Whenever I am able to, I go on the three-day, 105 km. annual walking pilgrimage at Pentecost, between the two Cathedrals: Notre Dame in Paris to Notre Dame in Chartres. It is the one of the largest pilgrimages of its kind anywhere in the world. In spite of the extremely tough and challenging conditions of this long walk, the pilgrims arrive for the beautiful Tridentine High Mass at Chartres Cathedral at the end of the third day with hearts full of gratitude for the completion of yet another amazingly uplifting experience shared with fellow Christians from all around the world. A special moment is a visit to the shrine of Our Lady’s Veil at the end of Holy Mass. Footsore, weary but very happy, we take turns to light candles for our loved ones, then sit in silent prayer of thanksgiving before this treasured ancient relic.
So what is the story of Our Lady’s Veil?
The first church at Chartres boasted one of the most venerated relics in Christendom, Our Lady’s Veil, which tradition declares was worn by the Virgin as she stood at the foot of the Cross. It had been transferred in the early years of the Christian Church from Jerusalem to Constantinople and presented by the Empress Irene to the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (742-814). In 876 his descendant Charles the Bald gave the relic to the cathedral at Chartres. Our Lady’s Veil is kept in a golden reliquary beside the high altar and has formed the focus of many traditions throughout the centuries. For instance, in 911 when the bandit Rollo and his henchmen were besieging Chartres, local people took the veil from the church and paraded it as a flag of war. Rollo and his men were defeated and the siege was lifted.
The shrine is renowned for pilgrimages made by many of the great doctors and theologians of the Church. Our Lady’s Veil was believed to have protected the faithful down through the centuries from many dangers and evils, including famine and war, outbreaks of the plague, and the worst ravishes of the French Revolution.
The veil itself is more than six metres long and made of silk. Scientific studies have shown that it is of Syrian design, of fine quality and can be traced to the first century. If indeed it was the original Veil of Our Lady it has probably been extended and embellished over the centuries. It had once been depicted as a tunic (Sancta Camisia) but when this was unwound it was found to be a Veil, or a long piece of cloth rather than a tunic.
Every year on 15th August, the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, the Veil is processed through the town of Chartres.
I would like to add a short anecdote about another incident involving Our Lady’s veil that took place in another part of the world. A veil is a symbol of protection, and there are other shrines dedicated to Our Lady’s protective veil.
According to Eastern Orthodox Sacred Tradition, the apparition of Mary the Theotokos occurred during the 10th century at the Blachernae church in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) where several of her relics had been kept. On Sunday, 1st October, at 4 a.m., St. Andrew the Blessed Fool-for-Christ, a Slav by birth who was acting as a bodyguard in Constantinople, saw the dome of the church open and the Virgin Mary enter, moving in the air above him, glowing and surrounded by angels and saints. She knelt and prayed with tears for all faithful Christians in the world. The Virgin Mary asked her Son, Jesus Christ, to accept the prayers of all the people entreating Him and looking for her protection. Once her prayer was completed, she walked to the altar and continued to pray. Afterwards, she spread her veil over all the people in the church as a protection.
St. Andrew turned to his disciple, St. Epiphanius, who was standing near him, and asked, “Do you see, brother, the Holy Theotokos, praying for all the world?” Epiphanius answered, “Yes Holy Father, I see it and am amazed!”
An icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary praying, surrounded by people, was said to be kept in the Blachernae church. It reproduced the events as St. Andrew saw them that day. A feast day in commemoration of the vision has been kept in Russia ever since.
The Pokrov icon may well be related to the Western Virgin of Mercy image, in which the Virgin spreads wide her cloak to cover and protect a group of kneeling supplicants. This is first known in Italy around the year 1280.