In the 11th century basilica in the center of town, Rue Notre Dame, Puy-de-Dome department, Auvergne, 13th century, 114 cm. Because she was mutilated during the Revolution and patched back together, her body is made of walnut wood, her arms of pear wood, and baby Jesus of oak, then all was painted uniformly black.
Our Lady of Miracles
One evening around the year 507 A.D., Théodechilde, daughter of the Merovingian King Clovis saw a great light in a nearby forest. She headed for that place and drew near in time to witness a gathering around a sacred stone.(*1) By the time she arrived on the scene the only ones left were a statue of the Virgin Mary guarded by two stone lions. This was clearly a sign that Mary was to take the place of the goddess Cybele, whose presence on earth was a sacred stone and who was usually accompanied by two lions. The torch of the Great Mother, Queen of Heaven, had been passed on to the Virgin Mary.
Princess Théodechilde let a chapel be built on the place with stones taken from a pagan temple, and founded a Benedictine monastery to guard it. (The remains of which can still be visited.) She ordered the nuns to always keep an 'eternal lamp' burning before the miraculously appeared image. To this day two stone lions guard the entrance of the church, one is the original the other was stolen and replaced by a copy.(*2)
Though the log of Our Lady's many miracles was burnt during the Revolution, people still remember some of them. They say she stopped a devastating period of rains in 1816 and the cholera in 1832. During the Crusades two French men were captured in the Orient and chained in a dungeon. When they implored Our Lady of Miracles for help, she transported them, during the night, in an instant to Mauriac. Their irons can still be admired as ex-voti in the church.
By the 11th century, so many pilgrims flocked to Our Lady of Miracles that a bigger church was needed. (Even St. Dominic spent two days at her feet.) Yet the local priest was more concerned about enlarging his own house than the house of God. When he tried to do so by infringing upon the garden of the Queen of Heaven, she struck him and two of his workmen dead. In order to appease her wrath, the present day basilica was quickly erected.
Throughout the Middle Ages, people wanted to be buried as close to an altar or holy place as possible, in order to ensure their soul's salvation. Hence a great cemetery grew up around the church of Mauriac. Religious plays reenacting Biblical stories were held in it and a rare lantern of the dead still stands there to this day.(*3) People used to light a candle in it each night to guide the newly deceased on their journey and to announce to the community that someone had died. Similar, though much bigger 'lanterns of the dead' remain in the Dordogne region, e.g. in Atur, Coussac Bonneval, and Sarlat.
Jacque Huynen and Ean Begg draw attention to the 10th century baptismal font in the basilica sporting a Templar cross and other symbols. To them these "esoteric" signs point to a connection between Black Madonnas and the initiation rites of Christian orders which used to practice alchemy. The three children who are portrayed during their baptism represent alchemists (who called themselves 'children') receiving initiation.(*4)
Yet much of what certain authors call "secret, esoteric knowledge" is perfectly mainstream. E.g. baptism is routinely referred to as a 'Christian rite of initiation' in which the old self dies with Christ and the new self resurrects with him. The teachings aren't hidden, though the words are "self-secret" in the Tibetan sense, i.e. meaningless for those who haven't prepared spiritually to hear their transformative message.
What is much more interesting in this church is the local saint who is honored there. It is Blessed Catinon Menette, a poor French peasant woman who lived an exemplary Christian life. During the Revolution this nun accompanied the parish priest to the guillotine, not heeding the insults and threats to her own life. That's why she is portrayed with a cloth stained with the blood of the priest. But why is she portrayed as brown skinned when she was a white woman? "Just the style that imitates Byzantine icons. It means nothing," says the present parish priest.
Yet, the priest who was killed is portrayed in another icon of the same style and his skin is white. So maybe the icon writer's intent was to portray her as a devotee of the Black Madonna who took on some of her divine mother's characteristics. Like Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene she stood by the priest through the darkest part of his life and death. She exposed and opened herself to the challenging darkness of the world and the nurturing darkness of the Divine, and it rubbed off on her.
An annual procession on the Sunday following May 9th still draws many pilgrims. Since 824 A.D. that date is considered to be the anniversary of the Virgin's apparition to Théodechilde. The children of the town play an active role in the festivities. The boys dress up as knights and St. John the Baptists, the girls as angels and Virgin Marys. Beautiful songs are sung that day to Our Lady of Miracles. Here is one of them:
You, Our Lady, to you we sing!
You, Our Lady, to you we pray!
1. You who carries life
You who carries joy
You who touches the spirit
You who touches the cross.
2. You who gives hope
You who keeps faith
You who passes by death
You who stands in joy.
3. You, your heart on your sleeve
You, honey and wine
You, joy to the eyes
Oh smile of God. (*5)
*1:" Notre Dame des Miracles: Mauriac, cite de la Vierge" a booklet published by the parish of Mauriac and available in the sacristy translates "Saint Peter" instead of sacred stone. Since Peter means stone or rock, I guess the true meaning has to be determined by the context and is subject to interpretation.
*2: Jean-Robert Maréchal, Les Saints Qui Guérissent en Auvergne, Éditions Ouest-France: 2004, p. 115-6
*3: Ean Begg, p.198
*4: Ibid. and Huynen, p. 159-160
*5: The parish booklet, p.9