Sunday, March 7, 2010

Aucamville Project 1: Notre Dame des Aubets

The Chapel of Notre Dame des Aubets (from Fr. aubiers, "sapwood"), which isn't in Aucamville but the neighboring village of Le Burgaud, sits in the middle of fields which in late Summer are covered in a picturesque carpet of sunflowers. The interior is well-maintained and its door is always unlocked. When I last visited a large white candle was lit. I did my bit for the place upon leaving by sweeping out bits of leaves and flowers, but then again, my kids were probably responsible for tracking most of them in. Between taking notes and keeping them from clambering all over the altar I caught the two of them puffing away at the big white candle with tremendous glee. Kids have no respect these days.

According to a brief history inside, the chapel is situated along one of the many trails to Santiago de Compostela and is attested to in a famous 18th century map, prosaically entitled Chemins de Saint Jacques Compostelle. It sits on a route which includes Arles, Montpellier, Castres, Toulouse, Gimont and Auch. The chapel can be found just after passing Naples, where a stop was required at the Chapel of St. Mark. One then passed through the forêt des loups. The route then continued to Belleserre, where upon a hilltop one finds a cross inscribed “St. Jean PPN” (St. Jean priez-pour nous). This place was dedicated to San Jouan d’on Haoure (St. John on High) and has been sanctified ground since before the Christian era. People went there on June 24th (Nativity of John the Baptist, whose celebrations are often remnants of pre-Christian midsummer festivals) to sing hymns, picking oak twigs along the way to have them blessed. Pilgrims then continued on to visit a chapel dedicated to St. George before arriving in Auch and the cathedral dedicated to Mary.

The chapel originated in 1254, dedicated to Notre Dame de Onez under the protection of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, aka the Hospitallers. A spring was located at the spot and as such it may have been a sacred place since long before--much as the hilltop in Belleserre. 250 years later reconstruction was carried out by Chevalier Odet de Ganges, authorized to dedicate the new chapel to the Trinity and Virgin of Compassion. At this time a chaplain set up residence. Ho ho, alas our old pal the Revolution came to town and in 1789 the chapel and the chaplain’s house were razed. A half-century later, in 1845, another reconstruction was undertaken. It wasn’t until quite recently that the current edifice was erected. The earlier building was again razed, except for the belltower, and built anew for a cost of almost almost half a million francs.

This history of periodic reconstruction is interesting for a site that today is quite literally in the middle of nowhere and attests to the perception of sanctity of the place. The vitality of the cult may also be seen today in the number of ex-votos found in the chapel as well as by the fact that Notre Dame des Aubets is crowned. According to the Order of Crowning an Image of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1987):

“ should be noted that it is proper to crown only those images to which the faithful come with a confidence in the Mother of the Lord so strong that the images are of great renown and their sites centers of genuine liturgical cultus and of religious vitality.”

The iconography of the church is somewhat standard for the region. In addition to St. Jacques de Compostela one can find icons of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, Saint Germaine of Pibrac and Jeanne d'Arc. These three saints, along with Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, have always struck me for their similarities. They represent the pious little girl, cruelly suffering yet remaining steadfast in her faith. As Thérèse and Germaine are also associated with miracles involving roses, they also seem to be stand-ins for or even manifestations of the Virgin Mary. At least mediators between the faithful masses and the very busy Virgin....

There is also a sculpture of Our Lady of Lourdes outside, which is quite common for churches and chapels in the south of France. Given that Aubets was also the site of a spring, the presence here of such an icon may be a reference to it, thus linking Lourdes with Aubets. As previously meantioned, a number of ex-voto plaques can be found attesting to the place as one where favors are sought and granted. We will find this to be true of other places in the area as well. Suffice it to say for now that springs have been sacred places since well before the Christian era and thus Lourdes and Aubets are merely the continuation of an ancient tradition of healing waters.
Another pair of icons in this place gave me pause. To the left of the altar, one finds a small statue of Joseph and Jesus, who can be identified by the globe in his hand. On the right there is another pair, a woman and child. At first this struck me as very odd until I realized I was seeing St. Anne and a young Virgin Mary, identified by her crown of stars. What struck me as so odd is that in this combination, we seem to be looking at contemporaries; why display Jesus as an infant with his father, and facing them his mother as a child? It actually wouldn't be so bizarre, as some sources indicate Jospeh was a widower and significantly older than Mary. But then again, he wouldn't have had Jesus on his arm in this case.

I would love to go hog wild and posit that what we are seeing is Jesus and a sister, but alas, that would reveal that I'd been reading (as I had been at the time) too many books inspired by Holy Blood Holy Grail! But Jesus did apparently have brothers and sisters, collectively called the desposyni by 2nd/3rd c. Christian writer Sextus Julius Africanus. According to the Gospel of the Hebrews, some of these desposyni had positions of honor in the church as late as this time. Unfortunately, this gospel is lost. There is also confusion as to exact family link these desposyni had with Jesus; the terms used in the book could be "brother" but it could also be "half-brother" or even "cousin." We'd definitely like to know more on the subject.

Anyway, a calm little refuge in the middle of the fields. The iconography is redolent of St. Jacques and vegetal motifs, such as floral crosses. The spring, the pre-Christian holy sites in the area and the quite blatant celebration of plants and flowers may indicate a pagan provenance.

1 comment:

  1. I passed this chapel yesterday and coming out was a woman I'd just met the weekend prior, our new neighbor in Verdun, where we're renovating a house.

    Anyway, she said that back when she was a kid, just after the war, they'd do a procession in May from the nearby lieu-dit of Naples, starting at the statue of the Virgin, to this chapel. Along the way, they'd scatter flowers before them, throwing them about from a shoebox they'd hung about the neck and decorated with crepe paper. The flowers were collected from the fields.

    The kids also wore wings they'd constructed, like little angels. Anyway, pretty wild to run across her here. Small world.


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