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.

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