Monday, March 5, 2012

Mare de Déu de Meritxell

A postcard of the original statue, destroyed in 1972*
Mare de Déu de Merixtell (Our Lady of Merixtell) is not, as far as I can tell, considered a Black Virgin, yet her origin story and role as tutelary figure of Andorra certainly are consistent with the profile. Though the original late-12th century statue was destroyed in 1972, several copies exist. Some of these are decidedly dark; others a riot of color upon a pink-faced mother and child. Photographs of the original, such as the postcard above, reveal that the original was indeed polychrome.

Why then, are some copies dark, defying the original coloration? There are at least two other Virgins in Andorra which are significantly dark, although I've had a hard time finding any information on them. Some of this is due to the fact, I'm sure, that I have very little (almost none) knowledge of Catalan and don't know what to look for. On the other hand, there seems to be a dearth of information about Andorra; internet searches are heavy on brief blurbs geared towards general tourism and light on details, at least in English.

I will address these two other sculptures of the Virgin and Child in Andorra which I have not seen identified as Black Virgins. My photographs, however, will show that they are very dark, especially striking when compared to sculptures just to either side of them. In my opinion, their darkness cannot be an accident.

The legend of Our Lady of Merixtell is as follows:

On January 6, in the 12th century, a wild rose was found blooming by peasants on their way to Mass. Miraculous enough that a flower would be in full blossom in the middle of winter, high in the cold and dark Pyrenées. But lo! at is base was the statue of Our Lady. The peasant naturally it placed in the nearby church at Canillo, but the sculpture disappeared....and was found again under the bush. Next it was taken to the church at Encamp. Same story, the statue returned to the source. So the villagers decided to build a chapel especially for her, where she wanted to be. We have already seen this element in our discussions of Notre Dame de Sabart and Notre Dame de Boisville and it features in several other legends surrounding venerable and highly venerated statues of the Virgin, both polychrome and "Black".

January 6 is Epiphany, the day when the Three Magi visited the baby Jesus and revealed that God would walk among humanity in the form of Jesus Christ. A fitting day for the Mother of God to be found. Whereas Protestants and Western Catholics celebrate Christmas Day with an exchange of gifts, Iberian and Latin American tradition places more weight on Epiphany. Epiphany marks a beginning, but it also signifies an end. "I am the Alpha and the Omega." (Revelation 1:8 and 22:13) Epiphany marks the beginning of the Carnival season, which ends with the Crucifixion. But just as Jesus rose from the grave and the Phoenix rose from its own did Our Lady of Merixtell.

The original church for Our Lady burned to the ground in 1972 and was re-designed in 1976 by Catalan architect Richard Bofill, whose work we've seen before. The Mare de Déu de Merixtell, in what might have been a traumatic catastrophe, was destroyed. But the destruction of the statue did not destroy the cult. Like many examples of cults where the venerated object was destroyed, say by the Huguenots or the Jacobins, the cult may have only gotten stronger. I have seen several copies of the statue, and She is still the Patroness of Andorra. Merixtell remains, like Montserrat, one of the most popular names for girls in Catalan-speaking countries. (My wife's cousin married a young Catalan with this name).

The postcard at the top of this post reveals a colorful sculpture. But as you can see from the following pictures, the copies differ. The more brightly colored, pale and rosy-cheeked version on the right more closely resembles the coloring of the original. On the left, both mother and child are much darker. The fact that this dark varnish-like hue extends to the clothing may indicate that the darkness of skin tone was not meant to be emphasized, but that the artist merely wanted a less brightly-colored copy. Perhaps this was an accident, as time turned the varnish used by the artist darker. But these are relatively recent copies, and I think it more likely to be intentional. If the latter is true, why? It might be that the artist was referencing the tradition of the Black Madonnas, especially strong in the Pyrenées (Indeed, several examples we have looked at in other posts are Pyrenéen). Unfortunately, I don't recall where either of these were photographed, nor who made them. Further interrogation thus becomes difficult and we are left with speculation. A ridiculous situation given that the artists may very well be alive to ask! If anyone breezes through Andorra though, take a look at the sanctuary in Escamp and the Sant Esteve Church in Andorra la Vella, which is where (I think) I photographed these two.

The image below is a Virgin and Child from the retable behind the main altar of the Sant Esteve Church in Andorra la Vella. The darkness you see here is definitely not due to poor lighting. The shining gold adorning her would indicate she hasn't been blackened by candles or aging paint. The hands and face have a lush chocolate-brown tone, if you'll excuse the expression. Obviously, this would mean less if the other saints figured on the retable were likewise dark. But as you can see from the second photograph of St. John, the other saints are quite pale by comparison. There is a markedly lighter skin tone on all the saints depicted; take my word for it that the contrast is much more evident in person. The question then becomes, why? Of all my encounters with the Black Virgin, this example led me this question most forcefully. For those who have followed my posts on this topic, the question of why they're dark has become less important to me than the question of when people began to see this darkness as something important. But here, I'm led back to my original question.

Clearly, there is some reason to accentuate the Virgin's darkness. Unless these statues are separated by some years, I can't imagine that this is not intentional; some special meaning was to be communicated here. I find it incredible that in all the literature I've read on the topic, in all the lists of Black Madonnas I've read, no one has mentioned this Madonna at Sant Esteve.

On a final note, this second retable is found in the parish church of Ordino, dedicated to Sant Corneli and Sant Cebrià (Saints Cornelius and Cyprian). Again, one can clearly see that the Virgin is darker than the saints pictured to her left and right. She is not as dark as the Sant Esteve exemplar, but she is definitely darker than the pale saints beside her.

Once again, I am led to ask why, much more so than in French examples.

"Merixtell", ironically is a diminutive of merig, from the Latin word for midday, meridium, according to at least one Catalan philologist. Shepherds apparently use this to refer to a pasture which receives a lot of sunlight, particularly attractive in the mountains.

Somehow I doubt this is why Our Lady of Merixtell is dark. She doesn't, as Silvio Berlusconi once said of Barack Obama, simply have a good tan.

*An original of this postcard is available for purchase I have no interest in this, btw, but I'd like to make a gesture in return for using this image.


  1. Cool photos and nice job contrasting your reaction to these against the literature on the BV.

    Regarding the last example: Is it possible that this is just an attempt to show European saints as lighter skinned than the Middle Eastern Madonna?

    Just trying to rule out any other possible hypotheses...

  2. I'm a goofball. I should have mentioned that....but it didn't even occur to me (on this occasion). I'm not sure that's the case, but it did cross my mind that it is related somehow to the Moorish occupation of Spain....Andorra created as a buffer state against them in a way. Also, many other BVs are linked in some way to the Moors--Monserrat, Sabart, Thuir among others. What you say is, Occam-fashion, something which can't be ignored. I "feel" it's not the case, but that is just a hunch. In the first case we know it's not true cuz John the Baptist is figured. As for the second, it would be interesting to see who the others were. Not enough info. Thanks for bringing me down to earth though. This post has some flaws, obviously!

  3. I'm new to your site and I love it!
    I think some of the original black madonnas came about because they were plain wood, not polychromed and the combination of the sap in the wood and the smoke from the candles and incense darkened the wood naturally.
    There is a similar story about the Black Virgin of Marceille (near Limoux in the Aude department) (being found by a farmer in the ground, etc). The original was stolen or destroyed, so the existing statue is a replacement.
    Another story of a wandering statue of the Virgin concerns the chapel of Notre Dame du Cros (also in the Aude) a small medieval chapel near Caunes Minervois.
    The original in this case was taken into Carcassonne and is displayed in a church there but there is a wood replica (but not blackened) in the church and as there is a Passionist priest in residence (his hermitage), the church is open every day and daily masses in the morning except for Sunday (evenings) and Monday (evening vespers).
    Here are two links:

    I should note that the people who support the ND du Cros do not claim it is a black madonna and would probably be puzzled as to why someone would claim that it is...but then, for the longest period of time ND de Marceille was best known for the healing spring nearby (ND de Cros, as well) but now it's supposed all tied in with RennesLC and other stuff...
    France, south of the Canal du Midi is strange enough without having to bear the burden of parvenu conspiracy theorists....esp. since many of the people who speak the loudest haven't left the US or seen any of the places they write about. Honest discussion backed up with valid historical research yes, but on some forums (entertainment value for me) they chase some of the smallest items as if they really were worth the effort. For anyone who's seen Life of Brian--I always find myself remembering the scene where Brian is running away and loses a sandal---a woman grabs it, raises it up and starts yelling:" A sign! A sign".
    Anyway, that's off the topic but I think rural madonnas have enough life and history to them that they can stand on their own. I found the one near Caunes by accident (I was renting a house nearby) and on subsequent trips tried to make at least one visit to the chapel. I visited the Limoux church once; they seldom have services (a deacon only) and the statue is behind a locked grill and in the very dim light almost impossible to see.

    1. Great comment! Thanks for you encouraging words. I agree that the history of the Aude is fascinating enough without going crazy with pseudohistorical conspiracy theories, Rennes le Chateau mythomania etc. The Black Madonna penomenon is pretty odd. I see a lot of so-called "Black Madonnas" that are in fact not black. I don't know how or why they get identified that way. Even some of the dark ones are probably dark as a result of the physical processes you mention. What has come to interest me over time is at what point people began to perceive a "dark" color, or at what point it became something worth remarking upon, something important. It seems that some polychrome Virgins are identified as Black because they have the classic Black Virgin story, found by a bull or ox, returning to the place it was found. But this also seems to be a common feature among many Virgins not considered black. So it seems weird to me that because a Virgin has this story, it's called a Black Virgin, even when it's clearly not very dark.

      Do you still live in the Aude? I love that Department and plan to do a tour very soon with my kids. I'd like to visit the Saint Papulus and Saint Hilaire abbeys, Tautavel, maybe re-visit Montsegur. A long weekend camping with the kids and toodling about. I live in the Tarn et Garonne these days, which has some beautiful places (Moissac, Saint Antonin, Penne, etc) but the Aude has always been a place I like to visit. I'm also a big fan of Corbières...there's a Virgin I want to see there, Notre Dame des Olives. Online photos of the chapel look lovely.

      Anyway, thanks again for your comment and the websites. I'm going to try and see these chapels you mention in person....

    2. I wish I had lived there! I went for my first visit (vacation) in 2000 and went back almost every year until 2010...lost my job, no work, old enough to retire but not enough money to travel to France--which is why I love reading blogs about Aude & Ariege--part of me is still there.
      Depending on the age of your children you might consider the Prehistoryic Park near Tarascon-sur-Ariege (I think the site has good links, info)...
      Today is of course the anniversary of the fall of Montsegur and they're having a festival in the village tomorrow (Saturday).
      The lovely old Hotel Costes is now Auberge de Montsegur with not very authentic decor, more amenities and higher prices. The hotel website does offer great info on the area, good photos:

      When I was in school I learned more about the English language when I started learning French (in California) tense, subjunctive, etc and in the same way in the brief times I came to know this area of France I learned so much about living and people than anywhere in the US I can think of...
      however much one may try to focus on essentials in one's life (here) in France it seems a given, a gift received by just being there.

    3. Yeah, life in France is pretty cool. I think after ten years I could never live in the US again, sadly. Maybe New York City! That said, it can be annoying some times.

      I agree with learning a lot about English when studying French. In many ways one is an extreme dialect of another.

      Anyway, thanks for the advice. I've seen that Park on signs and have never made the tri^p. I'd like to do a big tour of all the caves with paintings and the like, one day. I'm more into relatively recent history than prehistory, but I must admit, the first time I saw a dolmen I was pretty awestruck!

    4. Thank you, gabriele gray (GG), for your thoughtful comments! Daurade shares your fascination with the history, which needs, as you say, no "burden" of conspiracy theory.

      And you two are making me jealous! I only have two trips to France worth mentioning--and both were fast. First, I hitch-hiked through, and was picked up an actual race car driver driving his actual race car. He was eager to impress the woman I was traveling with, so it was, as you might imagine, a fast, fast, trip.

      Second was when I proposed to my wife on the Seine. I "smuggled" a ring through all sorts of security. Most nail biting? Imagine: I don't speak French; the security officers don't speak English; the ring is setting off metal detectors; and my girlfriend (not yet my fiance) is standing right there! Somehow, via furtive glances and nods and eyebrow raises and shrugs and winks, I managed to convey the necessity for secrecy--and they respected it. Phew!

      As you might imagine, my experiences in France left me in love.

      In short, I love overhearing the two of you and your first-hand looks at these chapels!

      I hope, GG, that you'll either dig through our archives to find Daurade's older post, or you'll check out his upcoming posts on French chapels even if that means skipping past my posts that aren't up your alley.

      Carry on...

    5. I never heard the proposal story. Wow. And the security aspect....they'd have you in irons these days, at least in the US! :)


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