In St. Blaise, the “old church”, to which was added on the “new church” Notre Dame des Malades in 1931, on the Place d’Allier, Allier department of the Auvergne region. 14th century, walnut wood.Photo right: Mark Veermans
Our Lady of the Sick
(Notre-Dame des Malades)
As so many Black Madonnas, so this one too resides in a place that was already sacred during pre-Christian times. Excavations have revealed cults of Isis, Cybele, Pallas Athena, Venus, Persephone, Jupiter Sabazios, and finally Vichiaco, the personified energy of the sacred spring that made Vichy famous.(*1)
Vichy is the “queen of spa towns” with five healing thermal mineral springs. It was established by the Romans in 52 B.C.E. While people used to bathe in the waters, the onslaught of health pilgrims became so great that people took to merely drinking from the springs. A pre-Christian legend links the healing qualities of the water to a white fairy who moved to Vichy from nearby Varennes-sur-Allier, because her source there had been polluted by a woman.
Later Christians connected the blessed waters with their miracle working Black Madonna of the Sick. Our Lady’s first residence was the Celestine monastery that was established above the cavern of the famous Célestine source.
By the end of the 16th century the springs had a “reputation of quasi-miraculous curing powers”.(*2) So in 1672 work was begun to enlarge the Romanesque parish church of St. Blaise. When it was completed, on March 26, 1714, the dark walnut statue of Our Lady of the Sick was moved there from the monastery.
Since the 18th century, Vichy has been frequented by French aristocrats. Kings and queens, including Napoleon III, saw to it that the city was frequently embellished. In the mid 20th century, the Pasha of Marakesh used to come here on vacation. So the place has become rather worldly. Great attention is placed on its opera, theaters, and casinos. Nonetheless, faith in the Black Madonna Our Lady of the Sick is still strong.
During the French Revolution, in November 1793, the statue was decapitated and its dresses, jewels, and crowns dispersed. An 11-year-old boy, Claude Baffier, saved the head. In 1801, with a new body, the Black Virgin was reinstalled in St. Blaise. The next year, the first of her torchlight processions through the old town was celebrated. They continue to this day, on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15th, around 8:30 p.m.(*3)
During the heyday of spa therapy between the world wars, demand outgrew the church of St. Blaise, and a new church was built adjoining it in 1931. The art deco concrete dome is a jewel box of mosaics, stained glass, and enamelwork. Atop it is a 16 foot tall statue of Our Lady of the Sick. Her bell tower was added in 1956 and is visible from everywhere in town. The Black Virgin, crowned on May 27, 1937, still receives homage in old St. Blaise.(*4)
Her chapel is decorated with a night sky. This calls to mind the Queen of the Night, but unlike Mozart’s or other Queens of the Night, this one is all good and holy. She rules the realms and dark areas of our lives that might scare us, but she herself is all comforter. She invites us to enter into darkness with courage and the confidence that we won’t be alone.
The night sky in conjunction with the Queen of Heaven is also reminiscent of Nuit, the Egyptian goddess of the night. (For more information see introduction)
*1: Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin, Penguin Books, London: 1985, p. 234
*2: Wikipedia article on “Vichy”
*3: “Patrimoine Vichy”
*4: Info and two photos from article by Mary Ann Daly, Notre-Dame des Malades, Vichy, Allier, Auvergne, France