Legends of the Blessed Virgin – Our Lady’s Image

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

They who have never visited the towns and villages of a Catholic country, cannot conceive the feeling of delight with which the pious traveller is affected at the sight of those monuments of piety and religious recollection, which, in the shape of crucifixes, images of the Blessed Virgin, and favourite saints, are placed at the angle of streets, in squares, and public places, on bridges, fountains, and obelisks, or between the stalls of a village market or fair. These works of popular art and devotion, formerly existed in great cities also, recalling to the passenger’s mind thoughts of the object and end of his earthly pilgrimage. They also served a benevolent purpose, and exercised a civilizing influence over the passions of men. Many a pure spring would have been adulterated but for the presence of its presiding saint. Often has the revengeful spirit of an enemy been appeased, when on the point of immolating his victim, by the sight of a man-god suffering for all mankind. The poor soul of some betrayed girl plunged in deep despair and meditating self-destruction, passes on her way the figure of our Lady of Sorrows, and falling on her knees, obtains comfort and strength from the Mother of Holy Hope and sweet consolation. Again, in ancient times, cities were but badly lighted, and towns not at all. Piety supplied this deficiency. Each statue or holy image had its little lantern, which gave honour to the saint and light to the locality.

Some pretended philosophers may sneer at these objects of popular devotion. But have they ever considered the benefits of which they have been the source, the evils they have remedied, the griefs they have calmed, and the crimes they have stayed? Among the cities nearest our shores, Antwerp is one which has most fully preserved this mediaeval custom, and contains innumerable pious souvenirs of the ages of faith. Paris was formerly equally distinguished. “At the corner of every street,” writes the Abbé Orsini, “a little image of Mary rose from amidst a heap of flowers, which the pious people of the neighbourhood renewed each morning as soon as the trumpets from the towers of Chatelet announced the break of day. During the night lamps burnt constantly before them, illuminating their little grey niches, and on Saturdays their number was greatly increased. This was the first attempt to light the streets. A poor illumination, perhaps, when compared to our modern gaslights, yet had it one great advantage over ours, for to it was added a pious object, which excited the people to holy reflection. The silver lights of the Madonna’s shrines shot forth at intervals like a string of stars from their flowery beds, and seemed to say to those who wandered abroad with ill intent, ‘There watches over this city, wrapt in slumber, an eye that never closes, but which sees through all our hearts – the eye of God.'”

One of these Madonnas, which occupied its little niche at the corner of the streets, Des Ours and Salle-an-Comte, gained great celebrity by an event, the details of which are somewhat obscure, and have given savants much room for disputation. It would appear from the popular tradition, that one night, at a very early period, a drunken man left an in where he had lost all his money, took offence at the innocent image, and struck it several blows with his dagger. Whether, to show her sense of the indignity, our Lady caused blood to flow from her statue, or that the criminal had cut his hand in his daring outrage, the bystanders were amazed to see the holy image covered with blood. They pursued the man; but some persons fearing the popular rage if allowed to vent itself upon its victim, concealed him, and the people to satisfy themselves, made an effigy of the wretch and burnt it before the image, as some expiation for the insult.

In commemoration of this event, an annual procession took place on the 3rd of July, in which an immense effigy fifteen feet high was carried, and afterwards burned in the evening, accompanied by a display of fireworks. This latter part of the ceremony was wisely forbidden by the magistrates in 1745.

The gigantic figures which were burnt in the Rue des Ours, and in many other places, as in Alsatia and Lorraine, have a very different origin from that supposed by some authors, (who derive the custom from pagan times,) and has rather an anti-pagan and entirely Christian meaning.

Who has not seen a representation of an enormous figure of the human shape, composed of osier work, in which the Druids of Helvetia and of Germany, burnt human victims; a sort of monster idol, which was consumed itself with its holocaust? The apostles of these countries, after having planted that first instrument of civilization, the cross, retained these figures and burnt them, not indeed filled with human bodies, but with branches of trees and other instruments of pagan worship. And in many countries a colossal figure is burnt every year, in commemoration of some person or event, as in the Rue des Ours, on the 3rd of July, within the octave of the feasts of Saints Peter and Paul, and at other places on the 3rd of May, a day consecrated to the triumphs of the cross.