Friday, July 16, 2010

Notre Dame de Sabart

I. Summary of the Legend and History of Notre Dame de Sabart[1]

Legend has it that in 778 Charlemagne set up camp in the vicinity of Tarascon (Ariège) with the intention of engaging the Saracens. While following the enemy’s trail on the evening of September 8 he found himself at the mouth of a valley[2] that his horse refused to enter. Digging his spurs the horse still refused to move ahead. Twice more he tried to urge the beast forward it remained obstinate; he would not enter the valley. After his third try a luminous Virgin appeared. As Charlemagne gazed upon her, we must imagine not without much awe and wonder, the Virgin disappeared as suddenly as she had appeared. At dawn the emperor assembled his army at the spot of the apparition. They began to dig and discovered a bronze statue upon which was written “Our Lady of Victory.” The soldiers erected a stone altar on the spot. According to the legend, it was his horse’s stubborn refusal to advance which prevented Charlemagne from entering the valley and walking straight into a Saracen trap which would have almost certainly led to his defeat.

The emperor decided to carry the Virgin of Victory to the abbey of St. Volusien at Foix, but after two attempts the statue miraculously disappeared and returned to where she had originally appeared. This was clearly where she wanted to be venerated; Charlemagne ordered a chapel built at the place, thenceforth called Sabart.

According to Saillens in Nos vierges noires (1945):

“A Black Madonna called Our Lady of Sabart--or Victory--is venerated near Tarascon and Ussat-les-Bains. The site, deserted today, gave its name to the Sabartès. Legend attributes the chapel to Charlemagne, victor over the Saracens, but we can find the same explanation at Thuir and Rochefort-du-Gard, and Sabart was a sacred place well before the alleged visit of Charles. The mountain which dominates the chapel is pierced with caves of prehistoric paintings. The long presence of the Romans is attested to by a series of coins…”

The miraculous statue of this sanctuary became an object of widespread devotion and Sabart a place of pilgrimage benefiting from the protection of St Volusien abbey. In 1569, during the wars of religion, the church was destroyed but rebuilt in the 16th century. An annual pilgrimage was consecrated to the emperor’s victory. Pilgrims from all over the region arrived thundering a sacred ballad composed for the occasion circa 1672 by a canon of Pamiers, one Father Amilha in pure “langue moundi”[3] of Toulouse.

In the 17th century a hospice and convent were founded there.

During the revolution the chapel was pillaged, sold off as national property and converted into a barn. In 1842 the abbot Vergé bought the chapel along with the house next door and restored it with assistance from the parish of Notre Dame de Sabart. It once again became a pilgrimage site.

In our time there are no remnants of the Carolingian church. The chapel is Romanesque and granite blocks from the 12th century are still visible in the façade. The current structure dates to 1842.[4] Two very old stained glass windows were conserved and restored. The chapel, one of the most venerated in the diocese, was classified as an historical monument on June 5, 1846. The crenulated turret and false fortifications date from 1870.

II. Coronation

On June 7, 1954, the Notre Dame de Sabart was crowned. This is a reverence shown to especially important images of Mary and for which the Catholic Church has developed special rites and customs. It is an ancient practice which became widespread at the end of the 16th century. 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.”[5]

In addition to the standard coronation rite, one abbé Sabas Maury composed a devotional him to Our Lady of Sabart especially for the occasion. Take if you will this stanza from the hymn:

Mais, dans la nuit sans étoiles

La Vierge apparut soudain

Blanche et pure sous ses voiles

Comme un beau lis du jardin

Ave, Ave Ave Maria (repeat)

But in the night without stars

The Virgin appeared suddenly

White and pure under her veils

Like a beautiful lily in the garden

Ave, Ave Ave Maria (repeat)

So, if Saillens in 1945 identifies her as a Black Madonna, there is no indication that as soon after as 1954 her apparition was noted for her darkness; quite the contrary, she was "White and pure under her veils."

Notre Dame de Sabart does has several of the common characteristics of Black Madonnas: the strange comportment of an animal, being buried and/or emerging from the earth, miraculously returning to the spot where she was found after being removed, thus indicating the spot where she was to be worshipped.

As with other Black Madonnas, she generated a fervent cult and became the site of an important medieval pilgrimage.

But was her "blackness" really important to these medieval pilgrims? Before Saillens there is no particular indication that her darkness was considered an especially salient feature. Current authors such as Begg are not entirely corroborative because there's no indication he didn't simply take his identification from Saillens. Cassagnes-Brouquet includes her as one of the Black Madonnas of the Crusades, like Saillens equating her with the Black Madonna at Thuir which is also associated with Charlemagne and a victory over the Saracens. Numerous references to her as a Black Virgin exist, but these are contemporary and do not necessarily indicate a medieval provenance. It is hard to ignore that as recent as 1954 a hymn written to accompany the coronation denoting her special significance makes no mention of a dark hue. Quite the opposite.


When I first saw Notre Dame de Sabart I was on a lunch break. On limited time I popped down from nearby Foix. I knew there was a Black Madonna in Tarascon but had forgotten the name. After seeing a few sites in the Pyrenees I've developed a kind of intuition about where they are located so I skirted the town and arrived at the chapel of Sabart: situated out of the town center on a somewhat elevated position overlooking the town (as in Aspet, Saint-Béat, Oust) with a chapel not dissimilar to others housing Black Madonnas, that is to say a 19th c renovation of a much earlier chapel. After moseying about, I was not sure she was the Black Madonna I had been seeking. Certainly she's darker than other representations of the Virgin in the chapel, and certainly the most honored, but she didn't seem strikingly dark, even if visibly darker than other representations in the chapel.

Verifying the name I later I discovered that she was indeed the Black Madonna I'd been looking for.

In 2006 she became a "sister" to Our Lady of Merixtell, the Patroness of Andorra. This latter Madonna was allegedly found on January 6 under a wild rose bush miraculously in bloom. Like Notre Dame de Sabart, she always returned to the spot where she was found when the people tried to remove her. Thus a church was built on the spot. This church was gutted by fire on September 8, 1976. You will recall that this was the date that Notre Dame de Sabart appeared to Charlemagne! This statue was destroyed but survives in many copies, some of which are dark, other less so. I have seen two other representations of the Virgin in Andorra which are the centerpiece of elaborate retables which are also very dark in relation to the depictions of the saints around her. In some there are over a dozen saints depicted, very pink, but the Virgin remains very dark. This is not surprising. After Auvergne, the Pyrenees remain the area with the densest cluster of Black Madonnas. As far as I know, however, very little has been written about the phenomenon in Andorra.

[1] The entirety of Part I is more or less a translation --with minor adjustments--from an article entitled “Meritxell-Sabart, un jumelage réussi” by Laurence Cabrol, found in the AriegeNews on May 3, 2006. Further information can be found in the following:

Notre-Dame de SABART, Fêtes du Couronnement, 7 Juin 1954
Impr, Narbonne, Pamiers, 1954, 10 page brochure concerning the coronation ceremony.

SABART, Histoire de l'église de Sabart dans le canton de Tarascon-sur-Ariège
Impr, d'Aug, De Labouisse-Rochefort, Toulouse, 1849, 233 pages.

[2] Present-day Vicdessos Valley ; although it is impossible to say whether or not Charlemagne actually encamped at this spot, some battles were certainly fought there.

[3] Somes say “Languedocien”, “Occitan” or simply, “patois”. “Moundi” is all of these, but more specifically the dialect of Toulouse and environs. See: Lingua Populi, Lingua Dei: Language, Religion, and the Origins of French Revolutionary Nationalism by David A. Bell in The American Historical Review, Vol. 100, No. 5 (Dec., 1995), pp. 1403-1437.

[4] Two much earlier stained glass windows were conserved and restored.

[5]; this text comes from the English translations of an earlier rite approved by the Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship in Rome in 1981. In the 17th century rites were composed for the coronation of images of Jesus, Mary and the Saints. A rite specifically for Mary dates to the 19th.


  1. Salut !

    Je suis de toulouse !

    Je ne peux pas te laisser mon adresse mail ici sinon on va m'envoyé n'importe quoi l'ami :)
    demande moi et je te donnerais mon mail en privé.

    Porte toi bien l'ami @+

  2. Interesting piece, D .... Hope you'll keep exploring the black virgins!

  3. I should clarify that this was written two years ago!

    I've still got to do a little ditty on Rocamadour....


    Also, do you get some weird formatting thing with the footnotes? At home all is ok but at work it's wonky?

    (Now only to contact Jabamiah....)

  4. I think that you used a footnote tag that Firefox likes but Window's Explorer does not accept.

  5. I copied and pasted from Word, so this is the likely culprit....I should have dumped it into the notebook and then back into the Blogger text box.....I'm feeling too lazy to fix it!

  6. Well, it works just fine w/ Firefox.

    Did you reach Jabamiah?


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