Refuge, survival and the Romanesque

One of my favourite blogs at the moment is Dennis Aubrey’s church architecture photography blog, Via Lucis.

In a recent post, Silence of Concentration, M. Aubrey reflects on the “realm of total silence” found in the great Romanesque churches and cathedrals of France. He writes:

They were designed, I believe, to encourage contemplation of spiritual matters. Inside was a silent refuge from the complex demands of the outside world. The building was designed to lead the thoughts in this direction. Cupped in the hands of a protecting God, sheltered by cool stone, isolated in the darkened corners of the church, a person felt safe to ponder the infinite. With nothing to interrupt or disturb, the soul could wend its way around the dark corners of life and seek the glimmers of a light of guidance. Such contemplation requires the utmost concentration and a place where such concentration is possible.

He adds:

We have mentioned before how sometimes it feels like we can hear the voices from the past, an echo of a thousand years of intense spiritual activity leaving its mark in stone.

All this calls to mind T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding:

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Aubrey goes on to observe how these churches have survived – to a greater or lesser degree – threats to their existence over the years, whether from the bombs and shells of the twentieth century, or the revolutionary zeal that almost did for Our Lady of Chartres:

The great Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres was damaged in the French Revolution but avoided destruction. I have heard two stories about how this happened. The first involves a mob trying to destroy the sculpture on the north porch when a citizen of the city convinced his fellows that there was revenue to be made from people coming to see the great works. The second is that when the Revolutionary Committee proposed to destroy the Cathedral with explosives; they were stopped when a local architect, Antoine-François Sergent-Marceau, pointed out that the vast amount of rubble from the demolished building would clog the streets and would take years to clear away. These two actions saved a structure that Rodin called the “Acropolis of France”.

This account of revolutionary passions also has a faint echo of Little Gidding to it: of “people, not wholly commendable… United in the strife which divided them”, of “old factions” we cannot restore. We cannot “follow an antique drum”, but we can be grateful for the survival of those things which have survived such times, and vigilant for their protection in future.

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.


4 thoughts on “Refuge, survival and the Romanesque”

  1. Excellent. Very much agree that certain sacred places, and kinds of sacred architecture enable just that kind of concentration which the rest of modern life makes most difficult. Happily I am off to Little Gidding to do a poetry reading this Wednesday!

  2. John, was very moved by the Little Gidding quote, “… the communication
    Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living”. Thank you for this post and the reflections made here.

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