a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Meeting the Ancient Mothers of Chartres
We park the car at the periphery of the cathedral hill, just at the edge of its water moat. It is early summer. Gardens hang over the water’s edge in a picturesque view of village homes—lush plant life is ablaze with flowers in bloom. We cross a small bridge into the village, and make our way through the meandering streets and narrow passageways that wind up and up towards Chartres cathedral. This temple of stone crowns the hill of its surrounding village. The pointed spires of Chartres can be seen for miles in the distance. They now come in and out of view as we follow their lead upwards. We approached the town by car—our modern pilgrims’ transport by road rather then the wooden cart or foot travel I imagine of times past. Yet like the pilgrims of old, we have come very far to be in this place, riding in an airplane for hours towards Paris. Now, our rental car gives us this further venture into France. All the way from our home in Vancouver, BC—we are a family of four.
Upon nearing the massive bulk of the cathedral, we enter the plaza of Chartres. Seeing its full form come into view, I burst into tears. I have always been emotionally sensitive, perhaps a trait from the vicissitudes of my childhood, living as I did half the time with a challenging mother. I closely feel or sense things, honing into the energy currents of people and places. Here now, I feel something akin to relief—a flush of release, a homecoming—the full extent of my yearning only now revealing its self to me. This place is something I must have known before, though I’d never been. So deep is my longing, my desire to follow where my urgings lead. I long to visit ancient places such as this—places that hold energies of devotion expressed through female iconography and divinity, and the Earth Mother in her many forms. Joseph Campbell, the late- mythologist, writes that, “this is one of the glorious things about the mother-goddess religions…the world is the body of the Goddess, divine in itself…There is something of this spirit in the medieval cult of the Virgin, out of which all the beautiful thirteenth century French cathedrals arose” (1988, p. 99). Chartres, a great cathedral of France, is one such “mother-goddess” site expressed through devotion to the Virgin Mary. The cathedral houses two shrines of the Virgin in her form as black madonna, with her young son Jesus seated on her lap. Black madonnas are significantly located throughout the cathedrals and churches of Europe. They are especially found in great quantities in France, and are a favoured devotional icon of the people who come to lay their needs, illnesses, prayers and gratitude at their feet. Sensually connected to people, place and land, black madonnas are known as Notre Dames, or Vierges Noires, in French. These revered mothers are perhaps emblematic of a primordial human connectivity to the maternal source of life itself, in the terra mater—terrain—of our earthy and earthly origins.
The church denies any significance to the madonnas’ dark faces as being nothing other then ‘soot’ or black paint used to cover the statues, which are most often made of natural wood. Yet scholars point to the significant relationship of their dark skin to worship of the “dark mother,” connected as she is to humanity’s ancestry in Africa (Birnbaum, 2012; Harless, 2005). As a student of the divine feminine and goddesses, I read with passion the work of my sister-scholars who point to this history of black madonnas. These ancient mothers bear the lineage of the African, pre-Christian goddess Isis—who, like Mary and Jesus, is portrayed in a mother-son dyad, seated on a throne with her son Horus in her lap. Perhaps Isis is also a queen of mother-rite, her throne a symbol of matriarchal times when women and mothers were leaders of tribes and family lineage. The worship of Isis travelled across migration and trade routes out of Africa and into Spain, France, and Italy. Black madonnas, dated to the 11th and 12th centuries in Europe, are often found in places of pre-Christian worship where Celtic mother-goddesses such as Cerridwen, or the Roman goddess Cybele, were revered (Rose, 2005, p. 253). Thus, scholars trace syncretic connections of devotion to the Virgin Mary to worship of female deities, and the earth- and place-based rituals of our ancestors.
Yet beyond this scholarship, I am here at Chartres as a pilgrim of my own experience, and my need of compassionate mother figures—human and divine. I long for the wisdom of deep Mother Earth energies that carry, and remind me of, my larger connection to all-that-is. I hold an open curiosity about what I might find, sense, and feel here, trusting that what comes is what I am meant to learn. One of Chartres’ black madonnas is enshrined in the cathedral, and the other is kept in a chapel in the darkness of the crypt below. Their titles bear their literal placements as Notre-Dame du Pilier—Our Lady of the Pillar, and Notre-Dame de Sous-Terre—Our Lady Underground. Located both above and below in the architecture of the cathedral, they embody the world axis, the axis mundi of heaven and earth. Like a tree whose branches reach to heaven while her roots search deep into the earth, life energy is called upon for nourishment into the core of this sacred cathedral-tree-cave.
After entering the plaza, I circumambulate the massive stone cathedral with my travelling companions—my husband of many years, and our two daughters, aged 14 and 10. We admire the carved and towering form of Chartres. We walk the perimeter of the cathedral to view the immense gravity of its sculptural relief—awesome. Perhaps this walk was an ancient practice? A garden with a maze lies at the back, behind the old church in its Romanesque form. We come round to stone benches at the front entrance, into the plaza that expands outwards from the cathedral’s front doors. Huge stone archways are carved with figures, and the rose window of the Virgin Mary crowns them all. Oh, let me stay here awhile is what I feel. We only have three hours of parking to spare, and are driving onwards towards Brittany that night. I have to soak it all in—be in the moment of this place. Looking up, the details of sculptural relief, gargoyles, flying buttresses of marble and stone, are a marvelous sight of artful medieval construction—a testament to the sheer work ethic of humanity in our spiritual aspirations. Silently, I pray, thank you, thank you for this place.
The whole of Chartres is steeped in great history and meaning. The site is said to have been a place of worship by ancient peoples for centuries, and even millennia, before the cathedral was built. A well running deep into the earth in the cathedral crypt marks the original hill top spring. This was a sacred source of water around which devotion to the earth as mother flowed. Trees prefigured the cathedral’s own tall spires. Known as “Carnutes,” local Gallic people worshipped a form of the goddess giving birth at this spring, situated in a hill top grove of trees (1991, Mathews, p. 195). Having worked for many years in lay midwifery, I feel kinship with human and divine womb-powers of creation, incarnation, and renewal. The restorative mysteries of mother-love and life-giving are an energy I admire and seek. I sense that the mother icons inside Chartres hold this earthy reverence for birth and birth-giving.
Further indications of this site as a location of birth mysteries are evident in the stone labyrinth, inlaid into the cathedral floor close to its front entrance. The sacred geometry of the labyrinth is a contemplative invitation for pilgrims to walk a one-way, circumambulating path inwards to the centre, and out again. For pilgrim and walker, this can be a womb-like journey of release, leading to rebirth into new life and awareness. One enters sacred space, dwelling in and with divine love.
I imagine the thousands of journeys that have been made to Chartres, travelled by peoples and ancestors over millennia of devotion. Like an accumulation of merit, this site marks an ancient convergence of human contact with the divine. Being here now, I feel a whiff of this primal womb-power, standing at the entrance to such a holy place. I haven’t completely anticipated my stirred and stirring feelings of joy and delight in being here. Having so little time to dwell, my senses are on high alert. I am more then ready to see the first black madonna inside, Notre Dame de Pilier. I almost run into the high-vaulted sacred space of stone and glass, leaving my husband and daughters outside on the pilgrim’s bench with their sandwiches. I am no pensive, humble supplicant. I feel rather wild with anticipation. What will I see? What will I feel in her presence? Who are these madonnas who take their seats of power at this ancient site of mother-devotion?
I walk into the dark interior of the cathedral from the outside light. Moisture of its deep-chambered interior meets me in a cool blast of weighty air. There is no mistaking the feeling of coming in, of meeting the vast interior ‘self’ of this building that is equal to its outside grandeur. An invitation begins, an invitation to meet the mysteries of my-self. I quickly make my way towards the shrine of Notre-Dame de Pilier, also known as Notre-Dame de Chartres. I want to meet with her on my own first, to take in a few moments of silence before my husband and daughters make their way in. The area behind the main altar is under renovations. The labyrinth is closed for walking today, and is covered with chairs. I stop for a moment at its centre, admiring the unique six-petal form of Mary’s rose inlaid there. I then instinctively head to the left side of the cathedral. I haven’t been here before, but my feet know the way. Walking past rows of pews, a small chapel shrine is set into the side of the cathedral. I know I am here. A little, low-level gate wraps around the Virgin’s chapel, marking her space. Two rows of three benches line up before her. The Virgin as Notre-Dame de Pilier stands in an arching alcove carved in wood, with two large candelabras lit up on either side of her. Carved stars surround her. Beautiful wooden lattice-work fans out from her alcove, in a series of smaller repeating archways. Each of these holds a uniquely carved mandala form. I have arrived.
She stands on her pilier, her pillar—in tree-like form, rooted to this place. Her form is unmistakably made of dark hued wood. Part of me can’t believe I am here at last, here before a figure I have longed to meet. The chapel is empty but for me, a private visitation. Her child son is attached to her, at the front, as if seated on her lap, though her lap is not visible. A large robe ensconces them both, cut from the same cloth. Both mother and child are crowned, each offering their right hand into view from beneath the golden, heavily brocaded and beaded cloth. The child makes a sign of benediction, while the mother holds a mace and small egg-like ball. With such accoutrements, she is royalty embodied—a queen.
I draw near to this regal pair, the pull of my devotion bringing me towards the final encounter—in, in, and in I go, towards myself. I gaze at this spiritual effigy; her power glows from a fixed stare. She is present but unmoving. I kneel at the prayer bench at her feet. I read the supplication in French that lies there, waiting for the devoted to arrive. Yet now that I am here, my head quickly fills with my questions and petitions of late. My need for physical and emotional healing after a severe illness, what to do about ongoing issues with my mom, how to keep following my own path, what is the way, the way, the way. Surprisingly more, and more, comes into my head like a tumble of too much thought, yet beneath it all I feel a flow of gratitude for being here at all, for being able to come to this place with my family. I am seeking for a sign of anything, as this bursting dam of my neediness and wanting to know fills the space.
I suddenly feel the absurdity of this nervous activity of my mind. My stirring settles as tears spontaneously flow without needing to know why. I am directed to empty, to just empty into the stillness of her stare. Following this desire to empty, a quality of release begins to leak away my questions with the soft flow of my tears. An instantaneous sense of voidness arrives, it’s okay to let go; I feel into a spaciousness wanting to arise within me. Though I cannot completely get there, to the pleasure of emptying completely, I am held, and held, and held, by something much bigger then any of my thought forms. The wisdom of space, space, space—and letting be. Let it be. It seems that this quality of gentle stillness is her answer for me. Stillness gives birth into love.
With gratitude for this visit, I feel how simple this is, an experience of being, profound in its instance, a gentle birth through release. I can lean into the birth of each moment. I am so glad we came here—to be here at all is a joy. I get up from the bench to wander back to my family outside, born into the light of Chartres.
Nota Bene: I dedicate this writing ‘about place’ to Patricia Monaghan. I only met Patricia once in person, at a conference in 2008, when we were working to create a Goddess Studies section of the AAR/WESCOR (American Academy of Religion). It was fabulous to have her support for this endeavour, and to spend time with her and other goddess scholars in the creative context of this event. I had always enjoyed her input on the Goddess Scholars listserve. In the summer of 2012, she recommended to me several Neolithic sites to visit when we arrived in Brittany, France, to which we were headed after this stop at Chartres. I thus offer these words to her spirit of deep scholarship, which blended so seamlessly with her lived experience, her seeking, intuition, wisdom, and her abiding knowledge and love of land, place, people and all things goddess.
Nané Ariadne Jordan completed her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of British Columbia (2012), and an MA in Women’s Spirituality from New College of California (2003). Her dissertation explored the lived experiences and practices of seven faculty and student alumni from a Women’s Spirituality graduate program. She is practicing artist in photography and textile arts, with a working background in pre-regulation Canadian midwifery. As a scholar, her artistic and birth-based background informs her use of narrative, arts-based, life writing research methodologies. Her recent research focuses on women’s lives and experiences, artistic and spiritual practices, mothering, midwifery, birth, and Earth-based wisdom. She seeks an artful and relational scholarly path, and is motivated to inspirit the academy—as in: to put to life, encourage, and animate—in order to bring fuller possibilities for human experience and well-being into educational spaces and communities at large. She lives in the Eastside of Vancouver, BC with her husband and their two growing daughters.
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