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.


  1. Great post! Where did you get the photo? It looks like that statue is still there--too bad you couldn't get inside!

    I didn't know about images of Mary on the cross?

  2. I wasn't very clear..I took this shot. It's right near the entrance and this chapel was open but the rest of the church was closed. I'll try to snap a photo of Mary on the cross. Not crucified, btw.

  3. Ha! The new banner made me chorkle, total snort out of my nose.

    That's a great photo you capped for this post, D. Very clear.

  4. Haha! Chorkle? Like choke+chortle? :) Got lucky with the photo. I need a better camera for interiors.....so many cool stuff in these churches but hard to get. French churches tend to be pretty dark.


Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.