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
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
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
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.