Religious heritage: in Lyon, an association to save the Madonnas



Arriving at the corner of rue Saint-Jean and Petite Rue Tramassac, Catherine de Rivaz cannot help smiling: at the foot of the Virgin of tenderness, yet nestled high enough on the wall, a small bouquet of flowers was filed. “It happens that certain statues are decorated on the occasion of religious festivals, she explains. But here, and in the middle of July, it’s really the first time! “ This gesture is perhaps one of the few that can still surprise this great regular of Vieux-Lyon.

A professional guide and lecturer, Catherine de Rivaz has been organizing visits to the association Les Madones de Lyon (1) for the past twelve years, whose fifteen volunteers work hard on a daily basis to take care of the two hundred statues of the Virgin and some saints, scattered. “We must bring this small unprotected heritage to life, considers Étienne Piquet-Gauthier, co-founder and current president, because it is both a witness to history and a symbol of the city’s Marian fervor. “

Advise, restore, replace

On the Place de la Trinité, a few steps from the primatiale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, the so-called house of the Sun is protected by two beautiful plaster statues: on the left, Marie, arms open; on the right, Saint Peter and his key. “The day we discovered them, they didn’t even have hands. Fortunately, the Société anonyme de construction de la Ville de Lyon, which owns the building, was fully in favor of a restoration ”, tells the guide. Before adding: ” It’s not always the case ! “

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The association’s mission is clear: “Raise the awareness of the owners of the statues, and guide them in a process of restoration or replacement if necessary, explains Étienne Piquet-Gauthier. Obvious for those who see it “Part of the soul of the city”, but sometimes a constraint, money, time or energy. On Place Benoît-Crépu, an owner himself asked the association to fill a small niche he found ” shame “ to leave blank. But a little further on, at the site of a missing church, a statue of Saint Peter crudely held in place by straps has threatened to fall for months.

An invitation to pilgrimage

To know their initial state, the association has always referred to the first known inventory: that of André Georges, dated 1913. If it provides precise descriptions, and sometimes photos, “We miss a lot of elements like the dates and the conditions under which they were asked”, confides Catherine de Rivaz. With the exception of a few works signed by well-known artists such as Fabisch, some of these Madonnas – “in plaster and therefore fragile” – was probably deposited around the XIXe century to replace those that had disappeared, were destroyed or stolen.

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Of various styles, but always discreet in the image of the Virgin Mary in the Gospel, they testify to the Marian devotion of the Lyonnais, in particular since the 17th century.e century, as Philippe Dufieux, architectural historian, professor and specialist in the city of Lyon reminds us. “They all seem to be an echo of the Golden Virgin of Fourvière, whose attitude they often imitate. In Vieux-Lyon, we have the impression that all the buildings invite pilgrims to climb the hill! ” Like this imposing Virgin of Mercy placed at the foot of the Montée des Chazeaux.

Lookouts in the city

Installed in 2019 to replace the old one, it was imagined by Christine Onillon, a sculptor from Touraine. “It’s quite incredible to think that an artist of the XXIe century can still nourish this heritage ”exclaims the artist, selected after a competition.

The same year, Benoît Mercier even produced an all stainless steel Virgin for Notre-Dame-des-Lumières. “It’s a way of showing Lyonnais that the tradition continues to live on before their eyes, considers Catherine de Rivaz. They form the first audience and they are much more attached to it than one might think!

Moreover, in order to keep an eye on the two hundred statues, the association can now count on its “lookouts”, inhabitants ready to alert on the slightest facelift that could endanger the Marie of their neighborhood.

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The origins of Marian devotion in Lyon

♦ If the attachment of the Lyonnais to the Virgin Mary is manifested today Through the ceremony of the vow of the aldermen on September 8, or that of the illuminations on December 8, it finds its roots in three significant episodes in the history of the city.

♦ In 1643, Faced with the threat of the plague, the elected notables of Lyon promise to go up to Fourvière each year to pay homage to Marie, if the city is spared.

♦ In 1832, While the bishop ordered public prayers, the Lyonnais escaped the cholera epidemic and chose to thank the Virgin by having a huge canvas made by the painter Orsel.

♦ In 1870, the Lyonnais again turned to Mary to avoid the invasion of the Prussians: the bishop undertook to build a basilica at the top of the hill, a promise kept two years later.

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