Friday, January 13, 2012

Notre Dame de Rocamadour

Notre Dame de Rocamadour
Rocamadour -- the place, the legends and its Black Madonna -- are so evocative and rich that I've resisted writing about them until now.  Too daunting, too much to cover, too many connections to things we've already written about on LoS....

Well, I can't be a wuss.  I've got to jump right in and sort it all out.  As I said, we will look at a lot of themes covered in LoS posts, not simply about Black Madonnas, but about high holy places, living rock and sacred waters -- all of which have reappeared regularly on LoS since the subject was first opened in relating the legend of St. Fris, many years ago.  I'm pretty much convinced these elements, related to nature, survive from pre-Christian beliefs, both Celtic and Greco-Roman -- the worship of stones, holy springs, the changing of the seasons -- even if this conviction is born of feeling rather than irrefutable logic and fact (though there is that too).  Many Christians are loath to accept pagan survival because they feel it undermines Christian exceptionalism.  I, on the other hand, think pagan survival is a kind of validation, almost an honor.  But then again, I am not a Christian....

It has been proposed that some Black Virgins are copies of pre-existing pagan deities.  In the case of Notre Dame de la Daurade,  for example, this deity may have been Pallas Athena.  Notre Dame de Tudet and La Virgen de Monserrat both may have derived from Isis.  Although it is believed Rocamadour once housed a shrine to Cybele, certain iconographic elements lead me to believe there is a strong link to Isis as well.  In previous posts I have mentioned that Isis lent many attributes to the Virgin Mary....and vice versa.  The Romanized cults revolving around Isis, such as the mystery religion described by Apuleius (The Golden Ass) and in other more popular exoteric forms of worship, were widespread in Gaul.  That aspects of these cults survived into Christian practice is far from an original proposition.

So, let's see what Rocamadour is all about.

A vertiginous view....

Aside from producing one of the best cheeses on the planet, the region around Rocamadour is hilly and full of gorges and crags.  The better part of Rocamadour is built into the base of a cliff and the complex of churches and religious buildings which ornament this still-popular pilgrim's destination rises dizzily up the side; the buildings at cliff's edge seem to lean ominously overhead.  I found it best to keep my eyes ahead of me or else suffer from a sense of being on the edge of a great precipice, vertigo making my head spin slightly and my knees go a bit wobbly.

This characteristic, i.e. the placement of chapels dedicated to Black Virgins being found on hills overlooking a village, doesn't seem to be something other writers have dwelt upon; in the examples I have seen, it's quite common:  Notre-Dame du Pouech, the chapels at St. Béat and Aspet, Notre Dame de Sabart Notre Dame de Boisville, Notre Dame d'Alet....

According to the founding legend, Rocamadour is named after the founder of the ancient sanctuary, Saint Amator, identified with the Biblical Zacchaeus, the tax collector of Jericho mentioned in Luke 19:1-10, and the husband of St. Veronica, who wiped Jesus' face on the way to Calvary. Driven out of Palestine by persecution, St. Amadour and Veronica embarked in a frail skiff and, guided by an angel, landed on the coast of Aquitaine, where they met Bishop St. Martial, another disciple of Christ who was preaching the Gospel in the south-west of Gaul.

The actual origin of the sanctuary is lost to time; no one knows exactly who founded it and when.  Inconsistencies in the founding legend make it unreliable history -- the appearance of  Saint Martial (3rd century), for example, is completely anachronistic.  Some have suggested that Saint Amadour was actually Saint Amator, a 4th-century bishop in Auxerre, making the appearance of St. Martial impossible.  In any event, the legend is full of other anachronisms and inconsistencies.

What strikes me about this is that Martial was one of the seven "apostles to Gaul" sent by Pope Fabian to Christianize Gaul; these magnificent seven are a group I recently referred to as including St. Denis and Saint Saturnin.  Regarding this latter Saint, I have an ongoing interest in the two Christian girls who buried his remains, les Saintes Puelles -- drawing parallels between them and the Three Marys.  The Three Marys came to France much as Saints Amadour and Veronica:

According to various legends, during a persecution of early Christians, commonly placed in the year 42, Lazarus, his sisters Mary Magdalene and Martha, Mary Salome (the mother of the Apostles John and James), Mary Jacobe and Saint Maximin were sent out to sea in a boat. They arrived safely on the southern shore of Gaul at the place later called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

These Marys were accompanied by one Saint Sarah, a servant of Mary Jacobe, who some fanciful commentators have suggested is the real inspiration behind....the Black Madonnas.  What the initial quote mentions is that St. Amadour, in addition to being identified as St. Amator (without historical basis) or Zacchaeus, is also sometimes identified in legends as a servant of another Mary...the Virgin!

So we have at least two ahistorical Saints identified as servants of a Mary, exiled from Palestine and making their way to Gaul on a perilous journey by boat.  As I said, Sarah has been identified by some a the origin of the Black Madonnas.  I reject this notion, but it is interesting to note that a reproduction of Notre Dame de Rocamadour is in fact placed near the main shrine in a boat.  This of course neatly echoes the story of Sarah.  It also echoes the mystery religion practices devoted to Isis as described by Apuleius.

Saint Amadour's tomb and spring.
Apparently, pre-Christian worship at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer focused on a sacred spring.  At Rocamadour, a sacred spring comes from the rock cliff, from the tomb of St. Amadour.  We have also seen this sort of sacred spring from the rock/sarcophagus in the legend of St. Fris and at the Asturian Marial shrine of Covadonga

Durandal, the sword of Roland.
Above this spring/tomb, a sword is wedged into the cliff, said to have belonged to Roland, a Frankish paladin killed by Saracens (at least according to the legends).  Compare this with the story of Covadonga: there we have a Visigoth prince, Pelagius, victorious against Saracens; the Virgin is honored in a sacred cave; a sacred spring pours out of the rock.  Both of these Virgins' chapels are hewn directly into the face of a cliff. St. Fris' legend doesn't feature a cave, but the rock (in this case a stone sarcophagus which serves as a virtual cave) spewing water is central to his story; he died from wounds sustained in a victorious battle against Saracens.  This battle took place on a hill, a small bluff of sorts, outside of what is now Bassoues in the Gers.  Unsurprisingly, all of these places are along routes to Santiago de Compostela; some legends about Santiago, a.k.a. the "Moor Slayer" also contain the elements of sacred rocks and waters.

Other BV's we've looked at have connections to the Reconquista, such as Notre Dame du Sabart and La Virgen de Montserrat.  ND de Sabart figures in the story of Charlemagne (Roland's uncle), who was saved from a Saracen trap by her sudden appearance.  St. Fris was the nephew of Charles Martel, Charlemagne's grandfather, making Roland and St. Fris cousins of some kind (I've never understood this "once-removed" business so if anyone can tell me what kind of cousins they'd be, there's a thank you in it).

As I mentioned earlier, a reproduction of Notre Dame de Rocamadour is found next to the original chapel; this reproduction sits in a boat.  Not only does this evoke the legend of Saint Amadour and Veronica and the Three Marys, it also evokes other legends about the Virgin.

I chanced across a charming image of another Virgin Mary, in a boat (I'm on a boat, yo!), which referred to another article, found here.  This article speaks of Notre Dame de Boulogne, identified by some as a Black Virgin.  Her legend appeared in the Middle Ages but took place in the 7th century.  There are two versions, but in both the statue appears on the shore near Boulogne-sur-Mer in an unmanned ship, without oars or sails.

Her cult became fervent, interrupted by the Revolution, at which point the statue was burned; her cult was subsequently taken up again with enthusiasm afterward:

From 1943 to 1948, four reproductions of Our Lady of Boulogne (also known as Our Lady of the Great Return) were made, each mounted on a skiff. They toured nearly 750,000 miles across France, visiting 16,000 parishes and causing a surge of new faith, prayers and conversions in its path.
The statue of Our Lady, carried as it stood in a boat, accompanied pleas for the deliverance of France, which took on a new sense in the context of World War II.

I would thus argue that the image of Mary in a boat is more than just a local phenomena, but an archetype which has special meaning in France, hearkening back to other stories of figures from the Bible making their way to France under similar miraculous circumstances.  Another reputed Black Madonna, Notre Dame de Boisville, to cite one example, has echoes of the Boulogne story.  In Boisville, a statue of Mary was perched in a boat which had become stranded; She then guided the sailors to shore and indicated where She wanted to be worshiped.  ND de Rocamadour is also credited with saving sinking ships; a miraculous bell sounded at these miracles which are commemorated by lovingly-detailed model ships hanging in her chapel.  An odd sight in this land-locked town.  In the chapel of Notre Dame d'Alet, who could rightly be considered a Black Madonna, ex-votos attest to similar miracles.  Yet the chapel is, like Rocamadour, far from the sea.  Incidentally, there is a statue of Saint Veronica at the entrance to this chapel. 

Copy of Notre Dame de Rocamadour, a pagan reminiscence?
This leads us back to Isis. Isis was frequently pictured in a boat; in the Book of Coming Forth by Day she is pictured, arms outstretched, in a solar barque. Her special connection to the sea is described by Apuleius. In the Greco-Roman world, Isis was the patron of sailors and ships.

There is also another curious legend I've read about, which is summarized in an interesting article found here. Apparently it was a popular belief among French historians as early as the 14th century that Paris was founded by Isis. Images of her from this period show her arriving in a boat. Perhaps this dates back to the fact that several shrines to Isis existed in pre-Christian Paris, and co-existed for centuries. One idol was worshipped as the Virgin Mary in St.-Germain-des-Pres. A few years after its destruction a cult to the Virgin sprung up in a nearby church; this Virgin is today worshipped as Notre Dame de Bonne Délivrance, another Black Madonna. (I discussed this story in a post about La Vierge de Chaillot, who, like ND d'Alet, is not generally referred to as a Vierge Noire.)

To support their claims, historians had recourse to a number of fanciful etymologies, for example:

This place [St.-Germain-des-Pres] is called the Temple of Isis and, for the nearby city, this was called Parisis....meaning near the temple of Isis.

These legends led to some other curious results. Napoleon apparently became interested in Isis upon his return from Egypt in 1799, commissioning a scholar to verify the claims that Isis was in fact the tutelary goddess of Paris; the scholar concluded it was true and in January, 1811, Napoleon issued the order to include Isis and her star on Paris's coat of arms. A more general Egyptian revival was by then in full swing. In the coat of arms, (again I refer you to the aforementioned article), Isis is clearly seen on the prow of a ship, wearing a headdress in the form of a tower. This tower headdress reappears in various Paris monuments. Historically accurate or not, the prevailing opinion of 18th-century French historians is that the goddess in the tower headdress was Isis.

It is curious that a saint often seen in such a crown is Mary Magdalene, whose name derives from the Aramaic word for "tower".  As we have seen, French legend has it that Magdalene left from Egypt to arrive in France by boat, with two other Marys:   Jacobe and Salome. Finally there are legends that the Virgin Mary, or a statue of her, also came to France by boat. Likewise Amadour and Veronica. I think there's a lot of clues here to suggest a general conflation of several Biblical women and Isis. A proposition bound to offend Christians. If it were only the boat, this might be a stretch. Add to it the titles of Isis, such as "Queen of Heaven" and "Star of the Sea". Add to that the ubiquitous images of Isis suckling Horus. Add too the iconography of a crown of stars or a starry cape and it's hard not to conclude Mary is an evolution of Isis. Their shared roles as tutelary figures, protectors of children and patrons of the sea support this conclusion.

To sum up, Rocamadour involves several motifs common to French folklore. As a Black Madonna, the Rocamadour exemplar is the one which fits most neatly into the conflation of Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Saint Sarah and again, Isis. It also involves sacred waters and stones. Like several Black Madonnas in the Pyrenées, it is linked to the combat against invading Saracens.

As far as my own experience goes, Notre Dame de Rocamadour is the most ancient and mysterious of the sculptures I have seen. Her style is unique, one might even say "primitive".  It is the most pagan of the Black Madonnas, again, as far as I have seen.

Rocamadour is a dizzying ceremonial complex; the welter of associations surrounding its legend equally so.  I hope this brief little conjecture is useful in provoking, eventually, further reflection.  After the burnout recedes....

Photo note: The first photo of the statue is the only photo I didn't take. My own pics were useless so I snagged this one. In this pic, the Virgin is not on her regular hangout, e.g. the altar in her chapel. So I'm not sure if this is a copy or the original. The photo comes from this page, which includes a 23-minute video of a POV journey to the sacred precinct by artist Matt White. Matt is not the original author of the photo.

I should also note a debt here to Ean Begg. ND de Rocamadour graces the cover of his Cult of the Black Virgin and he speaks quite a bit about the link between BV's and Isis; his book is a folklore goldmine and I've referred to him in the past. I didn't consult him much for this post, but I'm sure that some of what I've said here is influenced by if not derived from his work.


  1. Whoah ... there's a lot here, and I'll have to re-read a couple times (plus you have one more post that I haven't read).

    Some quick points/questions/comments (don't take these too seriously as they are, frankly, off-the-cuff, and not fully thought out):

    1. The St. Sarah idea through me for a bit of a loop. You've probably discussed this before but I fell asleep at the wheel. Can you comment with a link that gives more info on her?

    2. The ideas on Napoleon contributing to myths are interesting.

    3. The vertiginous view reminds me a lot of the White Castle in Japan (and some other castle, too, that I can't recall off the top of my head--a black one, but not The Black Castle).

    4. Not to niggle, but in the "photo note", did you mean "grabbed" or "nabbed" rather than "nagged"?

    5. Any good family trees or historical times that might help me, although I feel that the burden of finding them is mine and not yours.

    6. Regarding this: "St. Fris was the nephew of Charles Martel, Charlemagne's grandfather, making Roland and St. Fris cousins of some kind". So, St. Fris' grandfather was Roland's great-grandfather? If so (bear in mind that this might differ outside of US English), they are first cousins once removed. From Wikipedia:

    "For example, "first cousins once removed" describes two individuals with the common ancestor being the grandparent of one cousin (one "degree") and the great-grandparent of the other cousin (two "degrees"). The degree of lowest number is considered the degree. The cousins themselves are one generation apart from each other (one "remove"). So, the difference between the degrees is the "removed" part of the equation in this example."

    1. OK, Gid, here're the quick answers:

      1 Brief intro to sarah

      2. Yes, he also used the bees of the Merovingians as a symbol. All this to legitimize his imperial claims I suppose. The power of symbols!

      3. Great photos! Rocamadour is so weird. No the steepest or highest place I've been, but it really freaked me out.

      4. I meant snagged!

      5. I'm not sure what you mean?

      6. Thanks for that!

    2. Well:

      1. Dang, you linked to that in your post, but for some reason when I go to that page my browser jumps to the last comment, which puzzled me. And that was a really cool post, map an all. Impossible Love!!!. Great tune.

      Anyhow, the 3 Marys idea is an example of what I meant by #5, which was basically a plea for graphical representations of complex subject matters (which, I still contend, are incumbent upon me to discover/produce--it's just that there's the fog in my brain...).

      Perhaps as a compromise, this subject (3 Marys in a boat, rub-a-dub-dub) needs a comic book in order to become fully clear. Maybe that's your proper response to the BM documentary. A rip-roaring comic by you & T. Man, I'd love to see that!

      2. I can't get enough of this stuff.

      3. The similarities b/t feudal Japan and feudal Europe are pretty interesting

      4. I do like the image of you nagging that photo...

      5. See my rambling #1 in this comment.

      6. I come from big families with cousins with kids younger/older than their cousins, so this is a perpetual question in my family tree...

    3. Ahhhh. yeah, a kind of chart would be in order, a flowchart to show the links. I admit, i get it all jumbled up myself. The three marys for example. Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican commentators have different takes on their identities, some are conflated, names are changed. Very confusing, but revealing too. Bad word choice, actually. It shows how myth is a construction not a revelation! And yeah, a comix version of LoS is a great idea.

      Anyway, I couldn't ask for a better partner, Gid. Without your interest my motivation would definitely dwindle somewhat!

  2. Hope my previous comment didn't sound critical--it was a great post with great photos, too. I really enjoyed it!

    1. Not at all. Plus, it's good to be critical so as not to become too much of a mutual appreciation society!


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