Visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary rank among the most interesting of Fortean phenomena. They are, to begin with, often very well evidenced; there are frequently multiple witnesses, and series of visions can run for days, weeks, months, or even years. Because of their theological implications, such experiences have also been the subject of intensive contemporary investigation, and though devout interrogators don’t always ask the questions that we Forteans want answered, the fact is that we know vastly more about the background and early lives of percipients such as St Bernadette or Catherine Labouré than we do about most people who report strange things.
BVM experiences are also of special interest to those of us who take an interest in the psychological and cultural factors that underpin all such reports. They are very culturally specific, being reported – with one or two notable exceptions – exclusively by Roman Catholics and often include either prophetic or doctrinal elements. (One of the most interesting thing about the visions at Lourdes was the BVM’s statement to Bernadette that “I am the Immaculate Conception,” a comment that rather conveniently affirmed quite a new and controversial bit of Catholic dogma.) Cases often feature bizarre and surreal elements – one thinks particularly of the visions at Pontmain, in France, during the Franco-Prussian war, in which the Virgin hovered in the sky “surrounded by an oval frame, and her words, far from being spoken, inscribed themselves slowly on a twelve-foot-long strip of parchment that materialised beneath her feet. She then disappeared from the feet up into a ‘kind of bag.'” [Dash, Borderlands p.55] Marian apparitions are also exceptionally fascinating from a purely evidential point of view, because in cases where there are multiple witnesses it is entirely normal for the various percipients to see and hear very different things.
Kevin McClure, whose book The Evidence for Visions of the Virgin Mary remains one of the most thought-provoking studies of this subject, points out that the BVM apparitions that have taken place since the ‘Miraculous Medal’ case of 1830 follow a clear evolutionary pattern, with later witnesses apparently drawing on their knowledge of earlier cases, or being informed of them by their better-educated interrogators. Elsewhere, McClure mentions two other problems that bear on the interpretation of these visions: the question of why the BVM should choose ill-educated peasant children of no influence as conduits for the important messages she wishes to deliver to mankind, and the peculiar fact that the earliest well-attested Marian apparition took place in the English village of Walsingham as late as 1061. Where, McClure asks, had Mary been for the previous 1,030-odd years, and why choose to return to earth then, after so long a sojourn in Heaven?
It’s well worth bearing McClure’s queries in mind when considering a very rare earlier BVM report which I stumbled across the other day while reading Roger Collins’s highly-regarded The Arab Conquest of Spain, 710-797. This apparition may well be the earliest that can be specifically dated – it occurred in the city of Toledo on 18 December 662 – and the chief witness was about as far from an illiterate peasant girl as it is possible to get; he was Reccesuinth, the King of Visigothic Spain.
The details of the apparition are, perhaps inevitably, hazy. The source is the Vita Ildefonsi, an account of some deeds of Bishop Ildefonsus of Toledo. The original manuscript is, importantly, more or less contemporary – it was written only a few years after its subject’s death in 667, apparently by his successor, Cixila. According to the Vita, the BVM appeared to Ildefonsus, in the presence of Reccesuinth, on her own feast day, and invested him with “a small present from the treasury of my Son.” Collins notes that “it is implied that this is a garment, which in later tradition became fixed as a chasuble [the elaborately embroidered outer vestment worn by a Catholic priest – about as far from typical of the clothing worn in first century Palestine as it is possible to get], and the whole scene was to be a very popular one in the art of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain.” [Collins p.75] An example of this artistic tradition appears to the right, and a significantly elaborated contemporary telling of the same story on this Catholic blog puts the incident this way:
It is recounted that on this feast of the Mother of God, Archbishop
Ildephonsus, together with some of his clergy, hastened to church
before the hour of Matins to honour Our Blessed Lady with their songs.
Arriving close to the church, they found it all ablaze with a heavenly
radiance. This so frightened the little band that all fled, except for
Archbishop Ildephonsus and his two faithful deacons. Deacons, take
note! With wildly beating hearts, these entered the church and made
their way to the altar. A great mystery was about to unfold.
There, seated on the Archbishop’s throne, was the august Queen of
Heaven surrounded by choirs of angels and holy virgins. The chants of
paradise filled the air. Our Blessed Lady beckoned Ildephonsus to
approach her. Looking upon him with tenderness and majesty, she said:
“Thou art my chaplain and faithful notary. Receive from me this
chasuble, which my Son sends you from His treasury.” Having said this,
the Immaculate Virgin clothed Ildephonsus in the chasuble, and
instructed him to wear it for the Holy Sacrifice on her festivals.
The account of this apparition, and of the miraculous chasuble, was
deemed so certain and utterly beyond doubt, that news of it spread
through the Church, even reaching the Ethiopians. The Church of Toledo
honoured the event with a special proper Mass and Office. What was the
miraculous chasuble like? Artists through the ages have sought to
depict it, more often than not in rich brocades of gold and blue.
There are several interesting facets to this account. Firstly, it’s clear that the passage relating the BVM apparition in the Vita Ildefonsi is part of an entirely different tradition to the Marian encounters of the last two centuries. Mary appeared not in an external, rural setting, but in what was then Spain’s capital city, and not to insignificant children but to a roomful of the kingdom’s most notable men, the king and his bishop chief among them. Second, her gift was something physical and not a warning or a piece of prophecy, as is typical today. Finally, the BVM apparition was – according to the author of the Vita Ildefonsi – part of a series of supernatural events. Nine days earlier, both Reccesuinth and Ildefonsus had witnessed a miracle apparently wrought by St Leocadia, the patron saint of Toledo. This miracle – which took place, significantly enough, on the saint’s feast day – involved the levitation of the massive lid to Leocadia’s sepulchre and the discovery of her perfectly-preserved shroud, some 360 years after her death:
[Source: Ann Christys, Christians In Al-Andalus, 711-1000 (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2002) p.22]
Collins, in discussing this pair of miracles, makes the important point that the BVM apparition supposedly seen by King Reccesuinth and Bishop Ildefonsus was “of a very superior type” and adds that it was “quite unprecedented in Spanish hagiographical texts.” [Collins p.77] Quite possibly, however, reports of earlier BVM apparitions were made in other countries. I would wager that, if they were, they will be found to follow the pattern set out in the Vita Ildefonsi a lot more closely than they do modern received wisdom of what a Marian apparition should be.