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.

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