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.

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