Postcard from Toulouse, France: Church-hopping, so genuflect quickly

Above, Altar for the Privileged in the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Daurade. Is the skull an invitation to enter or a dire warning not to dare trespass within? I elected not to test it.

Time for a final round of visits to churches in Toulouse. First stop is the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Daurade. The Virgin Mary’s “golden” designation came from shimmering mosaics in the original 5th-century church adjacent to this site. The church’s prized statue of the Virgin was stolen during the 15th century and replaced. Particularly revered by pregnant women, the figures of the Virgin and Child became so blackened by the smoke of votive candles lit by supplicants that the Virgin became known as the Black Madonna, or La Vierge Noire, by the 16th century.

Riverside, the Black Madonna’s original home was demolished in 1761 for the construction of wharves. Rebuilt, a new church served as the Virgin’s temple for only a short time before the 1789 outbreak of the French Revolution. Revolutionaries repurposed the church as a tobacco factory and set the icon ablaze in the Place du Capitole, reducing the treasured statue into a pile of ashes.

The Catholic Church restored the church and commissioned a new copy of the Vierge Noire in 1807. Some of her faithful were present when we were there, making approaching her perch for photographs impossibly rude, but her altar and some of the other decorations in the church are so vivid in their palettes as to appear carnivalesque, resembling colors found on antique carousels.

The image of the Black Madonna below is a wiki-one, and she is fashionably attired. A blogger, Enthusiastical, explains she has been well-dressed since a 2008 appeal to French designers to contribute to her wardrobe. Now, she often is attired in Prada or Dior. Not sure which French house of fashion created the matching mother-child outfits below, but Enthusiastical has posted an image of their gowns by Jean Paul Gaultier, plus an in-focus frontal view of her altar.

The first pink Roman brick portion of the sprawling compound forming the Church and Convent of the Jacobins dates from 1230 and was built to support the mission of the future Saint Dominic (1170-1221) and the friars he recruited to root out heretical Catharism in Toulouse. As the friars’ influence grew so did their church. In 1368, Pope Urban V (1310-1370) had the remains of the church’s noted philosopher theologian and a member of the Dominican order, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), transferred from Italy to Toulouse where they are encased in a rather substantial stone reliquary.

The French Revolution banished the Dominicans from their home base, and, by 1810, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) requisitioned the church, inserting several stories inside to accommodate barracks above and stables below. Those alterations were not removed until restoration began in the 20th century. Owned by the city of Toulouse, the compound was never re-consecrated for religious purposes, but the remains of Saint Thomas Aquinas were returned to the museum space in the 1970s.

People in Toulouse tend to hang onto original names for places, even when they no longer seem appropriate. The original Notre Dame de la Dalbade, Saint Mary the White, was built in 541 and kept whitewashed as a sign of the purity of the Virgin Mary. A devastating fire in 1442 ended that appearance, with the replacement church built of brick. At one point in time, the church boasted the highest bell tower in the city, but, tragically, it collapsed in 1926 in the middle of the night, taking the lives of several early-rising bakers working next door. Today, the church is most noted for the bright ceramic tympanum added in 1878 by Gaston Virebent (1837-1925), who designed the altar of the Black Madonna as well.

A foosball game in the vestibule leads one to think the interior architecture of Saint Pierre des Chartreux might be severely compromised by its current ministry dedicated to serving university students, but upon entering the church that first impression dissolves. Founded by friars of the Carthusian, or Chartreux, Order, the church was consecrated in 1612. Its nave is divided into two by a double-sided altar to keep the friars cloistered from the general public during worship services.

The left bank of the Garonne River was prone to flooding, so a 12th-century church to serve the neighborhood of Saint Cyprien was dedicated to the patron saint of sailors, Saint Nicholas (270-343), before he rose to popularity as Santa Claus. That saintly safeguard did have a major failure in the 15th-century, which means much of it was rebuilt in the Southern Gothic-style characteristic of that period.

To wear shoes or not was one of the questions causing turmoil amongst Carmelites during the lifetime of Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). That’s an obvious over-simplification of differences in religious doctrine, but the Spanish noblewoman who took the veil in the cloistered convent became a mystic theologian and reformer who advocated for stricter discipline and deprivation of material goods for the order eschewing conversation outside of prayers, not only with outsiders but even amongst themselves. The nuns who followed her beliefs are known as Discalced (or barefoot) Carmelites.

The cornerstone for the Chapel of the Carmelites in Toulouse was laid in 1622, the year Teresa was canonized. A painting showing the ecstasy Saint Teresa of Avila experienced when ascending into heaven dominates the former chapel. The murals on the walls and Sistine-Chapel-influenced ceiling are the work of painters Jean-Pierre Rivals (1625-1706) and Jean-Baptiste Despax (1710-1773).

Saint Theresa makes being good appear so rewarding. Not only is the chaste nun borne aloft in the arms of a rather handsome pair of angels, but, after all her time devoted to wandering barefoot through France and Spain founding convents, she appears to possibly have been presented with slippers to wear in heaven.

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