Notre-Dame d'El Coral
(Our Lady from the Heart of the Oak?) (*1)
In her church of the same name, region Languedoc-Roussillon,
department Pyrénées-Orientales, 13 km from Spanish border
crossing. Church closes at 7 p.m., 9th - 13th century
|Prats-de-Mollo is a beautiful, ancient town of 1,000+ inhabitants
with very good energy.
As so many Black Madonnas this one too was restored to her original fair
skin color and discovered miraculously in the 13th century. But her history
begins at the end of the Muslim occupation of Southern France in 811 C.E.
In that era many Christian hermitages sprung up in remote areas, in part
as a way of reclaiming those lands for Christendom. One such hermitage was
established in Miralles, the original home of this Black Madonna, about
10 km from Prats-de-Mollo. The monks erected a little chapel and placed
in it a Madonna. A village grew around the sanctuary, but after some time
the hermitage and chapel were abandoned and fell into ruin. Someone placed
the Madonna into her oak tree and then she was forgotten. (Maybe the locals
had preferred being Muslim?)
Centuries later a herdsman was attracted to her by his bull, who wouldn’t
stop mooing in front of her tree.(*2) Other miracles
must have followed because all of a sudden great devotion to Our Lady from
the Heart of the Oak spread in the area. A church was built for her on the
very spot where the old chapel had been and the hermitage was reopened.
It kept having to expand to accommodate all the pilgrims. The first written
record of a church called Sancta Maria de Coral is from the year 1267. Her
cult continued uninterrupted until the French Revolution when all church
property was confiscated by the state. In 1790 the statue was auctioned
off to the highest bidder. Luckily she was not burnt like so many other
Black Madonnas. A group of Catholics from Prats-de-Mollo bought her with
the intent to keep her cult alive. The village Miralle didn’t survive
without its heavenly mother. All that is left of it is the hermitage that
is still called after her even though since 1931 it is no longer a sanctuary
but just a hostel and country inn.
|Many Black Madonnas are venerated in the vicinity of
healing waters and this one is no exception. Only a few kilometers
away lies the spa town La Preste. In the 14th century, people with
leprosy used to bathe in the ’Leper’s pool’ to help
relieve their symptoms. Now they come for urinary tract illnesses.
photos: Marylou Hillberg: her church against the
evening sky |
the 14th century church ramparts.
The Virgin and the Bear
Ean Begg mentions an annual Bear Festival, which he describes as
the continuation of a Pagan Bear cult.(*3)
He seems to have a point. Bears are somehow imprinted in the psyche
of the people of this region. Not far from Prats-de-Mollo, across
one or two mountains, lies Finstret with its own Black Madonna and
a statue of St. Columba with her bear. Saint Columba of Sens was
born around 257 in Spain and beheaded in France in 273 for being
a Christian. It is reported that, at the age of 16, she fled Spain
for Gaul (modern France) to escape the persecutions of Emperor Aurelian,
but to no avail. While she was in prison, one of the guards tried
to rape her. He was stopped by a bear, a fellow prisoner who was
held to serve as one of the wild beasts that were to devour Christians
and other prisoners in the arena. She still was martyred, but with
her virginity in tact and thankful to a bear. Hence we see her blessing
the bear at her feet. Likely that whole story was invented to give
a Christian justification for images of a sacred woman with a bear.
St. Columba blessing her bear
The virgin and bear theme comes up again in local
bear festivals that have been celebrated for centuries, and in
some form probably for millennia. They are still held in three
villages of Vallespir, the name of this area: Prats-de-Mollo,
d'Arles-sur-Tech and Saint Laurent de Cerdans. The festivities
were traditionally linked to the Virgin Mary by celebrating them
on one of her high holidays: Candlemas, also known as the Purification
of the Virgin, on Februar 2nd. In modern times they are held more
towards the end of February, followed by three days of Carneval
(Mardi Gras) festivities.
The Vallespir website explains the festival like this: It is a
fun initiation ritual marking the passage from youth to adult
life. The background story is this: Once upon a time a bear stole
a young shepherdess and carried her off to his cave. He wanted
to rape her, but as long as she kept praying to Notre-Dame d’El
Coral he couldn’t touch her. His roars of frustration alerted
the girl’s fellow shepherds as to her whereabouts. A hunting
party was put together, the bear was captured, brought into the
village and tamed to the point where he would help with work.
The task that remains is to tame in similar fashion the young
men of the region. Once a year they dress up as bears, smearing
their skin with the same soot that has turned so many Madonnas
black. All afternoon they run around accosting as many villagers
as they can and smearing them with this black oily substance.
Of course they are especially after the young girls of eligible
age. Always in hot pursuit is a group of “hunters”
or “barbers” dressed all in white. By evening the
bears are all captured, chained, washed, and humanized: they are
shaven and taught to dance and eat a traditional black pudding.
The day ends with the “bear dance”.
a senior bear...
*1: A French
website on the history of Roussillon proposes 4 very different explanations
and translations for her name. I find Our Lady from the heart of the Oak
the most likely because it goes with the legend, which means that’s
the meaning the local populace has been seeing in her name for centuries.
The author explains that in Old French the word for Couer de chêne
(heart of an oak tree) was coral.
*2: For more on the relationship of bulls and Black Madonnas
*3: Ean Begg, The Cult of the Black Virgin, Penguin Books,
London: 1985, p.212
English sources: http://www.anglophone-direct.com/Fete-de-l-Ours-Prats-de-Mollo
French sources: http://www.tresvents.fr/tradition/fete-ours.php