In the porch of the parish church of the Sacred Heart, Lourdes, are two figures to the left and right of the main door. One represents St Bernadette holding her sabots, much as she was when she saw the apparition of Our Lady in 1 85 8. The other is of a young priest holding a model of the façade of a 17th century baroque church. He is St Michel GariquoTts, the founder of the Fathers of the Sacred Heart of Bétharram, and the church is the Shrine of Our Lady of Betharram.
Betharram was central to St Bernadette's devotional life and the lives of the local people. It was a Basque shrine, the origin of which was ancient but unknown. Our Lady, it was believed, appeared in a wood to some shepherds, surrounded by light, and when they approached the apparition they discovered an image of the Virgin. This was taken in procession and enshrined on the banks of the River Gave. But this did not please Our Lady and the statue was placed on the opposite bank. That pleased her even less and finally the statue was placed in a chapel on the sight of the apparition.
During the summer I went to Lourdes for the first time with a pilgrimage from the Sacred Heart, Wimbledon. We were a happy, elderly group and quietly took the five days in our stride. Yet by the end of the pilgrimage we had accomplished everything, including an early Mass at the Grotto. Only the most hardhearted and cynical dismiss Lourdes, the reality of St Bemadette's vision, and what has resulted from it. Whatever I have read about her adds to her shining integrity but it is only when you see the reality of the poverty of the Soubirous family and the hardness of life she experienced as a child that you realise how the Lord chooses the poor and simple to confound the wise. Nobody at the time could have imagined that what she saw in the rock of Massabielle would have become the principal shrine of Our Lady in the world, visited by millions.
St Bernadette came alive for me in a new way when she went to Bartres for Mass and the veneration of her relic in the small medieval church she had known when she went to stay with her foster mother and became a shepherdess. It is a lovely church, dedicated to St John the Baptist, furnished with 17th century painted and gilded Pyraneean Baroque woodwork. The gleaming reredos has large reliefs of the Baptism of Christ, the Visitation and the decollation of St. John, framed in wreathed, barley-sugar columns and pilasters in white and gold, surmounted by oval portraits of the Holy Trinity, Jesus and Mary. With the dark panelling, gilded tabernacle in the form of a tempietto, black and white marble pavement, and balustred altar rails enclosed in the vaulted Gothic sanctuary it made me realise how beautiful our English medieval churches would have become if we had not had a Reformation. The church would have fostered St Bernadette's devotional sensibility as strongly as the old church in Lourdes, which was similarly furnished on a larger scale, before it burned down.
Bartres was only an hors-d'oeuvre to the splendour and magnificence of Betharrum. I had never heard of the shrine until I went to Lourdes, nor had the majority of the pilgrimage. Instead of taking a scenic tour of the Pyranees and various gloomy caves I though it would be more interesting, as well as more edifying, if we went there on one of our free afternoons. When we arrived we were spellbound.
By the 17th century the local devotion had become established and powerful. In 1647 the priests of Our Lady of Calvary, who administered the shrine, used a legacy to build a church designed by Maitre Barthelemy de Saint-Martin in a local Baroque style that is one of the ripest fruits of the Counter Reformation outside Italy. It was consecrated in 1653 and the sumptuous decoration was completed in 1661, shortly before Wren began building the City churches. Oddly, it reminded me of them, though in other ways they could not be more different. The elegant classical façade leads into a large nave with a vaulted roof painted blue and_sold.,Avwderedwith_stars in relief. It is broken by black marble arcades of five bays with richly gilded angels in the spandrels carved by Jean Brunelo of Tarbes. Above hang a series of large, unsophisticated, copies of paintings by Rubens and Poussin in gilded frames and the clerestory flanked by more murals in oils. The ceiling below the organ gallery has the ancestors of Christ in painted cofferings. All remaining surfaces are delicately painted with flowers.
This richness leads to the greater richness of the sanctuary where the green marbled altar, decorated with the entwined hearts of Jesus and Mary, in the form of a sarcophagus, stands before a towering gilded retablo by Brunel containing life-size statues by Jean Cassassus and Jean Cassou of Louvie. In the centre is a chaste statue of Our Lady of Betharrum carved by Renoir in 1 845 wearing a crown of diamonds presented by St Pius X. Other altars icp sent the apparition and the family of Mary. It is vernacular carving at its best and epitomises the spirit of Basque devotion. Gleaming with gold and colour, the church has recently been faultlessly restored by_theMonuments Historiques_ St Michel GariquoTts was a friend of the Soubirous family and always believed in St Bernadette. His body lies in a great Baroque reliquary in a grand, circular, Parisian chapel in the Beaux Arts style designed by Gabriel Andral in the 1950s, filled with stained glass representing the globes of Mary. In the grounds are the Stations of the Cross contained in mausoleum-like oratories designed by Josephine-Marie Puyo and the sculptor, Joseph Delecour, of Pau, in 1873. Visit Betharrum when you next go to Lourdes and remember the influence it had on St Bernadette. The church will bring you to your knees.