Rocks of Ages (iii) – Poulenc’s Rocamadour

The Eglise St-Jean in Aubeterre discussed in the previous segment of this post may be the largest cave church in south-western France, but it is certainly not the most famous. That title goes to another mythic site which I visited a week ago, rivalled in fame only by two other ‘sacred rocks’ in France, the first being Mont St-Michel at the intersection of Normandy and Brittany, the second being Massabielle grotto at Lourdes where Bernadette Soubirous saw the Virgin in 1858. Rocamadour, a village built into a steep cliff-face, has been an important pilgrimage site for a thousand years, following the construction of a  chapel in the rock housing a black wooden statue of Mary (la Vierge Noire).


Nowadays Rocamadour is undoubtedly something of a tourist trap; indeed, in an age where France can, like much of Western Europe, definitely be classified as a ‘post-Christian’ culture (although paradoxically those who have remained in a numerically diminished but extremely vibrant Church are more deeply motivated than ever) it is difficult to discern whether anything spiritual is motivating the hundreds of thousands of visitors who crowd its narrow streets and climb the Via Crucis leading upwards from the sanctuary itself to the castle at the top of the rock. Perhaps more than some would like to admit, given that the beauty of sacred art continues to fascinate many people who would never attend a formal act of Christian worship. Or maybe not. What is certain is that the doctrinal content tradition of faith reflected on these slopes is now completely foreign to many, if not the majority of these tourists. I heard one French woman ask out loud ‘Who is this Jesus?’ on seeing the 14 stations of the Cross, to which her husband replied, without much conviction and for lack of any clearer idea, ‘an important figure’ (un grand personnage). It is difficult to avoid the impression that the symbolism of the sacred imagery extant in myriad locations throughout France is no more legible to contemporary society than Egyptian hieroglyphics. This de-Christianization is all the more shocking given that Christianity appeared in the territory of the Gauls as early as the 2nd century (one of the greatest of the early Church Fathers, Irenaeus, became bishop of Lyons around 178 A.D.). In few countries of Western Europe can the erasing of the Judeo-Christian tradition be said to have proceeded as thoroughly over the last couple of centuries, France perhaps being only surpassed in this regard by Holland (although there were huge numbers of Dutch tourists in Rocamadour, suggesting that there may be a sub-current of nostalgia for a lost world of faith at work in the Netherlands on some level). Pope John Paul II’s probing question of 1980 on his first Papal visit remains as pertinent as ever:

‘France, fille aînée de l’Eglise, es-tu fidèle aux promesses de ton baptême?’ (‘France, eldest daughter of the Church, are you faithful to the promises of your baptism?’)

Chapelle Notre-Dame, Rocamadour

One man for whom Rocamadour meant a re-discovery of his own baptism was the composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), to whom there is a memorial plaque just outside the sanctuary. Shaken by the untimely death of a composer friend, he visited the shrine in August 1936 after a working visit to the great French baritone Pierre Bernac in nearby Uzerche. It was in Rocamadour that Poulenc was dramatically converted, and he began to write his celebrated Litanies à la Vierge Noire on the spot:

‘Rocamadour managed to bring me back to the faith of my childhood. This sanctuary, surely the oldest in France […] had all it took to overwhelm me. In bright sunlight, ledged  in a vertiginous rock crevice, Rocamadour is an extraordinary place of peace […]  A modest chapel, half of it built into the rock, houses a miraculous statue of the Virgin, according to tradition carved out of black wood by Saint Amadour, little Zacchaeus of the Gospels, who had to climb a tree to see Christ. That same evening of the visit to Rocamadour, I began my Litanies to the Black Virgin for women’s voices and organ [Poulenc later made a version with orchestral accompaniment]. In this work I tried to convey something of the ‘peasant devotion’ which had struck me so strongly in this high place.

In Rocamadour I spend long hours in the sanctuary, alone in front of the sinless Virgin, and I immediately sense once more the irrefutable sign, the dagger-blow of grace going straight to my heart [le coup de poignard de la grâce en plein coeur]. My belief has never failed since.’

Francis Poulenc

August 22, the day of Poulenc’s life-changing encounter with Rocamadour, now marks the culmination of an annual sacred music festival in the village named Cantica Sacra, in recognition of the visit to which all the composer’s later sacred works, including the Stabat Mater, Mass in G, Quatre Prières de Saint-François d’Assise and the opera Dialogues des Carmélites. Attempting to explain the intriguing and persistent co-existence in his music of an irreverent, flippant side with an intense, at times sombre devotion, Poulenc remarked with respect to his Gloria (1959):

‘I simply thought while writing of frescoes of Benozzo Gozzoli where the angels stick out their tongues, as well as of those solemn Benedictines whom I one day saw playing soccer.’


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