Friday, December 23, 2011

Two Black Madonnas of Paris

While I'm in the process of re-publishing all my old Black Madonna essays on LoS, I figger I might as well get around to writing a little bit on some of the other Madonnas I've since seen but yet to write about.

Notre Dame de Bonne Délivrance, located in the wealthy Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, is one of the two Black Virgins I saw this time last year when I spent a week in Paris.  She is an utterly charming example of the genre, perhaps the most graceful I have seen; she's definitely one of if not the blackest. Her chapel is a tidy design, with clean lines and a delicate palette. Let's face it, French churches tend to be dark, damp and gloomy affairs. This statue is fortunate to be found in such a well-maintained spot, and regularly open to visitors. I saw her on a cold yet sunny day, and the light filtering gently through the stained-glass windows created a calm and cheery aspect.

One of these windows pictures a nobleman in prayer before the Virgin and in this window.  She is also very black. This contrasts with other Black Virgin chapels, such as Notre Dame de Tudet, where the Virgin is depicted on a banner as fair-skinned, or with Notre Dame de Sabart, who in a coronation hymn is referred to as "White and pure under her veils." Notre Dame de Bonne Délivrance is an example whose blackness is a critical identifying feature; she is unquestionably a "Black Madonna."

Readers who have followed my posts on "les Noires" may tire of this theme--that of the perception of and meaning attached to the Madonna's color--but I have yet to take a systematic approach to this topic and mention it for the benefit of readers who may be approaching each post as their first. For a more coherent explanation of what I'm on about, please see "From Majesty to Mystery: Change in the Meanings of Black Madonnas from the: Sixteenth to Nineteenth Centuries" (here).  Scheer does a great job of  examining at which point a black Virgin becomes a Black Virgin.

Allow me to quote Wikipedia at length to provide some history about this statue:

....Notre Dame de Bonne Délivrance....[is] also known as the Black Madonna of Paris. The statue dates from the 14th century, replacing an 11th-century version. It is 150 centimeters (59 in) tall, and made from painted limestone.

This statue was venerated by many notable French saints, including Vincent de Paul and Francis de Sales—it was in front of the statue that de Sales recited the Memorare, and made his religious conversion.....

When the church [St. Etienne des Grès] was destroyed during the Revolution, all its contents were sold; the statue was saved by a pious rich woman named Madame de Carignan. De Carignan was arrested during the Reign of Terror, and she would pray to Our Lady in prison with others who had been arrested for their Catholicism. When de Carignan was freed in 1806, she gave the statue to the Sisters of St. Thomas of Villeneuve, who had been imprisoned with her. The statue is still located in the chapel of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Thomas of Villeneuve in Neuilly-sur-Seine.

Emile Saillens, in Nos Vierges Noirs (1945) has different dates.  Without even a legend to account for her origin, he says, the history of the sculpture dates to April 20th, 1533, when a confraternity was formed to honor her.  This confraternity had up to 12,000 members, among them members of the aristocracy, including Louis XIII.  Saillens doubts that the current statue dates beyond the Revolution, as old commentators write that she was a work in ancient, black stone, rudely sculpted and naiively painted.  They harped upon the coarseness of execution, even making a virtue of it.

Thus the current statue at Neuilly, Saillens concludes, cannot be the same; the current statue is both "modern" and gracefully executed.  We have no idea, then, what the original looked like.  Both Saillens and Wikipedia agree that the current statue replaced an older one; they disagree on the dates and are unclear as to when one replaced the other.  Other sources, however, also say the current statue is from the 14th century, replacing an 11th century original.

Saillens states, according to other commentators, that the "Grès" of the original church were probably grave markers and that a Black Madonna was likewise surrounded by a cemetery in Marseilles and Arles.  Given that he also speaks of Notre Dame de la Paix in Paris, it is odd he doesn't mention that She, too, presides over a cemetery!  Saillens also suggests that in both Lyon and Paris the cult of Isis was replaced by that of the Black Madonna.

This Madonna was the object of a fervent cult and was invoked against a number of miseries and calamities, not the least of which was heresy.  She was especially useful against the Huguenots.  I found this striking, as Notre Dame du Taur, a Virgin of Toulouse not generally recognized as a Black Virgin, was also known as Notre Dame de Delivrance after she saved the city from Huguenots in 1562!

As Wikipoop says, devotion to this Virgin dates back at least to the 11th century; St. Etienne des Grès was built on the site of an oratory built by St. Denis--Patron Saint of Paris--and dedicated to St. Stephen. If we consider that St. Denis (Dionysus) was martyred circa 250 CE, we're looking at a Virgin with a connection to the earliest days of Christianity in Paris. Denis was one of the seven "apostles to the Gauls" sent from Italy by Pope Fabian to Christianize what is now France. For his pains, Denis lost his head:

After his head was chopped off, Denis is said to have picked it up and walked ten kilometres (six miles) to the summit of Mont Mars (now Montmartre), preaching a sermon the entire way, making him one of many cephalophores in hagiology.

Another of these seven apostles was Saint Sernin (Saturninus), who also died from a head injury, his brains bursting out of his cracked skull after being dragged through Toulouse by a raging bull. Sernin's companion Saint Papoul (Papulus), evangelist of the Lauragais, was also beheaded and, like Denis, is a cephalophore (a category of saints who were beheaded then carried their heads in their hands, or spoke).  This seems to be a particularly French hagiographic element; one folklorist counted 134 examples of cephalophores in France alone.  If memory serves me correctly, these head-carrying saints almost all date from rather early on; it's easier to claim it happened when the event is in the distant assured, the case for John Paul II's canonization doesn't include anything so fancy!

Notre Dame de la Paix is another Black Madonna in Paris, found in the chapel serving the Picpus Cemetery. Is is small, maybe a little over a foot high, and dates from the 15th century. It is said to have cured Louis XIV of a serious illness. Like the Virgin in Neuilly, she is also in a convent, in this case with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

Picpus Cemetery is notorious because of its proximity to the Place de la Nation, which we have already discussed and which, under the name Place du Trône Renversé, was the site of the scaffold and the guilloutine. Picpus Cemetery holds numerous victims of this infernal machine, but (presumably) none of them were cephalophores, urban legends notwithstanding.  At least 1300 people were interred in mass graves in Picpus.  The remains of General Lafayette (who died naturally and was buried with decorum) are here, as are those of his mother-in-law and sister-in-law; unlike the General, these unfortunates were guillotined and thrown into the pit.  Perhaps given it's shameful history, it's not the easiest place to find. The chapel and cemetery now sit across the narrow street from a large service station and the chapel itself is grey, drab and somewhat gloomy.

A question I have, though, is whether or not Notre Dame de la Paix is really a Black Virgin. The statue is dark and Begg and Saillens, as well as at least one or two other online writers, refer to her as such, but neither of these latter are traditional academics.  Indeed, I often suspect that people see a Black Virgin where historically, the Virgin in question might not have been perceived as such at all. Nevertheless, one of these writers does have some background to offer:

This icon went through many hands before arriving in Paris. She was a gift to the royal family line of Joyeuse, given as a wedding present. It first place of residents [sic], was Chateau de Couiza very close to Rennes le Chateau of South of France. The statue was passed through the family line and made its home in Toulouse, before finally coming to Paris in 1576. It finally came into the hands of Charles de Lorraine, the Duc de Guise, who built a beautiful chapel to house this Black Virgin....The Lady of Peace was finally given as a gift to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1806.

I can't vouch for this history, but why not? It makes no wild claims and seems plausible enough, and it's damn interesting that She stayed for a spell in the Southwest, especially Toulouse and near Rennes-le-Chateau. Saillens substantiates this history, but refers to the small statue as an ebony reproduction of the "Vierge de Joyeuse" destroyed in 1793.  This Virgin took Her name from the family with which she was associated.  The original, a gift, is thought to have been created in 1518 and based upon a Greek prototype of Eirene [Eirene means "peace"!] carrying Ploutos (see here) on her left arm, and olive branch in her right.  Saillens supposes that the olive branch and the black color might have symbolized the union between two families (it was a wedding present, if you'll recall), both of which had lands and properties in areas where other Black Virgins had popular cults.

While I should probably focus on Saillens' identification, I'd like to say a word or two about those online references because they seem to represent a contemporary feminist position, an emotional identification with a Virgin whose blackness represents an accentuated femininity, earthliness and power, not to mention pre-Christian prototypes.

There is a reference to her on a site that speaks of "healing tours" and the "sacred feminine."  I admit I am a little derisive towards this kind of thing, but only because it seems something historically suspect is being propagated. It's interesting, nonetheless, to speculate as to why these Black Virgins are so important to a certain "new-agey" feminist element. I think the yearning for some sign that there can be a place within traditional religion is a strong pull. Dissatisfied with the Church, one can still find within its iconography something powerful, of value, something to redeem it.  Catholics, Evangelicals, Protestants, it's a man's world; it's only natural that strong, spiritual women would seek an alternative to a world in which women are denied (to varying degrees) the same access to the clergy that men have, and thus implicitly not quite equals.

That said, the tendency to overreact and make wild assumptions about Mary Magdalene or the Virgin Mary tends to detract from the credibility of this approach from a historical point of view.  Which does nothing to diminish its validity as a spiritual phenomenon, in my opinion; it merely adds fuel to my speculative fires as to how many "Black Virgins" are products of contemporary as opposed to traditional perceptions.

Sadly, I lack access to the primary resources needed to trace these identifications, which is a pity, because my instinct tells me these could be two very instructive examples....


  1. Here's a perfect example of what I am speaking about with the unfortunate aspects of the "sacred feminine" approach. In this essay, Anne Parker has some genuinely perceptive things to say about Black Madonna (first of all, given that Jesus is also pictured, and black, why aren't they at least "Black Virgin and Child"? Good question.)

    But then she fucks it all up with goofiness about telluric forces and the like. Here's her "methodology":

    ***1) Simply sit in the church and notice anything that attracted my attention about how it felt to be in that location, 2) Walk the “petite labyrinth”, an old method of “walking up” the energy of a sacred site and 3) Map the very basic patterns of subterranean water and fault lines, referred to as “fire line” throughout this paper, with dowsing rods.***

    Blatant wallowing in subjectivity. It's all about "feelings" with these people, "me and my feelings."

    I read the essay anyway.

  2. Wow--you packed a lot into this essay! I really like the pics--very definitivly black regardless of any questions about being Black.

    Didn't realize Black Madonnas (BMs?) dated back to the beginning of the 4th century. Donno what century I figgered, but certainly not that early, though in hindsight it makes since, given the generally greater variety of "christian" religions back then in Europe (as opposed to, say, the Middle ages when one specific faith had won control).

    I would imagine (purely on uninformed speculation) that much of the draw for New Agers must be the sense of a Mother God who has been squashed by the orthodoxy, you know the BMs so Mother Erth...

  3. Well, that's just the thing. I'm not exactly sure they do date back that far...there are BM's (haha) in places known to have a cult back that far, but the statues are ususally much more recent. The antiquity of the cults is the best evidence that they BM's are based on pagan models. Like I mention here, there's a case where a cult of Isis was destroyed and a few years later w hear of a cult of Mary which these days is considered a BM.

    "I would imagine (purely on uninformed speculation) that much of the draw for New Agers must be the sense of a Mother God who has been squashed by the orthodoxy, you know the BMs so Mother Erth..."

    Bingo. This is pretty explicit in the essay I linked to in my 1st comment. Kind of why Dan Brown was so popular too I think.


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