« Je suis noire et pourtant belle, filles de Jérusalem,
Comme les tentes de Qédar,
Comme les pavillons de Salma.
Ne prenez pas garde à mon teint basané
C’est le soleil qui m’a brûlée…»
Cantique des Cantiques, poème premier, 5/6.
In 2008, PJ and I made a special trip to the Pyrénées village of Dorres, just north of Puigcerdà, the capital of the Cerdagne region. Dorres is in France and Puigcerdà is in Spain. This is a remote section of the Pyrénées, further west than the well-known areas around Prades and Perpignan. This village is small – it supports a population of only 162 – and is the site of a Romanesque church.
The 12th century Église Saint Jean de Dorres is as modest as the village that houses it. Seen from the outside, we see the southern portal which is the main entrance of the church, the small two-bell cloche on the west side, and a short nave with a rounded apse. There is one transept to the south.
Architecturally the interior confirms the unassuming exterior. There is a single nave covered with an ogive barrel vault, terminating in an apse with an oven vault. There is no narthex, no side aisles. This is now and always was a simple parish church, not a pilgrimage site. But what the architecture lacks is made up for by an extraordinary and unexpected collection of artworks within.
The church possesses a striking Baroque retable that fills the east end of the church, the production of ten different Catalan sculptors who labored on the piece from 1640-1775. There is an ensemble of two 17th century pieces – a crowned mater dolorosa wearing a black dress beneath a crucifix – and fine earlier statues of Saint Sebastian and Saint Isadore.
The collection of artwork in Saint Jean de Dorres is unexpected. This was not some thriving center of medieval trade; medieval records say that the town supported thirty hearths in 1365. Dorres is at the end of what is equivalent to a dead-end street in the mountains. The economy of the town centered around its granite quarry and a sulfurous thermal spring. All that I can suppose is that some immense local faith supported the costs of these adornments of their church.
But these treasures notwithstanding, the real reason we came to Dorres is found in the south transept, a famous Madonna known as Notre Dame de Belloc. This 11th century vierge romane was originally kept in the nearby Chapelle Sainte Marie de Belloc but moved to Dorres for safekeeping. These vierges are stylized wooden statues of the Madonna and Child, usually polychrome but sometimes covered in plate and jewels. More formally, they are known as Sedes Sapientiae, the Throne of Wisdom.
Notre Dame de Belloc is a black Madonna, a subset of the vierges, particularly reverenced in the communities where they exist. Often they are painted black, often they are a wood (like pear) that blackens with age, and sometimes they are blackened by the accumulation of soot and smoke from the candles that burn perpetually in their honor. Many of the so-called black Madonnas have been restored to their original polychrome, but others, like this one in Dorres, retain their mysterious aspect.
There is a vague oriental cast to her features and she wears only a tunic and veil. At first viewing, the Notre Dame de Belloc seems primitive, almost rudimentary, very much in keeping with the remote location where she is found.
But on closer look, the Madonna has an extraordinary expression of calmness and serenity, the masterful product of a local craftsman. Look at the line of the nose extending up to the eyebrows. This is simply a perfect sculptural form, almost like twin arches of a church arcade.
The figure of Christ sits on the left knee of the Virgin, holding a book in his left hand and raising his right in a gesture of benediction. Notice the typically exaggerated long fingers of the hand.
Notre Dame de Belloc is one of the earliest known vierges romanes and is considered by many to be a rustic and naïve work. To me, she has the characteristics of abstraction that mark the best Romanesque sculpture and that makes it so symbolically evocative. How this statue came to be and why she is so important that she has pride of place in Dorres is unknown to us. There is nonsense written about black Madonnas and how they derive from mystic cults dating from pre-Roman times, much of it neo-pagan nonsense, and there are many legends that claim they might have been brought in from the Holy Land in the early days of the Crusades.
But of one thing I am sure – in these tiny, quiet towns, in the immense and silent dark of the medieval night, candles lit and prayers for the intercession of the black virgin were the most fervent expressions of our humanity. These prayers were lifted with the knowledge that the Virgin understood our pain. Her own enormous suffering of loss gave us confidence that she possessed the strength to be not only the Mother of God, but the Mother of us all. Human hearts looked into the enigmatic gaze and tried to read their fates.
In my mind, restoration of these statues to their presumed original states is like wiping away the history of these prayers and supplications, the erasing of the history of the human soul. As the Song of Songs says, “I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.”
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