Goddess in Europe
This is the content of a blog I kept during a trip to Europe in August and September 2005 – I have moved it to this site as, over time, it made less sense to have the entries in reverse chronological order.
Notre Dame des Dunes, Dunkerque
11 August 2005
An uneventful crossing and an unremarkable night in a commercial hotel – I was very tired after being unable to sleep through a combination of nerves and excitement before setting out. There was a rowan tree with berries outside my hotel window, which I took as a good omen. They have always looked to me like graceful, living virgin Goddesses.
I found the chapel in Dunkerque easily but too early – it didn’t open until 10am. The only signs of life were a couple of drunks sitting outside with their bottle. I went off in search of café-au-lait and realised that the harbour was only two minutes walk away.
When I returned, one of the drunks had disappeared and the other was asleep under a tree. I’m always surprised that I react to street drunks just like everyone else – with impatience and a little fear, occasionally with disgust. I who so very nearly became one! I forced myself to remember in this sacred spot, then was able to look at the poor man with a great deal more compassion.
The chapel is quite small, above the door is written “Ave Maris Stella” (Hail, Star of the Sea). Inside the theme is so much of the sea … model boats (like those once used in sacrifice to the gods during bad storms?) hang from the ceiling, which is painted dark blue, with stars. Its vault-like shape and colours immediately made me think of Nut, sheltering us at night.
I looked around for the black madonna, aware that so many have been whitened – but no, there she was right above the main altar. Tiny, she and the child were no bigger than dolls. They were wrapped in what looked like white silk and only faces were visible. I could hardly make out what colour she was but suddenly it didn’t matter. I tried to take a photograph (above right – you can hardly maker her out) but first found myself in tears at the altar.
Someone asked me “why black madonnas?” last weekend. I don’t know the answer. I don’t even know the question, properly, yet. But here I had a first inkling.
You would be forgiven, in this particular building, for wondering if this really was the church of a patriarchal religion. Sure, the cross and the usual altar are present, but overwhelmingly, this is a chapel of the Lady.
There’s a larger, white virgin and child at the back of the church (picture left). The infant looks unsettlingly like Melvin Bragg. There’s also a statue of Saint Martha, complete with dragon, nearby.
Apparently the statue of the black madonna was found early in the 15th century as part of building work. A fresh water spring gushed forth and there she was – a double miracle. The statue was carried about to different places but used to disappear and reappear at the spot where it was originally found, eventually a chapel was built at the place where the lady obviously wanted to be.
Responsible for several miracles, the black madonna is obviously still revered here. There is a procession on 15th August (of course – the feast of the Assumption) and the lady is taken to bless the sea.
Unfortunately the spring vanished in the 19th century when some drainage was put in. But still the town’s councillors offer a votive candle each year on 2 February and still the sea-blessing ceremony takes place.
Next, set out to somewhere called Huijbergen in the Netherlands – but the Convent where I should have found the madonna appears to be closed, the windows were boarded up and there was a “for sale” sign.
So off to Leiden to spend a glorious day in the Museum. A long drive, not helped by getting thoroughly lost in Den Haag (a city that doesn’t believe in direction signs). After a couple of hours there, including a wrong turning which involved paying nearly 2 Euros to get out of a car par I never wanted to enter in the first place, I finally reached the campsite I’d been looking for – very near Leiden. A disapproving woman took my money and grudgingly allowed me to camp on her site. The longed-for cup of coffee wasn’t to be had as the camping shop had sold me the wrong gas cylinder, so I went to bed with a bottle of water and a bag of crisps. To look on the bright side, after the baptism of fire that Den Haag proved, at least when driving I no longer have heart failure every time I have to turn left or approach a roundabout.