Tuesday, July 12, 2016

France: Impressions of Vienne

Vienne is a charming former Roman colony on the Rhône. Our walking tour took us up Mont Pipet, a hill where the Chapelle, built on top of Roman ruins, overlooks the ancient Roman theatre (AD 40-50) carved out of the hillside below. The Chapelle is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and there is a large statue atop a brick pedestal beside the church. This Virgin Mary was carved out of a local black stone and is, therefore, a Black Madonna. The view from up here was just spectacular.

Another ruin in the distance

A brief note about Black Madonnas: the tradition of the Black Madonna can be traced back to the pre-Christian mother goddess figures. In the Roman Catholic Church, they often have an even more special meaning for believers than the usual Marian figures and are seen to have even more special powers for healing, fertility and miracles, such that the places where Black Madonnas are located have become places of pilgrimage. We certainly witnessed this phenomenon in Montserrat, Spain at the end of our trip, when there was a very long line of both locals and tourists to visit the Black Madonna, patroness of Catalonia in the Monastery there. 

Some of the stories and myths surrounding the various Black Madonnas are quite interesting. For example, the Montserrat Madonna, La Moreneta (the Dark Maiden) is said to have been brought there in 50AD by St. Luke and later hidden  from invaders in a grotto by the monks. It was rediscovered in the 9th century by shepherd children who saw bright lights and heard singing coming from a cave in the mountain. The Benedictine monks wanted to move the Black Madonna, but it was so heavy as to be impossible, so they constructed their monastery close to the grotto. The current Black Madonna, however, has been carbon-dated to the 12th century.

Black Madonnas may be found throughout the world, but the majority are located in France, although some did not survive the French Revolution. Some are found in out-of-the-way churches, not famous, but revered by local worshippers. 

There is a certain cult-like feeling about the reverence for the Black Madonna and of course, the opposite, hatred of a figure which seems disgusting when compared to the sexless Mary figure and which many wrongly associate with evil because of its dark colour. 

Hard to see the Roman theatre half in/half out of the sunlight

Below is the Temple of Augustus and Livia, constructed beginning in 20 - 10BC. Over the course of time, it has morphed into a church, a Temple of Reason, a commercial and Magistrates' court, a museum and a library. The monument was restored between 1853 and 1870

The Cathédral Saint-Maurice was undergoing some exterior renovation. The interior was very peaceful.

The side aisles were studded with alcoves - small chapels having side walls adorned with religious art and carvings.