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The most brilliant icon of the 20th century

· Snubbed as something kitsch, Our Lady of Lourdes is actually a mos eloquent work of art ·

Like each one and like no one, as befits the first creature of the new creation

The following is a translation of excerpts taken from the Italian journal ‘Vita et Pensiero’, 3rd issue of 2012.

I encountered my first statue of Our Lady of Lourdes when I was a child visiting the house of some Rhenish winemakers. My parents were taste-testing in the kitchen, while the daughter of the proprietors — my age — showed me around upstairs through the rooms of the house. As her parents’ bedroom opened up, to me it lay in fresh and festive stillness — enormous flat duvets, pillows softly separated like rabbits' ears, and there on the dresser in front she stood: a princess of ice, the cold all around her, strangely alive, her doll-like face so delicately depicted. My mother smiled with a hint of irony when I told her that this beautiful figure appeared to me: she was a “saint of the night-stand”. It was my mother's sarcastic smile that made me understand: in our world, among intellectuals, scholars, art experts, Our Lady of Lourdes was not taken seriously. She was kitsch. Yet, note how in the whole of the 20th century there has been no artistic creation so clear, comprehensible, able to speak across cultural boundaries, so meaningful liturgically and so identifiably Catholic as the Madonna of Lourdes. Her anonymous maker must have had a stroke of genius — something akin to the creators of Mickey Mouse and whoever came up with the Coca Cola logo. Where there is Our Lady of Lourdes, there is the Catholic Church. Faced with such inner power any aesthetic judgment is reduced to an insignificant statement of personal taste.

It is astonishing: the Lourdes statue, an industrial product, corresponds to the founding image of Christian iconography. And this is thanks not to the creativity of an artist but to the vision of a saint, who described her as “a white lady” in a grotto, introducing herself in the Pyrenees dialect as the “Immaculate Conception”: not as the immaculately conceived, but an abstract concept in human form, the incarnation of a word. Later, one or more modellers in a factory for devotional objects, whose names probably no one remembers, listening to the story of the little shepherdess produced a statue: a true icon, a true image of the apparition, which has now passed countless times on the conveyor belt. Left unpainted, with her features unpersonalized, like a doll, like each one and like none, as befits the first creature of the new creation, the perfect new Eve.




St. Peter’s Square

Sept. 21, 2019