Legends of the Blessed Virgin – The Chorister of Our Lady of Puy

Legends of the Blessed Virgin, by Jacques-Albin-Simon Collin de Plancy“Powerful Virgin.”

I. THE HOLY IMAGE.

Greatly prized by pious Christians is the ancient Church of our Lady of Puy-en-Velay. It has been frequented by pilgrims of every description for many ages. Thither went kings in all their pomp, and beggars in all their poverty; youthful hearts full of ardour, sick hearts full of hope, broken hearts seeking support, mothers, daughters, religious, and warriors. And when the joyous festival of the Annunciation happened to fall on the same day as Good Friday, there might be seen, as in 1842, as many as fifty thousand pilgrims assembled within the walls of Puy-en-Velay.

They who look upon legends as mere simple popular traditions not worthy of serious attention, fall into a great error, for legends have often a connection with memorable events.

Thus, with regard to this vast assemblage of pilgrims, which the coincidence of the Annunciation and Good Friday falling on the same day drew to Puy, be it known, that Bernard of Thuringia, a holy hermit ,in the tenth century, believing himself to be endowed with the gift of prophecy, predicted that the world would end in the year in which the festival of the Annunciation of our Lady, ever-blessed prelude to man’s redemption, should occur on the same day as that on which this great redemption was consummated. Such a prediction coining from so respected a source, and being very generally spread among the people, caused universal alarm in the year 1842, in which Easter-day fell on the 27th day of March. This terror was particularly apparent through the southern provinces of France. The Church of our Lady of Puy had long been celebrated; crowds of faithful sought its sanctuary as one peculiarly favoured by Mary; there they prayed before one of those venerated images, to which she would seem to impart an especial celebrity, by the manifestation of her favour to those who kneel before them. The Holy See, always in advance in the march of intellect, ever prompt to check superstitious and foolish ideas, calmed the general fear by denying the prophecy, and enriched the Church of Puy with extraordinary indulgences for such years as the Annunciation and Good Friday came on the same day, in the form of a jubilee. Fears were dissipated; the prediction was falsified; for the world was as large as ever on the first day of the year 1843.

The origin of the Church of Puy is thus recorded: In the ancient language of Auvergne, the word puy means a mountain. A Gaulish lady, who had been baptized by Saint Evodius, first Bishop of Puy, was attacked with a dangerous sickness. Believing her end to be at hand, she fancied she heard a supernatural voice, which told her that she would recover her health on the top of a puy, or mountain, near her dwelling. She caused herself to be carried there, and when her bed had been placed on the volcanic rock, she fell into a deep sleep. While in this state, she saw a lady of surpassing beauty, surrounded by attendant celestial beings. The sick woman exclaimed, “Who is this gracious and beauteous Queen, who comes to visit me in my sickness?”

“It is the Queen of Heaven, and of us its inhabitants,” replied an angel. “She has a desire to consecrate this rock, and wishes you to inform the bishop, her servant, of her will, and in proof of this vision, she has granted you your health: arise, and walk!”

Immediately the vision disappeared, the sick woman awoke, and left her bed perfectly healed. She at once hastened to the bishop and related her vision to him, of the truth of which her presence and cure were a sufficient testimony. Saint Evodius ascended the rock, and to his amazement, it being the month of July, beheld its summit covered with snow. While he remained contemplating what this should mean, a stag leaped out of a neighbouring thicket, and with his feet traced out the plan of a church upon the snow, and then fled back to the wood. The bishop had the lines thus marked, surrounded by a palisade, and in a few days laid the stone of the first Cathedral of Puy. Such is the ancient tradition, which dates from the sixth century.

Another circumstance tended to render this foundation still more illustrious. Some children of the Cross, who, before the first crusade, were loath to die before having made the “pilgrimage of Palestine, returned to Puy, bringing with them a famous image of the Blessed Virgin. It was under the dynasty of our first kings. Touching relations and wondrous events were told of the statue. It was black, and was undoubtedly one of the most ancient figures of the Holy Mother of God.

We will here give the description of this image by Faujas de Saint Fond. The author was permitted to examine the statue minutely; and though of the modern philosophic school, he declares it to be the most ancient one in France.

“It is placed over a Roman altar, surmounted by a canopy. Both our Lady and her child are black. She is covered with a large mantle of cloth of gold, covered with precious stones and other enrichments. Her feet are covered with shoes of the same stuff, and her head is adorned with a crown, of antique form, somewhat like an ancient helmet. Another crown of richer work and material is suspended over the figure. Bows of small pearls hang from the back of the head like hair; the eyes are painted, and have small hemispheric pieces of glass or crystal, which give them great lustre. The image is about two feet and a half high. Our Lady is seated in the manner of the ancient divinities of Egypt. The execution of the work is rude, and such as might be expected from the hands of primitive workmen. Its material is cedar-wood, covered with small bands of linen, pasted over the wood in a very skillful manner, according to the Egyptian fashion.”

From his examination of it, Saint Fond declared it to be an Egyptian statue. He wrote in 1777.

Many wonderful miracles have been wrought by the intercession of our Lady of Buy. Her shrine has been visited by Popes Urban II and Gelasius II, and by Louis VII, Philip Augustus, Saint Louis, Philip the Bold, Philip the Fair, Charles VI, Charles VII, Louis XI, Francis I, kings of France, and many other princes. What must not have been the effect of the example of so many eminent personages in increasing the popular devotion to this ancient image of the Mother of Jesus, which is said to have been brought from a little temple of the Arabs, who were the first to honour Mary, and had carved her figure after the Egyptian manner.

We give the following account of the image of our Lady of Puy, without, however, vouching for the authenticity of the details.

When the shepherds who had come to adore the Child of Bethlehem left the stable, they retired, says the holy text, praising God and spreading through the mountains the wonders of that sacred night on which the Saviour of the world was born. These happy tidings reached a tribe of Arabs on the confines of Egypt, who came to see our Lady and her Divine Infant. On their return they carved her image, representing her seated with her Holy Child on her lap. This figure they attached to one of the columns of the Kaaba, and placed her in the number of their divinities. This fact is mentioned by Arabian historians. El Azhraki relates that the figure of the Virgin Mary, with the young Aissa (Jesus) upon her knees, was sculptured as a divinity against one of the columns of the Kaaba (or sacred dwelling), and that it was to be seen there at the time of Mahomet.

This same tribe of Arabs who first adored Jesus in his Mother’s arms, when they heard of the massacre of the Innocents, rose in a body, says El Azhraki, and made war against King Herod, which did not subside till some time in the reign of his son.

Now, this is said to be the ancient image venerated at Puy, and, as may well be conceived, is the object of Mary’s great complacence. When this holy representation of our Lady had been placed in the chapel erected by Saint Evodius, numerous habitations were erected around it, which soon formed the town of Puy.

Besides the graces which have been obtained by votaries at her shrine, our dear Lady has blessed the surrounding country. Holy saints and zealous missionaries have arisen under her shadow, and it was before her that the pious Adhemar de Monteil, Bishop of Puy, vowed to join himself with Godfrey de Bouillon in the first crusade. And when, at the close of the second crusade, France was infested with bands of robbers, who covered the highways, robbing travellers, burning castles, and pillaging villages, it was under the banner of our Lady of Puy that the bishops established the Confraternity of Knights of the Blessed Virgin, one of the noblest branches of that ancient order of knight-errantry, whose mission was to pursue bandits, succour the oppressed, and, clearing the country from invaders, to restore peace and happiness.

The church of our Lady of Puy had many privileges. Its canons were allowed to wear mitres. Kings and dauphins of France were honorary canons from their birth, The treasury of the church was very rich. One of its most precious possessions was a magnificently illuminated copy of the New Testament, presented in 836 by Theodolphus, Bishop of Orleans, to our Lady of Puy, as a thanksgiving for his deliverance from the prison of Angers, on Palm Sunday, by Louis the Gracious. This manuscript, in a very good state of preservation, may be still seen among the archives of the bishopric of Puy.

II. THE YOUNG CHORISTER.

The event we are about to relate is extracted from a large collection of wondrous legends. A few years only have elapsed since it possessed an intense interest, from the extraordinary revelations concerning the present Jews in Asia, which were made public in the official interrogatories (translated from the Arabic) concerning the murder of Father Thomas and his servant, at Damascus, on the 5th of February, 1840. But to our legend.

Among the choristers who assisted at the offices in our Lady’s Church at Puy, in 1325, was an amiable youth, cherished by all the city for his mildness, docility, and tender devotion to our Lady, as well as for his sweet clear voice. Never was this voice so brilliant and thrilling as on those festivals dear to the children of Mary, when its sharp clear tones rose on high and reverberated along the aisles of the ancient cathedral. So marvellously brilliant was his sweet voice at the midnight mass of one Christmas, that the principal people of the city resolved to surprise him with some mark of their esteem on the following morning. But when they approached his parents’ dwelling for this purpose, they found it filled, not with joyous feelings, but with deep despair; for they had lost their son. He had been seen to enter the crowd on emerging from the cathedral after mass, but no one had either seen or heard of him since.

Search was made in vain. Citizens and clergy, fathers and sons, magistrates and nobles, sent and went to seek him in all directions. They all returned unsuccessful. Every trace of the boy was as completely lost as if, says the legend, “he had been invisibly taken up to heaven.”

Never was Christmas time spent so drearily in the city of Puy.

What had become of the sweet singing-boy? A Jew, whose passion had been roused at hearing the Christmas carol, announcing the birth of Jesus, sung by the Christian youth in tones of such exultant joy – a Jew, whose rabbis had asserted that to kill a Christian was a good act, and no murder, had seized the child at the corner of a dark deserted street, gagged him, carried him to his dwelling, and there secretly and quietly murdered him, believing he was performing a religious and praiseworthy action. The body was easily disposed of without risk of discovery.

The fanatic, flushed with the success of his first immolation, determined on sacrificing another little infidel (as he called the Christians) at Easter tide. He again sought for a victim from the body of choristers.

Knowing there would be a procession on Palm Sunday, he left his house, and lingered about the cathedral. The sacred banners and veiled cross soon met his view. Piously the faithful followed, bearing their blessed palms, and joining in the loud Hosanna. Little thought the murderer that his death-knell sounded.

As the procession passed him at the foot of the steps, which rise before the western door of the cathedral, a great confusion ensued; for the long-lost chorister appeared and took his place among his companions. He had been taken from the tomb by a powerful hand, he said, and appeared to tell them the manner of his death, and to stay the murderous hand of his destroyer, who sought another victim. He then related the circumstances of his murder; and, pointing out the terrified Jew, denounced him as the culprit.

The people ran to the Jew’s house, which they soon demolished, and having discovered the body of the chorister, which was uncorrupted, they carried and laid it before the image of our Lady in the cathedral. The Jew’s sentence was soon pronounced. He was stoned to death by the populace.

Did this extraordinary occurrence rest on the mere testimony of good simple people; if it were a mere legend unsupported by any authority, a narration of some credulous chronicler, many readers might think they showed a ready wit in proclaiming it to be “a mere fiction,” a very easy mode of rejecting any wonderful occurrence. But King Charles the Fair, who came to Puy as our Lady’s pilgrim, had a correct account of the facts drawn up and certified; and with the advice of his council, drove the Jews out of Puy. In addition, he granted a diploma to the choristers, by which they were entitled to try such Jews as were found attempting to enter the city. And on several occasions did the youths assemble and give their judgment on such cases as were brought before them, which sentences none could set aside.