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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Notre Dame d'Alet

Rose window; Notre Dame d'Alet, Montaigut-sur-Save
Let me begin by presenting you with the legend, translated from this page. This text originally appeared in the Almanach Catholique Français (1922).

The Legend of Our Lady of Alet

Around 1200 CE, not far from the Bouconne forest five leagues from Toulouse, an inhabitant of Montaigut named Raymond or, as they say in those parts, Ramounet, was busy plowing his fields to prepare them for the next sowing.

It was hot, the soil hard, the oxen heavy and the man himself a miscreant without fear of God or the Devil. His mouth was far quicker with a blasphemy than a prayer.

The oxen were loathe to obey and the blows Ramounet gave them with his goad did nothing to quicken their step. On the contrary; at one point they stopped and refused to budge. This was all that was needed for the laborer to lose his patience.

A blasphemy was forming on his lips but at the very moment when, to add some oomph to his imprecation, he lifted his eyes to Heaven, he saw the Holy Virgin holding the baby Jesus in her arms. The Mother of God spoke to him:

"Raymond," she said, "go on my behalf to the villagers of Montaigut and tell them I want them to build me a chapel."

Raymond, dazzled, replied fearfully:

"Madame, everyone in Montaigut knows me and if I tell them you appeared to me, they won't believe it."

"Plant your goad in the ground," replied the Virgin.

Raymond obeyed and planted his goad, which was instantly covered in flowers.

As you can imagine, Raymond left posthaste for the village, carrying his flowery goad. He performed the mission entrusted to him by the Virgin and the people believed him. But where to build the chapel? The Holy Virgin hadn't said.

After some deliberation it was decided to build the chapel in the very field where Raymond labored.

But another marvel followed. Despite all the hard work carried out in building the chapel during the day, the night found all the work demolished. Work was thus stopped during several days as no one wanted to waste their efforts. Finally, the exasperated master mason threw his trowel into the air saying:

Where my trowel falls
The chapel will be built

And the trowel seemed to take flight, falling to earth at the summit of a hill that dominates the rich valley of the Save River and overlooks the village of Montaigut.

There, the oratory still visible today was built, magnificently restored under the care of R.P. Caussette in 1867.

Numerous pilgrims come to this sanctuary, open year round for the devotion of the faithful. The principal celebration is on the 8th of September [Nativity of the Virgin].

Notre Dame d'Alet, Montaigut-sur-Save
Nigra sum sed formosa

Every detail of this legend corresponds to those surrounding Black Virgins: the strange behavior of oxen while plowing; the demand for a chapel to be built; lack of success in executing this order until the Virgin herself points out where it should be built; the miracle of flowers. Black Virgins often have special chapels located on hills overlooking towns....

Other details conform perfectly to the characteristics of the Black Virgins, though not mentioned in this article. The chapel dedicated to Notre Dame d'Alet sits on a hill, but the spot where she originally appeared was in a field below. According to the nun who takes care of the chapel, that place is marked by a spring. No need to recapitulate that this is typical of Marial apparitions, black or otherwise.

Unlike run-of-the-mill Virgins, a Black Virgin usually has a fervent cult. Indeed, again according to our learned nun, this chapel was the pilgrimage destination for Toulousains during the entirety of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It remained the most important destination in the region until it was eclipsed by the cult of Saint Germaine of Pibrac (1579-1601). Private veneration of Saint Germaine dates from 1644, when her body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt, but her cult seems to have taken wing in the 19th century. (I maintain Saint Germaine is just another, more approachable manifestation, not simply of a virgin, but the Virgin).

But Pibrac had barely taken the number one spot when it was eclipsed by Lourdes, which was attacting thousands of visitors by the mid-nineteenth century. The Virgin abides. In any event, the cult of Notre Dame d'Alet remains active and a procession and pilgrimage are held every year on the day of her Nativity. (Pictures here).

So, we've got oxen, miracles, a spring, an active cult and we've even got the color: Notre Dame d'Alet. The statue presented to me was definitely dusky in hue as a result of the material in which she is made. Like many BV chapels, there are various light-skinned depictions, but the painted ex-votos have been placed around the darker pietà.

All of which leads me to several interesting thoughts. First of all, Notre dame d'Alet is not considered a Black Virgin site, despite all the shared characteristics with this typology. Secondly, recall that the Marial apparition at Montaigut was with the baby Jesus. In fact, such statues are represented here. But it's interesting that the ex-votos and special chapel within the chapel are grouped around a dusky pietà, despite the disparity with the legend.

Ex-voto painting; Notre Dame d'Alet, Montaigut-sur-Save
Is this a sign that on some level, the darkness of this sculpture speaks to the faithful more forcefully than the light-skinned sculptures, despite the fact that the latter are more in tune with the legend?

At the same time, the pietà here is not considered a "Black Virgin." Which leads us back to a point worth pondering. Most popular works about Black Virgins focus on the origin and meaning of the figures. Which is as it should be perhaps, even though it's perhaps a speculative and potentially futile exercise. Theories as to the origins abound; "meaning" is in the mind of the beholder.

What be more easily documented, however, is when the Black Virgins began to be perceived as black. That is to say, when was it that commentators felt it necessary to mention a dark color at all. Moreover, when did this perceived blackness began to take on importance? For there's the rub. Black Virgins, as we've said, have fervent cults; among the faithful this blackness is of critical importance. Indeed, the "restoration" of some Black Virgns have revealed they were originally polychrome....much to the distress of her faithful.

In any event, Notre dame d'Alet is perhaps a valuable case study to test the thesis of Monique Scheer, who for me has written to most useful article on the phenomenon I've read to date. her influence on my thinking is evident in this passage from From Majesty to Mystery:

A positivistic approach toward ascertaining the ontological status of their blackness is most likely futile and in any case tells us nothing of how the color was perceived and interpreted among believers. That is why, in this essay, I will approach the question of when and why the madonnas became black in terms of a history of perception. What patterns of interpretation would have been available and relevant to viewers to make sense of the skin color? How do these change over time? And can the explanation for the existence of this coloring be sought in these meanings?

A few dollars more

I don't have much to say on the following point, but I would like to add that I find in this story a rather obvious sexual component. The laborer, preparing the fields for planting his seed, is stymied by recalcitrant beasts. Lo! A shining woman appears and commands him to plant his goad, or long stick, into the earth. Instantly, flowers appear on his staff. The sexual metaphor may only be apparent to the post-Freudian mind; who knows if such an interpretation would have been considered pre-Freud?

But this sexual metaphor is, to me, just that; the interaction of the brutinsh Raymond and the Virgin not only gives birth to flowers, but presumably sparks a spiritual transformation as well. Tellingly, the Wikipedia article on the goad speaks more about spiritual metaphors than practical concerns. Quoting An Encyclopedia of the Biblical World:

The image of prodding the reluctant or lazy creature made this a useful metaphor for sharp urging, such as the prick of conscience, the nagging of a mate, or the "words of the wise," which are "firmly embedded nails" in human minds (Eccles. 12:11-12).

And quoting The Kabbalah Tree: A Journey of Balance & Growth:

Lamed means 'goad' and in particular an ox-goad, as if we use the power of Gevurah to goad that Aleph ox, the silent letter, into a more tangible physical existence in the heart of the tree [of life]. Lamed begins the Hebrew words for both "learn" and "teach," and so encompasses the most Kabbalist of activities, study. Kabbalah has never been a path of pure sensation, but always has used study to goad us into higher consciousness. Lamed, alone of the Hebrew alphabet, reaches above the height of all the other letters. Through learning we extend ourselves above ordinary awareness.

The goad also is linked to the crosier, or staff carried by high-ranking church officials:

The traditional explanation for the form of Western crosiers, beyond the obvious reference to the bishop as a shepherd to his flock, is this: the pointed ferrule at the base symbolizes the obligation of the prelate to goad the spiritually lazy; the crook at the top, his obligation to draw back those who stray from the faith; and the staff itself his obligation to stand as a firm support for the faithful. It is considered to be both a rod and a staff (Psalm 23:4): a rod for punishing the recalcitrant, and a staff for leading the faithful.

Other symbolism, though perhaps less germane to this legend, will certainly strike a chord with anyone who has followed our posts on serpents and rods:

The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic crosier, is found in two common forms. One is tau-shaped, with curved arms, surmounted by a small cross. The other has a top comprising a pair of sculptured serpents or dragons curled back to face each other, with a small cross between them. The symbolism in the latter case is of the bronze serpent made by Moses in Numbers 21:8-9. It is also reminiscent of the caduceus or the rod of the ancient Greek god Asclepius whose worship was centered around the Aegean, including Asia Minor, indicating the role of the bishop as healer of spiritual diseases.

How 'bout them apples?

This legend dates from the time when the cult of the Virgin was becoming wildly popular and when the Virgin became an important intercessor in the Catholic mind. The goad, a slightly sexual symbol at the very least, also evokes spiritual flowering, discipline, punishment and leadership....

Throwing down the donny

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention that there is another Notre Dame d'Alet....or was. In Alet-les-Bains there was once a powerful Benedictine monastery, the seat of a bishopric and a cathedral dedicated to Notre Dame. Thus it was often referred to as Notre Dame d'Alet, or Aleth. This word is a Frenchification of a much older Celtic word: Alekhta. The town is obviously very old, founded by Celts upon the Aude River, perhaps due to the thermal springs found there. These were, and still are, considered as healing waters and tradition has it that temple to Diana or Cybele was erected there under Roman influence; this Roman presence there leads one to wonder what kind of syncretization went down.

Although a fascinating story unto itself, I haven't found any indication that this Alet is linked to Notre Dame d'Alet of Montaigut, which also bears traces of Roman presence. Another Aleth in Brittany, like Montaigut, has roots in pre-history, a later Celtic presence and was even later occupied by Romans, but it's hard to say if there is a toponymical relation.

Still on the hunt for the connection....

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