|This is one of those poor Black Virgins who had her color
stolen. She was restored to her original pigmentation of 800 years ago,
but if you ask me, "face lifts" don't work - not on people and not on ancient
statues. Antiques and ancient art should be restored without removing the
patina that gives them character and value. In spite of her touched up face
and the fact that you can barely see her in the niche where she is kept
behind two sets of bars, she is still considered a Black Madonna and her
shrine is still worth a visit. Here is why:
|The hill of her sanctuary lays half way between two
of her famous sisters, the Black Madonnas of St. Gervazy and Vassivière.
(Driving from St. Gervazy to Vassivière via Ronzières takes about
70 minutes.) Her hill overlooks a great plain and is steeped in ancient
history. Early Medieval walls fortify her Romanesque church and enclose
an area that comprises remnants of dwellings from the time of the
Roman occupation before the Christian era.
Madam Dulac, on her
magnificent French website on "Sacred Sites" points out
architectural elements of a pre-Christian temple in the church of
the Black Madonna (see fotos on right).
Ronzières also lies on one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago
de Compostella. A tiny cabin at the foot of the Madonna's hill can
still offer refuge to a couple of pilgrims.
What qualifies this lady as a Black Madonna in my mind is her connection
to earth elements, a distant Pagan past, and the reputation of being
a miracle worker.
There is a revered lime tree next to the church, under which mass
is celebrated on the Sunday closest to September 8th. The Black
Madonna is brought out for this occasion, a tradition that goes
back "a very, very long time", according to a lady of the parish.
Nobody remembers what makes this tree special, except that its roots
are ancient. Most of the tree itself has died, but new suckers have
grown into its second or third incarnation.
Legend recounts that Our Lady of Brambles was installed in this
place by a saintly priest called Baudimus (Baudime in French). He
was a Christian hero who lived around 300 A.D. Pope Fabian sent
him with a group of missionaries from Rome to evangelize Gaul (France).
He and his brother or very close friend St. Nectarius (Nectaire)
ended up in the Auvergne. Their way of "evangelizing" by hostile
take over of Pagan holy sites, plunged them into conflict with the
local population. St. Nectaire turned a temple of Apollo into a
church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. To this day the church sits
on Mount Cornadore, a hill top surrounded by a circle of six dolmens
and menhirs about one km in diameter. Saint Nectaire ended up getting
killed by a Pagan chieftain. Both, Baudimus and Nectarius are buried
in the church Saint Nectaire, about 10 km from Ronzières as the
crow flies. That church houses another whitened Black Madonna.
Baudimus found an ancient spring in Ronzières that was dedicated
to the fairies and, much like his brother, dedicated it instead
to Mary the Queen of Heaven. He erected a chapel over the spring,
placed this statue in it and preached the Gospel there. From then
on, say the Christians, the spring ran with healing water.
The reliquary bust of St. Baudime
Apparently the spirits of the earth weren't too thrilled with this take
over, for soon the saint had to do battle with a dragon. We know that
in Asia dragons are believed to live underground, as the guardians of
the earth and its watercourses. But in Europe too there were dragons without
wings, called Lind worm, or simply worm. The German word Lindwurm conveys
the idea of beautifully glinting gold or silver scales. These represented
the "telluric forces", veins of energy running in the earth, called "veins
of the dragon".
|In Christian thinking the dragon represents
the forces of evil that, along with the forces of good, suffuse the
world and every human heart. It is the shadow, the dark side. The
time of dragon slayers was a time when humanity still hoped evil could
be vanquished once and for all in a battle with outside forces. The
followers of Jesus at the time of St. Baudime expected that the Kingdom
of Heaven could be established on earth by spreading Christian rule
everywhere. With the centuries, that proved to be not so and dragon
slayers became something of the distant past. People understood that
evil was not something outside of ourselves, but an inner force everybody
had to grapple with. When we learned to recognize and integrate our
own shadows, formerly white Madonnas became honored as black. Eventually
they arose from their thrones and stood on living snakes (the dragons
of old). Sweetly smiling, they hold the living snake in its place
under their naked feet, as if to teach us not to fear nor fight our
shadow, but to make peace with it by mastering and keeping it in its
But in the 4th century Christians still engaged in outer religious
battle against evil, which they saw manifested in Pagan religions
and the dark forces of the earth. And so Baudimus' dragon was said
to be a hideous monster which lived in a crevice of the cliff of Ronzières
and terrorized the local towns. During a fierce battle between the
saint and the dragon the monster left its claw marks in a rock that
can still be seen on the path near the spring of the fairies. Before
it was defeated, the beating of its tail caused the South part of
the plateau to cave in. That's what they say.
Mary holding a tamed dragon like a lap dog, a very
rare type, Chartres relief on the "royal gate".
My ordinary garden statue of the type "Our Lady
of all Graces" turned Black Madonna by Suli Marr.
After that there was peace, maybe for a hundred years, then "the
dragon" reared its ugly head again. This time it was in the form
of the "barbaric invasions" into the Roman Empire that lasted from
the 3rd to the 5th century. Saint Baudimus's chapel was destroyed
during one of these orgies of death and destruction and his Madonna
disappeared. Yet the people didn't forget that the place was holy
and many centuries later the statue reappeared, now a Black Madonna.
According to Ean Begg this happened in the 11th century.* As so
often, Heaven used an ox to point out where the precious treasure
lay buried in the earth. It is said that an ox got his foot stuck
in a whole in a rock. When the cowherd came to his aid, he discovered
the Black Madonna under the animals' foot. To this day, girls who
are looking for a husband slip their foot into the "step of the
ox" and deposit an offering of flowers right there or in the church.
the 'step of the ox'
|You may find the step of the ox, the foot print of the
dragon's claws and the fairies' spring if you follow the little path
that leads down the hill behind the church. It is part of the pilgrimage
path to Santiago de Compostella.
the fairies' spring
the path to it
|The place the unmarried maidens seek is not too far
down from the church, in the middle of the path. To get to the spring,
you have to go all the way down the hill, then turn left off of the
path. The claw marks are in the middle of the path, near the spring.
It takes a bit of attentive looking and tuning into the spirit of
the place to find these land marks. Look for tilted up stones that
mark the way and for little green dots that mark the rocks (see top
right in picture). Good luck!
the claw marks of the dragon
A couple of miracles attributed to the Black Madonna are still fondly
remembered in the parish: In 1911 a little girl was healed against all
expectation during a mass that her grandfather had asked to be celebrated
for her in Ronzières.
In the 19th century the Madonna revealed to a boy that he was called to
be a priest. It didn't make sense at the time because the lad had a handicap
that precluded him from qualifying for the priesthood. In time however,
he was miraculously healed by Don Bosco, a saintly Italian priest. Hence
he could fulfill the Virgin's revelation.
* Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin, Penguin
Books, London: 1985, p.217.