The Throne of Wisdom – Part 2 (Dennis Aubrey)

As most of you know, PJ and I are enthralled with the Romanesque Vierges Romanes, the Throne of Wisdom madonnas. We have a previous post which discussed them and featured photos. This year we had the opportunity to several shoot more of them.

This photo is the famous Notre-Dame de Bon-Espoir in Dijon, one of the most famous of the Black Madonnas. She is in poor shape – the Christ figure is missing, for example – but is highly venerated in the region. On the day that we were there, a steady stream of visitors lit candles at her altar. The statue was carved in either the late 11th or early 12th century and was originally polychrome. In the 17th century she was painted black but a 1945 restoration brought her back to the original polychrome.

Notre-Dame de Bon-Espoir, Église Nortre-Dame, Dijon (Côte d'Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The next shot is of Notre Dame de Châteauneuf in the village of Châteauneuf-les-Bains in the Auvergne. She is a typical Auvergnat madonna but the dove in the right hand is unique, as far as I know.

Notre Dame de Châteauneuf, Église de Lachaux, Châteauneuf-les-Bains (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

One of the most famous, and perhaps most enigmatic, of these Vierges is Notre Dame de Vauclair. Created in the 12th Century, one legend tells that village women found their “Holy Virgin” in the woods. There is a second legend of the origin – the cabochon rock crystal pinned to her neck contains a piece of cloth on which is written the Greek “alpha”. There supposedly represents “Antioch” and that gives rise to the story that Notre Dame de Vauclair was brought to France from Turkey during the Crusades. Modern scholarship disputes this and has assigned the sculpture to an Auvergnat craftsman.

Notre Dame de Vauclair, Église de Molompize, Molompize (Cantal) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

And finally, one of our favorite is Notre Dame des Croisades (Our Lady of the Crusades) in the town of Thuret. The statue dated from the middle of the 14th Century, but the current version was sculpted in the 17th Century from the deteriorating original. A true black madonna, she is highly venerated in the region.

Notre Dame des Croisades, Église Saint Liman, Thuret, (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We’ve shot about fifty of these works in the last five years and will continue to post more pictures and descriptions in the future.

8 responses to “The Throne of Wisdom – Part 2 (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I have a small theory concerning the Notre Dame de Vauclair, Église de Molompize, Molompize (Cantal). The cabochon rock crystal pinned to the Blessed Mother was, possibly, put there to signify the moment of the Annunciation. First, the expression in her eyes is certainly one of momentary astonishment – the realization of what Gabriel was speaking about, and second, the “Alpha” written on the cloth might refer to the truth that Jesus had His human origins – the “beginning” of His humanity, through Mary’s “Yes” to Gabriel’s invitation to be the Theotokos – the Mother of God. 12th century craftsmen, and/or certainly the local priest or deacon who was also an artisan, would have known the basics of the iconographic lettering of Christ as “Alpha” and “Omega” – Jesus Christ – the beginning and the end. Possibly this was carved by a priest or deacon who wanted to have his sermon on the Annunciation permanently in residence as a reminder to the village people of the great love of God for His creation: that the Father would send His Son to the world to redeem – and provide the grace – to transform it.

    • Paul, I have never looked at these Vierges from the point of view of specific messaging as you suggest, so this is quite interesting. There is no real explanation for the proliferation of these statues during the 12th and 13th centuries – Ilene Forsyth refers to the “enigmatic rebirth” of sculpture in Europe. Certainly these statues were often used as reliquaries and votives, but why the iconography developed as it did, in regions so far afield, with such distinct styles poses many questions. Thanks for your suggestion. A the very minimum, it will make me go back to Forsyth’s “The Throne of Wisdom” again, a welcome and productive task.

  2. I quickly googled “Seat of Wisdom” and followed up on Ilene Forsyth’s research, and up popped an image of the Madonna as Seat of Wisdom. It is dated to 1199, and they say that is has been “inscribed” by Presbyter (Priest) Martinus. This particular image is from the Camaldolese abbey in Borgo San Sepolcro near Arezzo, Italy. In this particular instance when it is said that someone “inscribed” the sculpture does that necessarily mean that they are the one who actually carved it? Or are they the person who claims it for their village church?

    • Fortuitous that you posted this, Paul, actually amazing. I have a small piece of research on this that is in the queue for additional investigation because I was taken by the inscription: “Anno Domini 1199, in the month of January. On the mother’s bosom shines the wisdom of the father. This wonderful work was made in the times of the abbot Petrus, thanks to the work in dedicated love of the presbyter Martinus.”

      I love the phrase “On the mother’s bosom shines the wisdom of the Father.” I also like the raised arm of the child, which I’ve never seen elsewhere.

      On the basis of the inscription, however, this image was created for a monastery (reference to the abbot Peter) and the presbyter is probably one of the monks. That makes it very possible that it was actually carved by Martinus, which is how the Bode Museum in Berlin describes (the work is part of its collection). They would certainly have the best information on this.

      • Thanks for the leads!
        It is my hope that in the near future I can begin painting a sacred icon based on the beautiful images that you and PJ have provided to us. The Fra Angelico Institute for the Sacred Arts has as part of its mission the desire to bring the beautiful sacred art of the Western Rite of the Catholic Church (especially during the Romanesque and Early Renaissance Period) into the consciousness of contemporary Catholics using the vehicle of sacred iconography in the Byzantine tradition. The Two Rites are, as Beato John Paul 2 has said, “the two lungs of the Catholic Church.”
        The Holy Spirit wants us to breath with both lungs!

  3. I’m struck by the order in which you’ve arranged these Thrones of Wisdom Madonnas. In the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible and in classical Christian theology, rediscovered and interpreted anew by feminist theology, it is through Wisdom that the cosmos is itself is given birth. I have to believe there is a hermeneutic at work here in the order in which these madonnas are child are presented, and it’s a powerful reminder of how human perception of Divine Wisdom is shaped by the times in which an artist sculpts or paints.

    The first (the Notre Dame Black Madonna) seems rather Stoic and above or aloof. The face os the second madonna clutching the dove (Holy Spirit) seems very much involved emotionally, looking ahead with puzzlement, perhaps, at the tragedy about to unfold, relying on the Spirit to pick up the pieces. The eyes of the third seem to shout out horror, “Oh, my God!” – akin to Jesus horror from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani!” (“My God, my God, why have your forsaken me.” It also called timing the image of God as a nursing mother who cannot abandon her nursing child, but who is horrified by how the child’s life and destiny unfold. Finally, there is Our Lady of the Crusades and her son the Crusader soldier where the Mother of All and the only begotten Son through whom the Father loves the entire world are re-interpreted as the archetypes and excuses for killing one’s enemy. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor but hate your enemy’, but I say to you, love your enemies and do good to them that persecute you….” is altogether lost under the Crusaders’ helmets.

  4. Pingback: Our Lady of the Crusades Redux | VIEWS from the EDGE

  5. Thanks again for allowing us to gaze on these Madonnas through your wonderful photos. The first one (Notre-Dame de Bon-Espoir) reminds me very much of a Shaman woman I run into every now and then in my area. The search for wisdom runs through all cultures and places. Here you enter a church to see it; elsewhere the movement can be outward even in a large city.

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