Notre Dame de la Vie is a Celtic Goddess in a sculptural style that strongly resembles two other goddesses who appear to date to the same antiquity. Their faces have similar features; so do their hoods or headdresses. One of these sculptures is from Guernsey island in the English Channel and the other is from Caerwent in southern Wales.
La Grand-Mère du Chimquière belongs to a larger group of female statue-menhirs from the late neolithic. Her name means Grandmother of the Cemetery. She currently stands at the entrance of the churchyard at St-Martin de Bellouse. (Funny, both she and Notre Dame de la Vie are linked to the same saint, the earliest christianizer in Gaul (d. 370 ce.)
At one time a stone with two hollows for offerings lay before her, but has since been removed. Nevertheless, the people kept up the custom of garlanding her and placing offerings. “Even in the nineteenth century it was ‘lucky to place a little offering of fruit or flowers, or to spill a few drops of wine at the foot of the statue—‘c’etait une Pierre sante…” (It was a holy stone.) [Kendrick, 17] These offerings continue today, as many pictures online demonstrate.
At one time the statue stood near the Church porch, facing East but, probably because too much veneration was paid to her by parishioners, a zealous churchwarden ordered her destruction. It was broken in two but such was the outcry that the statue was repaired and placed in its current position. A metal spike now holds her together but the crack is clearly visible. [http://www.stmartinschurchguernsey.org/historyofthechurch.htm ]
This deliberate breakage (visible in the photo above) was committed in 1860, around the time of the assaults on Notre Dame de la Vie. This period saw another wave of concerted destruction of ancient goddesses of, in Kendrick’s words, “long traditional sanctity.” The site quoted above provides another crucial piece of information: “The church stands on the site of a Neolithic tomb shrine below which two springs emerge.” So this too is a fountain sanctuary.
Another statue-menhir on Guernsey stands on a hill near the center of the island, at Castel. In the 6th century a church was built on her site, and she was buried in the area below its altar. So we see both supercesssion (the new religion hiding and placing her beneath) and incorporation (the would-be converts of that time knew that she was still there). In the late 1800s she was rediscovered and again placed outside. The Castel statue-menhir is in the classic form of the megalithic era: a lightly tapered stone pillar with breasts and necklace. She also wears a headband. Many French statue-menhirs have faces, but this one does not.
La Grand-mère probably looked similar, originally. But her head and shoulders were recarved by Celtic hands, probably during the La Tène period. They added a face, cut out her neck and sharply defined her shoulders, and engraved a necklace or collar. None of these correspond to any style of the megalithic period. (Thevenot compares her to another breasted statue menhir enclosed in a wall at Lichessol, near Saint-Agrève in the Ardèche region, whose head seems to emerge from a round hood as well. But, no photos are available of her, so far.)
Another important, and comparable, Celtic statue is the Goddess of Caerwent. She was venerated by
the Silures, a Celtic tribe of south Wales. Before the Roman conquest, they placed her in a deep ritual deposit pit, eleven feet underground, on the grounds of a sanctuary that later became the Roman temple at Venta Silurum. (The Roman name for Caerwent was Venta Silurum, “marketplace of the Silures.”)
The sandstone statue presents a solemn seated woman holding a branch in one hand and a sphere or fruit in the other. Her flat mask-like face has its lips parted in a slight smile. Her somewhat triangular head is longer than the minimal legs. (These proportions are common in older Celtic sculpture in Britain and Gaul, for example a female statue from Bourges.) The Goddess is naked except for a hood or cape set back on her head. Her hands meet where her legs part, and at certain angles those spindly legs look like a vulva-portal, with a deep hollow between them. I’ve always thought of her as a proto-sheila. The worn surface of the sandstone shows that she’s ancient, how old we have no way of knowing for sure.
Now let’s compare the faces of the three goddesses or, in the case of la Grand-mère, ancestors. All represent an ancient Celtic style of stone carving that predates the Roman conquest. All have flat faces with large oval eyes and long noses and wear some kind of hood. Originally I was thinking that only Notre Dame de la Vie was associated with a spring sanctuary, but now find that so was La Grand-mère du Chimquière: “The church stands on the site of a Neolithic tomb shrine below which two springs emerge.” [from the offical website of St. Martin’s Church: http://www.stmartinschurchguernsey.org/historyofthechurch.htm] And re-reading Anne Ross’s magisterial study Pagan Celtic Britain, I find that she thinks the Caerwent Goddess in Wales may have been connected to a healing shrine of the waters. [Ross, 247, 269] Be that as it may!
These photos show the close-set oval eyes with strong upper ridge, the long nose, and nearly identical mouths on the Guernsey re-carve of the statue menhir and on the Goddess of Life fountain goddess in Savoy. The hoods or headdress are also comparable. No frontal angle photo is available as of this writing for Notre Dame de la Vie, who bears many scars from mutilations inflicted in the mid-19th century.
Here the angle of the photos is more comparable. The face of the Caerwent goddess is more triangular but both have the same flatness, close-set oval eyes, and headdress. What I’m trying to do here is to show artistic patterns in ancient Celtic sculpture from an early cultural layer that predates the Roman empire and has gotten very little attention. Here’s another view of the Grand-mère du Chimquière:
© 2012 Max Dashu
Emile Thevenot, Divinités et Sanctuaires de la Gaulle, Paris: Fayard, 1968, pp 191-198.
Kendrick, Thomas Downing, The Archaeology of the Channel Islands, Volume 1. Taylor & Francis, 1928
Ross, Anne, Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1996 (1967)
St. Martin’s Church website: http://www.stmartinschurchguernsey.org/historyofthechurch.htm