We have often remarked how revered are the vierges romanes and especially the vierges noires in rural France. Notre Dame de Vassivière in the Puy-de-Dôme is no exception, in fact she has two homes. Since 1547, the statue has spent the winters in the Église Saint André de Besse in the town of Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise. Each summer on July 2, the feast of the visitation, she is carried up to her remote summer home at the isolated Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vassivière, a journey of about five miles due west. The statue is carried on a litter by the faithful in a festival called the Montée and returned on September 21st, the feast of Saint Matthew, in the Dévalade. Her return to Besse is accompanied by fireworks and gunfire.
The current version of Notre Dame de Vassivière is a copy of the original, burned in the Revolution in 1804. Five years later, Napoleon re-established the veneration of the statue and the copy was made. In 1881, the crowning of the vierge was celebrated by 30,000 worshippers.
PJ and I were anxious to photograph Notre Dame de Vassivière and when we visited in September of 2008, the chapel was almost empty. The Dévalade was scheduled for three days later, but we could not stay. She was on her spot high on the wall of the chapel. We took the pictures and then ventured to ask the gardienne if it were possible to take the statue down for photography. She thought for a moment and then agreed – PJ and I were absolutely delighted. We were delighted for only a moment, however. The woman came out with a rickety ladder and handed it to us. We were to take the priceless artifact down ourselves!
Now the ladder was not only rickety, but it had only about five steps. I would have to climb all the way to the topmost step and stretch my full length just to reach the vierge. Then I would have to lift her off her shelf with just my arms and bring her down! The sculpture was only 30″ high but it was solid wood and weighed at least 40 pounds.
PJ and I looked at each other, swallowed and made our only possible semblance of a plan – she would hold the ladder while I climbed, and as I descended, she would help secure the madonna. Gulp! And so we did. Climbing the ladder was an adventure. I am a very large man and the ladder was probably rated for someone half my weight when it was new. Now, it was a miracle that it was holding at all. PJ said she felt “abject fear” as I began moving the statue from its shelf. It became clear that the crown was not really secured and we would have to be extremely steady not have the gold crown come tumbling to the ground. I was in a state of fear and PJ was busy with her own calculations; if all went wrong, should try to save me, the vierge, or the crown?
Somehow we made it down without a disaster and placed the vierge on the altar for our photo session. The photographs were worth the effort, we figured, even though we would have to get the statue back up later.
We did manage to return Notre Dame to her lofty perch on the wall of the chapel, gave a small prayer of grateful thanks for our own personal deliverance, and returned to Issoire for an aperitif! We earned it on that particular day.
This is part of a series of posts featuring an amuse-bouche, a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite of diners. Each of these will explore a single interesting feature of medieval architecture or sculpture. To see other amuse-bouches, follow this link.