We always think of Dijon in the legendary Côte d’Or as the home of the the great wine domaines of the Cote-de-Nuits; of famous mustards; of kir, the aperitif made with crême de cassis and bourgogne aligoté, a local white wine; and of course, MFK Fisher. Architecturally, it is rich with the contributions of the dukes of Burgundy, who made it the capital of one of the most powerful provinces in pre-Revolutionary France. But it was once also home to a magnificent pilgrimage church and one of the most revered vierges romanes in France. Both suffered disgracefully in the upheaval of the French Revolution.
The monastery church of Saint Bénigne was one of the greatest of all Romanesque churches. It was originally constructed by William of Volpiano as a subterranean church around the sarcophagus of Saint Benignus with the main church on the ground level for worship, and an apse in the shape of a rotunda on three levels. The lower level was in the famous crypt and there were two levels above ground. Little remains of that great church today which suffered greatly by fire in 1137, and then by the collapse of the crossing tower in 1272. The interior is a reconstructed Gothic structure from the late 13th and early 14th century. The final blow to the remains of the Romanesque church was at the hands of man – the rotunda was destroyed in the French Revolution.
The four-bay nave is a classic Gothic structure with an arcade leading to the large clerestory windows. The slender pilasters climb up the pillars past the windows and support the springing arches of the quadripartite vault.
The wide side aisles give a wonderful view of both the nave and the far reaches of the ambulatory beyond the transept arms.
It is the Romanesque crypt, however, that remains intact and is one of the most interesting in all of France. The crypt has two large areas – the first is the main entrance that features a couple of small altars amid the pillars of the groin vaulted space.
The second is the main area of the crypt, with its beautiful columns and capitals. This was the sanctuary of Saint Benignus.
These capitals adorn the slender, footed columns that fill the lower chamber and that not only support the groin vaults but are the foundation for the entire church above ground.
While the current version of the cathedral is very interesting, we could only regret the loss of the great Romanesque pilgrimage church. We left Saint Bénigne with a sense of loss and walked to the Église Notre-Dame, a charming example of Burgundian Gothic in a tight medieval quarter of town. One almost stumbles on it before arriving at the west front.
Inside we immediately found the object of our visit, the remarkable Black Madonna, Notre-Dame de Bon-Espoir – Our Lady of Good Hope. We happened to be in Dijon during the Journées du patrimoine, the weekend where France celebrates her patrimony, and the fame of the Virgin was evident from the crowds that came to see, photograph, and pray at her shrine in the south side aisle of the church.
Few of them knew the story of her preservation during the dark early days of the Revolution. As was common throughout France at that time, crowds of iconoclasts attacked the churches and stole, defaced, or destroyed the religious artifacts within and without. In Dijon, they attacked the Église Notre-Dame. A young girl, Marthe Launy, wanted to protect the venerated Vierge but was afraid that she would be harmed by the hostile crowd if she announced that intention. So this intelligent youngster climbed on the altar, raised up the statue and loudly proclaimed it as her share of the spoils. One local man disputed the claim and as they struggled, he knocked both Marthe and the Vierge to the ground. No damage was done to the Mother, but the child Jesus on her lap was broken into seven pieces. Local tradition claims that the son sacrificed himself to save his mother.
A local cobbler ended up with the Vierge and he made a good business of charging the faithful to come to view or pray at the statue. Marthe and her aunt scraped together what money they had saved and bought the statue from the cobbler and hid it for several years. When it finally become safe enough to display the Madonna again, they returned it to the church. A great procession accompanied the statue from her house to the church, where she remains today.
Notre Dame de Bon Espoir is one of the most beautiful vierges that we have seen and carries all of the dignity that we would expect of the Throne of Wisdom madonna. We can thank young Mademoiselle Launy for preserving her as much as she was able. It is only too bad that there was not someone who could have saved the rotunda of William of Volpiano’s Saint Bénigne as well.