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The good Mother and the Virgin of the vow

 

Reflections on an iconographic tradition
André Lanfrey - 02/2012

Marist Notebooks 30

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In several recent publications 1, Brother Agustin Carazo, former postulator general, has been working on the Marial statues of the Institute especially on that of “the Good Mother” (“la Bonne Mère”), a statuette moulded in plaster of virgin and child, about 75cm high, carefully restored2 and today preserved in Rome. In these texts, he reminds us that this statue probably figured at the Hermitage from 1824 in the “chapel in the woods” and even before, at La Valla, in the room of Fr Champagnat. Replaced subsequently by larger statues, probably more in keeping with the taste of the period, it seems to have been somewhat forgotten, although Brother François mentions its presence at St Genis-Laval in the room which had been occupied3 by Brother Jean-Baptiste4.  It figures again in 1882 in a portrait of Champagnat writing at his work, painted by Brother Wulmer, a Belgian Brother5. The statue then took part in the displacements of the Mother House: in 1903 to Grugliasco, in 1939 to Saint Genis-Laval and finally to Rome in 1961. It was there that, in the archives, Brother Agustin Carazo, looking for documents, found it by chance in a bag in February 1982. He then relates the story of the “resurrection” of this statue, which is given the name of “Good Mother” and which photographic reproductions make popular among the Marist Brothers. A Brazilian Brother, Francisco das Chagas Costa Ribeiro, author of a thesis on Mariology in Rome in 1988, indicates that the model of this plaster statue is located in the cathedral of Rouen, under the name of the Virgin of the Vow (La Vierge du Vœu)6 .

From a second statue of “the Good Mother”, crudely painted, and still at the Hermitage, a Brother of the province of Castille (Estebàn Martin) made a mould, and so statues of plaster, wood, terracotta and other materials, of various sizes, have multiplied, especially in Latin America. Nevertheless, this representation does not seem to have gone far beyond the world of the Marist Brothers.

Two original statues of “the Good Mother”?

Brother Agustin has given us a very solid history of the statue of « The Good Mother » among the Marist Brothers which has allowed for a sort of resurrection of this important piece of our early spiritual patrimony. I think, however, that he underestimates the importance of the statue still present at the Hermitage which, in his opinion, is much smaller than the Rome one and of a later date. So he comes up with the hypothesis that it would have been acquired after 1860 by Brother François when he returned to the Hermitage.

In my opinion, this statue is about the same age as the one in Rome. But since my basic proposal is to complete the historical work of Brother Agustin Carazo, I will present the   discussion on this particular point at the end of my article.

The Virgin of Lecomte (1777)
The Virgin of the Vow in Rouen is a marble statue of normal height (about 1 m 60) placed today in the chapel of Sainte Marguerite, one of the many side chapels of the nave of the cathedral of Rouen in Normandy. It rests on a stone cube set on the altar in place of the tabernacle, on which is inscribed the formula “Nostra clemens, accipe vota” (Our clemency accept our vows)7 . This inscription confirms the traditional name given to the statue, “the Virgin of the vow”.

Sculpted by Félix Lecomte, it was offered to the Rouen cathedral about 1775 by the Cardinal-Archbishop Mgr. de la Rochefoucauld. It is characterized by one original trait: the baby Jesus is sucking his forefinger. But it should be noted that this statue is not isolated: the altar front bears a bas relief by the same sculptor shows a dead Jesus wept over by Mary and the holy women.

According to the Dictionnaire des artistes de l’Ecole française au XIX° siècle Félix Lecomte was born in Paris in 1737 and died in 1817. In 1764 he won the grand prize of sculpture, and in 1771 was accepted as a member of the former Academy of Painting and Sculpture. He was as well professor of the Academy and member of the Academy of the Fine Arts. His statue of the Virgin and the bas relief of Rouen are considered among his master works.

The medieval rood screen and the first Virgin of the Vow

This altar of the Virgin of the Vow is not the first one erected under this title and it is not in its original position. In fact, there existed in Rouen, as in most of the medieval cathedrals, a rood screen separating the choir from the nave. About this one, certainly in the Gothic style, Jean-François Pommeraye 8 gives, at the end of the seventeenth century, the following details:

“The rood screen which closes off the choir has been enriched with two magnificent altars of very rich sculpture, crucifixes and other ornaments of woodwork all gilt […]. The altar of the vow was made from the contributions of the factory. I understand, from the memoirs of an individual who wrote about what he had seen, that this altar of the Virgin was completed at the end of March 1639 […] that on 26 April […] this altar was consecrated by M. François de Harlay the elder who placed in it the relics of St Paul apostle and Nicaise. It was called the vow because of a great plague which afflicted the city of Rouen for a long time; this had obliged them to have recourse to God’s mercy”.

The author adds, “The principal ornament of this altar is the image of Our Lady made of alabaster which was donated about 1357 by a canon named François Le Tourneur” […] “The altar of Saint Cecilia, which is next to the one of the vow is celebrated because of the confraternity of this saint where the musicians gather every year to solemnize her feast”. […] “I learned from several memoirs that on 23 April 1642 this altar was finished and the two images set in place”9 . To commemorate the event, a procession took place on 20 September and a lamp burns in front of the Virgin’s altar.

Thus, a medieval Virgin, probably already present in the cathedral, is set up in 1643 as the  « Virgin of the vow » on the medieval rood screen, in company with St Cecilia who certainly figured there already.

A second rood screen and a second Virgin of the Vow

It was doubtless because this rood screen and its statuary appeared too “Gothic” that they were replaced by a rood screen in classic style, constructed between 1773 and 1778 to the plans of the Rouen architect Mathieu Lecarpentier, composed of an Ionic portico bearing Christ between the Virgin and Saint John, crowned with balustrades in bronze and cassolettes (decorative vases). It harboured two side altars dedicated to the Virgin (the statue and altar front of Lecomte) and to Saint Cecilia. So this modernisation of the rood screen was only relative: Saint Cecilia and the Virgin of the vow were still its major pieces.

The eighteenth century rood screen was demolished in its turn in 1884, but its statues were preserved: that of St Cecilia, with its altar and the bas-relief adorning it, works of Clodion, have been relegated today to the chapel of St Nicolas10 while the Virgin, her altar and the bas-relief, works of  Félix Lecomte, have been placed in the chapel of St Marguerite. Two of the six columns of the rood screen are still present in the cathedral: they frame one of the side doors11 . It seems, though, that in the XIX century the meaning of the devotion to the Virgin of the vow underwent modification: an unverified but very plausible tradition claims that it was before this statue that new priests of the diocese consecrated themselves to Mary before going to their parishes.

There were, then, at Rouen two Virgins of the Vow and two rood screens. Nothing seems to have remained of the first statue and the first rood screen, but we have pictorial representations of the second rood screen; and the altar of the Virgin of the Vow has been carefully restored in a new location.

A statue within a Normandy tradition?

Even if we know nothing about the making of the medieval statue set up in 1642 as Virgin of the Vow, we can suppose that Lecomte must have undertaken his work within a tradition and would have kept its main characteristic traits, among them the infant Jesus in the arms of his mother sucking his finger.

The hypothesis is not at all gratuitous, for there exists an iconological precedent in the same cultural zone: the Virgin of Valmont, an ivory statuette 41 cm high, from the end of the XV century, kept in the Abbey of Valmont, in Normandy, up to the Revolution. The original is now in the Museum of Antiquities of Seine-Maritime (Rouen)12 . The commentary accompanying this statue13 is extremely interesting:

“The Virgin is standing, her face turned towards her son whom she holds spread out in her two arms. She is clothed in a long robe adjusted with a low rounded neckline14 …The chubby, curly-haired infant, is enveloped in a swathe from which his naked torso emerges. The sad expression of the Virgin, who casts a melancholy look upon her son for she knows what his destiny will be, is the reflection of the sensibility of the fifteenth century, much inclined to seize on the sorrowful aspect of the life of Christ and reproduce its image … The rare gesture of the child putting two fingers into its mouth corresponds to the need to bring the worlds of men and God closer together, to make the divine world more familiar.

Clothing apart, this description perfectly fits the Virgin of Lecomte. So it is sufficient to compare the statue of the fifteenth century and Lecomte’s one to ask if he did not simply modernise a previous iconographic model, of which the Virgin of Valmont would be an example.

This “modernisation” is shown in the clothing of the Virgin: the Valmont one, following medieval tradition, presents ample folds largely concealing the body, while the Lecomte one follows classical tradition, the mainly flattened robe revealing more than concealing the body. The veil over the head partly modifies this impression of an antique statue in attaching it to a classical representation of the Virgin. As for the Child Jesus, still somewhat a man in miniature and partly clothed in the Valmont statue, he appears as a beautiful almost naked baby in the Lecomte one.

Permanence of the theological message?
One would be tempted to consider that, in the two statues, the religious message, which rests in the contrast between the melancholy on the face of the mother and the charm of the baby, is largely implicit and so the Virgin of Valmont would witness to a certain religious weakening of the end of the Gothic, while the Lecomte one, for its part, appears quite typical of the sensibility of the XVIII century which has rediscovered the woman and the child but scarcely expresses any profound religious feeling.

Nevertheless, for the Virgin of Lecomte the theological message is transparent if one takes into account the bas-relief of the altar front representing the veneration of the dead Christ by the holy women, which appears to be inspired by the iconographic theme of the pietà. Thus, statue and bas-relief sum up the history of salvation: Incarnation and Redemption.

The child, who sucks his index finger and not his thumb, could even be interpreted in theological terms since the index finger is the one which, placed on the lips, signifies the wish to impose silence. So the   silence of the Incarnate Word would be invoked here. In which case, the figure of the Christ-child would connect with the text of Philippians 2: 6-11: « His state was divine… but he emptied himself… and became as men are »… But explicit sources would be needed to support such an interpretation.

To sum up: the Lecomte Virgin is inscribed in a Norman iconographic tradition illustrated by one statue from the fifteenth century and another from the eighteenth, the statue of 1357, re-employed around 1637 serving as hypothetical model for both works.

Artists inspired by the Virgin of the Vow
If the tradition in which the Lecomte Virgin is inscribed is largely hypothetical, its aesthetic and devotional posterity seem important enough, as we are going to try to show below, using essentially the resources of the internet site of the Inventory of historic monuments15 .

We can first of all distinguish an artistic posterity, inspired by Lecomte rather than slavishly copying him and working in precious material. Thus, the site of the Museums of Upper-Normandy presents a “Virgin of the Vow” in ivory, 13.2 cm high, preserved in the castle museum of Dieppe, obviously copied from the Lecomte virgin. The same Dieppe museum has recently acquired another copy, signed Brunel, in ivory, 34 cm high, dated 1857. A third ivory statue inspired by Lecomte, 13.2 cm high, without an author but probably from the Brunel workshop, figures also in the Dieppe collections. We may suppose, then, that from the end of the  XVIII century to about 1860, there was the production of ivory statues copying the Lecomte virgin, to which the three examples cited above testify. If they were able to serve a devotional use, given their size, it must have been private and restricted to a certain élite. Also in Normandy, the Inventory of Historic Monuments indicates at Préaux, near Rouen, a statue of a larger nature (160 cm) in terracotta and even specifies that it was on 30 July 1780 that the treasurers and inhabitants decided to have this copy made.

We also find a certain number of church statues, of fairly crude workmanship, apparently works of local or regional artists. The regional service of the Inventory of Limousin presents a Virgin and Child, called the Lecomte virgin, at Nigremont: 104 cm high, of painted wood (polychrome) and dated to the 1st half of the XIX century. If the attitude of the Virgin and her clothing are clearly inspired by Lecomte, the infant Jesus, sculpted rather clumsily, like the rest of the statue, is seated and spreads his arms in a welcoming gesture. In the same region, at Felletin (Creuse) an « Our Lady of Good Help » carved in wood and polychrome, 81 cm high, dating from the XIX century, is a faithful copy of Lecomte. A third statue is noted at Lit et Mixe, in the Landes (south of Bordeaux) in gilded wood, about 1 m high. It is dated to the middle of the   XIX century. Finally, there exists in the Abbey of Tamié, in Upper-Savoy, a statue of 140 cm, a copy in wood of the Lecomte one, offered by the parish of  Ugine, close to the abbey, in 1930. At the time, it was polychrome. A monk of the abbey stripped off the paint and replaced the left arm which had been broken16 . Nothing is said about the origin of this statue but it probably dates from the XIX century.

The artist probably took as model the statue preserved in the parish church of Verrens, on the road of the Tamié Pass, a dozen kilometres from the abbey. It is of plaster, about 97cm high and can be dated to the middle of the nineteenth century. The veil, Mary’s robe and the loincloth of the child Jesus are gilded and their faces are painted flesh colour. The statue has no back; a simple canvas covers a very large oval opening going from the shoulders down to the pedestal17 .

 

 Copies in plaster of the Virgin of the Vow

It would seem that the Saint-Sulpician art enterprises were interested in the Lecomte virgin, if the relatively large number of plaster copies of 96-99 cm18 listed by the Inventory of Historic Monuments is to be believed.

Thus, at Saulgé (Vienne) the Priory of Saint Divitien possesses a copy in plaster 99 cm high, dating from the middle of the nineteenth century. At La Potherie-Mathieu (Eure), the parish church of   Saint Pierre has a molded plaster statue 97cm high. The heritage directorate of Aquitaine presents another Virgin called Lecomte, at Tournon-d’Agenais, in moulded plaster and painted, 98cm high, and dating to the middle of the nineteenth century. The attitude of the Virgin and her clothing are there identical to the original statue but the child is seated between his mother’s arms and giving a blessing with his right hand, the left arm being broken. In the parish of Saint Louis in Monferrand, near Bordeaux, the Virgin’s altar has a faithful copy of the Lecomte statue which seems about the same height, about 100cm. Another statue, quite damaged, was pointed out to me in the same region at St Jérôme d’Escalans and yet another at Grésillac (Gironde)19 . A statue painted white and 96cm high is found at the convent of the Marist Sisters at Belley20 and a similar model is found in the church at Coutouvre, birth parish of Jeanne-Marie Chavoin, their foundress. There exists another in New Zealand, certainly carried there by a Marist missionary after 1836 21 .

I discovered yet another statue of 96cm in the church of Saint Christophe-la-Grotte (Savoie). It was painted white quite recently and the left arm of the child Jesus is broken. According to oral tradition, it was given by the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse, this being close to the parish. At the monastery itself, there is a similar statue, but 75cm high22 .

Thanks to M. Jacques Delen, a lay Marist, I learned about another of these statues in a monastery of the Trappistines, at Chimay in Belgium23 , whose itinerary can be described as follows: the nuns of the Cistercian Abbey of Gomerfontaine (1207-1792) in the commune of Trie-la-ville (Oise), then belonging to the diocese of Rouen, were dispersed by the Revolution. They re-established themselves at Nesle, in the Diocese of Amiens, in 1804-1816, then installed themselves at Saint Paul-aux Bois in Picardy, in the diocese of Soissons where they remained until being exiled from France in 1904, following the decrees against the congregations. At that date, the statue, acquired at an indeterminate period, was entrusted to a family which returned it in 2007. It is painted blue and white. One may suppose that it was acquired about the middle of the nineteenth century.

A friend of M. Delen has photographed one of these statues even at the castle of Clermont, in Upper Savoy, which seems the same height24 . Finally, the church of Ars, that of Jean-Marie Vianney, near Lyon, conserves a statue of 99 cm, recently restored, the Virgin’s veil being golden and her robe red.

These statues, of slightly less than a metre, appear to correspond to three types that are fairly faithful to the original model. We have already seen that certain statues represent the infant Jesus sitting and blessing, but the others reveal a more subtle difference in the treatment of the garment the child is wearing. With Lecomte it is a simple band of material covering the child’s right thigh and descending between his legs, leaving the left thigh uncovered, so that he appears almost naked. The statues of Ars and Clermont seem to follow this model, but the others present a child Jesus clothed in a sort of wrap covering the infant’s lower stomach and two thighs, treated differently according to the statues: a thin veil at Belley and at St Christophe la Grotte, it becomes a very important piece of material with the statue at Chimay25 .

In our opinion, the statues presenting a practically naked child Jesus would be prior to those which cover him with a sort of wrap. On this point, we have a clue for Catherine Lassagne, witness of the life of the Curé of Ars, who reports, “M. Vianney had, at the beginning, bought a  statue of the Blessed Virgin holding the Child Jesus” and adds that this statue “is now in a  niche at the side of the chapel of the Blessed Virgin”26 . The Curé of Ars having arrived in 1818, one may suppose that the actual statue, which still occupies the same niche, could have been acquired in the years 1820-25. The statues of the child Jesus with more covering would date rather to the middle of the nineteenth century and come from a Saint-Sulpician art studio.

The Little Plaster Statues

As for the copies of the Lecomte virgin of the same size as those of the Marist Brothers, in rather roughly moulded plaster, about 75 cm high, the General Inventory does not seem to include any. Several reasons may explain this: their low artistic value, the Inventory not being complete, the fact that the investigators did not find a link with the model. Another reason seems to me conclusive: these statues are from the beginning especially adapted to private or conventual devotion and hence difficult to locate. Up to the present I still know of only four of these statues: two with the Marist Brothers, one in a monastery of the  Grande-Chartreuse and one in the convent of the Saints Anges in Mâcon. Having been able to view three of these four statues, I can state that for each of them the child Jesus wears a sort of wrap covering the lower body and the two thighs.

A little investigation of the statues of the Marist Brothers

Brother Agustin Carazo attributes to the statue in Rome a height of 75cm and only 68 cm to the one at the Hermitage, which suggests the two statues do not come from the same workshop. At my request, Brothers Antonio Martínez Estaún and Joan Moral measured the statue in Rome and came up with the following measurements:

“The pedestal of the statue measures 3.6 cm. We took the measurement from the frontal part, in front of the statue’s feet. In actual fact, the pedestal does not have a uniform and exact thickness, because of the painting, throughout its structure, but this measurement can be taken as valid for all the faces of the parallelepiped which serves as the base of the statue.
The statue, not counting the 3.6 cm. of the pedestal, measures 70 cm. So the total height of the work is 73.6 cm.
As for observation of the interior of the statue, I must say that a direct examination by sight cannot be done. In the base of the statue can be observed a conical hole, of a couple of centimetres in its external part and a bit less in the internal. One cannot work out what is in the interior through this hole without introducing into it an instrument with a source of light which would help in photographing and observing directly the structure of the composition from within. It appears to be that the base of the stand has been covered with a thick cap of plaster closing up an existing cavity. The plaster cap added is perceptible in the scarcely completed borders left after the application of the paste. Over the material employed for the covering has been applied a coat of paint similar to that on the visible parts of the pedestal. The hole made in the centre of the base lets one see perfectly the thickness of the plaster cap that has been applied. And the white colour of this material is also perfectly obvious”.

A similar operation was performed at the Hermitage on the same date (end of January 2011) and the following table shows the results obtained.

 

Hermitage.
Statue in the oratory
(original)

Hermitage.
Statue in the conference      room
(recent copy)

Statue in Rome

Height of pedestal

3.5 cm

4 cm

3.6 cm

Statue + pedestal

71.5 cm

72.5cm

73.6 cm

Depth of hollow in the  interior of the statue

71 cm

64.5 cm

Hidden under a covering of plaster

Quality of plaster

Very rough!

Quite smooth in the  interior, more coarse on the edge 

Not visible

Inscription in the interior

 

 

Inscription in crayon partially effaced:
« (s)tatue du Bx (fo)ndat (eur) 27 »

« Our Good Mother
Copy of the original
At the Hermitage
January 1989
Brother Esteban Martin” 

No inscription indicated28

 

The difference in height, then, between the two statues is slight: about 2 cm. It could also be a result of the small scale character of the moulding that no statue is exactly identical with another and for a certain approximation in the measurements, difficult to avoid. A priori, the two statues could have come from the same workshop and have been roughly contemporary, even if they have not benefited from the same finishing. For example, for one the interior is hidden by a plaster coating while for the other the material remains in its rough state as on coming out of the mould.

Brother Agustin Carazo, whom I met at the Hermitage in July 2011, told me that when he saw the statue at the Hermitage, before he made a mould from it, it was not in the same state as today, which would explain the difference in the measurements he observed then.

A workshop at the Hermitage

But this problem seems secondary when all is said and done, for a passage in the Life of Brother Bonaventure (1804-1865)29 gives cause for reflection. Having entered the Institute in 1830, he became Master of Novices about 183330   Now, “ one day, Father Champagnat found him at work helping an artisan who was making plaster statues of the Blessed Virgin, and he said to him: Is it not true, Brother Bonaventure, that as the mould is such will be the statue? Well, remember that you are the mould of the Brothers, of the whole Congregation, in fact.”

So between 1833 and 1840 plaster statues of the Blessed Virgin were being made at the Hermitage. The receipt book for the Hermitage, begun in 1835, even provides details with regard to the sale of some of them:

  •  27 March 1838: “received for 3 statues: 9 F”.
  •  7 May 1838: “received (the price) of the statues: 4.75 F.”
  •  25 June 1838: “received for a statue: 0.60 F; from Brother Bonaventure: 1.15 F”
  •  8 August 1838: “for one statue: 3 F”.

A last sale is noted on 11 May 1842: “for sale of statues: 5 F”.

So the lesson given by Fr Champagnat to Brother Bonaventure, and the building up of a stock of statues, which very likely were the ones of the Good Mother, could be situated during the course of the year 1837 or at the beginning of 1838

The question of the master worker and the mould

The expenses register indicates the name of Antoine Robert, plasterer of Saint Chamond31   in the phase preceding and accompanying the sale of these statues. For example:

  • 23 May 1837: “(given) to Brother Stanislas to pay Robert, plasterer, 40 F”.
  • 4 July 1837: “Given to Robert for pay 27.75 F”.
  • 5 August 1837: “Given to Robert for plaster and for pay: 18 F”.
  • 23 August 1837: “Given to Robert for 4 sacks of plaster at 3 F; a sack: 12 F”.
  • 16 January 1838: “Given to Robert for 4 sacks of grey plaster that we have: 12 F32 ” at the same time that a purchase of 7 sacks of grey plaster for 6 F is recorded.
  • 19 April 1838: “given to purchase plaster: 6 F.

One will observe that up to 5 August Robert has been paid for a work but that then he is content with deliveries between 5 August 1837 and 19 April 1838, which would be explained by the moulding of statues. And the principal actor in this enterprise seems to be Brother Bonaventure making or having made a mould from Fr Champagnat’s statue and producing from it a good number of copies.

So we are in a period when the Institute needs  statues not only for the Mother House but also for the schools, and it can be considered that the  procure of the Hermitage kept available for the communities this range of statues inexpensive and of a size well adapted to Brothers’ chapels and classrooms. On this hypothesis, the statue at the Hermitage would be a copy of the statue of Fr Champagnat and a relic of a model quite widely spread among us that is supplanted progressively by new more fashionable types. In sum, the actual multiplication of statues of “the Good Mother” would only be taking up a primitive tradition. Brother Agustin would suggest a hypothesis of this sort as well.

If one supposed a sack of plaster per statue, which seems a maximum, that would make a collection of at least fifteen statues. Moreover, the receipts accounts show the sale of 11 statues at prices between 2.5 and 3 F each. Such a low prices suggests that the statues produced were of very mediocre quality and unpainted.

The statue of Macon

Brother Claudino Falqueto pointed out to me the presence of a statue of “the Good Mother” in the town of Mâcon 33 in the mother house of the Sisters of the Holy Angels founded in 1844 but today containing mainly Brasilian Sisters. Having made contact with Sister Maria Theresinha Falqueto, Brother Claudino’s sister, I was able to see the statue in question placed in an artificial grotto in the sisters’ garden. Painted white, it measures 74 cm with its pedestal, which is not square but round and quite high: about 7 cm.  Comparison with the other statues shows that the feet of the Virgin and the hem of the robe have been embedded in this plinth and a tree leaf has been moulded on the hem of the robe, on the plinth itself. Finally, the bottom of the pedestal, completely closed, bears a name engraved in freehand which is probably that of the maker or restorer of the statue: G. Hocpuet. But there is no date and this patronymic seems very rare.
A remarkable biography of the foundress,34 Barbe-Elise Poux (1797-1855), almost a contemporary of  Marcellin Champagnat gives us some clues. From the Jura, B.E. Poux founded in 1822 a school at Poligny for the daughters of the middle class. When she fell ill, her pupils undertook “a novena before a statue of the Blessed Virgin and they obtained her immediate cure. The statue was immediately declared miraculous and Sister Franco (the chronicler) tells us that it is kept as precious at the mother house (p. 65)”. But this statue, which is still to be found in the Sisters’ community room, is of stone, smaller than the “Good Mother”, and the Child Jesus has a dove in his hands.
To explain the presence of this relic of the “Good Mother” at Mâcon, another track seems possible: the practice of the month of Mary. In fact, installed in 1831 at Lons-le-Saulnier, a town sitauted at the foot of the Jura, B.E. Poux continued her educational work with the help of a community of women aspiring to religious life and introduced into her boarding school the practice of the month of Mary up to then unknown in Lons, the exercises being performed in the oratory around a statue of the Blessed Virgin decorated with branches and stars (p. 75). In 1832, the ceremony took place in the parish “in the fore-choir of the church a statue of the Blessed Virgin was placed on a pedestal (p. 83)”.
Her foundation in Lons having failed, B.E. Poux recommenced at Morez, in the heart of the Jura, and also installed the month of Mary there. Her community established, she set up a second house at Mâcon in 1844. From 1845 she had the month of Mary celebrated in the boarding school “Amid draperies and flowers, a beautiful statue of the Virgin was set up” (p. 212).

It appears to me reasonable, then, to suppose that this Macon statue of the “Good Mother” was employed for the celebration of the month of Mary, perhaps from the time of Lons-le-Saulnier. One may even think that the frequent transfers of the statue would have caused damage requiring a restoration of its base. In any case, at present there exists in Mâcon a statue similar to the “Good Mother” of Fr Champagnat and whose model seems to date to the 1830s35 .

Certainties and hypotheses

It is helpful at this stage to make the point of distinguishing between certainties and hypotheses. For the certainties: the works of Brother Agustin Carazo show that the “Good Mother” in Rome should be dated to about the 1820s. Other statues in plaster of the Virgin are produced at the Hermitage in the years 1837-38.

Let us pass on to the hypotheses. Fr Champagnat must have obtained his statue from a merchant of religious articles while the actual statue of the Good Mother at the Hermitage would have been made in 1837-38 on the initiative of Brother Bonaventure, thanks to a mould taken from Fr Champagnat’s statue. This difference in origin would explain the presence of a coat of plaster under the pedestal of the Roman statue and its absence from the second.
It is possible that from this time the statue exists also in a larger version, more adapted to the parishes and certainly more expensive, as the purchase made by Jean-Marie Vianney in the years  1820-30 would testify.

There remains the problem of the painting of the two statues. It is clear that that of the statue of Rome reveals an artist’s hand while that of the Hermitage is much cruder. But when does this painting date from? It is, in fact, possible that Fr Champagnat’s statue was originally white, and so less costly at a time he had little money36 . Moreover, the marble original of Lecomte is white while the colours chosen for the statue (blue mantle bordered with gold designs and white robe) reveal a taste for the medieval tradition still absent towards 1820 but very present in the 1840s.

A work of restoration on the original statue could, then, have taken place around 1837-38, after which it served as a mould for new statues, and the painter could be Ravery. At this time, he was working on the decoration of the new chapel of the Hermitage built in 1836, and the register of expenses mentions the amounts spent for this important workshop:

  • 16 July 1837: “Given to M. Ravery: 300”
  • 25 September 1837: “Given to M. Ravery on account: 300”
  • 12 September 1838: “To Ravery for account: 300”
  • 7 April 1839: “To Ravery for painting account: 100”
  • 13 June 1839: “To Ravery in payment for painting etc.: 400”

The painting of the statue of the Good Mother could well have been included in these sums at a time when the Institute, after twenty years of existence, had more means and was concerned to demonstrate its tradition artistically.

CONCLUSION

As always happens, research resolves a certain number of questions and raises new ones. We can say that the Institute possesses two old but quite different statues of “the Good Mother”. The authenticity and age of the one in Rome are not in doubt. As for the Hermitage one, although not well documented, it seems to merit being considered a rare piece dating from the time of Fr Champagnat and attesting to the Marian devotion of the Brothers, perhaps linked to the practice of the Month of Mary.

In the wider context, it seems that quite soon after the Revolution a statue moulding workshop was set up, supplying the religious art shops with smaller statues on the Lecomte model. Moreover, circumstances lent themselves to it: after a phase of iconoclasm which destroyed or dispersed the furnishings and fittings of parishes and convents, this plant allowed the restoration of an important element rapidly and inexpensively, while situating itself in continuity with the aesthetic preferences of the eighteenth century which was still close.

Nevertheless, the small size of these statues, their weakness in evoking a theological message, as well as the rise of a preference for the neo-Gothic, the devotion to the miraculous medal and the emergence of a Saint-Sulpician statue industry, must have progressively marginalized this type. But we have seen that a model of this statue appeared worthy of interest for a Saint-Sulpician art enterprise in the middle of the nineteenth century.

We are left with the question of an iconographic tradition of Virgin and Child current from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, based on Christ as a baby, and without an obvious theological message. I proposed one interpretation earlier and Brother Agustin Carazo proposes Psalm 130 (131): “ …enough for me to keep my soul tranquil and quiet like a child in its mother’s arms”. But, although interesting, this interpretation appears no more founded on certain sources than mine.  It may be precisely because it allows for a great diversity of interpretations, from the most theological to the most sentimental, that this tradition of Virgin with Child sucking its finger holds an attraction through very different periods and despite copies of very unequal artistic value.

1 In Tras la huellas de Marcelino Champagnat, Provincia Marista de Chile, 1999, p. 208-233  and in a fascicule of 63 p. entitled « Nuestra Buena Madre » edited by the  Marist Province of Mediterranea in 2007, not counting various articles.

2 By Brother Claudio Santambrogio, between 27/11/1998 and 21/02/1999.

3 The use of the imperfect in the French shows that the author wrote after the death of Brother Jean-Baptiste en 1872.

4 See in the notebook « Annales de l’Hermitage en forme de compte-rendu de certains événements » (AFM 213/16) which draws up an inventory of the objects possessed by Fr  Champagnat and composed by Brother François,  p. 23-24 : « Effects used by Fr Champagnat which are in the mother house at St Genis-Laval » […] « In the room which Brother Jean-Baptiste occupied 1° The crucifix before which the good Father Champagnat used to pray; 2° the statue of the Blessed Virgin he had in his room at Lavalla ; (the same author adds in smaller letters) the child Jesus is lying in the arms of his mother,index finger in his mouth »…

5 Brother Agustin Carazo attributes great importance to the presence of this statue which seems to witness to the tradition handed down by the brothers of the origins still alive at this time.

6 This thesis appeared in condensed form in Brasil in 1999 under the title A « superiora » dos Maristas. A French translation was published the same year under the title La supérieure des Maristes. But, to my knowledge, no details are given there about the Rouen statue.

7 A document indicates that the altar was erected in 1954. That seems much more likely since the cathedral, having been severely damaged during the war of 1939-1945,
was subsequently subjected to some important transformations. A photo of 1921 (Vierge de Lecomte, site Inventaire des monuments historiques. Base Palissy) shows that at that time the statue stood at the crossing of the transept.

8 Histoire de l’Eglise cathédrale de Rouen métropolitaine et primatiale de Normandie, Rouen 1685, p. 20-25.

9 According to Maurice Vloberg, author of La vierge et l’Enfant Jésus dans l’Art français  the altar of this Virgin of the vow backed on to the right pillar, at the entrance to the choir, « location of the chapel called of the vow, erected in the ancient rood screen following a vow during the plague of 1637 ». Quoted on the site of the Abbey of Tamié.

10 On my visit in 2010, this chapel seemed to serve as storage for superfluous furniture.

11 The work consulted says nothing about the central group: Christ between the Virgin and Saint John.

12 Its historic value is such that the sculpture workshop of the Louvre proposes to make copies in resin for a relatively affordable price (244 €).

13 See computer document on internet: « Virgin of Valmont ».

14 Her garment appears inspired by the feminine fashion of the XV century: « She wears on her shoulders a cape fastened by two little cords terminating in tassels which she draws under her left arm and which is smoothly broken up into voluminous heavy folds. Her long hair ripples down either side of her face and down her back ».

 

15 One can go to the site « Inventaire des monuments historiques. Base Palissy » or even, more simply,« Vierge de Lecomte ».

16   Internet site of the Abbey of Tamié.

17 At the time of my visit, 12 August 2011, this statue, normally placed on the altar of the Virgin, had been moved to the sacristy for transportation to Lyon for restoration.

18 These differences in height are apparently due to the difficulty of obtaining an exact measurement with rudimentary means.

19 These three statues were kindly pointed out to me by M. Rambert Christophe, of the Regional Service of the Inventory of Aquitaine. Apparently, the General Inventory has not recorded them as being virgins inspired by Lecomte. So we do not know their exact   dimensions  nor of what material they were made.

20 The left arm of the infant Jesus, broken, has been clumsily restored.

21 We do not know its exact height.

22 Letter of the Brother archivist.

23 The latest news is that this statue has been transferred to the Trappistines at Arnhem in the Low Countries.

24 A Brother mentioned to me the presence of another of these copies at N. D. du Laus, a sanctuary in the Southern Alps, but I have not been to verify it.

25 But the polychrome perhaps accentuates this impression.

26 Quoted in Mgr. René Fourrey, Le curé d’Ars authentique, Edition L’Echelle de Jacob, 1989, p ; 126, note 440.

27 These words could very well have been inscribed at the time the statue served as a model for making a copy. They could have served to distinguish the two statues. 

28 But on the front of the pedestal is glued a piece of paper seemingly of the XIX century: « It was in front of this statue that the question of the cloth stockings was resolved in the chapel of the Hermitage in 1829 ».

29 Our Models in Religion, 1936, p. 125.

30 See References to the Letters p. 89.

31   Robert is present in the expense accounts from the beginning: on 22 April 1826 the register shows the disbursement of 100 F to Antoine Robert, plasterer in St Chamond and, at the beginning of May, 600 F. These amounts are certainly owing for the development works at the Hermitage. Robert is found again 2 times in 1830 (95 F.) and once in 1833 (26.50 F.).

32 It may be that the same expense has been entered twice.

33   80 km to the north of Lyon.

34 Abbé Jean Ladame, Educatrice et fondatrice au XIX° siècle. Mère Marie Saint-Michel Poux, 356 p.

35 It is useful to note that during the revolt of the cloth stockings in 1829 Fr Champagnat had erected in the chapel a Marial altar strongly lit, as in the practices of the month of Mary.

36 Life of Fr Champagnat 1st part, ch. 7 p. 355: « in his room he erected a little altar, on which he placed her statue » and he established the Month of Mary (p. 356).

37 Apparition to Catherine Labouré in 1830 and massive diffusion of the medal from 1834.

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