Until very recently, I had only known the name ‘Rocamadour’ as that of a tasty goats cheese! Then a couple of weeks ago, on a trip to the Dordogne in France with family, I visited this spectacular mediaeval town precariously constructed on the side of a 400 ft. cliff.
Rocamadour (250 km east from Bordeaux, France) owes its origins to St. Amadour, a first century pilgrim and hermit. From the small mediaeval town below, the buildings rise in stages up the steep side of the high limestone cliff in a gorge above a tributary of the River Dordogne. Flights of steps ascend from the lower town to the group of beautiful chapels and sanctuaries, half way up the cliff. The pilgrims enter and kneel to pray at these divergent and tranquil sanctuaries, one by one, that are ablaze with candles. The main one, the church of St. Sauveur, (rebuilt in its present configuration from 1479) contains the unusual wooden figure of the Black Madonna*, a mediaeval replica of an original statue believed to have been carved by St. Amadour himself. The walls of the church are covered with paintings and inscriptions recalling famous pilgrims to the shrine; these include kings, bishops and nobles. On the terrace in front of the church, called the Plateau of St. Michel, there is a broken sword said to be a fragment of Durandel, once wielded by the hero Roland. (In the poem, the ‘Song of Roland’, Roland uses this sword to hold off a hundred-thousand-strong Muslim army long enough for Charlemagne’s army to retreat into France.)
On the second half of the climb up are the Stations of the Cross and finally a large Crucifix at the top of the hill, leading to the ‘chateau’ that was built in the Middle Ages to defend the sanctuaries below.
According to tradition, Amadour had travelled to France to escape persecution and had chosen this strikingly beautiful sanctuary as a hermitage for his prayers and devotions to the Virgin Mary. Rocamadour grew in popularity as a pilgrimage site after reports of numerous miracles of extraordinary healings occurring there. It was also thanks to the discovery in 1166 of the miraculously preserved body of St. Amadour buried inside the wall of the rock (a disclaimer to those who had cast doubts on the very existence of the saint) although his true identity remains somewhat obscure and unverifiable legends surround him.
One recent notable pilgrim to Rocamadour was the French composer Francis Poulenc (d. January 30, 1963), who stayed in the city after a religious conversion he experienced there, and in honour of which he composed his Litanies of the Black Virgin (Litanies à la Vierge Noire).
*‘Black Madonnas’, that abound in France in particular, are potentially one of the most ancient sources of mysticism within the Catholic Church. Chartres Cathedral, whose three shrines are dedicated to Our Lady, also boasts a Black Madonna. Two of these shrines I wrote about recently: Notre Dame de Sous-Terre (Our Lady Under the Earth), believed to be the oldest shrine to the Virgin Mary anywhere in the world, and Our Lady’s Veil.