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Beaune: Our Lady of Beaune

In the basilica Notre-Dame-de-Beaune, Beaune is the capital of Burgundy, district Côte-d'Or, second half of 12th century, 89 cm, painted wood.
Photo: Ella Rozett

Evidence suggests that the Duchesse Matilda of Burgundy (died in 1162), a friend and patron of St. Bernard of Clairveaux, brought this wonder working statue from the Auvergne and gave it to the church in Beaune. This Dark Mother is probably a replica of the original Black Madonna of the Port in Clermont-Ferrand. She survived the Revolution because a school mistress saved her. She used to be darker before she was cleaned.

Many great deeds are listed in this Virgin's "Book of Miracles". In the 13th century she healed several paralytics. In the 16th century she resuscitated stillborn babies and halted several outbreaks of the plague. In 1832 and 1854 she freed the people of Beaune from the Cholera. Whenever the population was in an extreme need of heavenly protection, it would carry Our Lady in solemn procession through the town, begging for mercy.

Like all the oldest Christian statues, this Madonna is a reliquary, that is to say a cavity was carved into her back which housed a relic. This practice goes back to the 10th century when a church council held in Le-Puy-en-Velay authorized, for the first time in Christian history, the production of free standing statues, as long as they were used as reliquaries.(*1) Before that, only frescoes, mosaics, and relieves were permitted to depict a person.

As mentioned in the introduction, Christians were often worried about violating God's command not to make images, nor worship idols. But relics weren't images or idols. They were the remains of Christian martyrs or saints or important objects that had come in contact with Jesus, Mary, or the saints. For example the cross of Christ or the veil of the Virgin, or the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper (Holy Grail). From the very beginning of the Church such relics were honored as sacred memorabilia that brought home the reality of the people they were connected to. They were venerated as something that invoked the presence of Jesus and his saints. First they were kept in little treasure boxes or whole sarcophagi. Later sculptures were made that representing the original shape of the relic. E.g. a metal arm would hold the remains of a saint's arm, a metal head a martyr's scull. To cast a whole person as a container for a little relic was touchy in a Church that had decried pagan idol worship for centuries.

Nonetheless free standing statues started appearing at the end of the 9th century. It took decades to settle this round of debates over the issue of idol worship, but eventually the authorities gave into the will of the people and decided that reliquary statues were not idols but an aid in pious remembrance whose power came from the relic, not from the statue. The statue merely made the saint, present in the relic, much more tangible. Hence no statue without a relic (except for crucifixes). As Hans Belting says: "In medieval imagination, images and relics were never two distinct realities."(*2) Both together made a deceased and resurrected person truly present.

Once this dispute was settled, statues spread like wild fire all over Europe
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(*1) Article on "Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Puy-en-Velay" in www.fr.wikipedia.org
(*2) Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art, University of Chicago Press: 1997, p.300-1