamps (Cher) Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister, Église Abbatiale Notre Dame de Noirlac, Bruere-Allychamps (Cher) Photo by PJ McKey

So while we use our imaginations and what little history we may possess as a basis to understand the churches and the faith that created them. we must look also to something else. The last piece of the puzzle, that which engages us the most deeply, is the uncensored response of our heart to what we see. This leads us to the truer depth of understanding. We must see aspirations, fears, and hopes of generations of people who precede us. We must feel what they felt as much as possible, and make a great leap of emotional imagination. Only then can we sense the power of creation that moved the builders. Only then can we sense the threnody of history expressed in art.

Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

On the way to his fateful end at Gallipoli, Rupert Brooke marked that he was passing Priam’s citadel at Troy and the ruined site of another great war of the legendary past.

And Priam and his fifty sons
Wake all amazed, and hear the guns,
And shake for Troy again.

Brooke made this leap across time and connected it with his own dark age. He died and was buried with those ancient heroes on the day of Shakespeare’s birth, April 23, 1915. He became part of what Rose Macaulay described as “the ghosts of dead ages sleeping together.”

An Atelier in Andlau (Alsace) (Dennis Aubrey)


Note: This is a repost of an article we did about two years ago. PJ and I were looking through Facebook and saw pictures of our friends Valérie, Patrick, and their beautiful daughter Zoélie. Valérie’s artwork is spectacular and I only wish that I could post a link to her more recent creations. And I wish I could post a picture of Zoélie and what a lovely young woman she has become.

One of the joys of our travel in France is meeting and connecting with the people of that great country. In Andlau, visiting the church Église Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, we saw a small studio with some interesting looking metal sculptures. Closed for lunch, we assumed, we went to the church and shot for a couple of hours. Afterward, while shooting the exterior, I noticed a group of three people leaving the studio. It turned out that they were the owners; Valérie Christmann and Patrick Chemin, with their daughter Zoélie, and they were willing to show us their studio. Inside, PJ and I found an entire world of fanciful and striking sculpture.

An angel

With Valérie as the artist and Patrick the builder, they team to create powerful images. In the main display gallery there was an exhibit of “The Deep”, “La Profondeur“. Using found objects, these large metal sculptures of a great toothed fish and storm-tossed boat with an angel overhead dominate the small gallery.

The deep

The fish has an array of arcane mechanical devices that operate the fins. With the great spiked teeth, these gears give the impression of a feeding machine preying on the creatures of an under-world.

The storm-tossed ship

PJ and I were totally captivated by the art, and even more so by Valérie, Patrick and Zoélie themselves. They were kind enough to show us around their studio and their work areas, and to explain how and why they create their remarkable sculptures. Since the studio faces on the great Andlau church of Saints Peter and Paul, the church Curé was at first very concerned that the work harmonize with the church. After seeing what they produced, he has supported their work ever since.

The locust

We asked about the possibility of purchasing some of the work and Valérie shyly said that she has not been able to sell yet. She has image of the work as being part of the space in which they live and work, and her impetus is to create for that world, and not to sell to someone else. This completely refreshing attitude coupled with their charming, open personalities made a striking impression on both PJ and myself.

Valérie, Zoélie, Patrick, and PJ in Andlau in 2010

We think of Valérie, Patrick and Zoélie as friends we have made in our travels, and spirits we admire in our special world of France Romanesque. So, to you, our friends in Andlau, salut!

Update: we keep in touch with Valérie, Patrick and Zoélie on Facebook and must say as an update – Zoélie has grown up to be a beautiful young woman. We look forward to seeing them again soon at their atelier in Andlau!

Doors to the Soul (Dennis Aubrey)


I’ve always been fascinated by the site of the exterior light coming into the church from the old doors and am always on the prowl for these shots. The first one that I shot was at Lavaudieu. The church in this little Auvergnat town was the third we had shot in the day and after two hours, I was exhausted and finished. While PJ continued to shoot in the apse area, I packed up my equipment and sat down to rest. At some point my gaze turned to the door and this is what I saw. Five minutes later, the equipment was set up and I took this single shot, which to this day is one with which I am very pleased.

Eglise Abbatiale Lavaudieu, Lavaudieu (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This door at the Abbey church of Silvacane in the Provence is stunning for several reasons. The deep red color contrasts with the muted interior, and the doors are relatively small compared to the west wall in which they are placed. In this particular shot we get both the light from the exterior door and the windows above, which provides enough illumination to really sense the scale of the entire church itself. The arch of the side aisle, of course, is a wonderful addition to the scene.

L’Abbaye de Silvacane, La Roque d’Anthéron (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

As usual, PJ sees different things than I do in these churches, and is drawn inevitably into seeing the small, telling details that make them special. Here are two door shots from her, one in the Pyrénées and the other in the Auvergne. The door of the Chapelle de la Trinité is beautifully adorned with the metalwork on the exterior, and one can hardly see the wood door beneath.

Chapelle de la Trinité, Prunet- et- Belpuig (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

At the pilgrimage church of Orcival, on the other hand, the wood of the door is beautifully textured and weathered. One can imagine the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims over the years who have passed through this door to see Notre Dame des Fers inside.

Notre Dame d’Orcival, Orcival (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

The tiny Eglise de Mailhat in the town of Mailhat-Lamontgie in the Puy-de-Dôme has some wonderful touches, including the inimitable “Potty Boy”. Here are two shots of the door of the church, including PJ’s wonderful closeup of the ancient hardware on the outer face of the door.

Eglise de Mailhat, Mailhat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Eglise de Mailhat, Mailhat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Finally, there is this door in the great Cathedral of Saint Stephen in Cahors. There is so much to see in this church including the superb north tympanum, but my favorite shot of the church is this one. It is unique in a way because the door leads not to the exterior of the church, which would feature natural light, but the sacristy, which was instead illuminated artificially. It gives a wonderful, mysterious feeling to the shot, especially with the superb geometric patterns of the floor and walls.

Cathédrale Saint Etienne, Cahors (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

✿ The Artist (PJ McKey) ✿


During the Romanesque period, the arts were pressed into service by the church as a medium of mass-communication with which to address an ever-increasing but largely illiterate public. The teachings of the church, the hierarchy of society, and the relationship of the church and the secular world provided  the subject matter.

But that said, how did the artists of the this period think of themselves and their work? A lot has been written on this topic. Let me start by saying that the majority of the artistic work of the French Romanesque church architecture, sculptures and frescoes is anonymous. This may be hard to imagine in our celebrity-driven world where a minute of fame is worth sacrificing one’s soul. This seems even more absurd as I think of these churches standing for centuries, a tribute to the best of our desires, the desire for salvation in the midst of suffering and temptation. Some sculptural work was signed, but it is always noteworthy because of its uniqueness. Many artist are simply known as “the Master of Cabestany,” “the Master of Autun” or the “Master of Vézelay,” referring to the town where they worked or the type of depiction that bears their style.

Trumeau detail, Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Souillac (Lot) Photo by PJ McKey

Did the majority of these artisans think of themselves as a conduit – a Christian first and craftsman second, with the hand of God guiding their talents for the greater understanding and glory of his earthly mission? Certainly the incredible amount of building and blossoming of all forms of artistic expression in the Romanesque world offered opportunities to use the talents and secure work as an artist. This was a period of artist innovation. But where did these artists come from? Who taught them? Were they monks, laymen?

Their monumental sculptural work in stone had very little precedent since the Romans six centuries earlier. As far as scholarship has uncovered, wall painting, another legacy from the Romans and Byzantines, was not found within France prior to the Romanesque. One of the current theories is that these artists made the transition from other forms of expression such as furniture makers, tomb carvers, stone cutters, silversmiths and manuscript illustrators. This entire phenomenon just seems a miracle to me.

Detail of the tribune, Prieuré de Serrabone (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

When walking into a church, I try to imagine it as a blank canvas. I wonder if the artist could envision the surfaces as potential for artistic expression: capitals, walls, columns, each offering an opportunity for a unique expression of the bible, the life of Christ, our demons and promises of salvation, or just pure abstract riots of color and pattern. The choices these artists made were inspired. It was not enough to merely create the work; it also needed to be perfectly placed in the church for the viewer.

Abbaye de Bénédictines Sainte-Marie, Saint-Pierre, Saint-Paul à Ottmarsheim (Haut-Rhin) Photo by PJ McKey

The artistic experience was total, the perfect combination of beauty, subject and environment. No wonder these artists have been an inspiration for such modern artists as Picasso. There is high art at work here – talent, imagination, love, purpose, the desire to express the truth as they know it and even more, as God would want them to tell it. The desire to teach, inspire, and impart understanding was and is a profound calling. These artists must have felt the pressure to get it right. Did they understanding the power they would have? Their lessons were not in words but in the force of the visual, the impact of image, color, shape and gesture, the kind of impressions that cannot be intellectualized but arrive in the gut, personal and unfiltered.

Frescoes in nave, Eglise Saint-Martin de Vicq, Nohant-sur-Vic (Indre) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Some scholars have said that they were “merely” craftsmen driven by commissions and patronage. The more talented ones moved from church to church, seizing the opportunity that this religious fervor afforded them. This meant money and perhaps even indulgences, forgiveness for past and future sins. But there is more than that in these churches. These artists must have shared the same beliefs and fears as their audience. Their work is personal, on the deepest of levels, and I believe that is what we respond to. Perhaps I have put them on a pedestal. My awe of their work can’t help but lead me there. What they have done makes me feel like a “dabbler” in the arts, a child with a crayon.

Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Perhaps artists are born. When the right tools were placed in their hands, they can create beauty from inspiration and purpose, their mission, externalizing what cannot be put into words. I believe this is why we revere them. They have a power, whether they acknowledge it or not.

If you are interested in seeing more of these images, please see the Via Lucis website.

✿ If I could be … ✿ (Dennis Aubrey)


If I were the photographer I wanted to be, would it be Helmar Lerski, whose faces burn into one’s soul with a “harsh and beautiful light”? Would I be Edouard Boubat, who made the ordinary marvelous? Certainly I would have thought that faces would be my subject, looking for the elusive and dangerous soul. But it turns out to be something completely different. I find my camera looking at churches constructed a thousand years ago by people who share everything with us today except for a sense of God which we have lost completely. Lost completely in the sense that they had. Do we have a living conscience like Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who was the dominant figure of his age, who in the 12th Century could humble kings and Popes? Do we have someone whose clarion call was to give all, give everything, and ask for nothing. He was fiery in his condemnations, but he censured the sin, not the sinner.

Eglise Saint Julien (Courville, Marne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Eglise Saint Julien (Courville, Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

These churches move me enormously, so I was prompted to learn what I could of the people that built them. To this end, I was always interested in history, in reading about the times and people who lived and built these churches. The great books of Johann Huizinga, Henry Adams and so many others were inspiring, but it was not the history that really gave me any sense of the knowledge, it was the art. To find out what is important to a people, we must see the promptings of their dreams as much as the promptings of their appetites.

Capital, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Art is something that is primary in man, it is fundamentally important. When we divorce art from the center of our life, we diminish ourselves. Young people who seem to live for their music understand this, even if the only prompting of that art is sex, drugs and rock and roll. It is important to them. It is fundamental and vital. Disparage it though we may, that love of art is important, even though it diminishes over time, even though it ossifies into recollection. But what if the art spoke of things higher, of aspirations more profound? What if the art attempted to express our most noble thoughts and feelings? And more to the point, what if it succeeded?

Notre Dame de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme)

Notre Dame de Chauriat, Chauriat (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I think that, in the 12th Century, religious architecture did just that. It reflected the best of the people and their civilization. In doing so, that art has lasted for centuries, leaving traces of the builders for us to find a thousand years later. And our cameras record those traces.

South porch of Notre Dame de Mont-Devant-Sassey (Haute-Marne)  Photo by PJ McKey

South porch of Notre Dame de Mont-Devant-Sassey (Haute-Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

✿ Lessons in Stone (Dennis Aubrey) ✿


In early October last year, PJ and I returned to Conques for two days. While there, we saw something that took us back to the origins of this great pilgrimage church. In the late morning, I was photographing the tympanum over the west portal. This sculpture has the same subject as many similar works, the Last Judgment. The tympanum of the Basilica of Saint Foy astonishes with its imagination and power and is in remarkably fine condition. There are still traces of the polychrome painting that originally colored the work.

Tympanum of the Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

As might be expected on a fine October morning, there were a number of people in the square admiring the sculpture, but one group got my attention. A Danish family of four – the parents and two boys aged perhaps twelve and seven – were standing in front of the tympanum. The father held the hand of the younger boy and was explaining each scene of the complex carving. He pointed out the details and then how each scene fit into the overall scheme of the Last Judgment. The more he explained, the more the boys understood and, perhaps more importantly, the more awed they were.

I saw him point out the wonderful detail of the weighing of the souls. An angel and a devil are determining whether a soul goes to heaven or hell, and the devil is cheating. His finger is clearly pressing on the scale to tilt the balance in his favor. The boy was aghast at this cheating, but the father smiled and said, “Han er en djævel”. “He is a devil.”

Tympanum detail, “The Weighing of the Souls,” Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I watched the scene for a full fifteen minutes as the father explained the scenes one after the other. Most of their time was spent reviewing the torments of hell, which are far more gruesome (and interesting) than the benign rewards of heaven.

Detail of Tympanum, “Torments of Hell”, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But the small boy showed intense interest in the panel of Saint Foy, where the hand of God reaches down to bring her to heaven as the reward for her faith and martyrdom. Indeed, the name “Foy” means “Faith”.

Tympanum detail, “Sainte Foy”, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The scene reminded me that this exchange was the purpose of the tympanum in the first place. It was a vehicle to instruct and awe the pilgrims as they made their journey of penance. The stories told there reminded the each person of the importance of the pilgrimage and why it was important to endure the hardships that accompanied it. And it was clear to me that this same scene had been played out by fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, parents and children, over and over. For almost a thousand years, these stones have witnessed their story being explained from one generation of the faithful to the next.

Later, we stopped for lunch in a small restaurant (aligot and saucisson, of course) and saw the Danish family sitting at the table across from us. The table straddled the interior and exterior of the restaurant. The father, mother and youngest son were inside and ate heartily, laughed, and talked. But the older boy sat on the outside, eating quietly and looking down the street. In the distance, visible across the square, was the church and its tympanum. I could only imagine that Saint Foy was still speaking to him, sparking imagination and reflection. The stones of the great abbey church had done their work again, as they had for their thousand years.

Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

If you are interested in more about Conques, here is an article on different tympana in France and an article PJ did on details of the tympanum.

Twilight in Vézelay (Dennis Aubrey)


The hundreds of posts on this blog should convince even the most casual reader of the creative genius displayed by the Romanesque builders. The buildings themselves, the sculptural and painted adornments, their positions in towns and in the country all attest to a fervor both religious and creative. Even the spatial orientation was important, almost always west to east, with the apse and tabernacle in the east.

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

Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica writes, “There is a certain fittingness in adoring towards the east. First, because the Divine majesty is indicated in the movement of the heavens which is from the east. Secondly, because Paradise was situated in the east according to the Septuagint version of Genesis 2:8, and so we signify our desire to return to Paradise. Thirdly, on account of Christ Who is “the light of the world” [John 8:12; 9:5, and is called “the Orient” (Zechariah 6:12). Who mounteth above the heaven of heavens to the east (Psalm 67:34), and is expected to come from the east, according to Matthew 24:27, “As lightning cometh out of the east, and appeareth even into the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be.”

But these churches go far beyond mere orientation; the very placement of windows was often part of the considerations of using stone and light to tell the religious story behind the construction. We have shared in the past how at the church of San Juan Ortega in Burgos, sunlight is used to make a religious expression. Twice a year during the equinoxes on March 20 and September 3, sunlight makes a journey across the wall of the church to illuminate the Annunciation capital on the north side of the church. Under normal conditions, it is difficult to make out the capital in the dim light, but on these two days a ray of sunlight enters through a window of the west façade. The sun rises up to the capital and progressively reveals all of its details of the sculpture. Scenes that were barely visible are suddenly filled with light.

Apse, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In 1976, Hugues Delautre, one of the Franciscan fathers in charge of servicing the Vézelay sanctuary since 1966, observed that at precisely mid-day on the summer solstice, the sun comes through the south clerestory windows and projects ten luminous rings of light down the center of the nave, tracing a path from the narthex to the chancel.

Father Delautre believed that such signs are the means to invite us to go beyond the reality of the sign to discover the ineffable. “Has not the builder, fascinated by the beauty of the universe which he recognises as the work of God, erected this vestibule to Heaven in imitation of God who created with order, measure and beauty? … The nave is the expression of the romanesque man’s admiring submission to the divine plan testified to by all creation. ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.’ (Psalms 19:1).”

South side aisle, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

In order to achieve the solstice effect, it was necessary for the builders to calculate the angle of the sun based on the orientation of the basilica, the height of the windows, and the azimuth of the sun at a particular time. There were ample resources to do so because astronomic calculation was one of the established sciences of the time and there were tables available to help in the calculation.

But there was another element to consider. For the effect to be successful, the nave wall with the windows must be perpendicular to the azimuth. Consider how precise this particular calculation must be in order to have the circles of light in Vézelay come to the exact right positions over the length of the nave.

This may have something to do with the well-known fact that there is often a slight deviation from a straight line from the nave to the apse. The apse is often a few degrees one direction or another off-center. There are many explanations, from the symbolic reference to Christ’s head falling to one side in the crucifixion to the technical explanation that the adjustment creates more visual interest in the perspective lines of the receding pillars.

Groundplan, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Image in the public domain.

Groundplan, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Image in the public domain.

Some people think that it is accidental, a fault of construction. I find it hard to believe that builders who were capable of the most extraordinary feats of measurement and placement would make such a gigantic mistake as not laying out the church properly. Might there not be an explanation that as the church was being built, observations of the angle of the sun falling in the chancel (which was built first) might indicate that a slight adjustment in the placement of the nave was needed in order to achieve a desired visual effect with sunlight at a certain time of year?

Nave arcade, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

It is clear, however, that light was of fundamental importance to the builders of the churches. Sometimes the light is as simple as a shaft penetrating from a single window above the chancel. Other times, it is a glorious and radiant display of color and texture from stained glass that transfixes the viewer. When the churches were painted, as they so often were, we would have had the interaction of light on color, like Saint Austremoine.

Vezelay has no colored light, like the Gothic cathedrals, only the purity of white light. But as many of our readers have observed, there is something wonderful about the simplicty of the unadorned stone.

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

PJ is very sensitive to light in these churches. We talk about it often and one of the things she is most fond of is the way light plays on the different shapes – the cylindrical columns, the arches, the flat surfaces. In this shot there is light from the windows and even from the collection of candles.

Ambulatory chapel, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

The natural accompaniment to light are the shadows that make the churches so evocative. The tremendous variation in tone compels us to look over and over. We see more and we feel different things with every viewing.

Side aisle to ambulatory, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

And of course, the light plays wonders on the capitals. They often seem to tell different stories as the changing light accentuates different areas of the sculpture. It is almost as if the meaning is recast continuously.

Nave capital, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Dark and light are so pronounced in Vézelay, and varies by one’s position in the church, the time of day, the time of year, on whether it is sunny or cloudy outside. PJ has described before emerging from a crypt into the lighted church and experiencing the sensation of birth, or rebirth. In Vézelay, we sense much the same thing in the anticipation of leaving the narthex and entering into the “paradise” of the church itself.

Narthex, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

The light is part of the fundamental experience of Vézelay. We have photographed here at least ten times and we see and experience something new every time. The light defines the basilica, and in the wonderful words of Sartell Prentice, the Basilique Sainte Madeleine is “twilight beneath the groin vault of the Romanesque nave; midday in the Gothic apse”.