Friday, November 12, 2004

Tracking Down Mary

There was once a fourth famous Virgin of Chartres; a silver image crafted in the thirteenth century. She no longer exists, though a depiction ofher may still be seen in one of the windows, where a pilgrim is shown praying to her. Her story proves that vandalism is not exclusively the province of revolutionaries.

This Virgin was greatly venerated in the Middle Ages; indeed, she held the place of honor above that altar. Yet at some point her popularity went into decline ...

For the next two centuries she forged on, doing her best despite reduced conditions. But then came the debt crunch of the 1760s. The canons of the cathedral went casting about for any little scrap of gold or silver. In a note signed April 6, 1769, Germain Blonnie, a goldsmith of Chartres, acknowledged receipt of twenty-four livres for "melting down the Christ and the Virgin of the old altar." The little silver Virgin had been turned into ingots to pay for Carrara marble ...

It is horrifying to think that an image that had received so many prayers over the centuries could be so blithely destroyed. Then again, the Church could reply that works of religious art are intended to be not receptacles for prayer, but windows to a higher reality; that one prays through, not to, an image. A statue of Mary is not Mary, and maybe it's better to melt down the images from time to time before they turn into idols.
An avowed atheist, Ward indulged his long held desire to walk on pilgrimage in going to various Marian shrines throughout Europe. In doing so he presents one of the clearest and most even handed views of pilgrimage and these shrines that I have ever read. He gives the history for each place, which includes Lourdes, Chartres, and Fatima. We then share his experiences in current day surroundings and see the many types of pilgrims that also are at these shrines. Atheist or not, Ward has an excellent understanding of the Catholic Church's view and is more open minded in many cases than some Catholics I know. Highly recommended.

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