In the cathedral, Province Lérida, state Catalonia, considered end of 12th century though the garter suggests end of 14th, 105 cm, stone.photo: Cleo Morris
The Mother of God of the Cloister
(La Mare de Deu del Claustre)
Patron of Solsona
This Madonna is considered the masterpiece of early Gothic sculpture. Gilabert, a great artist born in1163 in Toulouse, France, fashioned her for the monastery Santa Maria de Solsona. It is believed that he modeled her after the famous Black Madonna of Toulouse, which was destroyed during the Revolution. Hence the Mother of God of the Cloister gives us a good idea of what the original French 'Daurade' looked like. The Lady of Toulouse was one of those Pagan goddesses that were Christianized, and her ancient roots still show here. While typical Seat of Wisdom Madonnas hold Jesus squarely on their lap with the baby facing forward, this statue is even closer related to Isis than they. Like the baby of Solsona, the Egyptian son Horus usually sits sideways on his mother's left knee.
Our Lady of the Garter?!
The Madonna’s left knee is exposed, revealing a very fancy garter. It marks her as most noble royalty, as a member of the “Most Noble Order of the Garter”. This order of royal knights with its motto, metal, insignia, and robes was started by King Edward III of England in 1344. The order allows for only 24 royal Companions around the Prince of Wales (i.e. the King of England). From early on women in close association with the order were honored as “Ladies of the Garter”. These were usually highly respected wives or mothers of the royal members, but King George V bestowed this highest honor on his consort Queen Mary. Only since 1987 have women been admitted as full fledged “Companions of the Garter”.
The creation story of the order begins with a ball at the royal palace. King Edward III was dancing with his mistress, the Countess of Salisbury, when her garter fell to the floor. Some couldn’t help but snicker at the thought of how it came off her leg. To save face the king gallantly picked the garter up and, putting it on his own knee, he silenced the snikerers by saying: “Gentlemen, shamed be those who think badly of this. Those who laugh now will be very honored to wear a likeness of this, for this ribbon will be held in such honor that the mockers themselves will chase it with eagerness.” That’s how ‘honit soit qui mal y pense’ (That is French for: “Shamed be those who think badly of this”) became the motto of the order and the garter its insignia.(*1)
King Edward clearly wanted to tie his Order of the Garter to a tradition of King Richard I, who used to give his knights white and red garters to wear for good luck during the Crusades. Red and white were the colors of Saint George the dragon killer, patron of knights. Reminiscent of this tradition, King Edward III placed his Knights of the Garter under the patronage of Saint George.
So the order has a slight religious overtone in its patron saint and in an annual church service during which new members may be admitted. However it also has a decidedly sexual undercurrant in its creation story, in the close association of men and women of the order, in its main insignia, the garter, and in its motto. What is: “Shamed be those who think badly of this” supposed to mean? Did King Edward III want to say: “shame on you if you think of my lover’s garter on the floor beneath us as pointing to sexual activity”? Considering how reasonable such a conclusion would have been, he might have meant: “shame on you if you think lowly of sexual love, which is a great and sacred thing.”
Now one must wonder if the garter on the Black Madonna was meant to have sexual connotations or if it was simply to adorn her with a symbol of royal honor. I think the following evidence suggests that yes, this Black Madonna is portrayed as a figure who affirms worldly and celestial femininity, divine and human, even sexual, love.
1) There is the unique scepter she holds. According to a high ranking cleric at the bishop’s seat of Solsona it is sprouting a pineapple palm as a symbol of abundance and life, the good fruit of life (as oppposed to the forbidden fruit).
2) Unlike most Virgin Marys, she doesn’t wear a veil, but shows beautiful long brades that underline her unabashed femininity. (Also, she is not deferring to her son by poining at him as the Way, as do so many Madonnas of the ‘Hodegetria’ type. Instead Baby Jesus is pointing to her as the Way.)
3) Other Madonnas affirm sexual love. Among Black Madonnas the one of Montevergine stands out. But, as I explain in my article on Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene: “In medieval thinking Mother Mary had to fulfill all the old roles of the goddesses. That meant she was responsible for everything to do with a woman's life: love, passion, fertility, child bearing, praying, and dying.” For more see the sub-heading: “Goddess of Love: Aphrodite, Mary Magdalene or the Virgin Mary?”
Another interesting detail of the black Queen of Solsona is that under her feet she crushes an eagle (symbolizing pride) and an ape (symbolizing idolatry). Why? It seems that she is warning the Companions and Ladies of the Garter as well as those who may hold them in very high esteem, to let go of pride and to worship the Divine instead of worldly royalty.
The History of the Image
Around the year 1200, Our Lady of Solsona was hidden from iconoclasts. 'Destroyers of images' have periodically reared their heads in the Christian world ever since the 8th century. This time they weren't Byzantine Christians, nor Muslims, Protestants, or Revolutionaries, but the Cathars and one of their defenders, the French Raymond Roger, Count of Foix. They felt that fleeting matter was not worthy of embodying or reflecting heavenly energies.(*2)
To save the Black Madonna, she was hidden in a well of the monastery of Santa Maria de Solsona, which was attached to the cathedral. Eventually she was apparently forgotten. Years later, while children were playing ball around the well, a boy fell into it. To everyone's amazement the child was unharmed and the statue was found. You just had to put one and one together to figure out that the Mother of God had saved the child.
Other miracles followed and by the end of the 13th century, devotion to the Black Virgin of the Cloister was firmly established. It was passed on from generation to generation through various confraternities. One of them was called Minerva, after the Roman goddess. Our Lady earned her official title as patron of Solsona when she saved her children from the plague in 1652.
In 1810, during Napoleon's military campaigns, the French burnt the cathedral, but the Black Madonna was unharmed. The next war that threatened her, was the Spanish Civil War of 1936. This time the Mother of God of the Cloister was hidden first in a box in the bell tower and later evacuated to France. During this time the face of Baby Jesus was badly damaged, but it was restored after the war.
It wasn't until 1956 that Our Lady was solemnly and canonically crowned,(*3) but she had long since been honored with a very unique grand festival. Since 1653 Solsona has been celebrating the birthday of the Mother of Christ with its Fiesta Mayor, which lasts from the evening of September 7th to the 9th and hasn't changed much over the centuries. There are parades, music, folk dances, giant puppets each performing their own special dance, and finally the procession of the Mother of God, the Black Madonna of Solsona.
*1: Wikipedia articles on "Order of the Garter" and "Ordre de la Jarretière "
*2: A great article on 'Iconoclasts' in the on line Encyclopedia Britannica explains that when crusaders from all over Europe descended on the Cathars, one of the unintended consequences was that the old iconoclastic spirit was rekindled in many countries. And so, centuries after Catholics had massacred the Cathars, Protestant troops were still destroying sacred Catholic images. Goes to show that karma is a funny thing and that wars always lead to an exchange of ideas among enemies.
*3: This is according to the confraternity de la Mare de Déu del Claustre's website: www.claustre.bisbatsolsona.cat. (Ean Begg quotes 1916 as the year.)