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things 15
winter 2001-02
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Tim Travis
Our Lady of Found Objects, or Notre Dame Duchamp

My black madonna is a mass-produced statuette in solid 1950s plastic representing the Madonna of the Dark Forest or Madonna of the Hermits – a 15th-century (though the legend would have it 9th) wooden effigy of the Virgin Mary culted at Einseideln in Switzerland – and was once perhaps someone’s treasured souvenir of a pilgrimage to her shrine. She was discovered by Barbara’s toy poodle Lewis among the 1960s ivory Princess telephones and 1970s Babycham glasses in a second-hand shop between Spitalfields and Brick Lane during one of our Sunday walks.

An inventory of Lewis’s collection of ironic bric-a-brac would suggest that he was drawn into this Aladdin’s cave of retro chic by its impressive display of mid 20th-century consumer durables, but I can’t help being reminded of the legendary role of animal familiars in the discovery or custodianship of other black madonnas – among whose principal patronages is the protection of flocks and herds. One was reputedly unearthed after ploughing oxen refused to pass over the spot where she was buried; and the robbers Richard and Peter who murdered Saint Meinrad – first guardian of the Madonna of the Hermits – in pursuit of the ‘great treasure’ he was said to guard were denounced by the two tame ravens he had taught to recite the Little Office of the Virgin Mary.

The art historian Hans Belting argues that in the absence of body relics of Christ and the Virgin their cult images had to compete for thaumaturgic prestige with those of the saints – made originally to house relics – by appeal to alternative guarantees of authenticity. These included: claims of great antiquity – portraits carved or painted from life by Saint Luke like the black madonnas of Montserrat in Spain (actually 12th/13th-century Byzantine) and Czestochowa in Poland (13th/14th-century Byzantine); miraculous production – vernicles, shrouds and other acheiropoietic (not made by human hands) images such as the native tilma depicting the Virgin of Guadeloupe appearing as an Aztec princess to the Mexican peasant Juan Diego in 1531; and exotic or distant origins – many cult images were reputedly either brought from the Holy Land by returning crusaders or were smuggled or journeyed under their own magical steam from Constantinople during the image-wrecking spree of the Iconoclast Heresy or after the Turkish conquest.

According to their legends, most black madonnas were discovered under fortuitous or mysterious circumstances – hidden in caves or in the hollows of trees or washed up on the shore – and the one venerated at Pouilly-en-Auxois is accordingly known as Notre Dame la Trouvée. Fittingly then, Our Lady of Found Objects or Notre Dame Duchamp – as I have christened my madonna – has attracted by the magnetic force of association all the stray trinkets and baubles found in the street on our urban walks. Resembling the pathetic keepsakes left with abandoned infants in the foundling hospitals of 18th-century London, these roadside ready-mades have concentrated around the figure of the Virgin rather like the ex votos from grateful clients that adorn her shrines all over Europe.

Until the Reformation, black madonnas presided over two of England’s most popular and richly (indeed royally) endowed shrines at Walsingham in Norfolk and Willesden in Middlesex – the latter’s proximity to London making it an especially convenient pilgrimage destination. Arousing from the outset the reformers’ abhorrence of idolatry, Willesden’s fate was sealed by the official report of Thomas Cromwell’s agent Richard Mores – a kind of hostile inventory of the image and its accoutrements:

Please it your mastershippe to understand that yesternyghte we came to Wilsdon, whereas we begyn mornynge our busynesse. With mannie other vanities they have there an Image of Our Ladye, in robes of sarcenet and with stones; and with a vale withal of lace embroidered with pearles and other precious jewelles and gold and silver. There is an iron skreen both before and behind with kanape and hangynges besides divers clothes and sticks for candels, and offerings of fine account for such a chyrche. The Image is most certainly abused with moche superstition, mannie people coming to it from Kilbourne and Paddyngtone and the neybourhoode. Yea, even at our comynge there were V folk praynge before it, two old men and a woman with a chylde, and one that had broughte an offrynge of flowers; who when we did examin touching the idolytrous worshippynge of the Image she did say that the flowers were for the aultre of the chyrch, with mannie other vanities. We did strip the Image which we found to be of woode, in colour like ebon, of ancient workmanschip, only save the upper part is thoroughly playted over with silver. (Quoted in Our Lady of Willesden: The Story of the Ancient Shrine and the Shrine Today, Catholic Truth Society 1980)

This was good enough for Cromwell and in 1538 Our Lady of Willesden was stripped of her jewels and dragged from her sanctuary to be burnt at Chelsea alongside her sisters from Norfolk – ‘the Witch of Walsingham’ – and elsewhere in the land that had once been called ‘Mary’s Dowry’.

A similar despoliation report on Our Lady of Found Objects would describe a seemingly random assortment of banal or mysterious objects which on entering her field of influence seem to have become strangely weightless and etherealised while at the same time as symbolically charged as the object-allegories packing a 17th-century Dutch painting.

The inventory of my black madonna’s ‘mannie vanities’ would include:

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things 15, winter 2001-02

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