The Vierge Noire – the Black Virgin – how little I know of her, but how enthralling it is!
When I visited Chambéry for the first time in 2004, I am sure we visited the chapel with the Vierge Noire, a black statue of the Virgin Mary, but then, I did not quite understand its import. I had no idea about the significance of a black Vierge (Virgin/Madonna), nor about the complexity involved in keeping the statue of the Vierge Noire underground, with a golden Virgin dominating the chapel and even a wooden statue of Jesus and Mary above the Vierge Noire.
Yet, legend says that it was the Vierge Noire who protected the people of the region.
Visiting the same chapel again eight years later, I was more sensitive to the ideas that govern a black depiction of Mary. More importantly, I was with someone who drew these ideas to my attention. There are Vierges Noires all over France and they are important pilgrimage sites, which is why the government has perhaps never been able to hide this ‘black’ history. Like idols in India, and unlike most abroad, the Vierge Noire does not have clothes carved of stone. She has real clothes draped around her like so many of our idols in temples in India.
I have no knowledge of the history or the theories governing the Black Virgin, but she is beautiful. What more needs to be said?
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
What I found truly touching was the different ways in which people over the course of time chose to express their thanks to the Vierge Noire. The modern ones are not particularly moving because they are professionally carved tablets of marble. Earlier, though, people gave thanks in whatever way they could – embroidery, painting, anything. So along with all the embroideries of ‘Merci’ and ‘Reconnaissance’ are paintings that really made me wonder. There are some that are straightforward – like the Virgin appearing before a lady in white with a baby in the background. Some are ambiguous, though, like a war-scene. One person is lying dead, there are people looking on, and one person is being supported by two soldiers. What is the thanks for – an honourable death or an escape from death?
The simplicity of many of the offerings brought tears to my eyes. Asymmetrical embroidery and paintings that I could have done myself (with my highly limited drawing skills). There they are, up in the chapel, in utter humility and devotion.
I left the Vierge Noire with warmth, silence and love.