In her sanctuary above the village, which lays half way between St. Gervazy and Vassivière. 9 km SW of Issoire, Puy-de-Dôme department, Auvergne region, 13th century?, 60 cm, painted wood. Photo: Mark Veermans
Our Lady of Brambles
(Notre Dame de Ronzières)
This is one of those poor Black Virgins who had her color stolen. She was restored to her original pigmentation of 800 years ago, but if you ask me, "face lifts" don't work - not on people and not on ancient statues. Antiques and ancient art should be restored without removing the patina that gives them character and value. In spite of her touched up face and the fact that you can barely see her in the niche where she is kept behind two sets of bars, she is still considered a Black Madonna and her shrine is still worth a visit. Here is why:
The hill of her sanctuary lays half way between two of her famous sisters, the Black Madonnas of St. Gervazy and Vassivière. (Driving from St. Gervazy to Vassivière via Ronzières takes about 70 minutes.) Her hill overlooks a great plain and is steeped in ancient history. Early Medieval walls fortify her Romanesque church and enclose an area that comprises remnants of dwellings from the time of the Roman occupation before the Christian era.
Madam Dulac, on her magnificent French website on "Sacred Sites" points out architectural elements of a pre-Christian temple in the church of the Black Madonna (see fotos on right).
Ronzières also lies on one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostella. A tiny cabin at the foot of the Madonna's hill can still offer refuge to a couple of pilgrims.
What qualifies this lady as a Black Madonna in my mind is her connection to earth elements, a distant Pagan past, and the reputation of being a miracle worker.
There is a revered lime tree next to the church, under which mass is celebrated on the Sunday closest to September 8th. The Black Madonna is brought out for this occasion, a tradition that goes back "a very, very long time", according to a lady of the parish. Nobody remembers what makes this tree special, except that its roots are ancient. Most of the tree itself has died, but new suckers have grown into its second or third incarnation.
Legend recounts that Our Lady of Brambles was installed in this place by a saintly priest called Baudimus (Baudime in French). He was a Christian hero who lived around 300 A.D. Pope Fabian sent him with a group of missionaries from Rome to evangelize Gaul (France). He and his brother or very close friend St. Nectarius (Nectaire) ended up in the Auvergne. Their way of "evangelizing" by hostile take over of Pagan holy sites, plunged them into conflict with the local population. St. Nectaire turned a temple of Apollo into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. To this day the church sits on Mount Cornadore, a hill top surrounded by a circle of six dolmens and menhirs about one km in diameter. Saint Nectaire ended up getting killed by a Pagan chieftain. Both, Baudimus and Nectarius are buried in the church Saint Nectaire, about 10 km from Ronzières as the crow flies. That church houses another whitened Black Madonna.
Baudimus found an ancient spring in Ronzières that was dedicated to the fairies and, much like his brother, dedicated it instead to Mary the Queen of Heaven. He erected a chapel over the spring, placed this statue in it and preached the Gospel there. From then on, say the Christians, the spring ran with healing water.
Apparently the spirits of the earth weren't too thrilled with this take over, for soon the saint had to do battle with a dragon. We know that in Asia dragons are believed to live underground, as the guardians of the earth and its watercourses. But in Europe too there were dragons without wings, called Lind worm, or simply worm. The German word Lindwurm conveys the idea of beautifully glinting gold or silver scales. These represented the "telluric forces", veins of energy running in the earth, called "veins of the dragon".
In Christian thinking the dragon represents the forces of evil that, along with the forces of good, suffuse the world and every human heart. It is the shadow, the dark side. The time of dragon slayers was a time when humanity still hoped evil could be vanquished once and for all in a battle with outside forces. The followers of Jesus at the time of St. Baudime expected that the Kingdom of Heaven could be established on earth by spreading Christian rule everywhere. With the centuries, that proved to be not so and dragon slayers became something of the distant past. People understood that evil was not something outside of ourselves, but an inner force everybody had to grapple with. When we learned to recognize and integrate our own shadows, formerly white Madonnas became honored as black. Eventually they arose from their thrones and stood on living snakes (the dragons of old). Sweetly smiling, they hold the living snake in its place under their naked feet, as if to teach us not to fear nor fight our shadow, but to make peace with it by mastering and keeping it in its proper place.
But in the 4th century Christians still engaged in outer religious battle against evil, which they saw manifested in Pagan religions and the dark forces of the earth. And so Baudimus' dragon was said to be a hideous monster which lived in a crevice of the cliff of Ronzières and terrorized the local towns. During a fierce battle between the saint and the dragon the monster left its claw marks in a rock that can still be seen on the path near the spring of the fairies. Before it was defeated, the beating of its tail caused the South part of the plateau to cave in. That's what they say.
After that there was peace, maybe for a hundred years, then "the dragon" reared its ugly head again. This time it was in the form of the "barbaric invasions" into the Roman Empire that lasted from the 3rd to the 5th century. Saint Baudimus's chapel was destroyed during one of these orgies of death and destruction and his Madonna disappeared. Yet the people didn't forget that the place was holy and many centuries later the statue reappeared, now a Black Madonna. According to Ean Begg this happened in the 11th century.* As so often, Heaven used an ox to point out where the precious treasure lay buried in the earth. It is said that an ox got his foot stuck in a whole in a rock. When the cowherd came to his aid, he discovered the Black Madonna under the animals' foot. To this day, girls who are looking for a husband slip their foot into the "step of the ox" and deposit an offering of flowers right there or in the church.
You may find the step of the ox, the foot print of the dragon's claws and the fairies' spring if you follow the little path that leads down the hill behind the church. It is part of the pilgrimage path to Santiago de Compostella.
The place the unmarried maidens seek is not too far down from the church, in the middle of the path. To get to the spring, you have to go all the way down the hill, then turn left off of the path. The claw marks are in the middle of the path, near the spring. It takes a bit of attentive looking and tuning into the spirit of the place to find these land marks. Look for tilted up stones that mark the way and for little green dots that mark the rocks (see top right in picture). Good luck!
A couple of miracles attributed to the Black Madonna are still fondly remembered in the parish: In 1911 a little girl was healed against all expectation during a mass that her grandfather had asked to be celebrated for her in Ronzières.
In the 19th century the Madonna revealed to a boy that he was called to be a priest. It didn't make sense at the time because the lad had a handicap that precluded him from qualifying for the priesthood. In time however, he was miraculously healed by Don Bosco, a saintly Italian priest. Hence he could fulfill the Virgin's revelation.
* Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin, Penguin Books, London: 1985, p.217.