In 1099, during the first Crusade, Géraud de Graves, Lord of Saint-Macaire, was heading with about 60 horsemen to Bethlehem, when he suddenly found himself facing an army of about 1500 Muslim soldiers. As his men began to flee, de Graves prayed to the Virgin, promising to build a chapel in Her honor if he wins the battle.
He ordered his reluctant crusaders to face the Muslim enemies who looked at them astonished, getting the better of the people of the half-moon. Three years later de Graves returned to Aquitaine with a statue of the Virgin to fulfill his vow and build a chapel in honor of the “Our Lady of St. Luke (Madonna di San Luca)” near the woods which then became his hermitage until the day of his death in 1159.
The name “Madonna di San Luca” can be presumed as the statue was believed to be the work of the holy Apostle, or at least a copy of one of his works acquired during the crusade. This is the story that subsequent owners have passed down.
The sanctuary was given to the monks of Grandmont for management. In 1185, a young man born blind, was miraculously healed. From that moment, the chapel became an important pilgrimage site and the monks had to commit themselves to building a larger church and a monastery.
Towards the end of the 13th century, during the Hundred Years War, the basilica was sacked by the British and the statue of the Virgin is stolen.
A century later, in 1390, the countess Isabelle de Foix who in prayer had asked for a sign that would indicate where to build the church in thanksgiving for her children, saw her mule tripping over a stone. Just at that point she discovered that there was hidden a statue of the Virgin and Child. She immediately thought of the hidden Statue of the Madonna of San Luca, because it was not destroyed by the British in 1295. The new statue was then placed back in a chapel, and pilgrims rushed back to the Church.
In 1558, religious wars raged and the chapel was sacked and burned again. The statue, however, was recovered intact and the inhabitants of Verdelais decided to hide it to protect it, in a tree trunk, where it will later be found in 1605.
After the return of the monarchy, the Marist Fathers rebuilt the church, which was reconsecrated July 31, 1824, the day on which the Nativity of the Holy Virgin is remembered. On June 2, 1856, the statue was solemnly crowned. On February 1, 1924, the Pope raised it to as Minor Basilica, celebrating it grandly on July 31 of the same year.
The statue was dated around 1300, which could be the very one discovered by the Countess de Foix, but could not be the one coming from the Holy Land in 1102 and who had worked the healing miracle in 1185. The original was probably destroyed together with the monastery in 1270.
An annual pilgrimage to the Madonna di Verdelais takes place every second Sunday after Easter.
The basilica of Verdelais also hosts a large number of ex-votos as thanksgiving for the miracles received, as well as stained glass windows illustrating historical scenes of the sanctuary. Outside the bell tower is dominated by a large statue of the Madonna, in gilded copper!
In Verdelais, one can also visit the Museum of religious art, which is located in the ancient convent of the Celestini, where ex-voto paintings dedicated to Notre-Dame de Verdelais are exhibited, model boats, cloaks of the Madonna and Child, as well as sacred jewelries and religious vestments. In the Verdelais cemetery, a stone’s throw from the basilica, there is the tomb of the famous painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Prayer to Our Lady of Verdelais
(by S. Alfonso Maria De Liguori)
“What would become of me if you,
O Mother, had not called me
and impetrated so many mercies?
So if You loved me so much,
when I didn’t love you, how much more should I hope
for your goodness now that I love you?
I love you, my Mother,
and I would like a heart that would love you
for all those who do not love you.
I would like a language
worth praising you
for a thousand languages,
to let everyone know about your greatness,
your mercy, and the love
with which you love those who love you.
If I had riches, I would like to use them all in your honor.
If I had subjects I would like to make them all your lovers.
Finally, I would like for you and for your glory to spend life itself if you need to.
I love you, therefore, my Mother,
but at the same time I fear that I do not love you:
since I hear it said that love makes lovers similar to their beloved.
So if I see myself so dissimilar to You, it is a sign that I do not love you.
You, so pure, I so dirty! You, so humble, I, so proud!
You, so holy, I so unfair!
But this is what you have to do, O Mary:
since you love me, make me similar to you.
You already have all the power to change hearts;
so take mine and change it.
Show the world what you can in favor of those you love.
Make me holy, make your son worthy ”.
Amen. Ave Maria!