Thursday, October 28, 2010

Notre Dame d'Alet

Rose window; Notre Dame d'Alet, Montaigut-sur-Save
Let me begin by presenting you with the legend, translated from this page. This text originally appeared in the Almanach Catholique Français (1922).

The Legend of Our Lady of Alet

Around 1200 CE, not far from the Bouconne forest five leagues from Toulouse, an inhabitant of Montaigut named Raymond or, as they say in those parts, Ramounet, was busy plowing his fields to prepare them for the next sowing.

It was hot, the soil hard, the oxen heavy and the man himself a miscreant without fear of God or the Devil. His mouth was far quicker with a blasphemy than a prayer.

The oxen were loathe to obey and the blows Ramounet gave them with his goad did nothing to quicken their step. On the contrary; at one point they stopped and refused to budge. This was all that was needed for the laborer to lose his patience.

A blasphemy was forming on his lips but at the very moment when, to add some oomph to his imprecation, he lifted his eyes to Heaven, he saw the Holy Virgin holding the baby Jesus in her arms. The Mother of God spoke to him:

"Raymond," she said, "go on my behalf to the villagers of Montaigut and tell them I want them to build me a chapel."

Raymond, dazzled, replied fearfully:

"Madame, everyone in Montaigut knows me and if I tell them you appeared to me, they won't believe it."

"Plant your goad in the ground," replied the Virgin.

Raymond obeyed and planted his goad, which was instantly covered in flowers.

As you can imagine, Raymond left posthaste for the village, carrying his flowery goad. He performed the mission entrusted to him by the Virgin and the people believed him. But where to build the chapel? The Holy Virgin hadn't said.

After some deliberation it was decided to build the chapel in the very field where Raymond labored.

But another marvel followed. Despite all the hard work carried out in building the chapel during the day, the night found all the work demolished. Work was thus stopped during several days as no one wanted to waste their efforts. Finally, the exasperated master mason threw his trowel into the air saying:

Where my trowel falls
The chapel will be built

And the trowel seemed to take flight, falling to earth at the summit of a hill that dominates the rich valley of the Save River and overlooks the village of Montaigut.

There, the oratory still visible today was built, magnificently restored under the care of R.P. Caussette in 1867.

Numerous pilgrims come to this sanctuary, open year round for the devotion of the faithful. The principal celebration is on the 8th of September [Nativity of the Virgin].

Notre Dame d'Alet, Montaigut-sur-Save
Nigra sum sed formosa

Every detail of this legend corresponds to those surrounding Black Virgins: the strange behavior of oxen while plowing; the demand for a chapel to be built; lack of success in executing this order until the Virgin herself points out where it should be built; the miracle of flowers. Black Virgins often have special chapels located on hills overlooking towns....

Other details conform perfectly to the characteristics of the Black Virgins, though not mentioned in this article. The chapel dedicated to Notre Dame d'Alet sits on a hill, but the spot where she originally appeared was in a field below. According to the nun who takes care of the chapel, that place is marked by a spring. No need to recapitulate that this is typical of Marial apparitions, black or otherwise.

Unlike run-of-the-mill Virgins, a Black Virgin usually has a fervent cult. Indeed, again according to our learned nun, this chapel was the pilgrimage destination for Toulousains during the entirety of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It remained the most important destination in the region until it was eclipsed by the cult of Saint Germaine of Pibrac (1579-1601). Private veneration of Saint Germaine dates from 1644, when her body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt, but her cult seems to have taken wing in the 19th century. (I maintain Saint Germaine is just another, more approachable manifestation, not simply of a virgin, but the Virgin).

But Pibrac had barely taken the number one spot when it was eclipsed by Lourdes, which was attacting thousands of visitors by the mid-nineteenth century. The Virgin abides. In any event, the cult of Notre Dame d'Alet remains active and a procession and pilgrimage are held every year on the day of her Nativity. (Pictures here).

So, we've got oxen, miracles, a spring, an active cult and we've even got the color: Notre Dame d'Alet. The statue presented to me was definitely dusky in hue as a result of the material in which she is made. Like many BV chapels, there are various light-skinned depictions, but the painted ex-votos have been placed around the darker pietà.

All of which leads me to several interesting thoughts. First of all, Notre dame d'Alet is not considered a Black Virgin site, despite all the shared characteristics with this typology. Secondly, recall that the Marial apparition at Montaigut was with the baby Jesus. In fact, such statues are represented here. But it's interesting that the ex-votos and special chapel within the chapel are grouped around a dusky pietà, despite the disparity with the legend.

Ex-voto painting; Notre Dame d'Alet, Montaigut-sur-Save
Is this a sign that on some level, the darkness of this sculpture speaks to the faithful more forcefully than the light-skinned sculptures, despite the fact that the latter are more in tune with the legend?

At the same time, the pietà here is not considered a "Black Virgin." Which leads us back to a point worth pondering. Most popular works about Black Virgins focus on the origin and meaning of the figures. Which is as it should be perhaps, even though it's perhaps a speculative and potentially futile exercise. Theories as to the origins abound; "meaning" is in the mind of the beholder.

What be more easily documented, however, is when the Black Virgins began to be perceived as black. That is to say, when was it that commentators felt it necessary to mention a dark color at all. Moreover, when did this perceived blackness began to take on importance? For there's the rub. Black Virgins, as we've said, have fervent cults; among the faithful this blackness is of critical importance. Indeed, the "restoration" of some Black Virgns have revealed they were originally polychrome....much to the distress of her faithful.

In any event, Notre dame d'Alet is perhaps a valuable case study to test the thesis of Monique Scheer, who for me has written to most useful article on the phenomenon I've read to date. her influence on my thinking is evident in this passage from From Majesty to Mystery:

A positivistic approach toward ascertaining the ontological status of their blackness is most likely futile and in any case tells us nothing of how the color was perceived and interpreted among believers. That is why, in this essay, I will approach the question of when and why the madonnas became black in terms of a history of perception. What patterns of interpretation would have been available and relevant to viewers to make sense of the skin color? How do these change over time? And can the explanation for the existence of this coloring be sought in these meanings?

A few dollars more

I don't have much to say on the following point, but I would like to add that I find in this story a rather obvious sexual component. The laborer, preparing the fields for planting his seed, is stymied by recalcitrant beasts. Lo! A shining woman appears and commands him to plant his goad, or long stick, into the earth. Instantly, flowers appear on his staff. The sexual metaphor may only be apparent to the post-Freudian mind; who knows if such an interpretation would have been considered pre-Freud?

But this sexual metaphor is, to me, just that; the interaction of the brutinsh Raymond and the Virgin not only gives birth to flowers, but presumably sparks a spiritual transformation as well. Tellingly, the Wikipedia article on the goad speaks more about spiritual metaphors than practical concerns. Quoting An Encyclopedia of the Biblical World:

The image of prodding the reluctant or lazy creature made this a useful metaphor for sharp urging, such as the prick of conscience, the nagging of a mate, or the "words of the wise," which are "firmly embedded nails" in human minds (Eccles. 12:11-12).

And quoting The Kabbalah Tree: A Journey of Balance & Growth:

Lamed means 'goad' and in particular an ox-goad, as if we use the power of Gevurah to goad that Aleph ox, the silent letter, into a more tangible physical existence in the heart of the tree [of life]. Lamed begins the Hebrew words for both "learn" and "teach," and so encompasses the most Kabbalist of activities, study. Kabbalah has never been a path of pure sensation, but always has used study to goad us into higher consciousness. Lamed, alone of the Hebrew alphabet, reaches above the height of all the other letters. Through learning we extend ourselves above ordinary awareness.

The goad also is linked to the crosier, or staff carried by high-ranking church officials:

The traditional explanation for the form of Western crosiers, beyond the obvious reference to the bishop as a shepherd to his flock, is this: the pointed ferrule at the base symbolizes the obligation of the prelate to goad the spiritually lazy; the crook at the top, his obligation to draw back those who stray from the faith; and the staff itself his obligation to stand as a firm support for the faithful. It is considered to be both a rod and a staff (Psalm 23:4): a rod for punishing the recalcitrant, and a staff for leading the faithful.

Other symbolism, though perhaps less germane to this legend, will certainly strike a chord with anyone who has followed our posts on serpents and rods:

The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic crosier, is found in two common forms. One is tau-shaped, with curved arms, surmounted by a small cross. The other has a top comprising a pair of sculptured serpents or dragons curled back to face each other, with a small cross between them. The symbolism in the latter case is of the bronze serpent made by Moses in Numbers 21:8-9. It is also reminiscent of the caduceus or the rod of the ancient Greek god Asclepius whose worship was centered around the Aegean, including Asia Minor, indicating the role of the bishop as healer of spiritual diseases.

How 'bout them apples?

This legend dates from the time when the cult of the Virgin was becoming wildly popular and when the Virgin became an important intercessor in the Catholic mind. The goad, a slightly sexual symbol at the very least, also evokes spiritual flowering, discipline, punishment and leadership....

Throwing down the donny

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention that there is another Notre Dame d'Alet....or was. In Alet-les-Bains there was once a powerful Benedictine monastery, the seat of a bishopric and a cathedral dedicated to Notre Dame. Thus it was often referred to as Notre Dame d'Alet, or Aleth. This word is a Frenchification of a much older Celtic word: Alekhta. The town is obviously very old, founded by Celts upon the Aude River, perhaps due to the thermal springs found there. These were, and still are, considered as healing waters and tradition has it that temple to Diana or Cybele was erected there under Roman influence; this Roman presence there leads one to wonder what kind of syncretization went down.

Although a fascinating story unto itself, I haven't found any indication that this Alet is linked to Notre Dame d'Alet of Montaigut, which also bears traces of Roman presence. Another Aleth in Brittany, like Montaigut, has roots in pre-history, a later Celtic presence and was even later occupied by Romans, but it's hard to say if there is a toponymical relation.

Still on the hunt for the connection....

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

In Which Major Potter Encounters A Swine Driver, And Trades With Him For An Intelligent Pig

Way back when, the Gid and I collaborated with two chums--Sven and Undule--on a Wiki called Plastic Tub, "a repository of lore and history regarding Accidental Associationalist movement."

As far as I know, it's the first and perhaps only Wiki of its kind. Among its 623 pages one can look up the secret meaning of the sausage or the mysterious Hand Pants--the Tub has an extensive glossary--or look into the life of such luminaries as AA editor and BBQ wizard Mazzistow Carrington. Interested in learning more about the story behind the ill-fated Wee-Wee? The Tub's got you covered.

Well, perhaps the Tub ain't dead, as someone once said about Surrealism, merely sleeping....but the grand collaboration of past years, at one point a true "flurry", has slackened into sporadic blips and beeps. An edit may be made here and there, but other projects loom. Gid and I are on LoS. I'm not sure what Sven is up to. But Undule, aka .sWineDriveR., is rockin' the house with his photographic experimentation.

.sWineDriveR. was actually the heart and soul of the Tub; the energy which made it all happen can be seen in his prolific output. Basically, all this Tub talk was a prelude to a plug. When a friend does something we like, we broadcast it. In this case it's not merely one hand washing the other; his stuff really is worth checking out.

The photo that illustrates this post was put up as a sort of vanity cuz I, Daurade, am pictured. (I'll let you guess which one of these two criminals on the run is me). But seriously, check out the photo at his photostream and go in the direction of "newer' or "older" and you'll find something which strikes you.

Or, take a gander at his flickr homepage and/or the collections. And, if you can, leave a comment or an encouraging word, damn it. A lot of work went into these photos. Let 'im know if you appreciate it!

Update 29/12
This massive page of photos "popular-interesting" is not to be missed.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Aucamville Project 8: Saint-Pierre de Merdans

So far in the Aucamville Project we've examined some chapels which all have a connection to water.
  • Notre Dame des Aubets is associated with a sacred spring.
  • Saint Jean-Baptiste de Margestaud was also the site of a sacred spring said to cure various ailments. In addition, it is a stone's throw away from the Margestaud, one of the two streams that traverse the commune of Aucamville.
  • Notre Dame de Boisville overlooks the confluence of these two streams at the point just before they flow into the Garonne.

The second stream is called Saint Pierre de Merdans and here too, a chapel once stood. Now there is nothing but some foundations and a socle adorned with a cross, but this site contains the remains from Aucamville's long history, from Roman times to the present....

According to some sources, the last chapel here was destroyed during the Revolution. But this was just the last in a series of chapels....

As far as I have been told, the site began as a cemetery. According to a guy living near the site, one can still dig up bones without too much trouble at a depth of 10 centimeters; some of these bones were collected into an ossuary at the beginning of the eighties.

A small, square (pagan) temple was at one point located on the spot, traces of which are still visible. Several Gallo-Romain villas were once located around the site; bricks and Roman coins found in the area confirm the antiquity of the place.

The site was Christianized during the Romanesque period and the first chapel was erected. The foundations are still visible. Another neighbor believes this Romanesque structure was destroyed during the 100 Years War.

Within these foundation walls are a smaller set. These apparently belong to a Medieval chapel erected within the ruins of the Romanesque. The current socle and cross seem to sit in what was once the apse of this chapel. Behind this there are other remnants which appear to be circular. I don't know the age of these; one neighbor says they are from the Romanesque church, but the place is so overgrown with brambles it's difficult to get a precise layout of the place. This second chapel, according to the second neighbor, was destroyed during the Wars of Religion. If this is correct, then the chapel destroyed in the Revolution was the third incarnation, at least. The timeline is fuzzy and I'm wondering where to go next for more precise archeological information. How many chapels were there? When were they built? When were they destroyed? Several permutations seem possible.

Internet references are sparse. There's the blurb I've linked to above. I also came across an excerpt from a letter by our old pal abbé Firmin Galabert (Aucacamville Project 5) parish priest and historian of Aucamville.

From the Bulletin archéologique et historique de la Société archéologique de Tarn-et-Garonne, Tome IX:

M. l'abbé Galabert envoi sa lettre mensuelle, datée d'Aucamville:

Le lièvre n'ayant pas autre chose à faire en son gîte qu'à songer j'ai réfléchi souvent pour trouver la destination de cette cuve carrée, de béton, que la Société archéologique visita sur ma paroisse, tout près des ruines de l'église de Saint-Pierre de Merdans, et il me semble qu'on pourrait facilement y voir une cuve ayant servi au baptême par immersion, mode pratiqué jusqu'au XIIIe siècle, et le trou ou piscine pratiqué dans le fond serait le point d'où partait le canal d'écoulement.

Like a hare having nothing other to do in his cottage but muse, I have often thought about the purpose of this square, concrete cistern that the archeological society visited in my parish, just next to the ruins of the church of Saint-Pierre de Merdans; it seems to me that one can easily see in it a cistern used for baptism by immersion, a mode practiced until the 8th century, and the hole or pool in the bottom would be the opening of the drain.

Si on objecte que la profondeur de la cuve qui est d'environ 40 centimètres ne permettait pas de couvrir entièrement d'eau les adultes, je répondrai que à l'époque où remonte cette cuve baptismale, il n'y avait plus d'adultes à baptiser, et que, du reste, alors on aurait ajouté à l'immersion le baptême par infusion.

If one objects that the depth of the cistern, which is about 40 centimeters, would not have entirely covered an adult in water, I would reply that at the time from when this baptismal font dates, there were no longer adults to baptise and that, moreover, in such a case we would have added baptism by infusion to that by immersion.

Je ne suppose pas, en donnant cette antiquité à ladite cuve je ne suppose pas que les ruines de la chapelle actuelle remontent aussi haut dans l'histoire, mais on peut croire qu'une autre église avait déjà précédé celle-là, car je puis dire avec Horace:

Multa renascentur quae jam cecidere
Cadentque quae nunc sunt in honore...

I do not assume, in giving said cistern such antiquity, I do not assume that the ruins of the current chapel go back as far in history, but we can imagine that another church preceded it; to quote Horace:

Multa renascentur quae jam cecidere
Cadentque quae nunc sunt in honore...

(Many things will be reborn that have already fallen, and many will fall that are now honored)

Que si l'on refuse de voir dans ce béton en briques une cuvè baptismale, on peut aussi y voir des restés de bains: romains ou gallo-romains, et l'orifice du fond aurait également débouché dans un tuyau d'apport ou de retour des eaux.

If we refuse to see a baptismal font in this concrete and bricks, we can also see the remains of baths: Roman or Gallo-Roman, and the hole in the bottom would have also flowed into an intake pipe or water return.

Du reste, aux alentours de la chapelle, surtout de l'autre côté du ruisseau, le sous-sol renferme bien des ruines que la charrue soulève quelquefois.

Otherwise, around the chapel, especially on the other side of the stream, the ground covers many ruins sometimes brought to the surface by the plow.


This quote, though sparse and very small in scope, evokes two themes I find fascinating about this place. The first is it's survival over a long period of time as a place of burial and worship; however Christianized, it's origins are surely pagan.

The second is theme of water. Not only is it located near a stream, but Galabert here muses about the Baptismal rite. I cannot help but recall that Aucamville was a Wisigothic village and that the Wisigoths had an important reverence for water; one wonders if there could be some relation between this and the fact that Aucamville's other chapels are associated with water and date from much farther back in time than the current structures.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Nutty Professor

1. From an article entitled Glenn Beck is obsessed with Hitler and Woodrow Wilson. (I'm just saying.):

Once you liken your opponent to the Nazis, any form of rational discussion becomes impossible. But Beck, it seems, has a Nazi fetish. In his first 18 months on Fox News, from early 2009 through the middle of this year, he and his guests invoked Hitler 147 times. Nazis, an additional 202 times. Fascism or fascists, 193 times. The Holocaust got 76 mentions, and Joseph Goebbels got 24.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks....? Blackboard Jungle!

2. "....any form of rational discussion becomes impossible."

You may remember we pretty much said the same thing back in Februrary (Two for Two: American Years of Lead).

3. Next up: Sabrina the Teenage Witch. "I am not a crook witch!" Waggle jowls, flash victory sign.

4. Followed by: Hogan's Heroes, guest starring Tea Party favorite Rich Iott as the lovable Reinhard Pferdmann of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking....

5. Saw a thing on the Washington Post where some guy from Slate talked with Todd Gitlin and whined about the Right attacking Christ Coons for his article entitled "The Making of a Bearded Marxist." He's got a point. Coons never called himself a Marxist--it was joke by friends remarking on the future divinity school student's humanitarian outlook upon his return from-- gasp--conspiracy alert--Kenya!! Maybe Beck is on to something....

Anyway, what a pussy. The Right is making hay with this because they know nobody will actually read the article and it helps them develop their narrative that America is being eaten alive from within by Socialists. Or Nazis. Catholics, Freemasons, Jews, Muslims. Whatever works.

Same reason why the Left is hammering Iott for dressing up as a member of the SS and mocking Christine O'Donnell for her confession that she had a first date on a blood-spattered Satanic altar. One spouting off about a love of freedom and the other the evils of having a wank.

Hey, one good slander deserves another!

6. Holy shit, politicians exploiting an opponent's gaffes, indiscretions and "weird" hobbies! Political partisans attacking other people with the same means they decry in their political adversaries. Hypocrisy! Distortions! Half-truths! Outright lies! Say it ain't so!