“Cloister in Fog” was inspired by a true incident that occurred to George Hruby, one night in St. Emilion, France. Years later, upon seeing a photograph of a cloister in the fog, he was compelled to write this most haunting, poetic composition.
In his own words …
St. Emilion, France is a well-preserved medieval village located about twenty minutes outside of Bordeaux. Its name came from St. Emilion himself, a hermit who had lived in a cave there in the 8th century and started a following. Together, he and fellow monks eventually carved and built a magnificent church out of the side of a limestone quarry there.
Just left of the wooden doors on the right, is the chapel and location of the cave where the hermit, St. Emilion resided.
While it was well known to have had vineyards prospering there by the Romans in the 2nd century, wine cultivation may actually go back as far as 16 B.C.. Wealthy Romans from nearby Bordeaux loved to build magnificent villas out in the neighboring countryside and thus the birth of the village of St. Emilion.
The medieval village of St. Emilion, France
Thanks to the saint, by the medieval ages, several different religious orders found their monks living in monasteries there. Even an order of nuns, the Ursulines, had a convent there.
The village became famous for its awesome wines as far back as Rome. Under English occupation during the medieval times, the English nobility could not import enough of St. Emilion’s wines into England. However, it was also famous for its limestone. Much of which was used to build Bordeaux with. Unknown to many, deep beneath the village lies over four kilometers of quarries. St. Emilion’s labyrinths of time, some inner-mixed with Roman ruins.
St. Emilion’s ancient limestone quarries are now used as wine cellars.
It was during this time in my life when I would sometimes, just jump on a train to St. Emilion in the morning and spend the entire day there. To feel it. To learn it. To understand it. I took tours from historians there and began learning the history of this unique place. I began driving there too, often just hanging out in the village from day into night. Studying it. Getting a feel of its ambiance. Its people. Its history. Its beauty. Even in the night, as I gazed out upon it, it held a beauty and yet, there always seemed to be something foreboding about it.
I began a couple years of photo-shoots in St. Emilion. I was always trying to capture a ‘feel’ of this place somehow on film.
Medieval road marker and vineyard – St. Emilion, France
This led me to one particular night in St. Emilion. I was busy conducting my own photoshoot of the village under night light which was one of my favorite forms of photography.
I had been shooting all day there and it was now past midnight. Now, in the early morning hours in the ancient village, all was silent. Nothing was open except a restaurant that had closed earlier. Its staff had just finished cleaning for the evening. They were enjoying drinks from their bar as they hung outside sharing laughter and loud conversations. They noticed my assistant and I, and the photo equipment being carried about. They chalked up conversation with us as we aroused their curiosity at this late hour in their village.
While I am a lover of fine wines and great conversations, I was still pressed to get more shots that night of the village before returning back to Bordeaux. My assistant, whom I sensed was a bit worn down from all of the fast-paced walking from the long day, I decided to leave behind at the restaurant. The somewhat intoxicated staff enjoyed his company quite well.
I had several shots that I wanted to capture before leaving back to Bordeaux in the early morning hours. On my way to where I was headed to in the village, I found myself passing St. Emilion’s Bell Tower. Built between the 12th and 15th centuries atop the 8th century church below it, it rose above a magnificent monolithic church. Built underground, the church was according to legend, started by St. Emilion himself in the 8th century when, he and fellow monks began digging into a limestone quarry located directly across from the cave that he lived in there as a hermit.
While I had taken many professional shots of this breathtaking Bell-Tower, on this night, I wanted to shoot a specific window located on one side of the tower. It still bore a scatter of large bullet holes all around it. It was testimony to a German sniper that had once filled that window with death from his rifle until killed by members of the French Resistance down from the square below it.
St. Emilion Belfry showing 50cal. machine gun bullet holes around lower window from German sniper nest in WWII
After shooting this window, I was in a hurry to scurry off to the next location that I wanted to go when something caught my eye. Across from the bell-tower on the opposite side of the “Place du Clocher” (Square of the Bell Tower), I saw something very unusual. Wooden doors to an ancient passage, that were normally closed and locked every evening in the village had been left open. The ancient passage led directly to a 12th century cloister. The cloister was part of the now St. Emilion Collegiate Church but in the 12th century, belonged to Augustine Canons. A religious order from a very old Latin-Rite-Order.
St. Emilion Collegiate Church on left and Belfry on right. Cloister is located behind middle building.
The old cloister and church were now opened to the public and part of tourism for the village. Both the church and the cloister bore traces of medieval paint and images if you knew where to look. The cloister still held the remnants of sarcophagus’ around the four sides; where the high-ups of the order had been allowed to be buried. This, while members of the order, wearing their black hooded habits, walked around in circles within the cloister, in prayer and meditation.
All cloisters consisted of a four-sided enclosed square with the center open to the sky. While the religious pious walked around the cloister in prayer and meditation, others sat at desks working on manuscripts. Their desks up against the arches separating them from the cloister’s center, opened to the sky for light to write by.
Interior of cloister at St. Emilion Collegiate Church – St. Emilion, France
In the center, members of the order drew water from the center where a well was located. The monks also grew herbs and vegetables in small gardens there. They often might eat there too. Indeed, any cloister was often a scene of activity among the monks there.
When I saw the doors had been left opened to this particular cloister, I immediately was excited of a unique opportunity as a photographer. To possibly, be able to shoot the cloister under moonlight. Knowing the center was open to the sky, I was hoping that enough moonlight would spill over thus, illuminating the walkways and sarcophagus’s which would have made for some great and rare photographs.
There were absolutely no human beings anywhere on the streets of St. Emilion at that moment. The streets were completely bare of all people and noise. The old square was empty and silent as I stared at the open passage doors beckoning me on. So off into the dark passage I went.
Having been inside this same cloister so many times before, I knew more-or-less the shots that I wanted. I was also aware that I had been shooting in St. Emilion all day and into the night. It was now early morning of the next day. I still had other shots that I needed to shoot of the village before I left.
I stopped at the end of the small passage which left me on the northeast corner of the cloister. I became busy assessing the amount of ambient moonlight coming from the open center, studying how well it lit up the four sides of the cloister itself. At the same time, I was busy readying my photographic equipment. I began setting up my tripod and adjusting my camera in preparation. So, it is at this point that I should probably share this bit of information about myself.
I was a former United States Marine, policeman in California, in elite security units, and even spent several years in the war in Afghanistan. I have spent a lifetime intermingled with death. I have watched people die. I have held strangers in my arms and felt them as they gave their last breath. I have held dead children in my arms. I am no stranger to death and, I fear nothing. Perhaps as a result of indoctrination by the Marines as a young teenager. The Corps trains Marines to fear nothing. I never have my entire life. I had been well hardened by the worse in humanity.
Working in the military, in law enforcement, and in elite security units, over so many years, you develop a very refined six sense. One that often helps protect you and maybe even save your life in situations. Whether on the streets or on a battlefield, you learn to trust that feeling. When the hair goes up on the back of your neck …. and the person in front of you turns out to have a gun, or be a murderer, rapist, or a notorious burglar. Or the person standing in front of you is a terrorist involved in planting or manufacturing IED’s. It is always when that hair on the back of your neck goes up.
So, on this particular night, as I was busy with my tripod and camera, I suddenly became aware of something. It was the hair on the back of my neck. It was beginning to tingle. As in my old career days of wearing a uniform and a gun, this was my 6th sense alerting me to an immediate danger. I momentarily looked up and under a half moon, in the dimly lit cloister, I clearly saw nothing. There was no one in the cloister except me.
I thought the sensation was odd, so I resumed back to setting up my equipment. I was really looking forward to this unique opportunity of being able to shoot this cloister under moonlight and possibly get a great shot. Especially with no other people around. However, the sensation came back again.
For some reason, my attention kept being drawn towards the southwest direction of the cloister. Not towards any of the other three sides but only towards this one. I tried to ignore it and just kept on preparing my equipment for the shoot.
At this point, the hair on the back of my neck was starting to stand indeed. And I became fixated on this southwest side. I could clearly see that nothing nor, anyone, was there. However, the sensation then started rapidly becoming stronger and stronger. My hair was now standing completely up on the back of my neck. My 6th sense for danger, developed across a lifetime, was now screaming out to me. There was something there and I needed to protect myself.
Now I am one of those people that is indeed a “Doubting Thomas.” I believe in nothing unless I can see and touch it in real life. So as one can imagine, I was suddenly very perplexed. That feeling, that 6th sense of mine that had protected me and saved me in many a situation throughout my life, was now going off like a fire alarm. Yet, there was nothing there.
Trying to stay within reason and logic as taught by Voltaire, I tried desperately to ignore my 6th sense and the hair that was now standing straight up on the back of my neck. The chills going down my spine as my ‘gut feel’ told me that something was very wrong here. Yet, I saw nothing.
As I tried to ignore it, whatever it was, it felt as if it was getting closer and closer. As if it was coming directly towards me. I say this, … that it was moving towards me because this dark sensation that I had sensed from only one direction, kept getting stronger and stronger until it was now overpowering. It was as if something or, someone, was now standing right in front of me.
Aerial depicting direction of travel of “sensation” and point of contact inside cloister. Photo courtesy of Google Earth
I was hoping it would go away. At least subside. Surely, if this strange feeling could suddenly materialize in the cloister and then grow stronger and stronger towards me, then it would continue on, move away … and eventually subside. Or so I thought. It didn’t. It was not moving at all.
From this point on, I can only say what I felt.
The now, overpowering sensation that I was experiencing, sent ripples of chills going down my spine and left the hair straight up on the back of my neck. Whatever it was, was not moving at all. It was right in front of me. It wasn’t going anywhere. I remember looking upward as if sensing that it, or he, was much taller than I.
I felt that whatever it was, did not want me there. It wanted me to leave. I was grappling with the fact that I could not believe this. I really wanted to seriously get these prized shots with my camera and yet, I was overwhelmed with the sensations to leave. That I should not be there.
The ‘gut instinct’ that I had trusted for so many years of my life, … that 6th sense that had helped save my life on many occasions, in such dangerous situations …., it had never let me down. It had never failed me. And now, I had to fall back on it yet once again and trust it. Even though I saw nothing there, I had to trust what my gut instinct was telling me. What my 6th sense was warning me of. I had to trust my gut feeling and it was telling me … that I did not belong there. To leave now. I did.
As I put my camera away and collapsed the tripod, I felt compelled to speak to nothing but air …. but speak I did nevertheless. I spoke out loud, saying in French that I was sorry, … that I would leave. I picked up my tripod with its legs still extended. I turned and began walking back through the passage I had entered. I hoped that whatever it was did not follow me.
Indeed, as I walked father away from that one location towards the exit of the passage, the overpowering sensation got less and less. As if it was still standing exactly where I had left it.
Suddenly, I was back out into the light of the square. I walked to the middle of Place du Clocher and stopped to catch my breath. No humans in sight. No sounds but the quiet of centuries past. I stood there trying to ponder what had just happened.
I wanted to take pictures so badly of the cloister under moonlight and yet, I was very aware of what had just happened. And in the end, I had to trust my gut …. my instinct ….. my 6th sense. The hair on the back of my neck had returned to normal. No more chills down my spine. Everything was fine now in the square.
I thought about going back into the passage and fighting whatever I had felt in the cloister. To take the pictures that I wanted. But, in the end, I chose to respect the wishes of whatever it was that I had just felt there. That it was their place, … whoever “they” were. Whatever “it” was. I was not wanted there and it was as simple as that.
Medieval Village of St. Emilion, France at Night
I left there that night wondering who or what still walked around that old medieval cloister? The men who had spent their lives there …. around and around the cloister they went. It was their place. Had been for centuries. Still was, perhaps.
I remembered in the mid-1990’s, Oxford University in the U.K. had published a study concerning extreme low frequency sounds that had a physical effect on humans. Many more modern studies of this phenomenon have occurred since from numerous countries. The sounds were so low frequency that they were completely inaudible to humans. They found in the study that although humans could not hear such sounds, that their bodies reacted nevertheless to the sounds … including “chills down the spine”.
I could not help but wonder that night, when I was experiencing my own chills-down-my-spine; was whatever was standing in front of me, …..talking …. but I couldn’t hear it? Only feel it?
Not long after, I saw a powerful photograph circulating on the internet of an old cloister. It had been taken at night and in the fog. It reminded me of this experience that night in St. Emilion and became my inspiration for the composition of “Cloister in Fog.”
I never forgot that night at the cloister in St. Emilion. Where for centuries monks had walked its four-cornered square, lined with sarcophagus’s of the dead. It left me with but one simple thought. We are but fragments of time.