Volumes have been written on the famous apparition of La Salette. All its details have passed through the crucible of criticism – a scrutiny that has revealed the triumph of divine logic and the approbation of ecclesiastical authority. Yet there is a theme that has not been very much touched upon; there is a book that hasn't as yet been published.
The Beautiful Bronze Statues on the Holy Mountain
That topic forms a beautiful page in the heavenly story; that volume would make interesting reading and reflection. We speak of the emotions pilgrims experience in the presence of the statues that mark the celestial apparition; we mean the bronze master-pieces that excite from pilgrims their pity and love.
It's a tale of impressions and tears better known to Mary and the angels than to mortals and art because such things are in the ream of secrets tucked away in their heart or described in their daily diaries. Broken hearts, surprising victories, achieved hopes, healed limbs, resigned sufferings are but some of the confidences of hearts and pages as they reveal their feelings and reflections upon viewing and studying the shrine's statues.
Those fortunate people who have had the happiness of visiting and sojourning at the Holy Mountain of La Salette have a page all of our own in that personal book; in fact, each one of us so favored has a diary page in that volume – about our treasured memories and lasting effects from the pilgrimage to Mary’s Holy Mountain of La Salette.
Those others not so blest have nevertheless certainly seen reproductions and representations of the original statuary and by dint of these likenesses in painting or in sculpture have been able to go in spirit to the Holy Mountain and experience their own impressions. Consequently we shall all feel at home as we picture and describe the statues, as we make known our sentiments and influences in their presence. We won't be afraid to reveal and face our convictions in the threefold contemplation of the Virgin of the Alps.
The First Phase – Our Weeping MotherIn Phase One, the Virgin is seated. Her head is buried in her hands and bowed in grief. As befits a supernatural vision, she possesses more than natural grandeur in that attitude. It's a view that troubles the heart and fascinates the eye to such a degree that admiration can't be broken off.
it is in this very place, marked by the fountain that issued from the dried-up spring that re-took its source in Mary's tears, that the two little cowherds see the Beautiful Lady. And we ourselves are caught endeavoring to reconstruct the scene, to become identified with the lifeless bronze whose very immobility speaks of so many things and whose rigidity just gives enough to choke the looker-on's heart with tears.
And the mind reflects upon that singular posture. The Virgin is there in assumed despondency and dejection. Her hands hide her eyes as if to deprive them of the scenes for which they were not created and to rob them of the sights they have no right to behold. Her head is bowed and bent towards the earth that she wants to save in her descent from the heavens.
She chooses a crevice near the peak of a mountain to teach us that she comes down from heaven to help us ascend there one day. She majestically appears to a people whose Queen she is. And yet we feel that there has never been, since Calvary, a picture of sorrow so striking and so sublime in its astounding simplicity.
In her glory, Mary is very far – too far away – from us but in her tears we recognize the creature and the Mother. We are attracted and drawn towards her, like Maximin and Melanie, without being blinded and dazzled by her brilliance, for we find in her that relationship of suffering and sorrow that touches the heart of every human life. Our misery is indeed quite distant from her grandeur but we still feel that the chasm is being spanned because she weeps like ourselves and nothing unites us more effectively than affliction.
The Second Phase –Mary Speaks with the Children
In Phase Two, Melanie and Maximin are represented as standing at the feet of the heavenly vision that has advanced to meet them. Tall and quite erect, although her head is slightly bent, the Virgin Mary, sad and sorrowful, sheds tears as she looks at the children. They themselves seem to belong no longer to earth as their eyes bulge out at the luminous figure and their ears are straining to hear her every word. And the radiance of the atmosphere lightens their features.
The phases of this superhuman drama are indeed well-wrought – the fascination of the witnesses and the resigned sorrow of the Mother. And here the statuary has to make up as much as possible for the pen's deficiency and speech's lack. Powerless to reproduce the discourse, the artist has nevertheless known how to create and express all its impressions. Thus to the natural frankness of Melanie and Maximin he has succeeded in uniting by an indefinable alliance the compassion, eagerness and ravishment that pass and flicker like soft shadows on their transfigured features, surrounded as they be with the nimbus of glory that is cast around the apparition scene. It all seems like a living picture.
By dint of steady looking, pilgrims believe that they themselves are partaking of this long-passed radiance. They listen with the children and in the peculiar stare of their great bronze eyes into which art has put the dazzling light of the setting they gather, as it were, a ray like the final flash of this stream of pity, light and love.
The Third and Last Phase – Mary Disappears into the Air
This Phase Three is called Mary’s Assumption. Without doubt, it's the best and most beautiful of the three. Like the apparition itself, wherein there is a gradual ascending from this vale of tears to our home beyond the clouds, art seems to have proceeded by degrees. Mary ascends to heaven: genius follows her.
The bronze material becomes pliable, acquires ethereal forms and takes on a lightness that exactly furnishes a scrupulous reproduction of this statue’s appearance of leaving earth. This likeness is really a triumph of genius because any such previous representation used up all the resources of art as it brought into play extended arms, flowing dresses and even winged shoulders to set forth the idea of mounting. Here there's nothing of the kind.
The Virgin ascends and that without any seeming effort. We see and behold her going up into heaven and with our eye we follow her flight and gaze after her assumption. She indeed rests on a pedestal but the base lies hidden and concealed. Her head is dipped in a heavenly halo. Her eyes no longer look upon the earth but are fixed on the infinite and show the radiant vision previously veiled in tears.
The mountains seem to lower their caps and above the loftiest peak, ecstatic eyes behold the chaste bosom, the virginal brow and the pure profile of her, who is the delight of the Blessed, as she turns and disappears. Her entire body is bent slightly forward yet no stiffness marks its lines. Her hands, hidden and folded upon her breast, appear to repress the emotions of her tender heart. An imperceptible movement of the dress and general attitude of the frame help us realize that she is leaving the earth, that she ascends, borne on high by invisible angels that bask in her halo of light.
All her features breathe calm and majesty. The sorrow heretofore seen on her brow is tempered with invincible hope. And attentive eyes, that can't break away from the ecstatic vision, figure out that Mary is indeed a Mother and that she takes along with herself – even unto glory – the worry and care of her children.
A close view of this last statue of the apparition in the midst of the calm heights of the Alps produces an air of infinity and begets a longing for heaven. Instinctively, like Maximin, pilgrims stretch forth their arm to grasp and retain the Virgin or else ascend with her. Then they cast their eyes, full of tears, upon her and ask her to mingle them with hers: for some, tears of hope; for others, tears of petition and repentance: but for all, tears of compassion and love.
A Profound and Moving ExperienceSuch are the group of statues; such are the three acts of phases of the drama. The action takes place and moves amid the chasms and mountains, with the Basilica to the left and the La Salette Cemetery up the hill to the right, amid the solitude of earth and the majesty of heaven. Yes, indeed, the setting is proportionate to the scenes and the framework is adjusted to the picture. The pilgrims leave the shrine with the intimate conviction that Mary, the Mother of God, has appeared here, wept and expiated on the mountain they have just visited.
They don't argue or reason this out; they just taste and enjoy the sweetness of this hallowed spot. They have merely seen statues and pictures but they realize and recognize the reality of the apparition in the emotions of their own heart and the resolve of their broken will.
For La Salette is a sanctuary that can't be easily casually approached. There's something peculiarly supernatural in this locality and that irresistible fascination we have with the mystery of her tears – the tears of a Mother that do nothing else but stream gently down her face – over her children, over you and me.
(Reprinted from the La Salette Publication, Our Lady’s Missionary, 1924)