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THE MOVING STORY OF THE STATUE OF OUR LADY OF ABERDEEN

09 Jul

“The story of this small wooden statue is a fascinating tale of survival. The statue was made from oak in Aberdeen [Scotland] sometime in the early 1500s, and was placed in St Machar’s Cathedral in Aberdeen, where it was known as Our Lady of Pity. It is four feet three inches high and was probably overshadowed by three other statues of Our Lady in the cathedral at the time, one of silver and two of gold. The statue still reigns today in a church in central Brussels [Belgium], where it is known as Notre Dame du Bon Succes.

There are countless thousands of statues dedicated to Our Lady, but few with such humanity and charm as Our Lady of Aberdeen.

Mary is holding the baby Jesus up on her right arm, with her elbow slightly bent to provide support for him. In her right hand she carries a sceptre, a symbol of royalty, and a bunch of grapes, a symbol of the future and the enduring covenant in the communion of the blood and wine. Her left hand is holding on to Jesus’ right foot, with true maternal care for the safety of her baby. Just as any baby, feeling a little insecure up his mother’s arm, Jesus is shown to have his left hand firmly gripping on to his mother’s gown, while she has her head turned slightly towards him, keeping an eye on her precious child. Altogether it is a wonderful image of the intimate tenderness, love and care, trust and compassion between a mother and her baby. Jesus has a closed crown on his head, indicating that there is no higher authority, while Mary has an open crown. So we have the imposing authority and power of the crowns, the sceptre and the message of the grape and salvation, with the touching human tableau of a mother and her son, caring and trusting each other.

Bishop Gavin Dunbar was the Bishop of Aberdeen from 1518 to 1532. Straight away on his appointment, Bishop Dunbar hired Father Alexander Galloway to design a bridge over the river Dee. However, there was the difficulty of exactly where to put the bridge. Bishop Dunbar was a very devout man, he prayed to Our Lady for inspiration. Then he saw, in a vision, the exact location to build the bridge, and that is where it was built, and where it is today.

This inspired him to dedicate the bridge to Our Lady, which is pivotal to the story of the statue.

Eventually, in 1527, the bridge was completed. In honour of Our Lady and her help in identifying the location for the bridge, a chapel was built on the south side of the bridge, the ‘country’ end. With great ceremony, a statue of Our Lady was carried shoulder high from the cathedral of St Machar to the chapel and installed in 1527.

The Reformation came slowly to north east Scotland. It was a turbulent time in our history. On the 12th November 1593 a decree was passed that Catholics must either give up their faith or emigrate.

It is against this tumultuous background, that the statue of Our Lady of Aberdeen was being hidden and treasured by the faithful in the North East of Scotland. It was secretly moved from location to location, and brought out at clandestine masses. However, it was becoming increasingly difficult, and the faithful decided that it must be sent abroad for safe keeping.

George, the 5th Earl of Huntly continued to support masses, and priests, and kept the statue hidden. The Gordons knew very well that they had been entrusted with the greater part of the precious property of the cathedral in Aberdeen, with the solemn undertaking to restore it when asked to do so by the Bishop. However, after 65 tumultuous years, not much of the original property remained, in fact, only the wooden statue remained in their care. It was also looking extremely doubtful if the old faith would ever be allowed in Scotland again. It had now been banned and persecuted for three generations. The only way to ensure the survival of the statue was to send it abroad.

The Gordon family had long standing connections with Spain, which continued into the 20th century. Henrietta was a friend of Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia, the daughter of King Philip II of Spain.

Isabella was the Governor of the Spanish Netherlands, which included parts of northern France. She lived in Brussels.

Isabella agreed to accept the statue as a gift and to keep it safe. It was not sold to her. Arrangements were made in the greatest secrecy to send the statue to Isabella Claram

In Aberdeen, there was an important merchant, called William Laing who liaised with Father Barthelemy de los Rios, an Augustinian Friar who was the chaplain to the Archduchess. They arranged for a Spanish ship to come to Aberdeen harbour. William Laing smuggled the statue aboard, saying only that it came from an important family who adhered to the old faith, and that it was to go to Isabella. The journey down the North Sea was dangerous. Dutch pirates, or privateers, roamed the seas, attacking anything Spanish, including innocent cargo ships.

The North Sea is renowned for being stormy, and during its passage the ship suffered from a short sharp storm that destroyed the mast and sails. While they were drifting and trying to make some repairs, a Dutch pirate ship decided that they were a soft target and attacked. The Spanish guns were still in full working order, and the Dutch were soon seen off.

Dutch ships were blocking the ports of Antwerp and Calais, and the only one still open was Dunkirk.

The harbour master was amazed to see the battered ship limp into port in 1625. When they landed, the sailors loudly praised the statue. They said that they had prayed for the deliverance from the storm and the attacking Dutch. Father Barthelemy immediately took the statue to Isabella, who was overjoyed to see it. Isabella sent a message to William Laing to record as much history of the statue as he could find out, and also record the miracles that were attributed to it, and to let her know.

Just at this time, Isabella won a decisive battle against the Dutch United Provinces. She declared that this great victory was due to the arrival of this marvellous statue, and immediately named it “Notre Dame du Bon Succes”.

Having survived such a turbulence, the statue now settled down to a period of peace in the imposing Augustinian monastery in Brussels, where it was the centre of prayers for many years, until war threatened it once again.

In 1695 Brussels came under attack by the invading French army. The area around the monastery suffered from heavy artillery bombardments, with many buildings destroyed, but the monastery itself was saved.

The French once again threatened Belgium in 1792, when they captured Brussels. The French revolutionary troops kicked the Augustinians out of their monastery, and used it as stables and a hospital for their wounded soldiers. The statue was under threat once again, and this time an Englishman, resident in Brussels, called Jean-Baptiste Joseph Morris, took the statue and hid it in his house in Brussels for eight years. In 1805, Napoleon I, Emperor of France, granted permission for the Augustinians to go back to their monastery, and the statue once again was restored to its rightful place of honour.

The Augustinians did not last long there, however, and so on 7th April 1814, the statue was moved once again, this time to a nearby church, Notre Dame du Finistere.

The artist Pluys commemorated the origins of the statue in 1850. He created two stained glass windows which were put up in the church. One shows Aberdeen, and the other the journey to Brussels. So many people came to pray at this statue, that it was decided that a separate chapel would have to be built. This was opened in 1852. A niche was built at the far end, and in this the statue reigns today.

After the First World War, the constant stream of worshippers and visitors to see the statue meant that the church had to remain open at all times.

Today this part of Brussles is a pedestrianised shopping area. In 1989 the church was closed for a complete renovation, opening again in 1996. When the church was reopened, the statue resumed its rightful place in the side chapel.

The 9th July is the day in Scotland of the Feast of Our Lady of Aberdeen. The attachment of the faithful of Scotland to this one remaining relic of the church from before the Reformation is still very strong. Maybe one day…..”
– from The Crusader Magazine, July 2012 issue

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