Monday, January 9, 2012

♪ ♫ Get yerself a black Madonna....♪ ♫

Wanting to tie up any loose ends regarding my experiences with Black Madonnas, I decided to write a brief post on two roadside shrines I photographed years ago featuring Virgins dark in hue.

The first is located in the small town of Loubens-Lauragais, where an American acquaintance of mine once lived.  I made a web search to see if I could find any info on this shrine and there, on the village website,  I saw a link to...."la vierge noire".  I was both surprised and delighted.

The link leads to a PDF which tells us the legend of a child about to be attacked by a wolf and saved by an apparition of the Virgin.  Indeed, the parish church is dedicated to Notre Dame de Loubens-Lauragais.  This incident almost certainly gave the village it's name, as Loubens (Lobens de Lauragués in Occitan) is derived from the word for wolf.  "Lop" in some dialects of Occitan, "Lobo" in Spanish" etc.  In Latin is it "lupus."  We can see from the two examples how he "b" and the "p" in Romance languages interchange. 

The sculptor was Regis Vialaret, who also painted the interior of the church and apparently was a friend of the local priest.  The work is ceramic, made sometime in the 1950's.  The shrine is built into the wall of the local chateau, a modest affair belonging to a family of minor local nobles with a rich family history.

Calling it a "vierge noire" is a canny stroke, given contemporary interest in the phenomenon.  I would stop to visit if I was passing that way if I knew there was a Black Virgin to be found, and so would many others.  As it turns out, I was there anyway, took an interest in the sculpture, but never thought of it in the Black Virgin context until now....and my instinct has been vindicated.  As far as I can tell, no miracles are attributed to this statue and it doesn't have a fervent cult.....but it is dark and I can only imagine that the artist was either referring to the phenomenon of the Black Virgins or had his own aesthetic reasons, the appellation Black Virgin added later.

I think the wolf as an animal of pagan goddesses could be evoked here, but I'm more inclined to think  it's a straightforward reference is to the legend and the very real danger wolves presented to villagers in the Middle Ages, back when they were more numerous and apparently, much larger.

Coincidentally, I just saw the film Brotherhood of the Wolf, a fantastical take on real events in 18th-century France about the the Beast of Gévaudan.  This was a real reign of terror; in the course of a year or two there were over 200 attacks and nearly a hundred deaths by a wolf, wolf-pack or wolf hybrid.  The exact nature of the animal(s) is still not clear.  Although this is an extreme case, the danger was widespread.   This Virgin commemorates that collective memory.

The second roadside shrine in this post is also a more contemporary statue, but I have absolutely no details about it.  I can't even remember where it is.  Is does appear in a folder between photographs I took at Aspet and St. Béat....that is to say two chapels dedicated to Black Virgins.  There are several others within a short distance of these as well, representing a kind of micro-cluster among the already well-represented Pyrenées.  My next (and last post) on this phenomenon will discuss some examples I photographed in Andorra, which, as far as I can tell, have not been documented as Black Virgins.

What these two shrines tell me is that the Blackness of certain Virgins continues to exert a fascination and continues to be a salient feature worth referring to, even in humble devotions. Although the majority of the "BVs" are Romanesque works or post-Revolutionary re-creations of statues thrown onto the bonfires, it's more interesting to see this not as a static historical phenomenon but an ongoing devotion which is, to judge by the number of books and articles which continue to appear on the subject, a notable manifestation of contemporary spirituality.

P.S.  Jan. 16, 2012.

Gid asked in a comment (see below) if the second Madonna was holding Jesus.

From the close-up taken from the picture on the left, it would appear Mary is holding her hands in prayer and not the infant Jesus.


  1. "BV"s, eh? Cleaning up my language? ;)

    I enjoyed this piece, something about the road trip, the re-discovery of old photos, the happenstance of the "roadside attraction" gave it a ... lightness that played nicely of the idea of wolf attacks. In contemporary society, fellow men have become the wolves, no?

    That second photo is curious. Is she holding a child?

    Out of curiosity, what tune did you have in yer head when wrote the title for this piece?

  2. What tune? You should know, Gid, you turned me on to it. Think "Cool hand Luke". I should have linked this article back to that theme of men as wolves....remeber that one, abou the possible meanings of Little Red Riding Hood?

    As for the second photo, it was hard to capture that one thru the glass, you can actually see my finger and camera. And the style is pretty curious. The other photo I have shows the shrine itself but it's hard to see the to be honest I don't know for sure if she's holding a child or not. I can't recall.

    BTW, I keep passing those roadside crosses I was telling you about, with a Madonna at the center instead of a crucified Christ....I'll snap a few local ones and pop them on the blog. In Aucamville alone there are easily 20 or so of these roadside crosses used to mark intersections. I've been meaning to post on the subject for some time now but haven't gotten 'round to it yet.

  3. That's exactly the tune that popped in my head when I read the title!

  4. Oh, wow! Thanks for the additional photos! Those give a completely different perspective on the statue--it was not at all how I pictured it.

    1. I'm writing a little ditty on the road-side crosses I was telling you about, and I'll pop some pics up as well. Might have to wait a few days until I'm out and about in the countryside while there's still light enough to shoot....In the week I leave in the dark and get home in the dark.

      Funny how in the "close-up" shot the statuette looks like a young girl....


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