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Clermont-Ferrand:

Our Lady of the Good Death

In the gothic cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand, the capital of Puy-de Dme department, Auvergne, sculpted in the second half of the 12th century, but not painted black and gold until 1830.
Photo: Francis Debaisieux

Our Lady of the Good Death received her pitch-black coat of paint around 1830, but since she is an ancient Madonna she must have been quite dark already before that. Perhaps she needed restoration and her blackness was confirmed by fresh paint. She was discovered in the funerary chapel of a bishop of Clermont-Ferrand in 1972.

Many Black Madonnas were found in cemeteries, funerary chapels and crypts. Crypts are church basements originally built to house the tombs of martyrs. Later they became a privileged burial place reserved for bishops, kings, and queens. Several Black Madonnas in their crypts are known as "Notre Dame de Sous Terre," which I like to translate as "Our Lady of the Underworld" (literally: Our Lady from under the earth). So Mary in general and the Black Madonna in particular, became a guide through the underworld, through death to resurrection. As the Gate of Heaven she birthed God into our world and births us into His.

Our Lady of the Good Death with her shining golden robes and her smile invites us not to fear death with her as our guide, but to pray for a good death. What is a "good death"? From a Christian perspective it is one that leads to eternal joy and glory in Heaven. The Polish 'Association of Our Lady of the Good Death' has made its goal to help everyone obtain a good death. To this end they recommend turning away from sin, remaining in God's grace, and often directing one's thoughts towards eternity. If furthermore, one has devotion to "Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows under the special title Our Lady of the Good Death", then one will always be ready to die, they say.(*1)

Yet we are human and naturally afraid of loosing our life. Brigitte Romankiewicz suggests that in the Black Madonna our shadow self is embraced and transformed.(*2) Hence we don't need to pretend we are not afraid of death. We are accepted, loved, and nourished with our fears until we can let go of them.

Another form of a good death is the death of the 'old man,' the 'false self,' the self that perceives itself as a separate, independent entity from God. According to Jesus and Paul this old self must die in order to resurrect as the 'new self,' which experiences itself as one with the Divine.(*3) Some medieval Christians sought this death of the old self by undergoing initiation rites that sent them to meet the Black Mother of the Underworld in a dark crypt filled with tombs.

To this day many Catholics lean heavily on the Virgin Mary (whether black or white) in the face of death. Her most famous prayer, the Hail Mary, ends with: "Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death." This is the mantra that is repeated over and over when praying the rosary. For centuries, the rosary was the hallmark prayer practice of Catholicism. With the church modernizations of the 1960's it almost vanished from Catholic life, except for at the hour of death. Before, during, and after death, Catholics still pray the rosary for their loved ones. Also to this day we can find statues, churches, and confraternities named after Our Lady of the Good Death.(*4)
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*1: The Polish association "Our Lady of the Good Death" maintains a bulletin and website in many languages (each translation adding a slightly different flavor). www.apostolstwo.pl
*2: Romankiewicz, p.85
*3: "I live, yet not I, Christ lives in me." Galatians 2:20
*4: E.g. the Afro-Cuban sisterhood "Order of Our Lady of the Good Death", though highly syncretistic, it is approved by the Catholic Church. Probably founded around 1820, it puts on a big parade and festivities commemorating the death and assumption of Mother Mary. Devotion to Our Lady of the Good Death used to be widespread in Brazil.