Posted 26 April 2006 - 08:09 am
Pals might like to know how the Leaning Virgin - that visual icon of the Somme - came to be there, on top of such a huge church in such a tiny town.
The answer is down to another statue of the Virgin and Child which is inside the church. Not many battlefield visitors bother to go and see it.
In the middle ages a shepherd was out with his sheep somewhere along the Ancre. He called the sheep in at the end of the day but one sheep wouldn't budge. It seemed to be focussing all its attention on the base of a particular tree. the shepherd ran towards it, banging his stick on the ground, when he heard a voice say, "Shepherd, stop! You are wounding me!" The shepherd saw that the end of his stick was smeared with blood.
He began to dig and found a small statue of the Virgin and Child, which he took to his local priest, who put it inside the church. Because of the strange way in which the statue had been found, local people came to look at it and it wasn't long before stories began to circulate saying that the statue had special powers and that miracles had taken place. As a result the faithful from further afield came to pray before the statue and this spread its fame even further. The statue became the focus for local pilgrimage and prayer and it became known as "Notre Dame de Brebieres - Our Lady of the Ewes".
By 1727 the number of pilgrims was growing very large with people coming from many parts of France so in that year the decision was made to move the statue from its original village church out in the fields, to Albert itself.
Pilgrim numbers continued to rise and the coming of the railway gave things an enormous boost. Albert was becoming known as "The Lourdes of the North" and early in the 1880s, for example, 20,000 pilgrims arrived by train in just one day. Albert was becoming a prosperous town, with many of its people making a living from meeting the needs of the pilgrims.
In 1885 work was started on a basilica which was grand enough to house the statue and large enough to accommodate all the pilgrims. The idea was to firmly establish Albert as a pilgrimage centre. This was finished in 1901 and it was the forerunner of the basilica we see today. On top of the tower was placed the famous original "Golden Virgin" statue - 15 feet in height and designed to make the basilica visible from miles around.
Of course the whole place was wrecked during the Great War. Afterwards, the son of the original architect used his father's plans to re-create the basilica (though the replacement wasn't quite as ornate inside as the original). But things had changed. People's faith had been shaken in the war, and anyway, it was some years before Albert was rebuilt. The pilgrims never returned in the numbers that people had seen in the pre-war years.
Today the statue is still inside the church. Although the story dates from the middle ages, the present statue dates from the 14th century. It's about three feet high and it's a crowned virgin holding a child, with a ewe beneath the Virgin's feet. If you walk down the side-aisle on the right-hand side of the basilica, you will be able to go behind the altar, up a small flight of steps to the statue, down some steps on the other side and back along the other side-aisle. This was how the basilica was designed to cater for a constant flow of people. On the way out, you'll see how visitors had to pass the Basilica Shop!
Albert still caters for pilgrims, of course, though they have come to see the battlefields now.