Featured Post

Hope Springs Eternal: The Mary Wheeler Interview

Mary and Tim Wheeler, with son Christopher.  Courtesy Mary Wheeler. Prepare yourself(s) for an amazing interview with a largely u...

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Aucamville Project 11: Mary on the Cross (redux)

3/3:  I'd forgotten I'd already done a (quite different) little riff on this theme:  The Virgin and the Cross.

Toulouse is known as "la Ville Rose" (the Pink City) because of the brick with which its buildings have been constructed since at least the Middle Ages.  These bricks are not the smallish rectangular jobbies you might think of in American or English construction.  In Toulouse and the surrounding areas the principle brick is called a "foraine" and is about 45 x 25 cm and 5 cm thick.  They're quite heavy and make for a solid wall.  45 centimeters is no small shakes.

The gatehouse to the Aucamville cemetery gives a sense of the ingenuity with which these foraines can be put to use.  The walls are made with them, as are the decorative elements of the cornice and the pediment, even the frame of the arched entry.  I've always liked this gatehouse, which is simple  but elegant.  The size and shape of the cross in the pediment is determined by the material:  four foraines make up each arm, and to me, it has always looked something like a flower.  If you look at our other posts about architecture in Toulouse (example), you'll see that everything from walls to bridges to obelisks to chateaux are made with these foraines.  I suppose that's due to the fact that the soil around here is pretty much pure clay.  If I dig in my garden, I will find this clay with some river stones mixed in, but very little dirt or vegetal matter.

In Toulouse, the Terre Cabade cemetery (see the previous example I mentioned), whose entrance features two brick obelisks, takes it's name from this clay-like earth--"cavade" in Occitan.  (Like Spanish, the v and b sound is pretty much interchangeable in some Occitan dialects).

For stately buildings, this clay is put into a more or less standard mould and fired in a kiln to produce bricks of terra cotta, or terre cuite.  But humbler buildings, barns and even homes will be made of unfired brick.  The clay is mixed with some straw and dried in the sun.  The uncooked bricks have the same dimensions as a foraine.  They are not usually used on the north face of a structure, and even the humblest of buildings will use cooked brick at their foundation, as well as to frame windows, doors and reinforce the corners of a structure; sometimes a row or two will be thrown in to solidify the wall, along with smooth flat river stones, or galets.  This architecture is much like that of the American Southwest, with wooden beams and adobe walls.  The principal difference is that in France, one almost never finds a flat roof.

Anyway, this is less about architecture than it is to present a few images for The Gid, something that astonished him:  the Virgin Mary at the center of the cross.

The two examples presented here are typical of the region, in material and imagery:  they are made out of wrought iron as opposed to cut stone, and the crosses use a vegetal motif.  Get your Joseph Campbell out, as Yggdrasil definitely comes to mind.  In the first example below, I find a deft piece of work; the vines curl about Mary's head and the leaves are clearly star-shaped, thus evoking Mary's halo of stars.  Whether intentional or not, the leaves as a crown of stars symbolically connect Heaven and Earth, referring (I believe) to the Tree of Life as a kind of axis mundi (see Aucamville Project 4).  It would also connect the very terrestrial act of burying the dead with the post-mortem voyage of the soul to heaven.

Example 1.  Note how the vine forms a halo of star-shaped leaves around Mary's head.
In the second example, we find a form more common in this area, where the Cross itself is like a tree.  The flowers are lilies, symbols of the Virgin, almost exploding from behind her in a luscious bouquet of vegetal grace, iron-clad to boot.  The spring-like form to the right of Mary's head (from the viewer's perspective) adds an especially dynamic touch.  Recall also that the fleur-de-lis, a stylized lily, is a long-standing symbol of French royalty; the lily as a symbol of both French royalty and the Virgin Mary would also link Mary with France.  As an aside, a cock is also commonly used on these wrought-iron crosses and it, too, is a symbol of France.  Current notions of laïcité aside, France is a decidedly Catholic country, or at least a Marial one:  no village is complete without a statue of the Virgin.

Example 2:  The Queen is dead, long live the Queen.
These use of these crosses is not confined to grave markers; for a detailed discussion of the many ways they are used, please see "Too late, baby. Slay a few animals. At the crossroads."

I'm also looking forward to an upcoming guest post by LoS pal Tim Wilson, who will write about these crosses, especially in the funerary context, and traditions derived from the pre-Christian worship of Hecate.  I don't know what he'll write, but I'd like to mention that Hecate is a tripartite goddess who was often portrayed facing three directions; this is linked to her function as a goddess of crossroads, of which death is a sort, I suppose!  Hecate, unsurprisingly, is sometimes viewed as an influence on Marial attributes; the latter's symbol, the lily, in it's stylized fleur-de-lis version, is often used to symbolize the trinity.  Hecate was also seen as a Savior, the Mother of Angels, which definitely fits in with Mary's role in Catholicism.  She is also associated with the underworld, which is especially resonant in the context we're looking at here.  I predict Tim will go into these ideas pretty thoroughly and, if I know Tim, not without a great deal of erudition and a dash of humor.

Finally, the third example below is less typical of the region, but the mandala-like, vaguely floral motif at the center really grabbed my attention.  It may merely be a pretty abstract design, or it may be intended to represent a flower or even the sun; a floral motif is clearly present at the base of the cross, with leaves growing up the sides and some kind of flower on the middle, a lily perhaps, or a lotus.  The flower strikes me as vaguely Egyptian.  The extremities on the arms and top of the cross also seem like stylized flowers.  If the "mandala" is a solar symbol, this could allude to the Occitan cross used in these parts, which some theorize may derive from a Gaulish solar disc.

This stone cross also has a weird androgynous quality, evoking at once both a curvaceous feminine form and a phallus.

So in these iron trees and this stone representations of flowers, as well as in the flower-like design of the gatehouse pediment, we have an interesting visual metaphor for the ephemeral being immortalized.  The flower is ephemeral but, like the Christian hope for the faithful at the end of the world, returns to life.

One final thought.  As the Aucamvillois bury their dead in the clay, one can't help but wonder that if on some level they are reminded of the origin of all life in Adam, who the Bible tells us, was formed by God from a lump of clay and then fired in His kiln, so to speak.

Human life grown from the soil, like a brick....or a flower.


  1. Thanks for this post, Daurade. The architecture stuff is fascinating. Any idea why the bricks are so large? I'm guessing that the size of the bricks pre-dates the kilns that eventually baked them, so at some point, whatever must've influenced the shape of the brick influenced the shape of the kiln?

    "They are not usually used on the north face of a structure" ... because there's too much shade and they get all mushy?

    1. The North face is avoided because yeah, too shady and they'd stay damp. These wlls absorb water but don't lead to excessive humitidy because they "breathe" and dry out. This wouldn't happen on the North face.

      I don't know what came first, large bricks or large kilns....I suppose they developed in tandem. I don't know wht they're so large, though. Maybe because our conventional anglo bricks need mortar to stay standing, whereas a stack of these forains can be pretty solid even if dry-stacked. I imagine the large, flat shape made them more stable?

  2. Yes, the Virgin on the cross absolutely astonishes me! Does that 3rd example really have Mary on it?

    It occurs to me that I'm clear on key point here: Are these depictions of Mary climbing upon the cross as part of grieving for her dead son--a sort of begging for Holy Father to take her too, rejoin her with her son, lift her out of her grief--or are these, as I initially imagined, a replacement of Jesus with the Mother, as if there were no tradition of Jesus being crucified, nope, it was Mary who was strung up?

    One final question. Going on a long shot here, D, but, by any chance, so these crosses tend to face East?

    1. No, these crosses don't face East although churches are often oriented so that the altar is in the East. And again, no, the 3rd example doesn't have Mary on it. I popped that in because of the floral motif.

      As for why Mary was on the cross, I don't think it has to do with either reason you propose, but that Mary herself was an important intermediary between the faithful and god. Her role in birthing the Messiah meant that she is a necessary component of salvation. Jesus' sacrifice saved us from Original Sin, which Mary was already free from, as hers was an immaculate, thus sin-free, conception. Her role in universal salvation being so critical is symbolized by placing her on the cross, the instrument of salvation.

      I go into this a little in this post: Here

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. [img]http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-bai5s4nRhdk/UxutZVDhjBI/AAAAAAAAExc/DOjsqNgXwQo/s1600/Floral,+wrought-iron,+cross+grave-marker.jpg[/img]

    Also snapped this cross with a different kind of floral motif.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Thanks for taking the time to comment!

Need to add an image? Use this code: [ximg]IMAGE-URL-HERE[x/img]. You will need to remove the the boldface x's from the code to make it work.