Saturday, August 16, 2014

Assumption Day at Chartres

Getting ready
Once a year at Chartres, the Virgin Mary steps out. It is Assumption Day, a feast day (and national holiday in France) to celebrate her elevation by angels into heaven and here, in this small town in central France whose cathedral stands massive and monumental all other days of the year, it occasions an outpouring of human devotion and care that seeks to meet the divine mercy and kindness accorded to her. Her presence in this statue marks both the long medieval tradition of the Black Madonna (enshrouded in Druidic lore by early modern historians of Chartres) and the 19th-century resurgence of Catholic devotion (this statue of dark pear wood was made in 1837 to replace the medieval one destroyed by the Revolution in 1792). It heralds her reach from the crypt of the cathedral to the buildings and inhabitants of the town to the crops that surround it. Her bier, seen here in the narthex of the nuns' chapel just before the procession, is decorated with daisies and lilies and fire bursts of blades of the wheat the bedecks the entire Beauce region.

The officiants
She is well-attended in every way, and there are officiants and capes and white gloves and microphones and an order of things. In many ways, the affair is as splendid (the flowers! the blue velvet! the singing!), as it is quiet (the songs all ask for mercy and protection, heads are bowed, the procession is slow). There is little room for innovation, but always a desire for improvement. I had attended the Assumption Day celebrations at Chartres twenty years ago during my dissertation research year, and the images from that experience (slides hard-won by guesswork) have nurtured my teaching of Gothic art ever since. This time, my iPhone alone was able to do all sorts of good work. This time, I brought my family. And everything was the same, and everything was different. The procession route, for one thing, had changed radically, and now, instead of starting in the Cathedral, the statue of Notre-Dame-Sous-Terre waited in a nearby convent for her walk around town. Nuns surrounded the Virgin's statue and men carried her, and waved the censer that perfumed the air all around.

The Veil (Sancta Camisia)
The Virgin's presence is diffused. She is restored in her statue, but has always been present in her relic. The tunic that Mary wore while giving birth to Christ had been the prized relic of Chartres since Charles the Bald made a gift of it in 876. In 1792, it was rent into four pieces, one of which remains (the other three parts lying in wait for a pot-boiler novel to be written). It is on display most days in a 19th-century reliquary in the eastern chapel, but on Assumption Day is it placed into a portable reliquary to be brought out. The veneration of relics in France's age of secular empiricism creates a spectrum from pious fervor to out-dated naïveté, inhabited more or less comfortably by spectators. In a ceremonial switch from the last time I saw this procession, the relic preceded the statue, textiled transcendence leading the way for wooden resurgence.

In town
Nods to mysticism have reshaped the event. Shifts in the procession route meant that the Virgin never passed by commercial sites. Where previously, I had photographed her in front of the Kookaï fashion store and signs for the train station, now she ambled among residential streets and the park at the east end of the cathedral, never once framed by the mundane. The greater liturgical mysticism has a resonance in the popular religion that emerges in the souvenir shops around the cathedral, a high/low cultural dynamic that has been in existence since the Middle Ages. The merchants of Chartres (a savvy and responsive bunch ever since their representation in the stained glass of the cathedral) now sell many more mystical healing wares: herbals and traditional medicine books, crystals and incense, divination cards (adorned with saints!) - all bolstered (initiated?) by the great paved labyrinth in the middle of the nave. Whose authenticity is this? The labyrinth was uncovered (intellectually by the great work of Dan Connolly on mapping and virtual pilgrimage, and physically by Americans (of all people) seeking New Age connections) in the past twenty years, never entirely to the pleasure of the Church (it is just too available to said New Age explorations, it is a form and tradition of the Middle Ages that has a marvelous difficulty being integrated into modern liturgy). It is now covered by chairs, which is a pity, but then, the entire interior is being restored. The restoration (I would argue renovation) of the cathedral will be another post - they are massive and extensive and completely change the character of the place. Chartres is not still by any means.

If you'll be taking any of my Gothic art courses or the caves to cathedral survey, you'll be seeing this 15-second video. I was up on the gate (art historian in action!) and caught this wonderful moment in which the procession makes the final turn back into the cathedral itself. I love the profile of the statue, this form of the Sedes Sapientiae that positions Mary as the Throne of Wisdom to a blessing Christ, and has been the emblem of Mary's care since at least the twelfth century (scroll down Alison Stone's wonderfully intertwined essay to see 12th-century examples of the statue). I loved this last second before her re-entry into the lithic depths of the cathedral where she will be still for an entire other year, this last moment in the world of people before she once again joins her company of saints, this last glimpse for all gathered of an embodiment of mercy that this world still craves.

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