Catholic World – Veronica, A Legend of Médoc

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Veronica; confessional of Saint Aloysius Church, Columbus, Ohio; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsSix or eight miles south of Cordouan in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of southwest France, is Soulac, amid the sand-dunes and salt marshes, with its antique church of Notre Dame de la Fin des Terres, held in great veneration by the sailors of the middle ages, and recently dug out of the sands in which it had been buried for one hundred and twenty years. In fact, it had been partly buried since the fourteenth century. Few churches have so strange a history as this. Tradition attributes its original foundation to the pious Veronica, on whose linen veil the weary Saviour, on his way to Calvary, left the impress of his sacred face. It was strange to come upon her traces on this distant shore, and we took great interest in hunting up all the local traditions respecting her. Lady Eastlake considers her de trop, both morally and pictorially, and regards her very existence as problematical; but we who have so often met her in the sorrowful Via Crucis, and pondered on the touching lesson she has left us, feel how utterly that somewhat stringent author is mistaken. Seraphia, Bernice, Beronica, or Veronica – no matter by what name she is called – is a being full of reality to us. As to her identity with the Syro-Phœnician woman of the Gospel, we are disposed to say with Padre Ventura: “It is not certain the hémorroïsse was the same as Veronica, but it is probable that she who had the wonderful favor of wiping the sweat and blood from the divine face of our Saviour was the same matron who touched the hem of his garment with so much courage and faith, and gave such a testimony to his divinity.” Even if the contrary were proved, this would not affect the ancient tradition respecting her apostolate in France, which modern research is far from shaking. Holy chroniclers of the middle ages assert that Veronica was not only an intimate friend of the Blessed Virgin, but one of the women whom Jesus healed of their infirmities and who consecrated themselves to his service, following him in his round of mercy, and aiding him with their substance. The learned Lucas of Bruges declares her positively the Syro-Phœnician woman healed by our Saviour, who, says Julian in his chronicles, lived part of the time at Jerusalem and part at Cæsarea of Philippi. Eusebius says he saw with his own eyes the monument she erected at Cæsarea in memory of her cure, on which she was represented at the feet of her divine Benefactor – a memorial destroyed by Julian the Apostate.

A Polish poet, Bohdan Zaleski, thus alludes to the traditional intimacy of Veronica with the Holy Family in lines full of graceful simplicity in the original:

“Joseph and Mary have lost the child Jesus at Jerusalem. Elizabeth comes to tell them he has been found. ‘It must be either in the Temple, then, or at Veronica’s,’ replies Mary.

“The Holy Family go to visit Elizabeth. Jesus, afar off, joyfully hails the aged matron, as well as Veronica, Martha, and Salome.

“Joseph makes the accustomed prayer to thank God for his gifts. Jesus breaks the bread and blesses it. Veronica passes around the basket and distributes the bread among the guests.”

Pilgrims for centuries have mentioned Veronica’s house as at the corner of a street near the spot where Jesus fell for the second time under the weight of his cross. She is said to have been the wife of Saint Amadour – the Zaccheus of the Scriptures, who in early life, says the legend, was in the service of the Blessed Virgin. He had watched over the childhood of Jesus, and this was why he was so joyful to receive him in his house. After the Crucifixion he and Veronica attached themselves anew to the service of Mary, with whom they remained till her glorious Assumption. According to a lesson in the breviary of Cahors – founded on an old manuscript of the tenth century by Hugo, Bishop of Angoulême, which Père Odo de Gissey, who collected all the traditions respecting Saint Amadour, declares he had seen – Saul, the persecutor of the church, wished to force Amadour and Veronica to return to the old law. They were condemned to die of hunger, but an angel of the Lord mercifully delivered them from the power of their persecutors and conducted them to a bark, ordering them to abandon themselves to the mercy of the waves and land wherever their boat should come to shore, there faithfully to serve Christ and his holy Mother.

One old chronicle says the demon invoked the winds, swelled the waves, and unchained the very furies against the frail bark. Death at every moment seemed at hand in its most frightful form. But the venerable matron, in the height of danger, seized the sacred relics she brought with her, and, raising them to heaven, invoked the assistance of God. Wonderful to relate, the storm at once ceased, a favorable breeze sprang up and brought the boat safely to the western coast of France to a place called Solac, in face of the setting sun. Here she built, as best she could, a church in honor of the blessed and glorious Virgin Mary, and deposited therein with due honor the holy relics of Our Lady she brought with her.

Bernard de la Guionie, a Dominican of the thirteenth century, says that, by a particular providence of God, they brought with them many precious relics of the Blessed Virgin, such as her hair and shoes, and even some of the Sanctum Lac that nourished the divine Word. It is generally believed this relic gave the name of Solac, or Soulac, to the place – Solum Lac, because the other relics of the Virgin were distributed among various churches. This relic was not once considered so extraordinary. It was not only venerated in many parts of Christendom as the symbol of the divine Motherhood, but it became a symbol of the supernatural eloquence and sweet doctrine of several doctors of the church. Every one who has visited the magnificent gallery at Madrid will remember Murillo’s beautiful painting representing Saint Bernard deriving the food that lent to his lips such sweet, persuasive eloquence from the pure breast of the gentle Deipara. The dignity and grace of the Virgin in this painting are something marvellous, and take away everything that might seem human from the subject.

We have all heard of the Grotto of Milk at Bethlehem, with its rock of offence to so many scoffing tourists. It is only those who have a profound faith in the Incarnation that venerate everything associated with the divine Infancy. Saint Louis of France built the beautiful Chapelle du Saint Lait in the Cathedral of Rheims to receive the relic that gave it its name. A like relic was venerated in the church of Mans in the time of Clovis. And a vial was borne before the army at the battle of Askalon, in 1224, which reminds one of Rubens’s painting at Brussels in which the Madonna bares her breast before the awful Judge, as if he could refuse nothing at the sight of the bosom on which he had so often been pillowed, and where he had been nourished. There is an old legend of a similar vial of this sacred laict being brought from the Holy Land by a pilgrim, who, weary, stopped one day to repose by a fountain near Evron, and hung the reliquary on the hawthorn bush that overshadowed him, and went to sleep. When he awoke, the bush had grown into a tree and the relic was far beyond his reach. He tried to cut the tree down with a hatchet, but could make no impression on the wood. Feeling an inward assurance this was the spot where Providence wished the relic to be honored, he gave it to the bishop, who built thereon a church, which became known as Notre Dame de l’Epine Sainte. The high altar enclosed the hawthorn tree. François de Châteaubriand, abbot of Evron in the sixteenth century, gave this church a beautiful reliquary of silver gilt, in the form of a church, beneath the dome of which was a tube for the relic. Devotion to this relic still exists at Evron.

But to return to Soulac. It is not surprising the Syro-Phœnician woman should come to this distant shore. We know by Strabo that the ancient Phœnicians and Carthaginians came to traffic on this coast, and even went to Great Britain. Soulac was probably the ancient Noviomagos spoken of by Ptolemy. The old legend of Cénebrun speaks of Veronica as la Dame Marie la Phénicienne, who came from the East under marvellous circumstances, learned the language of Médoc, and built a church beside which God caused a fountain of fresh, soft water to spring up out of the salt shore for the cure of tertian fevers so common in this region. Moreover, it appears she was in such constant relations with the governor of Bordeaux, appointed by Vespasian, that, to facilitate the intercourse between Soulac and the capital, a Roman road was constructed, “very level and as straight as a line – rectissimum sicut corda.” If Vespasian had anything to do with it, we may be sure it was straight; for we know how, to rectify a bend in the Flaminian Way, he bored a tunnel through a rock a thousand feet long.

It was at Bordeaux that Veronica converted Benedicta, a woman of distinguished birth, and the wife of Sigebert, a priest of the false gods, who, attacked by a cruel malady, and hearing of the marvels wrought by Saint Martial, said to Benedicta: “Go and bring the man of God; perhaps he will take pity on me.” Saint Martial gave her the miraculous staff of Saint Peter, at the touch of which Sigebert recovered the use of his limbs. He at once proceeded to Mortagne, accompanied by a great number of soldiers and other followers, all of whom were baptized by Saint Martial. At his return to Bordeaux he overthrew all the pagan altars, with the exception of one, which Saint Martial purified as a memorial of the triumph of the true faith. The inscription graven thereon is still to be seen in the museum at Bordeaux: Jovi Augusto Arula donavit. SS. Martialis cum templo et ostio sacravit – Arula gave this altar to Jupiter Augustus. Martial consecrated it with the temple and vestibule.

Benedicta continued to work miracles with Saint Peter’s staff, and greatly contributed to the propagation of the faith in the province. She died in the odor of sanctity, and was buried in the oratory of Saint Seurin at Bordeaux, where her remains are still honored on the 8th of June.

Sigebert, whose name signifies the powerful or courageous, became the first bishop of Bordeaux, where he is honored as a martyr under the name of Saint Fort. To his sanctum feretrum at Saint Seurin’s people formerly went to take solemn oaths.

The foregoing reference of the old chronicler to Vespasian reminds us of the part Veronica is said to have had in the destruction of Jerusalem. A curious old play of the middle ages tells us Vespasian was afflicted with the extraordinary inconvenience of a wasp’s nest in his nose, and, after trying every known means of dislodging it, sent for the great Physician of the Jews. Finding he had been put to death by his own nation, he demanded some of his followers, whereupon Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Veronica are said to have gone to Rome. The emperor expressing a desire to see a portrait of Christ, Veronica held up the Volto Santo before him, at the sight of which he was instantaneously healed. In his gratitude he vowed to take vengeance on the murderers of Jesus, which led to the destruction of Jerusalem. The connection between this legend and the traditional respect in which Veronica was held by Vespasian’s representative at Bordeaux is curious.

Some say it was Tiberius who was cured of the leprosy by the holy veil, which accounts for his leniency to the Christians and his placing a statue of Christ among the gods. These legends, confused by time, may be regarded as traces left by Veronica at Rome, where a constant tradition asserts she herself brought the Volto Santo.

This precious relic must have been in great repute to have been placed at Saint Peter’s in 707 by Pope John VII. When removed to the Santo Spirito, it was confided to six Roman noblemen, each of whom had one of the keys that gave access to it. For this service they annually received two cows at Whitsuntide, which were eaten with great festivities. In 1440 it was restored to Saint Peter’s, where it is preserved in a chamber within one of the immense piers that sustain the wondrous dome. None but a canon of the church can enter this chamber, but the Vera Iconica is annually exposed from the balcony. It seems to have all the solemn gravity traditional in the Greek representations of our Saviour. Petrarch respectfully speaks of it as the verendam populis Salvatoris Imaginem.

Veronica’s statue is beneath – one of the guardians that stand around the tomb of the apostles. Perhaps she came to Rome with Saint Martial; for there are traces of her wherever he announced the Gospel. Else remembers their visit, and says, when they left its walls, they directed their course towards Gaul. Mende and Cahors carefully treasure the shoes of the Virgin she brought, and Puy has some of her hair. Saint Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence, says that, according to the ancient traditions of the churches of Italy and France, Amadour and his wife Veronica accompanied Saint Martial to Gaul. And Saint Bonaventure, the great Franciscan, in the thirteenth century, in one of his homilies, represents Saint Veronica in a humble cabin at Pas-de-Grave visited by Saint Martial.

Saint Amadour embraced the solitary life, and is believed to have been the first hermit of Aquitaine. His whole life is painted on the walls of the subterranean chapel at Roc Amadour, where he died. The inscriptions attached to these frescoes thus sum up the legend respecting him:

1. Zaccheus, because he is small and unable to see Jesus in the crowd, climbs up into a sycamore-tree. Jesus, perceiving him, says: Zaccheus, make haste and come down; for to-day I must abide at thy house.

2. Zaccheus is Jesus’ disciple. Veronica, his wife, becomes one of Mary’s attendants. They are persecuted for the faith, but an angel comes to deliver them from the prison in which they are confined.

3. An angel orders Zaccheus and Veronica to put to sea and land at whatever port the vessel shall enter, there to serve Christ, and Mary his holy Mother.

4. The vessel arrives on the coast of Médoc at a place called Soulac, where they live in fasting and prayer. Saint Martial visits them and blesses an oratory they have erected in honor of Saint Stephen.

5. Zaccheus, at the order of Saint Martial, goes to Rome to see Saint Peter. Saint Veronica remains in the Bordelais country, where she dies. Zaccheus returns to Soulac, where he erects two monasteries and retires from the world.

6. Saint Amadour, in the year of our Lord 70, chooses as his hermitage and place of retreat a cliff inhabited by wild beasts, since known as Roc Amadour.

7. The inhabitants of the country are almost savages. Saint Amadour catechises them and makes known the religion of our Lord Jesus Christ.

8. Saint Amadour erects an altar on the cliff in honor of Mary. This humble altar, now so glorious, is consecrated by the blessed apostle Martial, who visits our saint several times in his retreat.

9. Saint Amadour, at the approach of death, is transported before the altar of Mary, where he expires.

Veronica herself is said to have carried in her apron the turf or clay which served to build the chapel of Soulac. It was a mere cabin, which, with the spring, was enclosed in the church built at a later period. This was probably destroyed by the Normans when they ravaged the coast of France to the terror of the people, who doubtless joined heartily in the verse then added to the liturgy, beginning:

Auferte gentem perfidam
Credentium de finibus, etc.

According to the traditions of Aquitaine, Veronica lived to a great age, and, if already in the Temple at the Presentation of the Virgin, she must have been about a century old at her death. She is believed to have died about the year 70. She was, at first buried with great honor at Soulac in the oratory she had so signally endowed. It was Sigebert, or Saint Fort, who, says tradition, went to Soulac to pay her the last honors. It was long the custom of the bishops of the diocese, before taking possession of their see, to visit her tomb, and render homage to the venerable traditions of the place. Her remains were afterwards carried for safety to Bordeaux, where her tomb, of the Roman style, is still to be seen in the crypt of Saint Seurin. She is said to have been of uncommon stature, and this has been confirmed by the recent examination of her remains, so wonderfully preserved amid the storms of so many ages. Placed under the seal of the archbishops of Bordeaux, and watched over with religious care, a source of miraculous grace, and the object of popular veneration, they have escaped the perils of wars and civil commotions. Cardinal de Sourdis, who opened her tomb in 1616, said her festival had been celebrated in his diocese from time immemorial on the 4th of February.

Her remains were carefully examined a few years since by a learned anatomist, who not only declared them of great antiquity, but said the articulation of certain bones showed the advanced age at which she died. Thus science comes to the aid of tradition. The popular belief as to her majestic stature was likewise confirmed by this examination.

Veronica’s oratory, probably destroyed by the Normans, as we have said, was afterwards rebuilt by the Benedictines, but at what precise time is doubtful. We only know there was a monastery at Soulac in 1022, which became dependent on that of Sainte Croix at Bordeaux. In 1043 Ama, Countess of Périgord, gave the lands of Médrin to the monastery of Sancta Maria de Finibus Terræ, ob remedium animæ suæ necnon parentum suorum, to relieve the poverty of the monks who there served God and worthily fulfilled their duty. An old Benedictine chronicle says the devotion of the faithful towards this holy spot increased to such a degree that the monks were soon enabled to build a larger church, which they enriched with much silver and many relics. This was in the twelfth century. This church, of the Roman style, to which the Benedictines were partial, enclosed the miraculous fountain of Saint Veronica, which had always been in great repute, and had an altar to her memory where solemn oaths were administered as at the tomb of Saint Fort. Her statue stood over the fountain, and, before leaving the church, the devout, after drinking of the water and bathing their eyes, used to cross themselves and make a reverence to “Madame Saincte Véronique.”

This church was no sooner completed than it began to be invaded by the sands, which every year grew higher and higher. The lateral doors had to be walled up, and the pavement raised three times to be on a level with the sands without. Veronica’s fountain was kept open, but soon became a well. The monastery and town finally disappeared under the dunes in the latter part of the thirteenth century. The monks returned when the sands were stayed. They found the church filled to the chancel arch and the capitals of the pillared nave. They removed part of the roof, raised the Avails, and so arranged the church that it continued to be used till devastated by the Calvinists of the sixteenth century. It was hardly repaired before the sands besieged it anew and soon buried it utterly, with the exception of the top of the belfry, which a boy could easily scale, presenting a curious and picturesque appearance on the lone shore. Under Louis XV. the open arches of this steeple became a kind of light-house, and the pines sown by Brémontier soon took root among the arches of the church totally hidden in the sands.

Tradition says Soulac was once important as a port, and alive with commercial activity. Henry III of England embarked at old Soulac for Portsmouth about the middle of the thirteenth century, which shows how extensive have been the sand deposits since. Once the church was so near the water that in great storms the foundations were washed by the waves, though built on a slight acclivity. It appears by documents still preserved at Bordeaux that the sands in 1748 covered the greater part of Soulac, causing the loss of many salt marshes and other sources of revenue. Many other parishes on the shores of Médoc have wholly disappeared. The church of La Canau was rebuilt three times before the moving sands. Sainte Hélène has transported hers ten kilometres, leaving behind what is now an islet with a few trees to mark the spot where it once stood, still called by the people Senta Lénotte, or Ste. Hélenotte – that is, little Saint Helen.

Saint Pierre de Lignan, or, as called in old titles, Sanctus Petrus in Ligno – Saint Peter on the Wood, or Cross – said to have been originally built by Zaccheus, or Saint Amadour, in memory of the martyrdom of the apostle, which he had witnessed at Rome, has been abandoned two hundred years, and now lies under the waves of the ocean.

Pauillac, sung by Ausonius in his epistle to Théon:

“Pauliacus tanti non mihi villa foret,”
is likewise half-buried in the sands.

But to return to Soulac. The thirteenth century was the most glorious era in the history of Notre Dame de la Fin des Terres. Its popularity was at that time increased by a terrible pestilence that visited Médoc. The people had recourse to prayer, and went in crowds to the sanctuary of Soulac, vowing to renew their pilgrimage annually. The most noted of these pilgrimages was that of Lesparre, a small town which excited our interest by its reminiscences of the English occupation of the country. Its ruined fortifications; the square tower, sole remnant of the ancient castle, and the church with its Saxon arches and coarse sculpture – all bespeak great antiquity. In the twelfth century the castle and village around it were held by Baron Eyquem, a contentious lord, who liked nothing better than a brush with his neighbors. Perhaps it was this quarrelsome turn of mind that recommended the lords of Lesparre so strongly to the favor of the English sovereigns. Henry III of England summoned Baron Eyquem to his aid at Paris. The baron’s son also served the same king with all the forces he could muster, and Henry so counted on his devotedness that, in 1244, after promising to reward his services, he commissioned him to aid by his sword and counsel in repelling the King of Navarre, who had invaded Guienne. During the entire contest between England and France the Sires of Lesparre remained faithful to the English; and when the last hour of English rule in the country sounded, the Baron de Lesparre took the lead in an effort to replace Guienne under its dominion. He went secretly to England with the lord of Candale and several notable citizens of Bordeaux to assure the king that the whole country would rise in his favor as soon as the banner of Saint George should be once more seen on the Gironde. The English eagerly responded by sending the valiant Earl of Shrewsbury,

“The Frenchman’s only scourge,
Their kingdom’s terror, and black Nemesis,”

to Bordeaux, but their last chance was lost by the defeat at Castillon in 1453, in which the gallant old earl, immortalized by Shakspere – doubly immortalized – was slain. The Baron de Lesparre was banished, and the following year beheaded at Poitiers for breaking his bounds. Charles VII of France then gave the Seigneurie de Lesparre to the Sire d’Albret, to whom in part he owed the triumph of his arms.

Lesparre having lost two-thirds of its inhabitants by a pestilence, the remainder, in their terror, went to prostrate themselves before the altar of Notre Dame de la Fin des Terres, and made a solemn vow to return every year, if spared. The account of this annual pilgrimage reminds one of the caravans of the desert. The pilgrims were divided into two bands. A part were mounted on horseback, preceded by the cross-bearer and the curé; the rest followed on foot with baskets and sacks of provisions. The four bells of Notre Dame de Lesparre pealed joyfully out over the marshes to announce their departure. They stopped at every chapel they came to, to salute its tutelar saint by some hymn in his honor, and then kept on their way, chanting the litanies. Most of these chapels were dedicated to saints specially invoked in time of pestilence; for every grief of the middle ages left its record in the churches. There was Saint Catharine, always popular in this region. Then came Saint Sebastian, now destroyed, but which gave the name of La Capère (the chapel) to a little village we passed, and Saint Roch still standing at Escarpon. As soon as the caravan came in sight of the belfry of Soulac, on a height between Saint Vivian and Talais, the pilgrims descended from their horses to salute the Virgin on their knees. Arrived at the holy sanctuary, each one offered his candle streaming with ribbons – a necessary adjunct in all religious offerings in Médoc. An enormous mass of these old ribbons have been preserved at new Soulac. After their devotions the pilgrims went out on the seashore to take their lunch. The next day they returned to Lesparre in the same order. This annual pilgrimage was continued for five centuries, which accounts for the vivid recollections of it among the people. Near the manor-house of the Baron d’Arès, now buried in an immense dune, flowed a fountain as late as 1830, but since filled up, where the pilgrims stopped to quench their thirst, with the pious belief that Saint Veronica had brought here a vein of the sacred spring that flowed for the healing of the people in her sanctuary.

Lesparre, once the capital of Médoc, has now only about a thousand inhabitants. From the tower there is an extensive view over the broad moor with its patches of yellow sand, here and there an oasis with a few vegetables, and perhaps an acre or two of oats, barley, or maize, which grow as they can. In winter this vast heath becomes a marsh. The water stands in pools among the sand-hills. The peasant shuts himself up with his beasts, and warms himself by the peat-fire, while the pools freeze and the sands grow white under the icy breath of the sea-winds.

Saint Veronica’s Church, so venerated in the middle ages, has within a few years been dug out of the sands and repaired. The miraculous statue of Notre Dame de la Fin des Terres has been restored to its place on her altar, and, after a silence of one hundred and twenty years, the bell once more awakens the echoes of the sand-hills, thanks to the interest taken by Cardinal Donnet in reviving a devotion to this ancient place of pilgrimage. Veronica is once more honored in the place where she died – a devotion that seems significant in these times. Perhaps she comes to hold up anew the bleeding face of Christ for the healing of the nations. The Volto Santo is said to have turned pale a few years since when exhibited at Rome. We may well believe it, in view of all the wounds since inflicted on Christ’s Bride – the church. “O Veronica!” cries Padre Verruchino, a Capuchin friar, “suffer us, we pray thee, to gaze awhile at thy holy veil for the healing of our sin-sick souls!”

– text taken from the May 1877 edition of Catholic World magazine, author unknown