Thursday, July 25, 2013

Val d'Aure to the Val d'Aran: On the Trail of the Black Madonna

There have have been three successive waves of misfortune over the ages that have diminished the number of so-called “Vierges Noires” (Black Virgins or Black Madonnas) in France.  The most recent has also made surviving examples difficult to get a look at.

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
The Black Virgin at Bourisp was stolen in the night of 21st November, 1982. She was quite tall, 150 cm, her black dress decorated with red flowers, seated on a gold throne.

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
The original Virgin may be gone, but her memory is quite strong. A copy has been made; when I remarked that it is quite “white”, the women monitoring the church replied, almost indignantly, “No, look.” She waddled over to the copy and used her cane to pull back Her dress. Okay, the body was quite dark. On the floor, a second copy, black as pitch seemed to overlook the scene, somewhat Asiatic in features. A photograph of the stolen icon completed the scene.  So, secondary images retain the darkness which is, at least for the monitor, an important element of the Madonna of Sescas.

Vaguely Asiatic Black Madonna near the Sescas altar
Perhaps the most visible sign of the historical importance of her cult were the frescoes that decorated the church from floor up to and including the vault, from apse to nave to portico. Great stuff. Scenes from the life of Jesus, portraits of the patriarchs, the last judgement, the seven deadly sins, scenes of the early Christian martyrs. There were also two medallions with the Phoenix and the Pelican, so labelled, which are some of the symbols cherished by the Rosicrucians. The style of these were Renaissance, so it’s quite possible. In any event, a lovely place, well-preserved and obviously quite cherished, with old frescoes, early-20th century ex-votos and a thorough and tasteful contemporary renovation.

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.



  1. Nice post. Good overview of a key topic for this blog. I have a couple comments. I'll start with one focused on a dumb detail:

    Out of curiosity, do you think in centimeters? Does 150 cm mean something directly to you, or do you do some math so that you can think about it in feet/inches? 150 cm meant nothing to me until I divided by 10 and multiplied by 4 to see that we're looking at approx. 60 in ... nearly 5 feet ... nearly as tall as my mother.

    I'm not criticizing the cm reference. That's obviously fine (to me at least). Just curious if you think directly in metric, because that feels like a tiny super power to me.

    1. I kind of think in both, but after 11 years, metric predominates. I never really did anything requiring so much measuring in the US, but when I renovated the palace it was all in metric, so it has become kind of my standard. That said, although much easier and logical than English measures, it lacks the latter's charm and "natural" origin. I love it's weirdo aspects, 12 inches in a feet, three feet in a yard, how many for a mile? Some totally illogical number. Keeps the mind nimble!

    2. The beauty of 12 is it's divisible by 1,2, 3, 4, and 6, which makes it pretty useful (hence, dozen). 10's nice because, magnitudes--but it's more difficult to divide it across groups.

      A mile, though ... yeah, that's pretty weird.

    3. That Hoffman guy I sometimes write about has a whole rant against the metric system as a kind of imposition of Masonic "rationality' over a more natural system based on the human body. Something to be said for that I think. The metric system was imposed during the Revolution along with the reorganization of the country into departments which were designed in part to cut into regional identities associated with the ancien régime. Coincidentally, some of these "old regions" had differeng measures, so national commerce was slowed down, cumbersome. I blogged about that somewhere.

      Also, the Gauls used a base-20 system....

  2. Okay, second comment. I saw a new horror flick last night, "The Conjuring". It's good. Seems to harken back to 70s horror but with some contemporary elements that aren't worth going into right now. Not surprising given that it's been 14(?) years in the making.

    Anyhow, my point here was that a key figure in the film, which seems to be based on some true accounts, is a doll that was taken up by a demon. Not exactly embodied by the demon -- more like the demon pretended like it had inhabited the doll and then moved the doll about in order to influence peoples' emotions/reactions, etc.

    So the connection to this post is that the doll appears to want to inhabit a specific place. Move it, and it reappears in the place where it wants to be.

    This is not unlike the BVs that go to where their church ought to be. Except that we're talking about a godly BV vs. a demonic doll.

    Similarly, I once saw a film that kept switching back and forth between an exorcism (in Haiti?) and someone possessed by the Holy Spirit who was speaking in tongues ... the two people looked/acted exactly the same to my untrained eye.

    Point being that there is a Catholic idea of possession. And it's powerful. And it happens by good and evil, with little distinction for untrained outside observers.

    And the Lord should be feared.

    1. Yeah, your comment makes me think of Clash of the Titans, the original, where Zeus would move these terra cotta figures about in an arena and affect life on earth. Also, a wronged goddess inhabits one of her statues and speaks through its mouth. I think the Egyptians believed the gods inhabitated their statues. Neo-Platonists, believed there were figures inherent in stone, to be revealed by the sculptor. Voodoo uses dolls to harm real people. Yahweh made a little clay man and breathed on him and voila: Adam! So, figures and deities seem to be linked across a variety of traditions like in "The Conjuring".

      That the BVs are site specific, I'm wagering this happens in other traditions as well. I don't know which ones though. It's pretty common with BV's though. Here it's two out of four, but I've written of many others that have either indicated where they wanted to be worshipped or have returned after being removed. I'm wondering if there are classical precedents, or if this is a Celtic/Gaul thing?

    2. Imagine how terrifying it would be. A statue that relocates itself. Worshiping it must be more along the lines of trembling and bowing and begging for mercy -- than along the lines of being inspired by beauty a vision of perfection.

      The logical leap: if it can make statues move about, it can also inhabit me and make me move about and do it's whims.

      Anyhow, I'm distracting from points of this post, which are good--I enjoyed this as sort of a recap of many previous posts as well as an exploration of few new sites.

    3. Yes, and the Virgin was often the gentler "motherly" aspect of medieval religion!


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