Tales from

the Loir

A Weekly Column

 October 25, 2000 : Cult Of The Black Virgin

Except for a few little near death experiences when I was praying like a saint, I have never taken religion very seriously. I recall sitting on the front row at the Saint Simons Methodist Church with my best friend, Jack Marshall, when I was five years old. We went to Sunday school every Sunday but once a month our parents let us sit together during communion. I don't know why they made this same mistake over and over again because we always had to be separated and forced to sit with the rest of the family at some time during the middle of the service. It was the communion that always caused the problem. As soon as the preacher started talking about eating flesh and drinking blood, we would howl with laughter. I still see parents taking their children to church and I wonder why parents expect children to understand the complex symbolism of Christianity.

I still have problems understanding it but where I grew up it is simple: "Accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and you will be saved". There is not much more to it. But in Europe it's a different story. Christianity here goes back two thousand years and there is a mythology surrounding it that rivals the Greeks and Romans. There are pilgrimages, cults, holy relics, secret societies, Templars, crusades, martyrs, saints and the Holy Grail. Probably the most fascinating of these mysteries is the cult of the Black Virgin.

There are 210 Black Virgins in the various churches and chapels around France. The origins of these statutes is almost always mysterious. When I heard that there was a Black Virgin in the neighboring village of Villavard and that an annual pilgrimage from Lavardin takes place each year, I wanted to see this mysterious statue.

There are legends about this particular black virgin but the real story is interesting enough. According to Le livre des miracles de Chartres ( Book of Miracles of Chartres), the black virgin of Villavard is a copy of the black virgin of Chartres. In the eleventh century, Villavard was a commune of Lavardin and its rich plain was coveted by the Lord of Montoire. During one battle for this plain, the Lord of Lavardin was captured. As he was led off on his horse, the reins came out to the horse's mouth and he spurred it to escape. His horse bolted towards the river where he faced certain death by drowning in full armor. He prayed to the black virgin of Chartres for his salvation. The horse suddenly turned at the bank and he was saved not only from drowning but also from capture. He was so moved by this experience that he made a vow to visit the virgin's shrine in Chartres. When he returned from Chartres, he built a church near the battlefield and placed in it a copy of the black virgin.

The original statute at Chartres predates the birth of Christ by several hundred years making it the most impressive of all the black virgins. The original black virgin at Chartres was made by Druids. The druids had received a revelation of the coming of a new order in which a virgin would bear a god-king. They dug a subterranean grotto and placed in it a wooden statue. The grotto was a symbol of the night which in turn was a symbol of the wait for the birth of a Savior. It was above this grotto that the first cathedral of Chartres was built. This subterranean chapel eventually became the crypt of the cathedral.

It is only two miles from Lavardin to Villavard but pilgrimage participation in the past few years has been low. Last year there were only about five people who walked. Many of these small pilgrimages throughout Europe have already disappeared but there is hope for this one. The young Priest has recruited the local scouts to participate so we are easily thirty or forty penitent sinners singing Ave Maria and trudging along in the rain. The procession follows a small gold Virgin Mary statue that is hoisted on a litter carried by two scouts. The procession stops at a wayside shrine to the virgin at the town limits of Lavardin. The priest prays and the singing recommences as we climb the hillside leading to Villavard. The group stops again near an old Templar commanderie where we sing and pray.

As we approach the church I am beginning to feel a little out of place. I am not Catholic and don't really understand the ceremony of this church. It is not the scouts that make me nervous. It is the handful of octogenarians who have made the march while fingering rosaries and mumbling prayers. This is serious business for a few faithful and I feel as if I am interfering. As we approach the door of the church, I consider leaving but I still have not seen the black virgin and it is raining.

When we enter the church, I see the black virgin high up on an alter on the left. It is very black and very impressive. Perhaps it is the formality of the ceremony or just the drama of discovery but I am moved by this spectacle. I know that it is at least one thousand years old and that it is a copy of a sculpture more than two thousand years old. The sheer numbers evoke emotion. Looking at the enigmatic faces of the woman and child you could sense distantly the awe Aymeric Aymard , the lord of Lavardin, must have felt when he came to that chapel in Chartres nine hundred plus years ago to the thank the Madonna for having saved him from captivity and death.

I stay through the mass, listening to parishioners sing and the priest speak. I even watch the communion without so much as a giggle. After the scouts and octogenarians had all filled out of the church I found myself staying behind. Alone in the tiny chapel among the stands of candles and lingering incense, I take pictures of her, the black virgin of Villavard; to capture on film the uncapturable. The pictures are fuzzy and out of focus. I still don't understand religion or take it too seriously, yet the mystery remains.

October 18, 2000 Harvesting Grapes by Hand
October 4, 2000 Provence: All Good Things




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