Notre Dame de Sous-Terre: the Blessed Virgin’s oldest shrine in Christendom?

Arise, shine for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee” (Isaiah 40:1)

Chartres Cathedral. Stained glass window

Not only is Chartres Cathedral one of the greatest achievements in the history of architecture, it is almost perfectly preserved in its original design and details, in spite of centuries of damage from fire and religious wars requiring subsequent rebuilding. Its extensive cycle of portal sculpture remains fully intact and it is renowned the world over for the magnificence of its glowing stained glass windows that are nearly all originals. Friedrich Meyer, a nineteenth century Austrian historian and art critic, described the exquisite light which filters through them as “the quintessence of luminescence”. A recurring motif in the glass is the life of Our Lady, to whom the cathedral is dedicated: Notre Dame de Chartres.

The carved statue of Our Lady: Notre Dame de Sous-Terre

One of the shrines within the Cathedral, the shrine of Notre Dame de Sous-Terre, is built on what was probably the oldest dedicated shrine to Our Blessed Lady anywhere in the world. In fact the shrine is even ‘pre-Christian’, being as it is the site of an original pagan temple from before the birth of Christ! The Druids worshipped here and it is said that the sculpture on the altar of their shrine was dedicated to Matri Futurae Dei Nascituri – ‘to the Mother of God as yet unborn’. This old tradition is supported by the discovery of druidic artefacts and religious emblems during restoration after the ravages of the Second World War. In the year 50 B.C., so the old story goes, the Druids heard of Isaiah’s prophecy: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son…” (Is. 7:14). They instinctively knew that this would be the one true God who would prove their old gods to be mere idols, and so they ordered a statue of this unknown virgin and child to be sculpted and placed on the altar.

Julius Cesar’s account “On the War of the Gauls” (De Bello Gallico) mentions that once a year all the Druids of Gaul (modern day France) would gather here, in the territory of the Carnuts, the tribe of Chartres, to decide disputes and hold religious celebrations.

The first Christian church on the site was made of wood, in the earliest centuries of the Christian era (exact date unknown). It was replaced in 1020 by a stone edifice; though the original crypt and underground grotto were preserved. In the early Middle Ages the shrine was attended by most of the Carolingian kings, and every French king except Louis XV and Louis XVI prayed to the Virgin at Chartres. There are records of pilgrimages by several English monarchs: Matilda, Richard I and Edward III.

Notre Dame de Sous-Terre (Our Lady of Under the Earth) once held a very ancient statue of the Virgin Mary, famously described by the celebrated art historian Pintard in 1681:

The Virgin sits on a chair, her Son sits on her knees and He gives the sign of blessing with His right hand. In His left hand He holds an orb. He is bare-headed and His hair is quite short. He wears a close-fitting robe girdled with a belt. His face, hands and feet are bare and they are of a shining grey-ebony colour.

The Virgin is dressed in an antique mantle in the shape of a chasuble. Her face is oval, of perfect construction, and of the same shining black colour. Her crown is very plain, only the top being decorated with flowers and small leaves. Her chair is one foot wide with four parts hallowed out at the back and carved. The statue is twenty-nine inches tall.”

Tragically, during the Reign of Terror which followed the French Revolution of 1789, the statue was desecrated and then burnt, although most of Chartres cathedral was left relatively unharmed, Chartres being a rare example of a town’s inhabitants putting a stop to any further looting or destruction by the revolutionaries. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that a replacement statue was provided, designed and carved by the Paris sculpture, Fontenelle, who tried to faithfully copy the design of the original. This is the one we can see today.

From the Magnificat: “For behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48b).

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15 Responses to Notre Dame de Sous-Terre: the Blessed Virgin’s oldest shrine in Christendom?

  1. JessicaHof says:

    That’s lovely kathleen, thank you for sharing your knowledge of this beautiful shrine with us – I loved reading it.

  2. kathleen says:

    Thank you Jessica.
    If you have never been to Chartres Cathedral, I would highly recommend you to go. It is a truly beautiful, fascinating Cathedral with heaps of history attached to it. I hope to publish another article in a day or two about another of its shrines.

  3. JessicaHof says:

    I haven’t, kathleen – and this makes me want to go 🙂

  4. Dear Kathleen, I am a senior member of the Militia Sanctae Mariae, founded in Notre-Dame-de-Sous-Terre, who have a special devotion to “La Vierge qui va enfanter.” Thank you for this. I knew of course of the old prilgrimages,but where did you hear of “the old story” involving Druids? In Domine + Domina, Jean-Paul

  5. kathleen says:

    Dear Jean-Paul, thank you so much for commenting here.
    This is a post that I took a long time to write because I looked up so many sources (reliable ones) both in books about shrines to Our Lady, and on the internet, that I then summarised in this article above. Although actually I first heard the story from one of the leaders of our British chapters who walk in the annual Chartres pilgrimage at Pentecost.
    In answer to your question I honestly cannot remember exactly, but I have a feeling that I saw more than one reference to this “old story” of the Druids and their altar at Chartres to “La Vierge qui va enfanter.” (It sounds so beautiful in French. :-))
    I will try to find it again and let you know.

  6. Dear Kathleen, I have googled this now and found a few sources, and a few variations on the story:

    http://amaic2.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/fatima-third-apparition.html
    http://www.mariedenazareth.com/8597.0.html?&L=1
    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03635a.htm
    http://www.lieux-sacres.com/chartres%20-%20vierges.htm
    http://www.philipcoppens.com/chartres.html

    There is some consistency in the story that the original wooden Black Madonna there was sculpted by Druids who foresaw the coming of Christianity to Gaul. This is, according to some, linked to an apparition, with the first message delivered by Mary in France taking place at Chartres, when she appeared as “The Virgin who will give birth” (variously told as occurring in 100BC, 50BC and 5 AD) on the site of what is now the Cathedral. In other variations, there is no apparition. In some, the Druids worshipped a Goddess, which the Church later explained was in fact Mary. To some, there is no indication of an original statue older than the 13th (or according to others 9th) century. Personally, I like the apparition version best.

    TMMI, Jean-Paul

  7. kathleen says:

    Dear Jean-Paul,
    I am extremely grateful for all those wonderful links! I hadn’t had time earlier to search out myself the information you asked me for, but when I got back to the computer to do so, I saw your discoveries! (The “new advent” was the only one of your links that I’d seen before!) There is a wealth of fascinating information in all of them, which I have just immersed myself in reading. I particularly like the second last one you give, “lieux sacres”, written in French, that also contains some beautiful images of the shrines of the magnificent Chartres Cathedral.

    It appears there is no doubt that the Druids had some sort of future vision of the event mentioned in Isaiah of “The Virgin who will give birth”, and considering the times, it is quite natural that it is impossible to verify the exact date when this occurred. That it was prior to Our Lord’s Resurrection seems pretty certain though.

    On the day after our annual pilgrimage to Chartres, and before our return to the UK, we always celebrate a final Mass in one of the little chapels in the dark mysterious crypt near the Druids original well. I can’t describe in words the awe that surrounds this occasion for me as time seems to stand still!

    Thank you very much once again. God Bless.

  8. toadspittle says:

    .
    “It appears there is no doubt that the Druids had some sort of future vision of the event mentioned in Isaiah of “The Virgin who will give birth”…”

    Toad would have thought there was considerable doubt. But then, he would, wouldn’t he?

  9. Exceptional post however I was wondering if you could
    write a litte more on this topic? I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit more.
    Cheers!

  10. kathleen says:

    @ veterinarian scales

    Thank you very much for your interest.
    Are you referring to Chartres Cathedral, the underground shrine “Notre Dame de Sous-Terre, or the old story of the Druids? I’m not quite sure how to “elaborate” anymore on this subject, but the links given above by Jean-Paul might be helpful to you.

  11. Roger says:

    Thank you for this Kathleen.
    The mistake that is made over and over again is to misunderstand the Faith and Man. Was there Faith before Moses? Were there Jews before Jacob?
    The Magi are so important in understanding this because of the contrast between the knowledge of the Temple (Old Testament) and that of the Magi (the Heavens).
    The Oldest Book in the Bible is the book of Job. In that book is found Satan and also the Heavens
    “Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades, or loose the belt of Orion? Can you bring out Mazzaroth in its season? Or can you guide the Great Bear with its cubs? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you set their dominion over the earth?” (Job 38:31–33)
    The Mazzaroth? The Ancient Hebrew name for the signs of the Zodiac ““Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years” (Genesis 1:14)”
    In the Zodiac is of course Virgo. Notice that the Passover / Easter in the spring under the Ram. Libra (October and Fatima). The Zodiac has been corrupted but there is a consistency of interpretation over this from earliest recorded History. NOT ASTROLOGY of cours e but “The Bible says that stars, along with the sun and moon, were given for “signs” and “seasons” (Genesis 1:14)” Interestingly the Popes Leo X and Clement VII had an official astronomer. The point being that there was prior knowledge of the Virgin!

  12. kathleen says:

    Roger,
    Thank you for your fascinating comment.
    You are so right; from the beginnings of Time, even before the Fall of our first parents, it has been “written in the stars” that the Virgin would bear a Son who would come to redeem Mankind!
    It is now with all our modern technological discoveries of the Universe and archeology (or perhaps in spite of them) that this is becoming continually more evident.

    Let us repeat the prayer: “O Lord, that I might see”.

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