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.


  1. Interesting piece. If you're back there, it'd be cool to see pics of "the bell tower remains, with rusted cars and farm equipment huddled at the base."

    Not sure that I understand why the chapel was destroyed?

  2. I may have a shot of that tower...I'll have a look. The chapel was destroyed during the Revolution. A lot of little chapels in the area were totally razed and sold off for building material. Grandselve Abbey, a few miles from my house, once boasted the largest Romanesque church in Europe, bigger, even than San Sernin in Toulouse. Only the gatehouse is left. They sold it brick by brick!


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