A short guide to Notre Dame de Pontmain, an apparition that ended a war.
We started this very occasional series of local saints ages ago with Thomas of Helye who, it turns out, isn't a saint. Today, in a similar vein, we'll introduce Our Lady of Pontmain who also isn't a saint. Living in and buying antiques around northern France it's almost inevitable that we come across antique sculptures and other depictions of Our Lady of Pontmain. Our Lady, of course, the Virgin Mary, a common theme in Catholic antiques. Marian apparitions all have their own devotional objects to support them but depictions of Our Lady of Pontmain are special.
First, we have to go back to the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. This was a typically 19th century conflict with Napoleon III going to war with Otto Bismarck in a vain attempt to redress the balance of power in Europe after German unification. It was insane, pompous and hideously violent. The whole conflict was brutal on a level we find difficult to comprehend these days. In six months of conflict nearly 200,000 were killed. This doesn't include 250,000 civilians of which 162,000 were Germans killed in a smallpox epidemic spread by French POWs. The war involved much to-ing and fro-ing and eventually the Prussian and German armies invaded northern France.
Laval is a small city in Mayenne, a largely agricultural départment just south of Normandy. Pontmain, a hamlet of about 500 inhabitants, lay between the oncoming Prussian army and the city. It's 17th January 1871 and the Barbadette family were at home, their two boys helping their father in the barn. The elder, Eugene, walked to the door and saw in the night an apparition of a beautiful woman smiling at him. His brother Joseph, father and neighbor came out to look and although Joseph immediately said he too could see the apparition, the adults saw nothing. Their mother also saw nothing and called for the school mistress. She suggested the apparition was only visible to children and called two local girls Françoise Richer and Jeanne-Marie Lebosse, aged nine and eleven.
Unprompted, they claim to see something in the sky and their description seemed to match the boys: a lady wearing a blue gown covered with golden stars, and a black veil under a golden crown. A crowd gathered with all the children claiming to see the Virgin Mary floating in the sky. As they prayed the Rosary, the children saw the garment's stars multiply until it was almost entirely gold. Next, the children saw a banner unfurl beneath the Lady. Slowly, a message appeared: But pray, my children. God will hear you in time. My Son allows Himself to be touched.
The same evening General von Schmidt of the Prussian Army was planning his advance on Laval, a process which would flatten Pontmain. Inexplicably (as always in miracles) his orders were cancelled by his commander. Only days afterwards, the Treaty of Versailles is signed and hostilities cease.
The message is simple: prayer from simple farming folk had brought about the end of the war. Thus, the veneration of Notre Dame d'Esperance de Pontmain or Our Lady of Hope of Pontmain was given official Church recognition and approval and in 1872 a sanctuary was constructed on the site. In 1905 Pope Pius X elevated the Sanctuary to the status of a basilica.
Here, Mary becomes a symbol of hope in the midst of war. The basilica is now a place of pilgrimage, and it attracts annually around 200,000 visitors. The association with peace meant that Pontmain became popular again in the 20th Century as France and Europe suffered more calamity. The miracle is fascinating for all sorts of reasons- it's deeply intertwined in the 19th century French history and the story itself has all the childlike innocence of myth. What is also interesting is that the apparition itself was minutely described and recorded.
Joseph would later become a priest and would himself write: She was young and tall of stature, clad in a garment of deep blue, ... Her dress was covered with brilliant gold stars. The sleeves were ample and long. She wore slippers of the same blue as the dress, ornamented with gold bows. On the head was a black veil half covering the forehead, concealing the hair and ears, and falling over the shoulders. Above this was a crown resembling a diadem, higher in front than elsewhere, and widening out at the sides. A red line encircled the crown at the middle. Her hands were small and extended toward us as in the 'miraculous medal.
Frequently, like in this sculpture in Pontmain itself, she is depicted holding a crucifix with an extra top bar. There is a long history of the Virgin Mary wearing blue (my obsession with colour history breaking out again). It's interesting how the children, seeing something against a starry night sky should have chosen a description so in keeping with tradition in art. This obviously gave rise to a rich material and sculptural tradition around Our Lady of Pontmain. Devotional items are immediately recognizable and often very beautiful. Scouring brocantes and flea markets it's not long before you come across some religious statuary. The bright blue Pontmains stand out a mile and are nearly always smaller versions of the Basilica statue:
As a pilgrimage and tourist destination, the Basilica generates a large volume of souvenir material like this item from 1949, when much of France was thankful for deliverance from a different group of Germans.
More typical are the small devotional bénitiers for the home, like this:
Again, it's a souvenir piece with the image of Our Lady and the Basilica as well. For obvious reasons we avoid the statues (they're difficult to post to customers in the US!) but the vast array of other religious collectables make for a vibrant market around one of the the most interesting miracles in France