Cauchetier’s Christmas Card—The Nativity


Tympanum and facade of Paris’ Notre Dame.

The tympanum and portal of Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral represents a high-water mark of Gothic architecture; but it has had an uneasy history. This was the site of many religious and political upheavals—from the 1548 rioting of the Huguenots, its re-dedication during the 1789 revolution into a secular “temple of reason,” its near conflagration during the Paris Commune of 1871, on up to the protective removal of its stained-glass windows during WWII. Then, of course, there are its many incarnations in the movies.

Last July, I stood near my hotel on the nearby Ile-St. Louis, looking not at this iconic facade but at its south end apse and intricate flying buttresses.

Notre Dame long lens rear view from the Ile St. Louis.

I had come to Paris to visit a recent friend, the French New Wave photographer Raymond Cauchetier. He and his wife, Kaoru, had just met me at the breakfast room of my small hotel a few blocks away. Cauchetier, at 90, still has sparkling eyes and speaks an eloquent, argot-free French with animation. Not that the limits of my Peace Corps French could follow great chunks of it, but Kaoru was a generous translator. Several months previous I had written a three-part essay about Cauchetier’s life and work, centered mainly on the decade of his New Wave set photography; but the last part of the blog entry included several photos from his book maquette on Romanesque Church Sculpture, a project to which they both have dedicated several decades of research, travel and photography.

John’s Bailiwick—“Raymond Cauchetier’s “New Wave” — Part Three” link

He and Kaoru envision that it is this work, not the more celebrated New Wave film photographs, that will be his testament to France. During my stay, Cauchetier showed me dozens of these still unpublished New Wave photos, ones that just could not be included within the space limitations of his must-have book.

Image France editions link

But it was his archive of thousands of photos of the sculptures of Romanesque churches, ranging from the Swedish island of Gotland (once a mercantile crossroads) to Coptic Egypt, that were clearly his passion. I looked through the single mock-up copy of his book for which the prestigious French publisher Gallimard has expressed interest in publication. The community of French academics may not easily welcome non-accredited scholars into its elite ranks, but the beauty of Cauchetier's photos affords new insight into these ancient stones--- for amateur and scholar alike. This abiding interest in ancient stone sculpture dates back to his military service in the 50s in Indochina where he traveled with his camera equipment throughout the region. It was a natural transition once back in France to photograph the under-documented Romanesque sculpture of his own culture. Thus began a several decades odyssey to record for posterity the importance of this often unconsidered work. This photographic journey has led him to be a member of the French Society of Archeology for 30 years.


Raymond and I have maintained a close email correspondence in his eloquent, and in my fractured, French. Now that he has a Microsoft translation program, he writes me that it is much easier for him to follow my weekly musings. Recently, I proposed posting a group of his Romanesque sculpture photos as a Christmas holiday piece. He reacted with characteristic enthusiasm though his fragile health makes me guilty of the work burden I have placed on him. But these are wonderful images and there is no better time to share them with you. So this week, Raymond will feature photos of the Nativity; next week will be images of the Adoration of the Magi.

Autun, France.

The photo above pictures a Nativity scene carved on a stone capital. Nearly all sculptures in Romanesque churches are anonymous. The work here at Autun’s Saint Lazarre is one of the few exceptions. The tympanum of the west façade has carved in the stone “Gislebertus hoc fecit.” (Gislebertus made this). In the above photo of an interior capital, the recumbent Virgin extends her left hand to the baby Jesus who sits in a bath urn attended to by Joseph, eyes reverently downcast. Raymond explained that it was not unusual for Romanesque artists to conflate on a single panel several such events from the early life of Jesus.

Amiens, France.

This fragment from Amiens shows the infant tended to only by a pair of stable animals, almost always shown as an ass and an ox. Here, the rudimentary figuration and weathering makes it harder to decipher. The almost primitive carving and warm cross light give the piece a Neolithic cast of great innocence and charm.

This could not be more contrasted than by the detailed, animated setting from Paris’ Notre Dame.

Notre Dame, France.

In the center, the three Magi, within a heart-shaped arch next to a detailed ass and ox, hover above a barely visible Jesus who rests just below them, their eyes leading you to the infant. To the right are two of the shepherds, standing in conversation while Joseph, right hand at his chin, looks down at the reposed Mary. This rich maze of images and intricate surrounding filagree is but a foretaste of the complex iconography to come in the Gothic period, these Notre Dame sculptures being but a precursor.

A much simpler Holy Family from the Belgium city of Hanzinne is bathed in a crepuscular light from the left, as though a rising sun is ready to awaken the sleeping Holy Family.

 Hanzinne, Belgium.

A flat-lit, frieze-like rendering comes from Arles, a southern French city whose architecture is deeply steeped in Roman tradition. This photo is of a church sarcophagus, much in the Roman style. The figure to the far left has a single, outsized eye that calls to mind a Picasso Cubist painting.

Arles, France.

Nearby Avignon has a rugged rendering that follows the restricted dimensions of its capital, the figures seeming to struggle to emerge out of the incised stone. There is nothing soothing here. The sculpture has the air of a later Gothic period gargoyle. One can imagine that photographed in a less sculpted light the figures would be nearly indistinguishable from the ground.

Avignon, France.

Down to Spain for another capital atop a church pillar, this one from San Cugat del Valles near Barcelona. It is hewn from a darker stone, the infant Jesus hovering above his parents like an apparition, while Joseph’s and Mary’s robes seem to be interlocked by a continuous line of gently incised folds, even as they each look off into separate thoughts. This is such an intimate, human, rather than divine, moment. Their faces are beautifully contoured and seem to be real portraits rather than icons.

San Cugat des Valles, Spain.

Two photos from the German cities of Gernrode and Freckenhorst depict a more rudimentary iconography. There is a flattened, near proscenium presentation with the figures seeming to be incised rather than carved. Much German sculpture found its fullest expression in wood rather than stone. Whether this may be partial explanation for the flattened ground in these two works is only conjecture. But as with an almost ostinato chord, the ever-present ass and ox are in close attendance on the Baby Jesus. This trope of the stable animals watching over Jesus seems to cut across national lines.

Gernrode, Germany.
Freckenhorst, Germany.

The great cathedral at Vezelay, with its interior striated stone arches and pillars, was discovered only in 1976 to serve also as a sunlight projector. Exactly at noon on the summer solstice, sunlight streams in perfectly spaced intervals onto the nave's floor- an ecclesiastical Stonehenge.

Vezelay nave with sun, France.

Vezelay was one of the four main departure points for the medieval Santiago Campostella pilgrimage trail and as such its sculpture often evoked meditative states. In this photo of the Holy Family grouped tightly into an arch, strong emotional bonding is apparent between Mary and Joseph, even allowing for the broken facial features of several of the figures. Mary appears to be in either an ecstatic or pained condition—if there is a great difference—with very open expressive eyes, while Joseph stands over her, worried, his left hand supporting his head and his right hand tugging at her robe.

Vezelay, France.

The tension is enhanced by the postures of opposed figures, as if in near anticipation of Italian Mannerism. This is, for me, the most disquieting of all the Nativity photos that Raymond sent.

One thing that is so engaging about these photos is how much drama Cauchetier has found in these inert stone figures, many of which are not often seen by the casual visitor, set as they often are, high above eye level. His is an introspective eye, looking for that unnoticed moment, just like those he captured in his greatest work of New Wave movies.

Here are two photos from Swedish churches, sites not exactly on the mainstream tourist trail. Both seem more primitive than their southern counterparts yet more otherworldly. The group from Halla, well worn with barely defined features, conveys a softness, almost a pillowed texture, as if rendered in fabric. Again, the single cross light draws out gentle incisions in the stone that may have otherwise been lost.

Halla, Sweden.

The figure of Joseph is absent from the Alskog scene but his space is more than filled by a fuller rendering of the two attendant animals, here not just watching over the Baby Jesus, but gently nuzzling him. The Christmas star appears overhead and an angel guards the portal.

Alskog, Sweden.


After Cauchetier’s military service in Indochina ended with the French defeat at Dienbienphu, he photographed extensively in the temple complex of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. I have seen many of these images, which he holds dear, not just for their personal meaning but also because of their now priceless archeological value. Time, weather and fractious politics have greatly damaged the figures at Angkor Wat but Raymond’s detailed photos capture their condition of more than 60 years ago. When I asked him if he could speak of any connection between his early work in the Asian jungle and his mission to record medieval European ecclesiastical statuary, this is what he wrote:

It’s true that my discovery of the temples of Angkor Wat made me familiar with the work of archeologists. At the beginning of the 60s, Bernard-Philipe Groslier, conservator of Anghor Wat, offered me the position of photo director of the French School of the Far East. I didn’t accept in order to maintain my freedom. But during several months in 1957, I photographed for myself the Khmer temples across Cambodia. I have kept the precious negatives. Had I photographed for the school they all would have been lost as the Khmer Rouge destroyed all of the school’s archive.

But my interest in Romanesque sculpture is older. It dates from my youth, from the time when I traveled the roads of France and Europe by bicycle, avoiding congested highways, choosing small country roads between picturesque villages, sometimes discovering a small Romanesque church neglected by the standard tourist guides—and whose tympanum and capitals were not considered sufficiently meritorious to be in a museum. I promised myself to revisit them one day. I didn’t know that photography would eventually lead to a new exploration across Europe with Kaoru at the end of the 70s.

Kaoru and Raymond at baptismal font, Alskog.

The Italian town of Barga is not far from Lucca. Tuscany may be more noted for its Renaissance art than Romanesque or Gothic, but the sculptures at Barga are unique in the fine detail that could be hewn from the darker marble of the region. A somewhat hieratic Holy Couple looks outward as two animals nuzzle against the infant while an angel, palms extended, stands nearby. An anachronistic scene of Jesus’ Baptism at a font balances the group from the left side. This sculpture shimmers more like bronze than rough stone.

Barga, Italy.


For Raymond Cauchetier, the Nativity story, like many of those rendered in stone in Romanesque churches, held small place in the four canonical Gospels:

Mark and John ignore it completely. For them, Jesus exists only from his meeting with John the Baptist; Luke with his announcement to the shepherd. Matthew concerns himself mainly with the Magi. In fact, most of the themes of the Nativity that have been illustrated for centuries are from the Apocryphal Gospels rejected by Pope Gelasius I in 492—but adopted nevertheless by Christian artists…. Several of the proto-Gospels developed a hagiography that served early Christians who were avid for miracles. Not aware of Vatican interdictions, these Gospels cast a lasting influence on Christian iconography, especially in the imagination of the Romanesque sculptors.

While aware of the centuries long debate over canonical versus apocryphal texts, it had not occurred to me how much of the Christian “story” may, in fact, be told not in words but in these sculptures that literally embody its history—for the non-literate stone masons of these great edifices, as well as for the believers who through the centuries have come into their harboring interiors to find solace from a dangerous and dark world without. Their narrative was passed down to Christians (especially Roman Catholics) ‘til today. These stone messengers, figures from a mythic past, gave meaning and literal shape to their beliefs, a talisman of protection and a promise of salvation, even of eternal life.

Ferrara, Italy.

Merry Christmas to all of you. I hope these beautiful images grace your holidays a bit. Next week we will continue this photo pilgrimage with Raymond Cauchetier’s photos of the Adoration of the Magi.



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