The first wave of destruction came at the hands of the Huguenots, who, in their iconoclastic fury, sent countless icons to the bonfires during the bloody years of the Wars of Religion (1562-1598).
In the French Revolution (1789-1799) we see the same fury and more icons were destroyed, chapels razed and sold off for their bricks and blocks, religious art "appropriated". At least two chapels and one grand monastery within a few kilometers of my house suffered this fate.
The third wave has been theft. The two Black Virgins I could have seen during my stay in the Aure Valley were impossible to see for this last reason. The example in Comminges was also locked away.
The route one travels from the mouth of the Aure valley over the Pyrenees into Spain dates back to a Roman road, and most likely even back to a prehistoric hunting/trading trail. During the Middle Ages it was one of the important branches of the "Milky Way", a colorful name for the Road to Santiago de Compstela. Aure is another word for or, or gold, recalling my own handle here on LoS: Daurade, meaning "gilded/gilt" or "golden". (It also means "gilt-head breem.") How it got this name my be due to its historical importance as a trading corridor.
The Aure Valley is a zone dense with Black Virgins; to the North one finds Notre Dame de Polignan in Montrejeau. By some accounts there's another at Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges. To the south, in Spain, Huesca is home to almost ten examples. To the west, a Black Madonna can be found in Héas; to the east, we find them in Oust, vic d'Oust, Belesta, Aspet and St Béat. One would think it would be easy to catch a glimpse of one, but I passed Bourisp, Aragnouet, Sopeira (Spain) and Montrejeau and only saw Nuestra Señora de la O in Sopeira. And she's not even black. Ean Begg's list of Black Madonnas often gets me chasing after these "White Black Virgins".
Notre Dame de Sescas
|ND de Sescas|
Legend has it that the statue was found c. 1200 CE by a bull in a muddy area near a spring. She was brought to the local church. But, according to Saillens, she "refused the hospitality of the church and ended up settling on a nearby high point, near another spring." Usually this happens three times but in this case it took four times before the villagers decided to erect Her chapel where She wanted.
According to this excellent page, legend has it that an unknown architect appeared and made the plan, oversaw the work and then mysteriously disappeared once the work was completed. This element figures in other legends; I first heard this kind of story at the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, about a miraculous staircase. It obviously came from Spain and is probably as ubiquitous as tales about the "Devil's Bridge".
ND de Sescas is also known to have helped previously infertile couples have children. One mother, whose previous nine children had died, prayed fervently before the icon and her tenth child outlived her.
Something related, as I see it, is that she was also known to bring an end to drought.
All of these are classic Black Virgin elements: found by a bull, the presence of a spring and subsequent role in fertility, the decision of where to be worshipped, a high place. Nothing unusual in the typology. Like many of the Pyrenean Black Madonnas, there is also a link to the Saracen invasions. The author of this brief text makes the excellent point that these legends are valuable historical records because they indicate the approximate dates that the Saracen invasions stopped; Madonnas that had been hidden for decades or perhaps even centuries were then (re)discovered. This is an important feature of the legend of La Virgen de Montserrat, patroness of Catalonia.
Saillens also points out that nearby at Cadéac, there are thermal springs where Cybele was once worshipped. Cybele was the Phrygian mother of the gods worshipped by the Romans as the Magna Mater in the form of a black stone. Her holy day was the 25th of May, and this black stone was bathed in the river Almo. As I said earlier, today’s road dates back to antiquity, a Roman road linking Zaragosa to points north for both military and commercial purposes. Ideal conditions for the transmission of her cult.
|A pale reflection of the original|
|Vaguely Asiatic Black Madonna near the Sescas altar|
Your standard icon of Mary doesn’t evoke such devotion--there are broken and neglected statues of the Virgin all over France. A Black Virgin, however, even a stolen one, is another story.
|Frescos on the vault; hard to see, but these depict the Phoenix and the Pelican feeding its children with itw own blood, a Rosicrucian and masonic symbol of Christ's sacrifice|
The Throne of Wisdom -- Aragnouet
The second Black Virgin I wanted to see was about 11k closer towards Spain in the small village of Aragnouet. All I know is that she is known as the Throne of Wisdom and was stolen 30+ years ago from a Templar Church to the southwest of the village. The church is perched aside a steep gorge as the river Neste roars below. Perfect setting for a mystical film à la Polanski’s 9th Gate. But this church is being renovated and when I peeped through the fence inside, all I saw were scaffolds.
Apparently this Virgen is related stylistically to Notre Dame de Belloc in the Catalan village of Dorres, which can be seen in this flickr set. Notre Dame de Dorres seems to have a lively cult and is first mentioned c. 1260 CE, about the same time as ND de Sescas. I also wonder if Dorres is etymologically related to "or" which is also Catalan for gold. Golden in Catalan is "daurat" however, so it may just be a "false friend".
Back in the village, I passed the parish church church where I saw an older bloke with a killer mustache cutting the grass with a scythe. I called ou to him and he came over. I asked him if the church could be visited and he said no, it’s always closed and besides, it’s not very exceptional. I told him what I was after and he told me that the Vierge Noire wasn’t in this church, it was in a locked box. She’d been stolen about 20 years back and found in Paris at an auction house. The village actually had to buy her back!
Bastards, I thought, whoever’d steal a cult object is a real sonofabitch. I said as much and my informant agreed. They’d robbed Bourisp, Guchen, Aragnouet, etc. etc., all up and down the valley in the light of day. We’d be stupid to put it back on display he said. It would just get stolen again and we wouldn’t have much sympathy. Maybe when the Templar Church is finished they could put it back, with a guard? Well, volunteers are hard to come by these days! How many people live in this village? 250. Yeah, I can see how that could pose a problem!
So, this is Vierge Noire country, but if you can actually see one, good luck. Robbers have made them difficult to access, their guardians are understandably cagey and even a few kilometers can take a long time to travel!
Nuestra Señora de la O, or de Alaón
On to Spain, we wound our way down to Barbastos and headed back to France via the Val d'Aran, the only place in the world where a form of Occitan, the Aranese dialect, is the official language (along with Castellano and Catalan). On the road to the Val d'Aran, I had a chance to stop at Sopeira, a village of considerable charm in a truly majestic setting, the aquamarine mountain lake, the sheer mountains rising up in a multitude of brown and ochre hues, vultures sailing about. One of those rare unforgettable places we stumble across from time to time.
The village is home to what began as a Cluniac Abbey, later to become a Benedictine property. The Benedictines are often associated with Black Madonnas and this place is no exception. The abbey dates to the late-11th/early-12 c. but there is a Visigothic crypt below the altar that dates to the 9th c. Both the Benedictine and Visigoth history of the abbey are not inconsistent with other Black Madonna sites I've visited.
Thing is, despite Ean Begg's inclusion of "de la O" in his list of Black Virgins, the statue, though lovely, is white. Begg has this to say about her:
The monastery of San Pedro contained various relics left there by the Goths....A document of 12 Feb. 845 of Charles the Bald, King of France, grants privileges to Na Sra de Alaón. The 'O' is the cry of parturition [childbirth] celebrated in the Great O antiphons of longing sung at Vespers from 17-23 Dec. The first line of the hymn at Lauds in the Office of Our Lady is 'O Gloriosa Domina'.
An alternate and probably more spurious reason for the "O" given by the guardian of the place was that people prayed to Nuestra Señora de Alaón o [or] de Sescas o La Morenita, etc. This sound like straight-up folk etymology to me, but it would help explain, perhaps, why she is associated with Black Madonna....they're all one and the same as an intercessor. The guardian didn't seem to think the suggestion that she was a Black Madonna was odd. When I told her about Begg's designation she simply explained why. Still, I didn't see any other indications in writing she is a Black Madonna.
I can't find anything about her origins, but I would be unsurprised to find she was found by a bull or near a spring, any number of mythemes associated with the type.
Notre Dame de Polignan
Upon our return to France and before jumping back on the autoroute, I took a short detour to Gourdan-Polignan, just next to Montrejeau, to see if I could get inside the chapel of ND de Polignan, having been denied the opportunity on a previous visit years ago. Like so many chapels in the area, the chapel was locked tight, no doubt as a result if the robberies previously mentioned.
Notre Dame de Polignan is a 14th c. statue said to have been found by a bull. She also had the power to teleport, if you will, having at one point been stolen by the nearby village of Huos, who chained her up. To no avail, she broke her own chains to return to the site of the present chapel. For this, perhaps, one of her specialties is freeing prisoners, which is not a unique attribute.
Other than that, I can't find much about her other than that her primary day of pilgrimage is the 8th of September, the Nativity of the Virgin. This also the day of a very old cheese festival; on that day her blessing is sought by pilgrims from all over the Comminges. Not a trifling matter if your livelihood depends on this delectable dairy product. Also, given the association of the Virgin with fertility and childbirth, an association with milk is pretty logical.
So, all in all I visited four chapels and only managed to see one, cream-colored exemplar of a "Black" Virgin. Still, the journey being the destination and all that, it was a rewarding experience. I talked to some nice people eager to share their knowledge, which wasn't so vast, but it was agreeable nonetheless. I also got to see some beautiful architecture and frescos. I regret not getting more images, both due to my sucky camera and the locked doors, but I did get some useful data. The similarities in these legends, especially the assocations with water and bulls, the miraculous indication of where the statue wanted to be worshipped, does indeed support the idea of a distinct genre of Marian cult, something I'm prone to vacillate about.
Anyway, this has turned out longer than expected, so I'm stopping.
As with this and all of my posts about the Black Madonna, I consulted the following books. For those who speak French, Cassagnes-Brouquet presents a solid, academic overview of the subject. Saillens, also in French, has a lot of valuable anecdotes and a kind of region-by-region guide to where many Black Madonnas can be found. His work is a bit more speculative; the version linked to below is cost-prohibitive for most of us. Begg's book is a Jungian free-for-all, as he readily admits. You have to be careful with his speculations, but the book is jam-packed with fascinating bits of folklore and insights. The Gazetteer makes up half the book--it is an invaluable list; Begg accompanies me on every journey I make in Spain and France.