Rocks of Ages (ii) – Aubeterre

pictures: Eglise St-Jean, Aubeterre

In the second part of this post I will be, as with the first, dealing with some remarkable rocks of south-western France and their spiritual implications. But in this case the time-frame will be shifting from the Upper Paleolithic to the Middle Ages.

One of the most stunning and unexpected sights I have witnessed for a long time can be found about 50 miles to the north-west of Lascaux in the village of Aubeterre. The location itself is idyllic enough to be classified among the 151 ‘most beautiful villages in France’, somewhat reminiscent of hill-top hamlets in Provence, but nothing prepared me for what I saw when I stepped inside a wooden door in a cliff-face leading into the Eglise St-Jean. Go on the 360° interactive visit at and you’ll understand what I mean. This is Europe’s largest église monolithe – a cave church (on the pilgrimage trail to Santiago da Compostela) hewn out of the rock in the twelfth century. For a moment it felt as if I had been transported out of Western Europe to similar sites in Eastern Christianity, such as the churches of Cappadocia in present-day Turkey or the monasteries of Ethiopia.

One of the most striking features of  the architecture in Aubeterre is the impression that the raw natural material is not dominated by human hands, its rough edges not smoothed out as with the uniform building-blocks that make up Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals. Instead there is rather a sense of communion between the edifice and the stone fabric itself, which is simply allowed to be. You cannot say where the church ends and the rockface begins – there is no clear dividing-line between inside and outside, as if the builders (for want of a better term) wanted to underline their belief in the intrinsic goodness of the created realm and its sanctification through the Word made Flesh, rather than pre-supposing a gulf separating the Church from the World.

This is not to say that I find Gothic architecture uninspiring. Having spent several years playing the organ in the fabulous structure of fan-vaulting and stained-glass that is King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, it and many other later medieval buildings can still take my breath away. But there is also a sense in which the transition from Romanesque to Gothic parallels the entrance of something disturbingly hubristic into Western culture; a thrust towards ‘technology’ that will continue to develop unbroken until the present, with decidedly double-edged results. The brilliant and provocative Greek Orthodox philosopher-theologian Christos Yannaras has identified this connection compellingly in a study entitled The Ethos of Orthodox Liturgical Art that is as penetrating in its insight as it is partial in its conclusions (being particularly unfair to Aquinas):

‘In his study on Gothic architecture and scholastic thought, Erwin Panofsky has pointed to the common attitude and the attempt to explore truth intellectually which characterizes both scholastic thought and Gothic architecture, and to the exact chronological correspondence between the evolution of the two: […] Gothic architecture is the first technological application of scholastic thought, following it directly both in time and in substance: it is the technique which sets out in visible form the scholastic attempt to subject truth to the individual intellect, the new structure for a logical organization of truth introduced by scholastic theology. […] It is “a veritable orgy of logic,” as Panofsky says of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae.

Correspondingly, the technique of this technique conceals “a profoundly analytic spirit, relentlessly dominating the construction. […] It is technology, human will and logic, which subdues matter. The structure manifests the intellectual conception and will of the craftsman rather than the potentialities of the material– the moral obedience of matter to spirit, not the “glory” of matter, the revelation of God’s energies in the inner principle of material things. […]

This is why in a Gothic church the material is not “saved,” it is not “made word” and it is not “transfigured”: it is subdued by a superior force. To use specialized terminology once again: “The supports prevail over the weight placed on them… the vaulting with its supple formation clearly shows that it concentrates there all the action in the forces, and compels matter to rise up to the heights.” This compulsion of matter in Gothic architecture represents a technology which leads straight to contemporary technocracy.

(Christos  Yannaras, ‘The Ethos of Orthodox Liturgical Art’ in The Freedom of Morality (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), pp. 231-264.

In Aubeterre there is no such ‘compulsion of matter’. The Eglise St-Jean and other Romanesque churches serve as reminders of what Western Christianity lost (but is hopefully on its way to recovering, if I’m reading my ecclesial barometer correctly) as a result of the Great Schism of the eleventh century and the rise of Scholasticism in the Middle Ages, with its emphasis on logic and argumentation in place of a more holistic, less intellectually-focused, more mystically-based faith in which mind and body are kept as a pyschosomatic unity, in which the material world is not divorced from that of the spirit.

Although it was constructed after the break with the East in 1054, the cave church at Aubeterre clearly carries the memory within its walls of the spiritual riches of the undivided Church of Christianity’s first millenium – a legacy to which more and more people are rightly starting to appeal as a common heritage in present-day ecumenical dialogue. A good example of this ‘return to the sources’ can be found in the opening pages of Huston Smith’s The Soul of Christianity (2005), one of the twenty-first century’s most readable and persuasive works of Christian apologetics:

‘Endowed by blood and birth with an instinctive feeling for the holy, a sense of awe for the wonder and beauty of sacred things, I feel like a voice crying in the wilderness, the wilderness of secular modernity which religion is unable to pull us out of because it presents our culture with a babble of conflicting voices. And yet a voice that can pull us out of the wilderness is on our very doorstep. That voice is the voice of first-millenium Christianity, the Great Tradition, which all Christians can accept because it is the solid trunk of the tree from which its branches have sprung.’

Even this may seem a little too constricting for some, given that recent works of Church History such as Philip Jenkins’ thought-provoking The Lost History of Christianity (2008) have been highlighting the immense historical importance of the Nestorian Church in the Middle East and Asia, which left the fold of Christian Orthodoxy in the fifth-century, but Smith’s point is eloquently made nonetheless. In essence he is repeating in his own words the message delivered a decade earlier by John Paul II, emphasizing the need for Christianity to re-invigorate itself by reaching back behind its tragic historic divisions, in his memorable statement in the Encyclical Ut unum sint (‘May they be one’) of 1995 that the Church must ‘breathe with its two lungs’ of East and West.

Turning from architecture to music, one contemporary composer who seems to have grasped this ahead of time is the Estonian Arvo Pärt. Culturally Lutheran by birth but a member of the Russian Orthodox Church since the 1970s, Pärt’s music is at home drawing on the Catholic musical tradition of the medieval schools of Notre-Dame or Burgundy (Pérotin, Dufay …), the Mass or the Stabat Mater, as it is with the inflections of the Church Slavonic of Orthodox Liturgy (e.g. his Kanon Pokojanen, Slavic Psalm-settings or Silouans Song). You could say that Pärt reconciles Byzantine and Gothic, but with a result that is not backward-looking but which rather constitutes one of the most vital and innovative contributions to music today, proof that deliberate archaism can in some ways be considered an avant-garde strategy.

Next week I will be travelling to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in Wales for a major retrospective of Arvo Pärt’s works in honour of his 75th birthday, at which I will have the great privilege of presenting a pre-concert talk prior to a programme including a new arrangement of Pärt’s In Spe that we at SDG are sponsoring. So you can expect some more thoughts connected with Pärt in future blog entries. But before that part iii) of this post will wrap up some unfinished business concerned the rocky outcrops of southern France, featuring a second cave church, a Black Madonna and the conversion of a composer famously described by one of his friends as moitié moine, moitié voyou (‘half-monk, half-guttersnipe’) – Francis Poulenc.


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