Tuesday, December 27, 2011

La Vierge de Chaillot

In Two Black Virgins of Paris  I wrote about Notre Dame de Bonne Délivrance and Notre Dame de la Paix.  In Nos Vierges Noires (1949) Saillens speaks only of these two examples in his section on Paris.  He also mentions a Chapel to Mary the Egyptian which contains a dark image of that saint.  In addition to these three examples, Begg (1985) mentions no less than 13 other examples, including reproductions, museum pieces and places where a Black Virgin was once reported to exist but no longer does.  Other citations merely have links of on sort of another to Black Virgins.

None of them mentions La Vierge de Chaillot, pictured above.  This Madonna and Child, clearly dark, is found in a side chapel dedicated to the Holy Family in the Church of Saint Pierre de Chaillot.  I stumbled across this church on my way to the Arc de Triomphe, in fact on my way to Neuilly to see Notre Dame de Bonne Délivrance.  Unfortunately, I missed visiting hours; as you can see from the photos here, the church is impressive, an Art Deco behemoth in concrete.

The Virgin pictured, however, is from the church which previously occupied this location dating from the 17th century.  The current edifice was built from private donations between 1933 and 1938 in a Romano-Byzantine model...with, as I said, a serious dose of Art Deco, especially in the sculptures by Henri Bouchard (1875-1960).  It's rather dark inside, as only a few stained-glass windows illuminate the space.


Curious, I Googled the name of the church plus "vierge noire" and came across an article referring to La Vierge de Chaillot as a Black Virgin: 

Si l’image a ainsi le pouvoir de modifier la pensée grâce à l’ordre de présentation ou à la sélection de certains thèmes, elle modifie également notre façon de considérer la Vierge par la manière dont on la figure. Ainsi, les représentations de vierges noires soulèvent bien des questions sur l’origine de ce type iconographique. À Paris, on en trouve actuellement à Sainte-Rita, Notre-Dame de Bercy (ill. 1), Sainte-Marie des Batignolles et Saint-Pierre de Chaillot. Sans pouvoir trancher au cas par cas à cause de l’insuffisance documentaire, on peut affirmer que cette situation tient soit aux matières utilisées (vieillissement entraînant une oxydation métallique, superposition de vernis, encrassement dû à la fumée des cierges,…) ; soit à l’idée qu’on se fait de Marie : certains s’accordent à penser que les artistes ont cherché un type ethnique, en s’appuyant sur le Cantique des Cantiques (« Nigra sum sed formosa »). Quelle que soit l’explication de la noirceur, cette couleur a modifié le rapport que les fidèles entretiennent avec la statue qu’ils fréquentent lors de leurs dévotions : l’art n’a nécessairement pas laissé leur pensée intacte par le fait même de son intervention.

In this article (Apport de l’archéologie à l’étude du culte marial parisien pour l’époque contemporaine) Marie-Laure Portal studies the cult of Mary in Paris and her iconography.  She talks about the theories surrounding the origin of her darkness but does not seem to find this of primary importance.  She is more concerned with how the color affects the relationship with her devotees:

"Whatever the explanation of the dark, this color has changed the relationship that believers have with the statue when they attend their devotions...."

Unfortunately, Portal doesn't speak of this and like her other identifications (Notre-Dame de Bercy, Sainte-Marie des Batignolles) this Virgin is not discussed by other writers on the topic.  Online searches find no other references to La Vierge de Chaillot as a Black Virgin.  I wonder how Portal came to the rather important conclusion quoted above.  Interviews, other accounts?  She doesn't say and her bibliography isn't clear as to the origin of this conclusion.

The fact this sculpture has a name does indicate she is of some importance, but there wasn't evidence of an especially active cult.  The church is adjacent, however to the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, which was consecrated in 1626 but has its roots as a chapel built in 1222, when Saint Stephen was the patron of Paris.  There had been an abbey there since the 6th century, dedicated to Saint Genevieve.  It now houses the tomb of Saint Genevieve, Paris' current patroness.  In 1857, one Bishop Sibour, on his way to inaugurate the novena to Genevieve, was assassinated here; the assassin cried "Down with the goddesses!"  Why exactly, I'm not sure, although the assassin was a priest motivated by Sibour's support of the papal doctrine of the immaculate conception, proclaimed three years prior after centuries of bitter controversy.

Apparently the celebrated occultist Eliphas Levi was a witness to this event.  He had in fact, recently met the assassin-priest and claimed to have dreamed about the assassination two nights prior.

So, we can assume the priest believed the doctrine of immaculate conception elevated Mary to the stature of a goddess.  Some observers have said the Black Virgins represent just that:  a Christianization of pagan goddesses.  In many ways, she is a goddess and in the south of France one is just as likely to find an image of the Virgin Mary in the center of crosses as much as an image of Jesus.  Just one last observation.  Saint Bernard, who is often cited as an influence on the color of the Black Virgin and who had an important role in the development of the worship of Mary, was opposed to the doctrine, which he felt dehumanized her and undermined her role as an earthly mother.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Two Black Madonnas of Paris

While I'm in the process of re-publishing all my old Black Madonna essays on LoS, I figger I might as well get around to writing a little bit on some of the other Madonnas I've since seen but yet to write about.

Notre Dame de Bonne Délivrance, located in the wealthy Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, is one of the two Black Virgins I saw this time last year when I spent a week in Paris.  She is an utterly charming example of the genre, perhaps the most graceful I have seen; she's definitely one of if not the blackest. Her chapel is a tidy design, with clean lines and a delicate palette. Let's face it, French churches tend to be dark, damp and gloomy affairs. This statue is fortunate to be found in such a well-maintained spot, and regularly open to visitors. I saw her on a cold yet sunny day, and the light filtering gently through the stained-glass windows created a calm and cheery aspect.

One of these windows pictures a nobleman in prayer before the Virgin and in this window.  She is also very black. This contrasts with other Black Virgin chapels, such as Notre Dame de Tudet, where the Virgin is depicted on a banner as fair-skinned, or with Notre Dame de Sabart, who in a coronation hymn is referred to as "White and pure under her veils." Notre Dame de Bonne Délivrance is an example whose blackness is a critical identifying feature; she is unquestionably a "Black Madonna."

Readers who have followed my posts on "les Noires" may tire of this theme--that of the perception of and meaning attached to the Madonna's color--but I have yet to take a systematic approach to this topic and mention it for the benefit of readers who may be approaching each post as their first. For a more coherent explanation of what I'm on about, please see "From Majesty to Mystery: Change in the Meanings of Black Madonnas from the: Sixteenth to Nineteenth Centuries" (here).  Scheer does a great job of  examining at which point a black Virgin becomes a Black Virgin.

Allow me to quote Wikipedia at length to provide some history about this statue:

....Notre Dame de Bonne Délivrance....[is] also known as the Black Madonna of Paris. The statue dates from the 14th century, replacing an 11th-century version. It is 150 centimeters (59 in) tall, and made from painted limestone.

This statue was venerated by many notable French saints, including Vincent de Paul and Francis de Sales—it was in front of the statue that de Sales recited the Memorare, and made his religious conversion.....

When the church [St. Etienne des Grès] was destroyed during the Revolution, all its contents were sold; the statue was saved by a pious rich woman named Madame de Carignan. De Carignan was arrested during the Reign of Terror, and she would pray to Our Lady in prison with others who had been arrested for their Catholicism. When de Carignan was freed in 1806, she gave the statue to the Sisters of St. Thomas of Villeneuve, who had been imprisoned with her. The statue is still located in the chapel of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Thomas of Villeneuve in Neuilly-sur-Seine.

Emile Saillens, in Nos Vierges Noirs (1945) has different dates.  Without even a legend to account for her origin, he says, the history of the sculpture dates to April 20th, 1533, when a confraternity was formed to honor her.  This confraternity had up to 12,000 members, among them members of the aristocracy, including Louis XIII.  Saillens doubts that the current statue dates beyond the Revolution, as old commentators write that she was a work in ancient, black stone, rudely sculpted and naiively painted.  They harped upon the coarseness of execution, even making a virtue of it.

Thus the current statue at Neuilly, Saillens concludes, cannot be the same; the current statue is both "modern" and gracefully executed.  We have no idea, then, what the original looked like.  Both Saillens and Wikipedia agree that the current statue replaced an older one; they disagree on the dates and are unclear as to when one replaced the other.  Other sources, however, also say the current statue is from the 14th century, replacing an 11th century original.

Saillens states, according to other commentators, that the "Grès" of the original church were probably grave markers and that a Black Madonna was likewise surrounded by a cemetery in Marseilles and Arles.  Given that he also speaks of Notre Dame de la Paix in Paris, it is odd he doesn't mention that She, too, presides over a cemetery!  Saillens also suggests that in both Lyon and Paris the cult of Isis was replaced by that of the Black Madonna.

This Madonna was the object of a fervent cult and was invoked against a number of miseries and calamities, not the least of which was heresy.  She was especially useful against the Huguenots.  I found this striking, as Notre Dame du Taur, a Virgin of Toulouse not generally recognized as a Black Virgin, was also known as Notre Dame de Delivrance after she saved the city from Huguenots in 1562!

As Wikipoop says, devotion to this Virgin dates back at least to the 11th century; St. Etienne des Grès was built on the site of an oratory built by St. Denis--Patron Saint of Paris--and dedicated to St. Stephen. If we consider that St. Denis (Dionysus) was martyred circa 250 CE, we're looking at a Virgin with a connection to the earliest days of Christianity in Paris. Denis was one of the seven "apostles to the Gauls" sent from Italy by Pope Fabian to Christianize what is now France. For his pains, Denis lost his head:

After his head was chopped off, Denis is said to have picked it up and walked ten kilometres (six miles) to the summit of Mont Mars (now Montmartre), preaching a sermon the entire way, making him one of many cephalophores in hagiology.

Another of these seven apostles was Saint Sernin (Saturninus), who also died from a head injury, his brains bursting out of his cracked skull after being dragged through Toulouse by a raging bull. Sernin's companion Saint Papoul (Papulus), evangelist of the Lauragais, was also beheaded and, like Denis, is a cephalophore (a category of saints who were beheaded then carried their heads in their hands, or spoke).  This seems to be a particularly French hagiographic element; one folklorist counted 134 examples of cephalophores in France alone.  If memory serves me correctly, these head-carrying saints almost all date from rather early on; it's easier to claim it happened when the event is in the distant past....rest assured, the case for John Paul II's canonization doesn't include anything so fancy!

Notre Dame de la Paix is another Black Madonna in Paris, found in the chapel serving the Picpus Cemetery. Is is small, maybe a little over a foot high, and dates from the 15th century. It is said to have cured Louis XIV of a serious illness. Like the Virgin in Neuilly, she is also in a convent, in this case with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

Picpus Cemetery is notorious because of its proximity to the Place de la Nation, which we have already discussed and which, under the name Place du Trône Renversé, was the site of the scaffold and the guilloutine. Picpus Cemetery holds numerous victims of this infernal machine, but (presumably) none of them were cephalophores, urban legends notwithstanding.  At least 1300 people were interred in mass graves in Picpus.  The remains of General Lafayette (who died naturally and was buried with decorum) are here, as are those of his mother-in-law and sister-in-law; unlike the General, these unfortunates were guillotined and thrown into the pit.  Perhaps given it's shameful history, it's not the easiest place to find. The chapel and cemetery now sit across the narrow street from a large service station and the chapel itself is grey, drab and somewhat gloomy.

A question I have, though, is whether or not Notre Dame de la Paix is really a Black Virgin. The statue is dark and Begg and Saillens, as well as at least one or two other online writers, refer to her as such, but neither of these latter are traditional academics.  Indeed, I often suspect that people see a Black Virgin where historically, the Virgin in question might not have been perceived as such at all. Nevertheless, one of these writers does have some background to offer:

This icon went through many hands before arriving in Paris. She was a gift to the royal family line of Joyeuse, given as a wedding present. It first place of residents [sic], was Chateau de Couiza very close to Rennes le Chateau of South of France. The statue was passed through the family line and made its home in Toulouse, before finally coming to Paris in 1576. It finally came into the hands of Charles de Lorraine, the Duc de Guise, who built a beautiful chapel to house this Black Virgin....The Lady of Peace was finally given as a gift to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1806.

I can't vouch for this history, but why not? It makes no wild claims and seems plausible enough, and it's damn interesting that She stayed for a spell in the Southwest, especially Toulouse and near Rennes-le-Chateau. Saillens substantiates this history, but refers to the small statue as an ebony reproduction of the "Vierge de Joyeuse" destroyed in 1793.  This Virgin took Her name from the family with which she was associated.  The original, a gift, is thought to have been created in 1518 and based upon a Greek prototype of Eirene [Eirene means "peace"!] carrying Ploutos (see here) on her left arm, and olive branch in her right.  Saillens supposes that the olive branch and the black color might have symbolized the union between two families (it was a wedding present, if you'll recall), both of which had lands and properties in areas where other Black Virgins had popular cults.

While I should probably focus on Saillens' identification, I'd like to say a word or two about those online references because they seem to represent a contemporary feminist position, an emotional identification with a Virgin whose blackness represents an accentuated femininity, earthliness and power, not to mention pre-Christian prototypes.

There is a reference to her on a site that speaks of "healing tours" and the "sacred feminine."  I admit I am a little derisive towards this kind of thing, but only because it seems something historically suspect is being propagated. It's interesting, nonetheless, to speculate as to why these Black Virgins are so important to a certain "new-agey" feminist element. I think the yearning for some sign that there can be a place within traditional religion is a strong pull. Dissatisfied with the Church, one can still find within its iconography something powerful, of value, something to redeem it.  Catholics, Evangelicals, Protestants, it's a man's world; it's only natural that strong, spiritual women would seek an alternative to a world in which women are denied (to varying degrees) the same access to the clergy that men have, and thus implicitly not quite equals.

That said, the tendency to overreact and make wild assumptions about Mary Magdalene or the Virgin Mary tends to detract from the credibility of this approach from a historical point of view.  Which does nothing to diminish its validity as a spiritual phenomenon, in my opinion; it merely adds fuel to my speculative fires as to how many "Black Virgins" are products of contemporary as opposed to traditional perceptions.

Sadly, I lack access to the primary resources needed to trace these identifications, which is a pity, because my instinct tells me these could be two very instructive examples....

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tossa del Mar and La Virgen de Montserrat

Previously published on my old website.

La Virgen de Montserrat, La Moreneta, "The Little Black", is one of the most celebrated Black Virgins among the approximately 500 reported to exist worldwide. Patroness of Catalonia, she takes her place among those Black Virgins which in addition to generating fervent devotion, serve as national symbols, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico and the Queen of Poland at Czestochowa.

La Moreneta is not restricted to a purely nationalist role. Secondary images—copies—can be found outside Catalonia at Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela, two of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the Catholic world.[1] When I first entered Tossa del Mar’s (Catalonia) parish church and ran directly into a Black Virgin I was stunned. Her presence was much less surprising when I realized I was facing a reproduction of La Moreneta rather than a primary image proper to Tossa. Nevertheless she was unexpected, for I had never run across a mention of her presence there. Even the ubiquitous Begg Gazeteer[2] lists copies of La Moreneta and other famous Virgins, but nothing about Tossa.

The parish church at Tossa is dedicated to Saint Vincent, a Hispano-Roman Christian martyred during the reign of Diocletian in 304 CE. The church has chapels dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, the Ascension of Mary and both the Virgen of Carmen and the Virgen of Lourdes. La Moreneta is found at the entrance, to the right. Opposite her and at the same height there is a statue of the Virgin of Fatima. That makes six separate shrines to the Virgin in this modestly-sized church, including some of the most revered apparitions in the Catholic world: Lourdes, Fatima and Montserrat.

A seventh image is found on an 18th century tapestry representing the legend of the invocation of the Mare de Déu del Socors (socors = aid, assistance, rescue). As the legend goes, a small boy called Xixanet was playing marbles one day and broke a jar of cooking oil his mother had given him to fill. “The Devil take you!” she cried in anger. And take him he did. A demon arrived to carry the clumsy lad away to the Pit. Horrified and repentant, the mother quickly called upon the Virgin, who arrived with her sceptre (known as “sa mitja cana”[3]) and drove the demon off and sent him back to whence he came. This act is remembered in a popular dance performed when this miracle is celebrated on July 2nd. July 2nd, in addition to being a feast day for several other saints, is also the original day of the Feast of the Visitation, the day the Virgin Mary went to visit Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. This Virgin is honoured in Tossa in a small chapel near the parish church. It was erected in the 16th century by mariner Antonio Caixa after a promise made for favors received. She remains the Patroness of Tossa’s sailors and fishermen.

Begg’s entry on La Moreneta is extensive and worth quoting in its’ entirety: 

The documentary evidence for the devotion to Our Lady of Montserrat dates from 932 when the count of Barcelona confirmed and renewed an endowment made to the shrine by his father in 888, soon after the BV was found among the rocks. The gift was confirmed again by in 982 by Lothair, King of France. According to the legend, the rocks of Montserrat, formerly smooth, became serrated at the Crucifixion, after which the statue, carved by St. Luke, was brought from Jerusalem to Barcelona by St. Peter. It was hidden on the Sierra de Montserrat to save it from the Moors, and was found by shepherds guided by a choir of angels, possible in the 8 C. (Moss and Cappannari state it is known to have been black since at least 718). When the Bishop of Manresa tried to move it to his cathedral it refused to budge.

The present statue is a 12 C.(?) majesty; 38 ins; seated with the child held centrally. Montserrat is the home of Catalan nationalism and scholarship, where the language has always been preserved thanks to the great monastery library of the Benedictines and the famous boys’ choir, the Escalona. The sardana is danced regularly in front of the Church. [As with the non-black Virgin of Tossa] The BV is concerned with fertility and marriage, “No es ben casat qui no dun la done a Montserrat” (He is not well wed who has not taken his wife to Montserrat). St. Ignatius of Loyola received his vocation there and hung up his sword. Wagner was inspired to write Parzival there (Montserrat as Grail Castle). Goethe and Schiller both attributed great importance to Montserrat, and the house where Beethoven died was an ancient fief of the abbey.

Former Temple of Venus

Right off the bat, one notices themes typical to other Black Virgins. Found by shepherds (or herdsmen), the statue was immovable thenceforth from the place where it was discovered. The special relationship with fertility and marriage is common (see Notre Dame de la Daurade). It’s also quite common to find important Marial shrines on the site of old pagan temples. The Grail connection is a bit more fanciful; it is surprisingly common folklore among les Noires, at least in Begg's work; but one must be careful to sift through the manure to make sure any Grail connections are not the more recent additions of goofballs. That said, the idea that the Grail is not a thing but an idea, some kind of secret knowledge, is intriguing when we consider that La Moreneta was supposedly hidden at this site to protect her from the Moors. There are a number of Black Virgins, such as those at Tarascon-sur-Ariege and at Thuir, associated with victories over the Moors. In the legend of St. Fris, who in many ways is a surrogate for the Virgin, a victory over the Moors results in the death of our hero, whose body was then hidden within a rock, only to spring forth with new life centuries later. In many details St. Fris’ legend there are echoes of Santiago de Compostela, patron saint of Spain known as Santiago Matamoros: “the Moor-Slayer.”

In another article Michael P. Duricy clarifies some details. At first the image was called La Jerosilimitana due to the belief that it had been carved in the early days of the church. In what Duricy calls a “well-attested” account the image came to Montserrat in 718 to save her from the Moors. She then disappeared until about 890, when shepherds reported to their priest that they had heard singing and seen lights in the mountains, a fact confirmed by both the priest and Bishop. La Moreneta was discovered in a cave and placed in a small church erected to house her.

Several sources consulted (Duricy, Morris) seem to favour the notion that La Moreneta is black due to prolonged exposure to candles and incense smoke. If Moss and Camppannari’s assertion that she was known to have been black since at least 718 is correct, a date which comes more than 150 years before her cult became well-established, this seems unlikely. The original statue, wherever it may be now, has long since disappeared. It would have easily predated the intense interest in Mary that developed in the 11th and 12th centuries. Perhaps, says, Duricy, what the shepherds found was a statue of Isis and Horus, often pictured as black and whose iconography was adopted by Christians for their representations of Virgin and Child.

The current effigy, however, dates from much later. Its blackness may result from the influence of the commentaries upon the Virgin by St. Bernard, or may come from some Grail-related esoteric symbolism. Perhaps it faithfully reproduces the color of the lost original. I reject the notion that it was the result of candles and smoke. My tentative proposal, a notion coming from recent encounters with other legends, is that there is some connection with the long struggle against the Moors; how exactly I’m not quite sure. I am reminded though, of the Al-Hajar-ul-Aswad, the “Black Stone” around which the Kaaba is built. This is the holiest shrine of Mecca, the focal point of Islam. The Black Stone is said to be black from having absorbed the sins of the faithful, who make the Hajj in hopes of kissing the stone and thus expiating their guilt. Its silver frame is a vaginal form, echoing the shape of the Moon around whose cycles the Muslim calendar is based.

But this speculation remains at this time something of a flight of fancy……what I would like to know is when she first became called “Moreneta” which as we stated at the beginning means “little dark one.” Perhaps we should amend that to mean the “little Moor.”

Works Consulted
Begg, Ean. The Cult of the Black Virgin.

Capella de la Mare de Déu del Socors. (tourist pamphlet in Catalan and Spanish)

“Cana” http://ca.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cana

Duricy, Michael P. Our Lady of Montserrat. http://www.udayton.edu/mary/meditations/olmont.html

Iglesia Parroquial San Vincente. (tourist pamphlet, Spanish)

See Also:

Morris, Paul N. Patronage and Piety: Montserrat and the royal House of Medieval Catalonia-Aragon.


[1] In the Middle Ages, Compostela ranked with Rome and Jerusalem as a way to earn a plenary indulgence for all ones’ sins.

[2] Found in the of the interesting if not-entirely-reliable Gazeteer of  The Cult of the Black Virgin.

[3] According to Catalan Wikipedia, a “cana” is an old unit of measurement found throughout the old Catalan and Occitan world measuring more or less 1.6 meters depending upon the region. A "mitja cana" or half-cana would thus measure 80cm or about a foot-and-a-half long.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Notre Dame de Cahuzac

Re-published from my now defunct website.

According to the table of Vierges Noires located here and based upon the works of Jean-Pierre Bayard and Jacques Bonvin, there is a small polychrome Virgin from the 14th century located at Gimont, in the Gers.  Why a polychrome Virgin is in the list is curious enough though there must there must be a reason for its inclusion.  Searching the internet I came across the briefest of blurbs on a message board where soon-to-be brides talk about where their weddings and receptions will take place, what the groom will be wearing, that sort of nonsense.  One of them mentions that the religious ceremony will take place in “Gimont (Gers) l'après midi dans la chapelle de la vierge noire probablement” that is to say “the afternoon in the chapel of the vierge noire probably.”  Given that this could be a misidentification I tried the usual Boolean fandango and came across another, more official reference from the Fleurance tourist office which speaks of “une chapelle honore la Vierge Noire de Cahuzac. Les pèlerins de St. Jacques de Compostelle trouvaient refuge à l’Abbaye de Planselve, une construction cistercienne etc. etc.…”  Translation:  “A chapel honoring the Vierge Noire de Cahuzac.  Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela found refuge at Planselve Abbey, a Cistercian construction etc.etc.”

Googling “Notre Dame de Cahuzac” brings up scant information except for news about a Catholic school of that name associated with the parish.  One does find that the chapel was erected in the 16th century in brick and stone to honor the virgin which appeared to a shepherd.

Other than those three skimpy references, one finds no further reference to a Vierge Noire at Cahuzac.  The chapel does have many of the characteristics of the Vierge Noire.  The cult is evidently very active, with candles abundant, devotion to Notre Dame de Cahuzac specifically rather than Mary generally and with votive plaques and decorations attesting to her intercession for various cures and salvations.  An apparition to a shepherd also jibes with Vierge Noire legendry.  Most importantly, she is definitely dark in hue.

Unlike every other Vierge Noire I have seen, however, she is not a Virgin in Majesty or a Madonna and Child, but is here a pieta; a Virgin of Pity who holds the dead Christ in her lap, a motherly gesture to be sure, but one which is not usually associated with les Noires.

One also finds that this chapel once housed another statue called Notre-Dame-des-Neiges (Our Lady of the Snow).  This was a mother and child which from photographs is a particularly charming piece.  It was (or is) made of wood and dates from the first quarter of the 14th century.  It sits 50 centimeters high.  Unfortunately some dickhead stole it during the night of January 7/8 in 1980.  Apparently it was put up for auction in Amsterdam in November 2003.  One assumes the government made some effort to recover the piece or to at least try and convince the Dutch authorities to do something about it, but as far as I know it’s somewhere in private hands.  (More scant data).

So, what’s up with Our Lady of the Snow?  Being a lazy bastard I present you with this explanation cut and pasted from the wikisource article itself cadged from the 1913 Catholic encyclopedia.

"Dedicatio Sanctæ Mariæ ad Nives".

A feast celebrated on 5 August to commemorate the dedication of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. The church was originally built by Pope Liberius (352-366) and was called after him "Basilica Liberii" or "Liberiana". It was restored by Pope Sixtus III (432-440) and dedicated to Our Lady. From that time on it was known as "Basilica S. Mariæ" or "Mariæ Majoris"; since the seventh century it was known also as "Maria ad Præsepe". The appellation "ad Nives" (of the snow) originated a few hundred years later, as did also the legend which gave this name to the church. The legend runs thus: During the pontificate of Liberius, the Roman patrician John and his wife, who were without heirs, made a vow to donate their possessions to Our Lady. They prayed to her that she might make known to them in what manner they were to dispose of their property in her honor. On 5 August, during the night, snow fell on the summit of the Esquiline Hill and, in obedience to a vision which they had the same night, they built a basilica, in honor of Our Lady, on the spot which was covered with snow. From the fact that no mention whatever is made of this alleged miracle until a few hundred years later, not even by Sixtus III in his eight-lined dedicatory inscription [edited by de Rossi, "Inscript. Christ.", II, I (Rome, 1888), 71; Grisar (who has failed to authenticate the alleged miracle), "Analecta Romana", I (Rome, 1900), 77; Duchesne, "Liber Pontificalis", I (Paris, 1886), 235; Marucchi, "Eléments d'archéologie chrétienne", III (Paris and Rome, 1902), 155, etc.] it would seem that the legend has no historical basis. Originally the feast was celebrated only at Sta Maria Maggiore; in the fourteenth century it was extended to all the churches of Rome and finally it was made a universal feast by Pius V. Clement VIII raised it from a feast of double rite to double major. The mass is the common one for feasts of the Blessed Virgin; the office is also the common one of the Bl. Virgin, with the exception of the second Nocturn, which is an account of the alleged miracle. The congregation, which Benedict XIV instituted for the reform of the Breviary in 1741, proposed that the reading of the legend be struck from the Office and that the feast should again receive its original name, "Dedicatio Sanctæ Mariæ".

Analecta Juris Pontificii, XXIV (Rome, 1885), 915; HOLWECK, Fasti Mariani (Freiburg, 1892), 164-6.


Our Lady of the Snow is a widely revered apparition of the Virgin and there is a large church dedicated to her in Prague, a vast cemetery in her name in Montreal, a large shrine in Belleville, Illinois and a famous Cistercian abbey in Ardeche.  The Cistercians, if you recall, also had an abbey near Cahuzac.

So in this chapel one finds a Black Virgin along with the usual cast of characters:  Jeanne D’Arc, St. Germaine de Pibrac and not one but two chapels dedicated to St. Thérèse.  All of them represent the French penchant for saints who were suffering young girls.  Along with another young sufferer, St. Bernadette (of Lourdes fame), they are the most popular Saints in France.  In the Midi-Pyrenées and thereabouts you will find at least three of them in every church you visit.  From Aucamville to St. Gaudens, I’ve seen them everywhere.  Saints Germaine and Thérèse are especially noted for miracles involving flowers and their iconography always includes them, recalling the virgin Mary in the process. (See Women from Los).

The church is covered in marble votive plaques thanking the Virgin for healings and near misses, salvation from war and who knows what other small “miracles.”  There are also several framed ribbons on the walls.  I’m not sure of their significance but they are very feminine.  The phrase “P.P. Moi” can only mean “priez pour moi”: “pray for me.”

Along with more traditional votive plaques, the ribbons are plentiful.  Other artifacts on the walls include a military standard and a propeller, of all things.  The walls have been painted in an elaborate geometric tromp l’oeil  pattern suggesting niches and recalling the even more elaborate patterns at the Albi cathedral.  Great care went into decorating the chapel. 

In the panoply of Vieres Noirs extant, then, ND de Cahuzac rests one of the least typical, but she is probably worthy of inclusion in the list.  As we have seen elsewhere, what qualifies as a bona fide Black Madonna is very fluid;  Though she might not have originally been considered among their number, it is clear that many regard her as such now, perhaps by this association elevating her as something beyond the common Virgins and imbuing her with a special significance.  I place the information about her before you and let you be the judge.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Notre Dame de Tudet

Previously published on my old website.


The first visit.

I have been unlucky in many ways regarding my visits to the various Black Madonnas in the vicinity of my home in Toulouse. At Aspet, Oust and St. Béat, I was unable to enter the chapels and thus only able to present a picture of the chapel and give a description of the Virgin culled from various sources. At Montaut I was without camera. At Tudet I had access and a camera, but no batteries. This lack of photos means my little “essays” on Black Madonnas are not as useful I would like them to be, for these Madonnas are among the lesser photographed and an online image of them would provide those interested in the phenomenon with examples of the variation and similarities one can find among the existing corpus.

Visiting Dame de Tudet was a last–minute deal arranged with my pal Dan, an agreement to finally make a road trip together before he left Toulouse for good to make a go of his music back in his native Scotland. We’d considered Rennes-le-Chateau or Montsegur, but I’d come across a reference to Gimont (Notre Dame de Cahuzac) on a Black Madonna list and suggested going there instead. The next morning, I considered the evidence and decided we’d be more likely to have success in Gaudonville.

So I loaded up my kids, brought along a sack lunch and set off in the rain to pick up Dan, poor lad, still a bit peaked from the night before. A word to the wise: Never mix the grape and the grain. ‘Nuff said.

Our route took us in the direction of Gimont upon the road to Auch, but we turned off towards the north in the direction Cologne and Mauvezin, finally turning onto one of those small one-lane blacktops which wend their way through the countryside cheerfully oblivious to the rest of the world; it was conducive to good conversation. We remarked upon a number of topics, from the syncretic accretions Jesus has accumulated, his role as a vegetal god, the concept of the Messiah, King Arthur’s Welsh roots. The rain had cleared.

We presently found ourselves on an even smaller road and after a short spell we rounded a curve and entered Gaudonville. The town was deserted. The church was very old, almost "primitive", with a low “clocher-mûr” made for five bells but containing only two. Begg states that in the house next to the church one can ask for the key so I did. My heart sank when the occupant of the house told me the man with the key was not in town that day.

I ventured to ask if in fact this town was also called Tudet. No, no, Tudet is a kilometer down the road. See, we’re looking for the rather well-known statue, a Black Virgin and….oh yes it’s down the road, but the lady with the key might not be there….

Cheered at this nonetheless we continued towards Tudet, which is really just a collection of three or four houses. The first house we visited turned out to be occupied by an Englishwoman, who seemed a bit wary of the two scruffy young men who’d rung unannounced at her door. Children, however, work wonders when it comes to allaying people’s natural suspicions and she pointed us in the right direction. In short, we met the guardian of the keys and she handed them over without a blink and before we knew it we were inside the sanctuary.

It was at Gaudonville that we discovered our batteries were dead and that we would have no pictures of our outing. Which is truly a shame. Notre Dame de Tudet is quite alluring—a small, lithe, black stone effigy which has a vaguely Hellenic feel to it. It is placed on a round pedestal about six feet high in a position of honor behind the altar. The church is simple, very spare, with only two other statues flanking the apse and the only other ornamentation in the nave are plaques representing the stations of the cross. Here’s a bit of history: 

At the exit of the village (of Gaudonville) in the direction of Saint-Clar, one can take a footpath on the right which leads to Notre-Dame de Tudet, a celebrated pilgrimage site since the 12th century.

Vivian II, Viscount of Lomagne, had a modest chapel built here between 1137 and 1152,  to which Henry II of England added a larger church between 1152 and 1168.  This church was later rebuilt, with the exception of the choir, at the end of the 15th  and beginning of the 16th centuries.  The ensemble was destroyed in 1793, with the exception of the octagonal bell tower still visible today.

Attached to this rather robust tower is a house, a remnant of  a monastery from another time.

In 1877, about 100 meters from this bell tower, a chapel of 16th century appearance was erected in the presence of the Monsignor of Langalerie, revealing the emplacement of a fountain situated 100 meters below the site of the chapel.

The pilgrimage to Notre Dame de Tudet takes place each year on September 8th, sometimes in the presence of the archbishop of Auch. 

From the website of  the Communauté de Communes Coeur de Lomagne, my translation.  Much of  this text either comes from or forms the basis of the text of the Patrimoine de France entry.

According to Begg, “Tudet” means “protection”; indeed, in at least one source she is referred to as ND of Protection and at least two of the memorial plaques in the chapel come from soldiers spared in the first and second world wars. There are surprisingly few of these marble votive plaques, however, given the supposed antiquity of this pilgrimage site.

Begg states that the current statue dates from the 15th or 16th century, replacing the original of 1152. This jibes perfectly with the dates from the Commune’s text (above). The statue is made of black marble and stands 47 centimeters in height. In this she appears to be at the smaller end of the spectrum when it comes to “les Vierges Noires.” Notre Dame de Tudet has an origin story with many themes common among Black Virgins: apparently an ox, who had grown fat without eating, was one day gazing into a spring. A young herdsmen, curious about the strange behavior of the beast, looked into the spring and discovered the Virgin. Tudet, not so much of a town as a “lieu-dit” (a “named place”), is still a site of cattle farms; I loved the sign which said “Attention aux Bovines.”

Whatever the origin, the site was an important pilgrimage by the 12th century, and the Virgin merited the grander accommodations accorded her by Vivian and Henry II. Begg states that it may be the oldest pilgrimage in Gascony. But not everyone shared the love; the statue was damaged during the Revolution (and wasn't restored until 1963). The chapel which housed her had no such luck. Only the bell tower remains, with rusted cars and farm equipment huddled at the base.

Evidence of an active cult includes votive objects left, such as rosaries, prayer cards, a pair of child’s earrings, a child’s ring, a broach. In an adjoining room, damp smelling and empty save for a few cleaning supplies and a low table, we found the litter used to carry her around in processions. We also saw a banner in the church with a brocaded image of the Madonna, unmistakably white, which only reinforces the sense I’ve had that the skin color of “Black Madonnas”—or rather the perception of that skin color and its importance—is remarkably fluid.[1] Seeing the banner of a white Virgin in this context reminded me of Montaut’s Notre Dame des Ermites, lily-white, which was inspired by that of Einsiedeln, which is very black not only in actual hue but according to the importance placed upon her blackness by devotees.

The second visit.

Some cursory after-the-fact research led me to a website which spoke of a pair of lectures to be given in Gaudonville regarding Notre Dame de Tudet, to be followed by a mass (in Occitan) in the chapel at Tudet.  I was, needless to say, interested in going.  I vowed to take the opportunity to learn more and get some photographs.  Timed passed and the day arrived, a bit less gloomy than the first, and I set out alone from my new home in Aucamville a mere half hour from the site.  As it turns out, the lectures followed the annual meeting of the association “La Lomagne, Memoire Pour Demain”.  It lasted too long for me, eager as I was to get to the lectures, listening impatiently to the summary of their financial details, plans, and projects accomplished in 2006.  I needn’t have been antsy, unfortunately, as the first lecture merely recapitulated everything I have already stated on this page in a typically French (that is to say, circumloquacious) fashion.  Ho-hum.  The second speaker, Mr. Passerat, spoke of Notre dame de Tudet’s place in Occitan literature.  Apparently, it’s not a very prominent place, which in itself is significant.  How large could her cult have been?  Another important thing I did get from these lectures is that there is in fact no way to verify that her cult is especially old.  The current statue is from the 16th century and may not have replaced anything older; there is no textual evidence to suggest otherwise. 

It was worth visiting this meeting for I was able to get some decent pictures and visit the spring where the sculpture was said to have been found—I’d missed that the first time around.  Just as I was willing to write off the lectures off as a loss, however, a friendly old fellow in attendance rose to comment that Tudet may have come from the Latin word “tutela,” meaning “protection”[2], and that in Spain we find more than one city named Tudela whose names certainly derive from it.  Another gentleman elaborated that Tutela was in fact personified as a woman and worshipped as a minor goddess.  It was in his eyes another example of a pagan survival.

Indeed, according to Stephen McKenna in Paganism and Pagan Survivals in Spain up to the Fall of the Visigothic Kingdom :

Tutela was probably the most popular abstract conception that was worshiped in Spain. Sometimes the name Tutela is found alone, but more often the formula is met, Tutela colonorum Cluniensium, or Genius Tutela horreorum. All of the fourteen inscriptions in Spain have been found in western Tarraconensis. Three towns of the Peninsula have derived their names from Tutela: Tudela Vegún near León, Tudela de Duero near Valladolid, and Tudela not far from Saragossa.

This photo from the British Museum by Barbara McManus (1999) depicts a personified Tutela wearing an elaborate headdress representing the days of the week.  The cornucopia she holds is adorned with the heads of Luna and Sol—the Moon and the Sun.  It comes from a hoard of coins and statuettes, possibly from a sanctuary, buried at Mâcon, France sometime after 260 CE; the figure itself dates from the 3rd century.  Despite the extravagant allegorical headdress, her basic crown and the crescent moon at her waist are echoed in countless Marian sculptures; one might even be tempted to sea a precursor of the infant Jesus on her arm.  There is even something of her sumptuous curves in Notre Dame de Tudet.

Rodriguez Morales in "Tutela Nauis" e Isis Pelagia en el Satyricon ("Tutela Nauis" and Isis Pelagia in the Satyricon), explains that  there are two references to Tutela Nauis in Petronius’ Satyricon.  After analyzing their context he deduces that the "protecting divinity" (Tutela) referred to is the goddess Isis.  None of this says that Tutela was always an aspect of Isis, but it does remind us just how often Isis thus assumed in many guises and how many local tutelary goddesses were often regarded as one of these.

Which brings us back to the Virgin, Notre Dame, who is in this writer’s opinion is most certainly a descendant of Isis both in her iconography and her functions.  One must not however, exaggerate.  Tutela and Tudet are not necessarily etymologically related and even though in Spain we find towns called Tudela, a connection remains tantalizing conjecture.  Given that both signify “protection” makes it far from extravagant.  Tutela was an abstraction deified as a woman.  Isis was also in a way a kind conflation of many such minor deities; as her cult spread she absorbed many pre-existing goddesses and attributes; her cult eventually spread throughout Europe.  The idea that the iconography of Isis was an important influence on Marial iconography, though certainly contentious, is a well -supported argument.

The basic question remains:  Is Notre Dame de Tudet a very ancient pagan survival?  Mary glued upon Isis as Tutela?  Apparently the first textual evidence of Notre Dame de Tudet surfaces in the 18th century and people speak of her cult as being “as old as anyone can remember” which could merely be a generation or two.  It’s generally accepted that the current statue dates from the late-15th/early-16th century.  This then could be the beginning, with no pagan survival.


[1] Her names is literally the Latin word forprotection”, especially of wards, as in guardianship, and survives as the root of the English words “tutor” and “tutelage.”
[2] An essay located here makes some useful observations regarding how the perception of certain Madonnas' blackness has changed over time.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Two Black Virgins of the Pyrénées

Reprinted from the Reticenteer, written in 2007 or so.

Notre-Dame de Meijo-Costo or Miège-Coste, Aspet (Haute-Garonne)

This Black Virgin can be found in the chapel of Notre-Dame de Miège-Coste (pictured on the left), so named because it sits "à mi-côte" or halfway up a hill which overlooks Aspet. The statue itself dates from about 1680, replacing a Black Virgin of the 4th century. This copy was itself documented as a Black Virgin in 1682. Apparently the chapel was already a pilgrimage destination for the surrounding area by the mid-15th century.

I was unable to visit the inside of the chapel as it was locked. I was unable to locate the home of the caretaker named on a sign affixed to the chapel door and anyway, the key is no longer lent out due to a series of "regrettable incidents." Some people, it goes without saying, are swine.

According to the ubiquitous Mr. Begg, only the heads of the Virgin and Child are sculpted, and the are hands sewn onto the sleeves of their clothing. The sculpture is apparently similar to Notre Dame de la Daurade. She survived the Revolution in hiding.

The statue is made of wood and is about 160 cm high. (Patrimoine de France)

Begg states that Notre-Dame de Miège-Coste has been invoked against war, plague and famine. Healing miracles (including one for blindness in 1753) have also been attributed to her. Aspet has never been ravaged by war, but a large white statue of the Virgin on the chapel roof was destroyed by lightning in 1945.

The fact that the chapel overlooks the village from a prominent elevated position is a testament to the special veneration accorded the Virgin; the chapel is not the village church. This also struck me as interesting because the chapels of both Notre Dame du Pouech (Oust, 51k) and Notre Dame de l'Espérance (St. Béat, 31k) are thus situated.

* * * * * * * * 

Romain Sourrieu was born in Aspet in 1825. After a missionary stint in Toulouse, he became a chaplain at Rocamadour [the site of an especially revered Black Virgin]. Bishop of Châlons-en-Champagne en 1882, he was named Archbishop of Rouen in 1894. Made a Cardinal by Léon XIII en 1897, he died soon after in 1899.

Very attached to his birthplace, he was the principal force behind the restoration of the Chapel of Miègecoste.

(I translated this biographical sketch of Cardinal Sourrieu from this page)

Notre-Dame de l'Espérance, St. Béat (Haute-Garonne)

Like Notre-Dame de Miège-Coste, Notre-Dame de l'Espérance is of blackened polychrome wood and can be found in a special chapel overlooking the town (pictured on the right). In this case the village church, containing the ossuary of St. Béat, is located just at the foot of this hill. The chapel is adjacent to a small fort: St. Béat, known as "the key to France" was an important frontier citadel.

The statue is 53 cm high and 21 cm wide (Patrimoine de France). Begg gives the 13th century as its origin but it may in fact be from the16th. Information on this one is rather scarce.

According to Catholic Online, St Beatus of Lungern was "monk and hermit....earlier designated as the Apostle of Switzerland. Baptized in England by St. Barnabas and ordained by St. Peter, Beatus went to Switzerland. He lived and died on Mount Beatenburg above Lake Thun. The cave became a popular pilgrim's destination, the famed site of Beatus' fight with a dragon."

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Notre Dame des Ermites

Reprinted from my old site and written circa 2008.

Notre-Dame des Ermites, Ensiedeln.  Pic found here, reproduced endlessly.
I recently had some extra time on a trip back from Foix to Toulouse so I decided to make a stop along my route in order to take a look at another reputed Black Virgin listed in Ean Begg’s Gazetteer.[1] According to Begg, Note Dame des Ermites was introduced to Montaut by one Fr. Voisard in 1748 “impressed by the cures of Our Lady of Einsiedeln” in Switzerland.

The weather was cool and the sky hung low and grey with an occasional spattering of light rain. North of Pamiers I turned towards Toulouse went a few kilometers and thought I’d missed the village, but lo! I saw the sign and turned off into the stubbled fields towards Montaut. After a kilometer or two I turned onto another side road and again, yet another, this one barely large enough for my borrowed Citroën. The music on the radio was appropriately eerie, some kind of modernist piece with jangling cascades of piano and screeching violins. I approached the village and not a soul was about.

The church of Saint Michel was in remarkably good condition, it’s low hexagonal tower peering over the village from atop the church, itself situated at the crest of the small hill upon which Montaut is situated. I found it locked. Fortunately a woman scuttled past--broom in hand--and I was able to inquire about getting inside. She directed my to a house facing the church. I was to ask for Madame ---. I did so. Madame was very accommodating and she at once came out of her house to let me into the church.

Like the exterior, the inside was in an unusually well-preserved state. The brick vaults in the side chapels were impeccable, the paint on the walls bright and unstained by humidity. The paintings behind the altar were in a likewise remarkable state of repair, their colors especially vivid.

In addition to Notre Dame, there was another curiosity inside. A recumbent effigy of the obscure Saint Eudôce, a Roman Centurion martyred for urging his fellow Christian soldiers not to attack other Christians. His effigy bears an unmistakable eroticism in the delicate lilt of his head and the breathless, parted lips. His garment is ornate cloth and his right forearm is open to reveal an actual bone inside. This relic is worn smooth. A few sets of medals dating back to the First World War had been placed on his body, thanks from the faithful for surviving their ordeals.

The object of my visit turned out to be a charming and somewhat primitive sculpture of Virgin and Child, lily-white but unmistakably the most venerated effigy in the church, judging from the extra adornments her chapel featured. The candle wax on her candelabra was certainly the thickest! I was puzzled as to why Begg included her in his Gazetteer of Black Virgins. The following is my translation of a paragraph from a pamphlet provided by the Mairie:

Notre-dame des Ermites

Originally from Sancey, near Besançon, Pierre Joseph Voisard, priest of Montaut until 1758, had often heard talk of the Sanctuary of Notre-Dame des Ermites in Einsiedeln, Switzerland.

He conceived of the idea to erect in his church an image of Notre-Dame des Ermites resembling the original of Einsiedeln, four feet high including her crown, with the baby Jesus holding a bird in his hand. On the 27th of September, 1748 he blessed the holy image, carried her in procession throughout the village and—having placed her in her chapel—invited the faithful to come and pray there.

Archival records show that the entire region flocked to this “holy image.” In 1752, an epidemic invaded Montaut; entire families were stricken down. The four consuls of the commune, followed by the populace, came to prostrate themselves before Notre-Dame des Ermites. The plague stopped. Other miracles followed. [Begg mentions that she stopped cholera in 1854.] Her reputation attracted large crowds to the church of Montaut. The offerings of the faithful permitted Father Jacques Rouja (priest from 1852 to 1881) to renovate the church entirely.

The church was decorated with stained-glass windows, balustrades, statues, a pulpit sculpted in Belcaire stone, an organ on rollers and relics.

The stained-glass windows carry the names of the donor families. There one can see the names of Vadier, Dardigna, Donat, etc.

But what of the original statue? A bit of research reveals why Begg has included her in his list of Black Virgins. I will here quote extensively from the website of the Benedictine Abbey of Einsiedeln, a site I urge readers to visit in order to read the full story:

The History the Holy Chapel

St. Meinrad erected his hermitage here, which included a chapel, his cell and two small rooms for guests. The chapel sheltered an altar, candlesticks, reliquaries, a bible and a missal, along with a still existent copy of the Rule of St. Benedict. Most likely, St. Meinrad also brought with him the Marian piety for which his abbey on Reichenau was well noted.

After St. Meinrad was clubbed to death by two brigands, fellow solitaries from the vicinity of his refuge erected on this spot their cells and a chapel, which was dedicated to the Savior.

The first abbot, the Blessed Eberhard, built at the side of the hermitage the first small monastery with a church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St. Maurice, on August 948. On September 14, 948, the chapel of the Savior should have been dedicated by the bishop of the diocese, St. Conrad of Constance.

The Legend of the "Miraculous Dedication"

The night before the dedication, this saintly bishop prayed in the "Chapel of the Hermits" which he was going to consecrate on the following day. Suddenly he saw in a vision Christ the Savior in a purple chasuble, coming down from heaven. The four evangelists, St. Peter, angels, the archangel Michael who conducted the singing, and many other saints, assisted in the solemnity, during which Christ himself dedicated the Chapel in honor of his holy mother Mary.

"Black, but beautiful."

The visage of the Madonna and her Child are black. "Nigra sum, sed formosa," ("black, but beautiful") those words of an old anthem [from Song of Solomon 1:5] are put into her mouth. In the course of the centuries the uncovered faces became darkened by the smoke of the candles, the tallow and oil lamps, and the incense.


In 1802, before the statue could come back after its flight from the French, it was restored in Austria. J. A. Fueter undertook careful restorative work on the statue in the course of which he ascertained that the child and the mother's face and hands had originally been flesh-toned and only later became darkened. The restorer finished his work, however, by painting over the lighter surfaces in the now traditional black, because people said: "It is not ours, ours used to be black."  (emphasis added)

The nice lady who showed me around the church informed me that in her youth, the Church of St. Michael was always full, but over the intervening years the flow of faithful had slowed to a trickle. The Virgin was no longer carried in procession as she had been in those bygone days. “We are lucky to have a priest to say mass three out of four Sundays a month. Most villages around here have one only once a month. Religion doesn’t play as important part in peoples’ lives these days. The church building is all that remains. But that is something.”


[1] The Cult of the Black Virgin, 1985.

[2] This pamphlet was prepared by G. Couthieu, Bernadette Gianesini and Jean-Jacques Soulet. Their pamphlet doesn’t mention it but according to my host the church was again restored in the last fifteen or so years, hence the overall excellent condition previously noted.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Notre-Dame du Pouech

Reprinted from the now-defunct Reticenteer, my old website, written in 2006 or 2008.

“Notre-Dame du Pouech extends her protection over the village of Oust. In the middle of the 19th century, a fearsome cholera epidemic threatened the population and the residents made a commitment to rebuild a sanctuary to Mary if she saved them from the disease. The blight stopped at the gates of the city: the [current] edifice was constructed 1854 and restored in 1969.

The origins of the chapel have become lost in the distant past and are difficult to know [although a priory is mentioned in the 13th century]. The deteriorated chapel was reconstructed with the promise of a procession in the streets of the town in honor of the Nativity of Our Lady.

The statue is still venerated. It is in polychrome wood of the 13th century, the Virgin seated and carrying the infant Jesus on her left knee. She welcomes the pilgrim with her right hand and a motherly look.

A statue of Saint Catherine and another of Saint Lucy, both also of the 13th century, surround the Virgin.

The pilgrimage to this chapel is September 8.”

(Translated from the website of the Catholic Church in Ariège)

Begg identifies Notre Dame du Pouech as a Black Virgin, adding that she “reigns over mines” and the area is known as Terra Santa (“Holy Land” in Occitan). None of the official sources, however, lists her as such, although the Terra Santa appellation is verified by signs in the area. When I visited the chapel, which sits atop a steep hill overlooking the village, it was locked and the Virgin could only be glimpsed through the front door and the side windows. She’s definitely dark in hue. According to a man who was going past on a moped as I left the place, the chapel is rarely opened.

Oddly, although some believe the name Oust comes from the Latin “Augusta,” others believe it comes from the Celtic “ustous,” meaning “inferno.” According to archeological evidence, the village was a Roman settlement; it was also home to a Christian community before the Carolingian period (640 CE). Some believe it was sacked by the Saracens. In the late 19th century it housed two important forges. In any event, given the mining history and the Roman connection, either origin is possible.

And that’s all I know.

Sea also:  Black is Beautiful on why her classification as a Black Virgin is problematic.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Notre Dame du Taur: Our Lady of the Bull

Reprinted from the now-defunct Reticenteer, my old website, written in 2007.

According to most of what I've read, Notre Dame du Taur is not a Black Virgin.[1] Though her skin is dark, there is no mystery surrounding her origins; she is from the 16th century and she is not particularly noted for any miracles. Despite that I would like to talk a bit about her in the context of the Black Virgin phenomenon for two principal reasons. The first is that in appearance she looks strikingly similar to the Notre Dame de la Daurade and the second is that there are curious pagan associations with the place of her cult, which is a common feature of Black Virgins.

As you can see from comparing their pictures, Notre Dame du Remparts (Our Lady of the Ramparts) and Notre Dame de la Daurade (aka La Noire) are very much alike. Both wear crowns and carry batons, both wear actual dresses. Their pose and the position of the infant Jesus is more or less the same, but there are differences: ND du Taur holds her baton in front of her and ND de la Daurade holds hers in a more upright position; the infant Jesus carried by ND du Taur does not carry a baton but a globe, in his left hand and the infant Jesus carried by La Noire holds a baton in his right hand and the left hand is hidden. What makes these differences so minimal is the form of the two Virgins: the shape of their heads, their features, their hair and their proportions are almost identical. They are so close that one might venture to say that one was modeled on the other. Although La Noire is a bona fide Black Virgin with a much more ancient—and fervent—cult, the current statue could very well be the copy, for the 14th century sculpture burned in the bonfires of the Revolutionary government of Toulouse was said to resemble a much different-looking effigy, that of Mare de Déu del Claustre at Solsona Cathedral in Spain. The current statue dates from 1807, much later than the 16th century statue of ND du Taur. It is also possible that ND du Taur was originally inspired by La Noire, and that when it became necessary to replace the latter, the inspired piece became the inspiration.

Notre Dame du Remparts is so very similar to La Noire that at first I mistook her for a Black Virgin. A glimpse at her history, however, eliminates that as a possibility. She is too recent, there is no miraculous origin, she wasn’t found in a cave or discovered by a skittish bull. She was made to commemorate a specific event. As you can see from the photo above, her uneven brown color, noticeably light in places, especially around the eyes, suggests that she is in fact dark because of the years of incense and candle smoke left under her statue by the faithful….which is often how some have dismissed all Black Virgins.

According to a brief history at the church, Notre Dame du Remparts dates back to 1562. On May 13 of that year the Huguenots captured the northern part of Toulouse (Tolosa) including the Capitole. Four days later, after tremendous street fighting, they were driven out and forced to flee via the Porte Villeneuve (located at the current Place Wilson). To commemorate this event the effigy was created and placed in an oratory[2] within the fortifications there, where she became an object of great devotion and where she was known by the titles Notre Dame de Bon Secours or Notre Dame de Delivrance.

On June 3, 1783, the Taur parish inherited the cult after the statue was taken from its place at the Porte Villeneuve, but it was not until 1785 that it was placed in the central chapel of the current church, prominently ensconced above and behind the altar. Every May 17 a procession was held from the Église du Taur to the old oratory where mass was celebrated. As the procession returned to the Church, the crowds shouted “Vive Marie, Vive le Sainte Vierge.” Today, she is more commonly known as Notre Dame du Remparts is still an object of devotion to whom prayers are addressed.

According to legend, the Église du Taur is built on the spot where St. Sernin (Occitan for Saturnine, from the Latin Saturninus) was detached from the bull that dragged him to his death. Sernin was one of the seven "apostles to the Gauls" sent out by Pope Fabian (236 – 250 CE) and is credited with the establishment of churches in Eauze, Auch, Pamplona, and Amiens. According to the fanciful Acts of Saturninus, he often passed the pagan altars on his way to his church and the priests blamed him for the silence of their oracles. One day, after refusing to sacrifice to their gods, he was condemned to be dragged by a bull about town until dead.

After his death two Christian women remembered as "les Puelles"[3] buried his corpse in a "deep ditch." More than a hundred years later, Sernin’s successor Hilary (bishop 358 - 360) erected a simple wooden oratory over this place in order to accommodate the pilgrims who visited the site, but the increasing popularity of the pilgrimage encouraged bishop Silvius (360 - 400) to build a larger church, finished by his successor Exuperius (400 - ?) in 402. The body of St. Sernin, which was said to emanate sweet and gentle odors, was then transferred to the new church, which today forms the crypt of the Romanesque masterpiece, the Church of St. Sernin. The original site is now occupied by the 14th century Church of Our Lady of the Bull. Legend states the church is built where the execution bull stopped, but some believe it is in fact a place previously dedicated to a pre-Christian sacred bull. It is, after all, “Our Lady of the Bull,” and the street on which it sits—the rue du Taur—is the “Street of the Bull.”

There is a profusion of names in Toulouse that refer to the bull. For example: the large bell in a Toulouse-style carillon is called “Le Grand Taur”; the church built over St. Sernin’s original resting place is still called Notre Dame du Taur; and the name of the Matabiau neighborhood is said to come from the words “matar” (“killing”) and buèu (“bull). Owing to this profusion, some have linked the martyrdom of St. Sernin with the mystery religion called Mithraism. The tauroctony, or "killing of the bull," is the central rite of Mithraism. Some have even speculated that the “deep ditch” in which St. Sernin was buried, and thus the site of the current church, was a former Mithraeum.

Just as often as others have disputed it, some have suggested that the tauroctony evolved from Mithraic ritual into bullfighting, which is still practiced in Spain, Portugal and southern France. I think it is quite possible. After all, the martyrdoms of St. Sernin and his protegé St. Fermin are linked to bull-sacrifice, and in their 3rd century milieu, Mithraism was Christianity’s biggest competitor. When relics of St. Fermin were brought to Pamplona from Amiens in 1196[4], the city decided to mark the occasion with an annual festival. This Saint Day evolved over time to include the festivals which feature the famed running of the bulls and the bullfights which occur at the same time. That he was sometime given St. Sernin’s death attests to the power of the association of the bull with the sacred. Is it so improbable that the tauroctony could have been absorbed by the Christians martyr myth and then transformed into the tauromachy? At some of the towns where St. Sernin is said to have founded churches, such as Eauze and Pamplona, the tauromachy exists today.

Just so how does all this fit into the story of the Virgin?

The so-called Occitan cross serves as the official symbol of Toulouse. The four arms, each with three points, are said to represent the twelve signs of the zodiac.[5] Many symbols of Mithraism were also based on the zodiac; the central motif, the tauroctony, results in the replenishment of the earth with life, and some accounts suggest Mithras himself died, was entombed and then resurrected. The cave-like place of Mithraic worship, the mithraeum, can be interpreted as the cosmos, the dome of heaven. It is surprising that a religion so enamoured of the turn of the star wheel would build their places of worship in caves. Some believe that the Mithraists worshipped Mithras as the mediator between Man and God. Other commentators have compared the religion to that of Isis, even Jesus.

Without stretching it too thin, I suggest that Jesus had some competition in Toulouse by the name of Mithras, and that the bull which killed Sernin was perhaps a real event perpetrated by Mithraic rivals or a later invention which recalls the rivalry of the two sects. In 205, Christianity was still not beyond the persecutioner’s arm. One can see the symbolism in the act: Mithras kills the bull to bring forth life, the representative of Jesus (Sernin) dies. But Christianity marches on. A century and a half later and the Christian bishops of Toulouse have a bit more say in local matters. They build shrines, they don’t try to hide the story; they turn the humiliation back on their tormenters. Jesus was reborn after all, see, our sacrifices reflects His. We took the bull’s place as the blood-sacrifice necessary to turn the sky wheel. Bullfighting takes the place of the sacrificial killing as a natural development. The cross and the zodiac are reconciled as new traditons develop as one sect is absorbed into another. Virgin births, feast days, communal meals, ressurrections….bulls, whatever functon they serve in the the life-death-rebirth scheme of things, so appealing to the human heart, which makes butterflies of men.

It is with a poetic imagination that we must approach these things. Some critics might think me too loose with the data. Of course, I work with a limited pool, but there is enough to suggest that there was something in the air those days which is stuck to the bricks. There is a feeling and common sense. We cannnot simply divorce Christian history from its pagan milieu. There was never a “pure” Christianity. Its converts brought their ways and created something new, where the resonant images could persist, and like the ringing of the Great Bull Bell of a Toulousain belltower, the sound has lasted, getting dimmer as time goes by. But there are plenty of legends which have trapped those errant waves and pegged them onto a page. The Mithraic current lives on. Both Jesus and Mary have assumed his role. They are waiting for your call for a session of intercession.

The Black Virgin, like the Mithraic cult, is linked to the stars and the moon but is always found in live-giving earth, the Virgin associated with fecundity and the lush rebirth, the sacrifice of blood. She intercedes between the earth and the heaven, can talk to God and protect an unborn child with equal aplomb.


[1] So I say, quite forcefully, thus opening my mouth wide enough to put my foot in it. I’vee seen it identified otherwise in at least two places. Until I get more precise information, however, I’m letting this stand.

[2] An oratory is a place of worship created for a special group of people, such as pilgrims. It is semi-private, in that unlike a church it is not open to all who may wish to worship, but it is not as exclusive a say, a private chapel.

[3] Puella means girl in Latin. In the Lauragais, the local traditions of Mas Saintes Puelles report that the two young girls brought the body to the town, then called Recaudum, and buried it there.

[4] Although Fermin was from Pamplona, said to be a son of a prominent Roman official, he is believed to have been beheaded in Amiens.

[5] Place Capitole, the site of the pagan altars Sernin was to have so disdainfully dissed on the day of his death, is today emblazoned with an enormous Occitan cross, in bronze, each point culminating in a sign of the zodiac.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Notre Dame du Palais: A Black Virgin?

Reprinted from the now-defunct Reticenteer, my old website, written in 2006.

“Notre Dame du Palais or La Noire, dark stone, formerly in niche on
Château Narbonnais (Palais du Justice), now on front of Jesuit church.”

Ean Begg’s entry on Notre Dame du Palais in the Gazetteer appended to his book, The Cult of the Black Virgin, is puzzling.  Nowhere in the current museum/oratory that houses this Virgin is she described as a Black Virgin.  When I brought the subject up to the caretaker of the place, she adamantly denied it was.  “She is polychrome,” I was told.  “She was darkened by years of exposure to candles.”  With all due respect to the caretaker, this seems unlikely.  One can plainly see that the skin of the mother and child are black, said color terminating abruptly where her garments and her crown begins.  There may be an explanation for her dark color, but selective darkening by votive candles is not it.

This effigy has dark hands, face and hair but the dress has the reddish, gray and white tones of the stone it
was sculpted from.  Her crown is gold.  She probably dates from the 14th century. 

Originally, Our Lady was installed at one of the original city gates, called the “Boucail Gate,” later the “Gate of the Inquisition.”  The statue was moved after the demolition of the gate and adjacent buildings in 1852.  At first she was placed in a niche in the wall of a private residence, but the owners asked that it be moved again, across the street to the Seilhan house, or House of the Inquisition.  Thus in 1988 the effigy was placed at the entrance of the Seilhan house, which at that time belonged to the Jesuits (Hence Begg’s now-inaccurate description).  Her name, in English “Our Lady of the Palace,” derives its from its proximity to the Palais du Justice.  It has also been identified by Begg as “La Noire,” and although I have seen some web references to her as a Black Virgin, it may be that this appellation originates with Begg.  Although the caretaker’s explanation for her darkness is clearly unlikely, it does not mean by default that she is a Black Virgin. 

Our Lady of the Palace had only moved twice in five centuries, but after being moved to the Seilhan house in 1988 She was subjected to the indignity of a robbery attempt.  Following the failed burglary, the sisters of the Société de Marie-Reparatrice decided to allow the city of Toulouse to restore the effigy.  The statue remains, as the sisters say, “confiscated” by the city of Toulouse, despite the fact that the piece clearly belongs to the Association Toulousaine de Saint-Dominique.  It’s obviously a sore spot for the Association, and I was assured that although legal situation is complex a favorable outcome seems imminent.  The upshot is that Our Lady is a copy, albeit a faithful one.

What is this place where She is located, and what is it all about, anyway?  On the 25th of April in 1215, one Pierre Seilhan offered his house to Saint Dominique and then joined his nascent order.  The house is situated on the ancient Gallo-Roman wall, which formed the original boundary of Toulouse.  St. Dominic and his entourage slept here while they carried out their work at the Cathedral St. Etienne during the day.  The Frères Prêcheurs, or Dominicans, were founded and stayed at this location until July of 1216, at which point they opted for a new establishment at the Chapel of Saint-Roman. The house remained Dominican property and in 1233 became the House of the Inquisition, where it remained, situated across from the royal Palace of Justice until the 16th century.  After the Inquisition left, their tribunal hall was turned into a chapel, decorated by Brother Balthazar Moncornet with ceiling paintings of the life Saint Dominic.  In 1771 the Dominicans left the place and it was acquired by the Jesuits in 1832, to be ceded to the Société de Marie-Reparatrice in 1933.  Other orders, such as the Cistercians, have benefited from this place as well.  In 1990 it was acquired by the Institut Catholique and since 1993 the 17th century chapel has been in use as an amphitheatre. 

L'Association Toulousaine de Saint Dominique operates the current house/museum, which has a small bookshop downstairs and a museum upstairs.  One room contains the bedroom furniture of Lacordaire, a fiery post-revolutionary Dominican preacher who restored the Dominican order in France.  There are also a series of 12 paintings of 18th century origin tracing the life of St. Dominic.  The place where the early Dominicans slept is now an oratory, or semi-private chapel where visiting groups, often Dominican nuns and friars, can hold mass.  It is also where Our Lady du Palais rests in a niche on the wall upon which is hung a humble crucifix of wood and iron.