Our Lady from Under the Earth
One hour S-W of Paris, In the crypt
of the cathedral, an 11th or 12th century(?) statue was burnt on an
execution pyre during the Revolution in 1793, replaced with another
statue in 1857, then replaced again in 1976 with this present, more
accurate copy of the one that was burnt in 1793, 80 cm, natural pear
For millennia Chartres was the main pilgrimage site in France. With its
ancient Pre-Christian roots, its Druidic Black Madonna, its relic of the
Veil of the Virgin , not to mention the power of its cathedral, Chartres
drew pilgrims from all over Europe. Much has been written about the magical,
alchemical power of the cathedral to bless, purify, and transform visitors,
but this is not the place for that discussion. Suffice it to say that
the Lady of Chartres is a trinity of sorts who finds expression in the
cathedral as a whole, which bears her name Notre-Dame de Chartres, and
in the three main depictions of the Madonnna on three levels of the church:
1. Our Lady from Under the Earth (Notre-Dame-de-Sous-Terre)
For centuries, Our Lady of the Underworld, as I like to call her,(*1)
was enthroned on an altar inscribed with the words 'virgini pariturae,'
i.e. '(dedicated) to the virgin who will bear a child.'
The legend concerning Chartres directly speaks highly of the druids of
that territory as learned wise men with prophetic vision. In the year
50 B.C., so the story goes, they heard of Isaiah's prophesy of the virgin
who would bear a divine child. (Is. 7:14: "Therefore the Lord himself
will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin will be with child and bear a
son,…") The druids knew by divine inspiration that this would be the one
true God who would prove their old gods to be mere idols. Full of joyful
expectation, these Celtic priests sent a delegation to Jerusalem to inquire
if the miraculously conceived baby had already been born. Meanwhile a
prince of Chartres ordered a statue of this unknown virgin and child sculpted.
Not knowing their names, he simply referred to the image as 'virgo paritura,'
the virgin who will bear a child, and chiseled that title onto the base
of the sculpture. For fear of the Pagans, whose religion she would change
forever, he honored her in a secret place within the same sacred grotto
where "pagan idols" were worshipped. It turned out that his fear was unfounded
because soon the whole population had great devotion to the Virgin and
lovingly called her the Lady of Chartres.
This is a good example of how early Christians found creative ways to christen their ancient goddesses and keep worshipping the feminine face of God. Several elements in this legend are actually true.
1. The most important Druidic sanctuary of Gaul was indeed the grotto in Chartres,(*3) which was later turned into the crypt of the cathedral. Julius Cesar's account "On the War of the Gauls" (De Bello Gallico) mentions that once a year all the druids of Gaul would gather here, in the territory of the Carnuts, the tribe of Chartres, to decide disputes and hold religious celebrations. The emperor does not however mention a 'virgo paritura,' as later Christians liked to believe.
2. As is typical for Druidic goddess sanctuaries, a sacred well was part of the site.(*4) It is still visible today, although it has run dry. In pre-Christian times not just the well but the whole ensemble of caves was called 'holy, strong places' (Saints-Lieux-Forts). When it was Christianized it became the 'well of the holy strong ones' (Puits des Saints-Forts), said to have become miraculous ever since the first martyrs of Chartres were drowned in it.
3. The grotto had several chambers, hence the idea that the virgo paritura was kept in a secret place within the cave.(*5)
4. The Celts, Romans, and Egyptians did of course worship mother goddesses, many of which were sometimes referred to as Virgins. They were often depicted enthroned and with a child on their knees, after which the Christians modeled their "seat of wisdom" Madonnas. So there is indeed a striking continuity between the pre-Christian and the Christian expression of the feminine face of God, only that Christians preferred reversing the sequence of cause and effect.
In 1508 this Black Madonna was commissioned by a canon priest as a black
wooden copy of a much loved 13th century gold plated silver Madonna called
Notre-Dame la Blanche (Our Lady the White One). So she combined within
herself the Black Madonna in the crypt and the White Madonna on the main
altar of the cathedral. Around 1540, she was given to the cathedral.(*7)
She was strategically placed in the Cathedral. Why? The Cathedral Guide says because the faithful who came to kneel before Our Lady the White One on the main altar were disturbing the canon priests during their services. The people's adoration had to be moved aside to the gallery where Our Lady of the Pillar now resides.(*8) I think that was only the excuse. Why wouldn't they have simply moved the existing White Lady aside? Why move her and turn her black? To answer this question we need to look at the historical context.
This statue, as a combination of the White Lady in the cathedral and
the Black Lady in the crypt, was assigned its place in the cathedral at
a time when the Catholic Church was deeply embarrassed and threatened
by the Protestant Reformation that had just begun to sweep across Europe.
It responded by "modernizing" itself, but not in the areas where it was
really needed. Rather it tried to eradicate things it had long endured
for the sake of the faithful: their devotion to the miracle working wells,
stones, and statues that had its roots in the Pagan beginnings of European
civilization and its blossoms in Marian devotion. The Reformation provided
the perfect excuse to finally cut those roots.
The first move was to provide a less powerful but still acceptable Black
Madonna in a less powerful but still acceptable place: Our Lady of the
Pillar in her little chapel in the gallery of the upper cathedral.
In 1900 the archeologist René Merlet was able to obtain permission to excavate the old well that had almost been forgotten and considered mere myth. By 1904 it was rebuilt, but its holy waters still refuse to flow again. Merlet also found the 4 meter long passage way to Our Lady's old grotto, but it is still not open to the public at all. What are they hiding in there? The Ark of the Covenant and a very important Druidic dolmen marking the spiritual center of the old sanctuary, says Louis Charpentier and others.
Although no great miracles are reported from Our Lady of the Pillar, the faithful have devotion to her as the upper shoot of her powerful root under the earth.