Thursday, December 15, 2011

Notre Dame du Taur: Our Lady of the Bull

Reprinted from the now-defunct Reticenteer, my old website, written in 2007.

According to most of what I've read, Notre Dame du Taur is not a Black Virgin.[1] Though her skin is dark, there is no mystery surrounding her origins; she is from the 16th century and she is not particularly noted for any miracles. Despite that I would like to talk a bit about her in the context of the Black Virgin phenomenon for two principal reasons. The first is that in appearance she looks strikingly similar to the Notre Dame de la Daurade and the second is that there are curious pagan associations with the place of her cult, which is a common feature of Black Virgins.

As you can see from comparing their pictures, Notre Dame du Remparts (Our Lady of the Ramparts) and Notre Dame de la Daurade (aka La Noire) are very much alike. Both wear crowns and carry batons, both wear actual dresses. Their pose and the position of the infant Jesus is more or less the same, but there are differences: ND du Taur holds her baton in front of her and ND de la Daurade holds hers in a more upright position; the infant Jesus carried by ND du Taur does not carry a baton but a globe, in his left hand and the infant Jesus carried by La Noire holds a baton in his right hand and the left hand is hidden. What makes these differences so minimal is the form of the two Virgins: the shape of their heads, their features, their hair and their proportions are almost identical. They are so close that one might venture to say that one was modeled on the other. Although La Noire is a bona fide Black Virgin with a much more ancient—and fervent—cult, the current statue could very well be the copy, for the 14th century sculpture burned in the bonfires of the Revolutionary government of Toulouse was said to resemble a much different-looking effigy, that of Mare de Déu del Claustre at Solsona Cathedral in Spain. The current statue dates from 1807, much later than the 16th century statue of ND du Taur. It is also possible that ND du Taur was originally inspired by La Noire, and that when it became necessary to replace the latter, the inspired piece became the inspiration.

Notre Dame du Remparts is so very similar to La Noire that at first I mistook her for a Black Virgin. A glimpse at her history, however, eliminates that as a possibility. She is too recent, there is no miraculous origin, she wasn’t found in a cave or discovered by a skittish bull. She was made to commemorate a specific event. As you can see from the photo above, her uneven brown color, noticeably light in places, especially around the eyes, suggests that she is in fact dark because of the years of incense and candle smoke left under her statue by the faithful….which is often how some have dismissed all Black Virgins.

According to a brief history at the church, Notre Dame du Remparts dates back to 1562. On May 13 of that year the Huguenots captured the northern part of Toulouse (Tolosa) including the Capitole. Four days later, after tremendous street fighting, they were driven out and forced to flee via the Porte Villeneuve (located at the current Place Wilson). To commemorate this event the effigy was created and placed in an oratory[2] within the fortifications there, where she became an object of great devotion and where she was known by the titles Notre Dame de Bon Secours or Notre Dame de Delivrance.

On June 3, 1783, the Taur parish inherited the cult after the statue was taken from its place at the Porte Villeneuve, but it was not until 1785 that it was placed in the central chapel of the current church, prominently ensconced above and behind the altar. Every May 17 a procession was held from the Église du Taur to the old oratory where mass was celebrated. As the procession returned to the Church, the crowds shouted “Vive Marie, Vive le Sainte Vierge.” Today, she is more commonly known as Notre Dame du Remparts is still an object of devotion to whom prayers are addressed.

According to legend, the Église du Taur is built on the spot where St. Sernin (Occitan for Saturnine, from the Latin Saturninus) was detached from the bull that dragged him to his death. Sernin was one of the seven "apostles to the Gauls" sent out by Pope Fabian (236 – 250 CE) and is credited with the establishment of churches in Eauze, Auch, Pamplona, and Amiens. According to the fanciful Acts of Saturninus, he often passed the pagan altars on his way to his church and the priests blamed him for the silence of their oracles. One day, after refusing to sacrifice to their gods, he was condemned to be dragged by a bull about town until dead.

After his death two Christian women remembered as "les Puelles"[3] buried his corpse in a "deep ditch." More than a hundred years later, Sernin’s successor Hilary (bishop 358 - 360) erected a simple wooden oratory over this place in order to accommodate the pilgrims who visited the site, but the increasing popularity of the pilgrimage encouraged bishop Silvius (360 - 400) to build a larger church, finished by his successor Exuperius (400 - ?) in 402. The body of St. Sernin, which was said to emanate sweet and gentle odors, was then transferred to the new church, which today forms the crypt of the Romanesque masterpiece, the Church of St. Sernin. The original site is now occupied by the 14th century Church of Our Lady of the Bull. Legend states the church is built where the execution bull stopped, but some believe it is in fact a place previously dedicated to a pre-Christian sacred bull. It is, after all, “Our Lady of the Bull,” and the street on which it sits—the rue du Taur—is the “Street of the Bull.”

There is a profusion of names in Toulouse that refer to the bull. For example: the large bell in a Toulouse-style carillon is called “Le Grand Taur”; the church built over St. Sernin’s original resting place is still called Notre Dame du Taur; and the name of the Matabiau neighborhood is said to come from the words “matar” (“killing”) and buèu (“bull). Owing to this profusion, some have linked the martyrdom of St. Sernin with the mystery religion called Mithraism. The tauroctony, or "killing of the bull," is the central rite of Mithraism. Some have even speculated that the “deep ditch” in which St. Sernin was buried, and thus the site of the current church, was a former Mithraeum.

Just as often as others have disputed it, some have suggested that the tauroctony evolved from Mithraic ritual into bullfighting, which is still practiced in Spain, Portugal and southern France. I think it is quite possible. After all, the martyrdoms of St. Sernin and his protegé St. Fermin are linked to bull-sacrifice, and in their 3rd century milieu, Mithraism was Christianity’s biggest competitor. When relics of St. Fermin were brought to Pamplona from Amiens in 1196[4], the city decided to mark the occasion with an annual festival. This Saint Day evolved over time to include the festivals which feature the famed running of the bulls and the bullfights which occur at the same time. That he was sometime given St. Sernin’s death attests to the power of the association of the bull with the sacred. Is it so improbable that the tauroctony could have been absorbed by the Christians martyr myth and then transformed into the tauromachy? At some of the towns where St. Sernin is said to have founded churches, such as Eauze and Pamplona, the tauromachy exists today.

Just so how does all this fit into the story of the Virgin?

The so-called Occitan cross serves as the official symbol of Toulouse. The four arms, each with three points, are said to represent the twelve signs of the zodiac.[5] Many symbols of Mithraism were also based on the zodiac; the central motif, the tauroctony, results in the replenishment of the earth with life, and some accounts suggest Mithras himself died, was entombed and then resurrected. The cave-like place of Mithraic worship, the mithraeum, can be interpreted as the cosmos, the dome of heaven. It is surprising that a religion so enamoured of the turn of the star wheel would build their places of worship in caves. Some believe that the Mithraists worshipped Mithras as the mediator between Man and God. Other commentators have compared the religion to that of Isis, even Jesus.

Without stretching it too thin, I suggest that Jesus had some competition in Toulouse by the name of Mithras, and that the bull which killed Sernin was perhaps a real event perpetrated by Mithraic rivals or a later invention which recalls the rivalry of the two sects. In 205, Christianity was still not beyond the persecutioner’s arm. One can see the symbolism in the act: Mithras kills the bull to bring forth life, the representative of Jesus (Sernin) dies. But Christianity marches on. A century and a half later and the Christian bishops of Toulouse have a bit more say in local matters. They build shrines, they don’t try to hide the story; they turn the humiliation back on their tormenters. Jesus was reborn after all, see, our sacrifices reflects His. We took the bull’s place as the blood-sacrifice necessary to turn the sky wheel. Bullfighting takes the place of the sacrificial killing as a natural development. The cross and the zodiac are reconciled as new traditons develop as one sect is absorbed into another. Virgin births, feast days, communal meals, ressurrections….bulls, whatever functon they serve in the the life-death-rebirth scheme of things, so appealing to the human heart, which makes butterflies of men.

It is with a poetic imagination that we must approach these things. Some critics might think me too loose with the data. Of course, I work with a limited pool, but there is enough to suggest that there was something in the air those days which is stuck to the bricks. There is a feeling and common sense. We cannnot simply divorce Christian history from its pagan milieu. There was never a “pure” Christianity. Its converts brought their ways and created something new, where the resonant images could persist, and like the ringing of the Great Bull Bell of a Toulousain belltower, the sound has lasted, getting dimmer as time goes by. But there are plenty of legends which have trapped those errant waves and pegged them onto a page. The Mithraic current lives on. Both Jesus and Mary have assumed his role. They are waiting for your call for a session of intercession.

The Black Virgin, like the Mithraic cult, is linked to the stars and the moon but is always found in live-giving earth, the Virgin associated with fecundity and the lush rebirth, the sacrifice of blood. She intercedes between the earth and the heaven, can talk to God and protect an unborn child with equal aplomb.


[1] So I say, quite forcefully, thus opening my mouth wide enough to put my foot in it. I’vee seen it identified otherwise in at least two places. Until I get more precise information, however, I’m letting this stand.

[2] An oratory is a place of worship created for a special group of people, such as pilgrims. It is semi-private, in that unlike a church it is not open to all who may wish to worship, but it is not as exclusive a say, a private chapel.

[3] Puella means girl in Latin. In the Lauragais, the local traditions of Mas Saintes Puelles report that the two young girls brought the body to the town, then called Recaudum, and buried it there.

[4] Although Fermin was from Pamplona, said to be a son of a prominent Roman official, he is believed to have been beheaded in Amiens.

[5] Place Capitole, the site of the pagan altars Sernin was to have so disdainfully dissed on the day of his death, is today emblazoned with an enormous Occitan cross, in bronze, each point culminating in a sign of the zodiac.


  1. Very interesting ! Is it possible to visit a "crypt" in Notre Dame du Taur ?

    1. TEDO, merci pour le commentaire et question. Je ne sais pas. S'il est possible, la visite n'est pas ouverte au grand public. Je n'ai jamais trouvé quelqu'un sur place pour demander, par contre. J'ai une nouvelle mission. Je "posterais" l'info si j'en trouve.

      D'ailleurs, il est tout à fait possible de visiter la crypte et trésor de San Sernin, à deux pas de ND du Taur.

      Le sarcophage de Saint Sernin se trouve dans l'abbaye Saint-Hilaire près de Limoux.


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