Q: Where is de bruine lieve vrouw (the Brown Madonna of Lier) now?

A: Recently, one of our readers, Janne-Elisabeth McOwan, shared the fruits of her research into the current location of the famous Belgian 'brown madonna', Our Lady of Grace:

Introduction

In August 1998, my husband and I were in Belgium for a week during our holiday, and, as I had previously done some research on the subject of Black Madonnas, we naturally decided to visit some of the Belgian churches that have a black madonna.  I have, before now, found Ean Begg's list of black madonnas very useful, and as we were near Lier we decided to visit the Dominican church there, de Kluizekerk, which Begg describes as the home of de bruine lieve vrouw - the brown madonna, who is also known as Onze lieve vrouw ter Gratien - Our Lady of Grace. ...  No one in the tourist office had apparently ever heard of the brown madonna!  The gentlemen I spoke to there, were very helpful; they told me, though, that both the Dominican church and the monastery in Lier had been closed down, and the remaining elderly monks had moved to the Dominican monastery in Leuven. ...

At length he [ her husband, Per] found a second-hand bookshop, where ... he asked the book-seller whether he had any books about the brown madonna or indeed, knew anything about the statue.  ...  The book-seller produced a book, De Paters van de Kluis - de Dominikanen te Lier (The Fathers of the Kluis - The Dominicans of Lier) by P. Jordanus Piet De Pue, Leuven, 1983.  It deals with the history of the Dominicans in Lier and includes a chapter about de bruine lieve vrouw (see below).  He also said that he believed the statue had been placed in the sacristy of Sint Gummarus Church.

The legend of the brown madonna

Pater de Pue´s book proved most interesting.  Chapter IX deals among other things with reliquaries, statues and pictures in de Kluizekerk.  He includes two black and white photographs of de bruine lieve vrouw. (I am unable, due to copyright, to reproduce these illustrations here).  The one on page 71 of his book shows a statue of the Virgin and Child, both obviously suffering from the ravages of time.  The Child lacks both arms and the surface of both figures seems to be pitted either by scratches or by woodworm.  The second photograph on the following page, shows de bruine lieve vrouw dressed in ceremonial raiment, crowned and carrying a sceptre in the crook of her right arm.  The Child is likewise dressed in ceremonial raiment, crowned and carrying an orb. (This photograph was presumably taken before the Child´s arms were damaged).  A third illustration is a photograph of a painting, that at the time the book was written, hung in the sacristy of de Kluizekerk and depicts one of the miracles attributed to de bruine lieve vrouw.

Concerning the miracles attributed to this madonna, de Pue quotes a document from the archives in Lier about a miracle that took place in 1632. (Before reading this quotation it is helpful to know that the church had two different statues of Our Lady, which explains why de bruine lieve vrouw is called "the other miraculous image."  (Miracles have been attributed to both statues.)

"The other miraculous image of the most holy Virgin, Mary the Mother of God is commonly known as "the brown Madonna". It is not known precisely when it was brought de Kluizekerk, but on the August 18,1632 a miracle took place there, which was respectfully brought to the notice of His Grace Ioannes Malderus, the Bishop of Antwerp.

There was at that time a woman, who had been born and bred in Lier, by name Anna van Rockeghem, who had been bedridden for two years, due to a grave illness and who was unable to do anything for herself. She was near to death, the physicians having given up hope of her recovery, when she took her recourse to the brown madonna. She was cured immediately and arose from her bed, as if she never had been ill. She has since with God's help and the intercession of the Virgin remained well."

De Pue states that Anna van Roeckeghem was twenty-seven at the time of her miraculous cure and that the Bishop confirmed the miracle the same year.

A picture that hung in the sacristy (I have, unfortunately, no information regarding its present whereabouts), depicted the cure of a child, Elisabeth Peeters, who had been born with a crippled hand.  The child was cured by means of oil from the lamp that burned before the statue of Our Lady in de Kluizekerk.  This is the kind of sparse information that causes historians to tear their hair in exasperation. It would be nice if we had been told more details; the oil was probably rubbed onto the crippled hand, as this seems to have been a fairly common cure in the days when oil lamps burned before statutes of saints.  The child in question is depicted as an infant in swaddling bands, so presumably her parents or her nurse was advised to try this way of healing her.  There seems no reason to doubt that de bruine lieve vrouw was involved in some way, as she is depicted standing on celestial clouds, dressed in her ceremonial raiment.

Du Pue mentions that the statue of de bruine lieve vrouw is said to have stood in a chapel near Lier´s Mechlin Gate between 1612-1630.  Here the madonna survived the destruction of the chapel by soldiers in or around 1630. (The preservation of the statue on this occasion was regarded as a miracle).  After this it was brought to the convent of the de Zwartzusters (the black sisters) in Lier and later again to de Kluizekerk. (The alms given in the chapel formed part of the income of de Zwartzusters, who were unable to afford to rebuild the chapel.  This probably influenced their decision to transfer the statue to their convent).  During the eighteenth century a bishop apparently took exception to the title de bruine lieve vrouw and directed the Dominicans to use the title O.L. Vrouw van genade (Our Lady of Mercy) instead.  However, the older title remained in popular use.

Where is de bruine lieve vrouw now?

It was very satisfactory to have found some information concerning the madonna and interesting too, to note that the townspeople, who apparently had forgotten all about the statue since its removal from de Kluizekerk were eager to help us in our quest.  A number of the elderly gentlemen we had met in 't Groenhuis were very annoyed to realise that the madonna had disappeared and spent considerable time trying to find out what had actually happened to her.

As I have already mentioned it was suggested that the monks had taken the statue with them to Leuven, that it had been deposited in the sacristy of Sint Gummarus or that it was in the museum of Lier, although this last suggestion seemed unlikely, after I had spoken to an official there.  A new probability, based upon what one of the gentlemen from 't Groenhuis had been told by someone he had spoken to, was that the statue had been sent to Brussels to be restored.  Unfortunately, I had to be back in Copenhagen for the beginning of the academic year, which was less than a week away, so we had no time to follow up these rumors.  It was rather frustrating to be forced to give up our search at this point, so we decided to see if we could get a glance at one of Belgium's other black madonnas on the way home.  Begg's list includes eighteen black madonnas in Belgium, but by now we had no way of knowing, how many of these could still be found in the places where Begg had seen them.  We decided to play safe and go to look at the black madonna in Liège: Vierge noire des Recollets.  We assumed she was a safe bet, as Begg states that there was a very living cult of this madonna at the time he wrote his book, and we felt that it had probably not completely died out in the intervening years.  We arrived in Liège early Sunday morning, found the church of Notre-Dame des Recollets and attended mass there.  Here the madonna is still in her place in the nave of the church and when we spoke to the priest after mass he told us that processions in her honour are still held.  It was fortunate that we were in Liège Sunday morning as the churches there are apparently only open when services are being held.  A couple of weeks after we had returned home, we received a letter from Nancy [van den Brande].  She had suceeded in finding de bruine lieve vrouw.  The statue was returned to the black sisters in 1986, after various incidents of vandalism.  So if you want to go looking for de bruine lieve vrouw ter Lier the address is Zwartzusters van Lier, Kloosterstraaat 2, 2500 Lier. The Zwartzusters run the old peoples' home in Lier today. ... The statue has been restored; it is now in the sisters' chapel.


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