Our Lady of the Stone, and the Chapel of St Maurus

Went to see B this morning, who was very chirpy and apparently has been notably so since her exciting stay in hospital. We had a fun walk round the pools at Hélécine, and got back in time for her rather early lunch.

On my way home I took advantage of the good weather and tried to get some decent pictures of one of the local ancient religious sites. It is an odd little chapel, Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-ten-Steen (“Our Lady of the Stone”) on the outskirts of Tienen. My first picture was certainly the best, capturing it from the south against a partly cloudy but bright sky:

In the above picture you can just about see the Stone for which the church was named at the bottom left of the back of the building. I went for a close-up picture, where you can see it nestling discreetly in a bed of plants (would be interested to know what plants). The first time I went there I bumped into one of the locals, and asked him if the stone had had any religious significance. He flatly denied the possibility; it might, he said vaguely, have been a totally non-religious boundary marker in ancient times, for the point where three tribes’ territories met. Yeah, right.

The Baroque door to the church has the date of its construction, 1699, written over it (should just about be visible in the picture below). I suspect that like our own local church (picture in the icon for this post) some of the fabric is a good deal older than that; there is known to have been a chapel on the site in 1331, part of a leper asylum, and there are legends of Benedictines and virgins from much earlier. Of course, the presence of the Stone suggests a much longer tradition.

The inside of the church is maintained by an ancient confraternity, and the main nave is dominated by a portrait of the confraternity’s members in the eighteenth century – badly restored and due to the lighting impossible to photograph, so you’ll have to take my word for it that that is what is on the left here:

But the side chapel is the more interesting bit of the internal fabric – dedicated to St Maurus, who is supposed to have introduced Benedictine practices into ancient Gaul. This is fairly dubious. St Maurus’ personal connections with this particular part of Gaul are pretty minimal, and I must assume that he has taken over the job of the pre-Christian local deity. (Though the church was apparently originally founded by Benedictines, so I may be being unfair.)

Most remarkably, St Maurus, at least in the Church of Our Lady of the Stone, cures mental disorders (which in Dutch are referred to as “geestelijke stoornissen”, which could be also translated as “spiritual disturbances”). At his feet are a set of iron crowns, which if worn by sufferers who are performing the correct ritual, may offer relief.

It is interesting that this altar is set against the inside of the same wall against which the ancient Stone leans on the outside. I also find it an interesting coincidence that Tienen is home to the Delacroix foundation which cares for those with very serious mental handicaps, including my own daughter B. It would seem that there was a local tradition of involvement long before the Delacroix family took action in 1950.

That’s not all. Every January 16, pilgrims assemble and walk thirteen times between the Church of Our Lady of the Stone and the Church of the Holy Redeemer in Hakendover, the next village. This commemorates the legend that at the end of the seventh century, three Hakendover virgins decided to build a church dedicated to the Redeemer, a process which involved various miraculous occurrences (a bird bringing them a letter from God to show where the church should be built, Jesus himself turning up to help the construction process, local bishops being struck down by God for their arrogance, etc). The virgins are supposedly buried at Our Lady of the Stone. (And that’s not to mention the curious Easter Monday ritual with horses that takes place in Hakendover, which is another story.) Here is a copy of a 1909 picture of the January pilgrimage, displayed in the church:

Belgium is nominally a traditionally Christian and Catholic country; but a lot of local cult practices have much more ancient roots.

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