As the mother goddess observed her people she felt the strength of their love, knowing it would not be enough to save her from the darkness at the bottom of a Roman well. And so it was. There she lay broken by the evangelical priest Regnobert, her fate celebrated ever after in story telling carvings on the chapel then Basilica of Douvres-la-Délivrande.
Quietly she waited for 1500 years to pass and the arrival of her rescuer; a hated oppressor in a second world war.
Regnobert the rebel
Young Regnobert rebelled against his conservative parents, who followed the old ways and worshiped traditional idols on Mount Phaunus just outside the town that became Bayeux. It is late in the 6th century and times are changing. Regnobert becomes part of a community worshiping a new religion, a gospel spoken in a tiny chapel now ‘blessed’ and dedicated to a distant virgin.
Here the priest Exupère’s talk of Christianity gave Regnobert’s life meaning. Regnobert knew he must dedicate his life to one god and encourage others to do the same. He would found a new chapel dedicated to the holy virgin.
300 years after the birth of Christ, Regnobert left Bayeux and headed north east towards the coast and a pagan centre of worship over a thousand years old.
Here Regnobert shared Christian stories, prayed, blessed and vigorously disapproved of their pagan ways. But it was one dramatic act that convinced the crowds. Regnobert and a small band of new disciples dragged the most sacred object, a 1.4m statue of Demeter the mother goddess, made of local limestone, out of town. Some distance away from her ancient home he smashed her into 6 pieces and threw them down an old well.
When he was not struck down by a thunderbolt for his desecration, the population started to listen to Regnobert. When their crops continued to grow and children to be born, his chapel was built.
The first black Madonna and child
Pride of place was taken by a new statue of a beautiful woman, centuries younger than the goddess; the virgin Mary clasping her divine child. If the curve of her chin and the straightness of her nose looked reassuringly familiar to the local converts they said nothing. Her story came from east of the Mediterranean and it was this heritage that most noticed first. Mother and child were black.
Regnobert died Bishop of Bayeux in 627 and soon became a saint.
A terrifying cloud
Over the next five hundred years Christianity replaced the old pagan gods and blessed shrines became the sites of Christian churches. Then a terrifying cloud appeared on the Gallic horizon. Vikings.
In 830 Viking hordes crashed into northern France. They destroyed ancient communities, burned chapels and smashed precious relics, stealing anything they saw as valuable. As soon as appalling rumours of their arrival reached the priests, they buried their beloved statue of the virgin and child, just before the chapel was burned to the ground. Those who hid her or who knew about her were either killed, moved away or thought her lost.
Two hundred years later, it was the peculiar behaviour of a sheep and a puzzled shepherd who changed the fate of the Madonna and her child.
When his sheep were herded together and led to rich grasses every time one would leave the group and march off to a distant corner of the field by some old stone walls. It refused to eat while staying fat and healthy and kept kicking at the ground.
The shepherd asked his master Beaudoin Reviers, Lord of Douvres for his opinion on this strange problem.
Heavens above, and down on earth
Lord Douvres knew a heavenly warning when he saw one and had his men dig the earth. To everyone’s joy soon the curiously undamaged statue of Madonna emerged from her hiding place, still clutching her holy child.
A proud and emotional procession carried Madonna and child high as they walked the miles back to their village.
Magic and mystery
The next day she had gone. The mystery was soon solved by Lord Douvres’ shepherd who left his fields to find out why the statue was back by the old stones. No joke had been played, it was a mystery. When it happened again Lord Douvres made a very sensible decision.
He had a chapel built around the statue and there she stayed for many hundreds of years, the beloved focus of prayers to cure ill health, infertility, unemployment and celibacy. So successful were these prayers that pilgrims soon came from across France to pray at the feet of the black virgin and child.
Kidnapped at sea
One of her many miracles was told by visitors to Douvres in July 1642. Shipmaster Isaac le Gros came to the church with Etienne Deschamps his pilot and Pierre Relay, Guillaume Roumission and Guillaume le Gros, mariners. They told a story of kidnap by Turks, of torture, terror and being chained inside a galley for three days. In fear for their lives they prayed to the Madonna. As they did so their chains fell from the walls of the ship and they were able to escape. Making the pilgrimage to Normandy they thankfully presented to a surprised priest the very metal cuffs of their imprisonment.
Destruction and rebirth
In the 16th century French religious wars did what centuries in the soil could not and the statue was destroyed by Protestant fanatics. Unimpressed, the people of the town quickly arranged for a replacement to be made, as close to the old image as possible. When she took her place within the chapel in 1572 pilgrims flocked to Douvres, calling her “Virgo Liberatrix”, the Virgin freed.
A cure for Cholera
Possibly the most dramatic answer to prayers happened in 1832 when the town was devastated by Cholera. 70 people from a population of 800 had died in agony and more were ill. The priest decided their Madonna must be taken to her people, so they could pray directly for her help. A solemn procession carried Madonna and child though the streets. As they walked all that could be heard was the murmur of prayers and the soft footfall of the priest and his anxious cortege. Their prayers were answered.
Like a cloud the cholera lifted and disappeared from the town. In thanks Douvres added to its name ‘Delivrance’. Or so say the Christian priests. Others remember a ancient name for the village made up of delle (Scandi for land) YV (shortening of celtic words for water) Rand (border) delleYVRand.
Papal approval and a new frock
The remarkable abilities of the black Madonna and child did not go unnoticed and on 22 August 1872 they were crowned by Papal Legate, a representative of of Pius IX.
For this grand occasion the statues’ carved clothing was dressed for the first time in a gown of shining, real, gold.
In celebration of this papal approval, the Bishop of Bayeux decreed that every year the crowned Madonna and child would be carried through the streets of Douvres-la-Délivrande, and so they are, on the first Saturday after 15th August.
For this annual festival Madonna and child are dressed in beautiful clothes donated by grateful pilgrims.
A German soldier betrays his country
Through all this the mother goddess was still far down in an old Roman well, undiscovered even by sheep. It took the building by German occupiers of the Atlantic Wall defenses to uncover her.
As foundations were dug near St Aubin-sur-Mer, to build blockhouses and gun emplacements, German officer and amateur archaeologist Eugen Eble recognised with great excitement the stones and brickwork of a Roman building. He quitly undertook a minor excavation.
Just north of the villa’s temple he found a well and within it some oddly shaped rocks. At last the mother goddess was free.
Eugen’s love of history was fortunately a little stronger than his love for his country. When he recognised what the heap of 6 stones were, he kept quiet. Somehow, he stealthily took each piece to the local pharmacist, to be hidden from his superiors who would have demanded this treasure be sent away to a Nazi museum. His bravery saved the goddess for France.
After the war the goddess was sent to the university of Caen to be studied and carefully put back together. She now sits in the Normandy museum at Caen, formally recognises as a historical monument in 1951. A duplicate can be seen in the St Aubin tourist office.
It is unlikely she will be returned to Douvres-la-Délivrande, perhaps there is only room for one goddess in that small town.
Best dressed Madonna and child
The beautiful Madonna and child at Douvres-la-Délivrande have a wardrobe of 33 outfits, each one a work of art. Volunteers care for the garments that date back to the first robes created for her in 1872. Every six weeks or for a special celebration the outfit is changed. there are long discussions to decide which set of robes will be worn for the annual festival. Until she emerges into daylight on that August day, the decision is top secret.
Her robes include one made of Japanese silk embroidered with black and white threads in lace like patterns, some dark blue velvet embroidered with gold, a set in bright turquoise with pink floral bouquets, many white silk outfits embellished with flowers and patterns. Each item is exquisite.
Perhaps the most remarkable robes are those donated in 1960. They were presented by the Parisian fashion designer Maria ‘Nina’ Ricci who chose, at the age of 70, to give thanks for her life in the best way she knew how. With beautiful clothes. This glamorous golden creation of sculpted elegance is constructed in stiff, rich fabric embroidered with curving leaves and the words ‘Thanks be to God’.
Meet the black Madonna and child
The Basilica is open every day. The museum of the Madonna’s robes is open all year, by appointment. In addition to her marvelous dresses and coats, there are rare liturgical vestments as well as objects of worship.
The black Madonna and child at Douvres-la-Délivrande are still a popular focus for devotion and she is as busy as ever answering prayers for health, infertility, unemployment, celibacy and more recently domestic violence and alcoholism.
- Visit the Douvres-la-Délivrande town website (Fr) with more history of the Basilica and town –view in Chrome to have the pages translated.
- Download the archaeological study of the excavations and recovery of the mother goddess by Eugen Eble (Fr).
- Museum of Normandy website current home of the mother goddess.
Sunlight through glass onto interior walls of Basilica Notre Dame de la Délivrande
Postcard of the black Madonna and child at Douvres-la-Délivrande