Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Special Collections Fossickings 48: The golden virgin of Picardy.

Many posts on the subject of World War 1 and North Queenslanders’ involvement in the conflict have appeared here in the last 12 months. But with the approach of Remembrance Day it is timely to include one more, albeit on a quirky subject.

Watching an episode of the BBC-TV program, Antiques Roadshow, on a lazy Sunday afternoon I was startled by a wartime photograph of a damaged French church. Where had I seen that image before?

La basilique de Notre-Dame de Brebières rises above the small town of Albert in Picardy. Built at the end of the 19th century, the church’s tower and dome are crowned by a golden statue of virgin and child, designed by sculptor Albert Rozé.  In January 1915, at the height of the First World War, a German shell badly damaged the basilica and dislodged the statue. Secured by French engineers, it continued to hang from the tower at a precarious angle for the next three years, giving rise to several superstitions. One held that whichever side, Germans or Allies, caused the statue to fall would ultimately lose the war; another claimed that the war would end only when it did fall. The “leaning virgin” became a familiar, if bizarre, sight to the thousands of soldiers, who passed through on their way to the Somme since the town was only three miles from the front.
Caption: "Albert"  Photographer: Astley James Bromfield, Bromfield Album, NQ Photographic Collection, JCU Library Special Collections.
Many of these troops were Australian who, with characteristic irreverence, dubbed the statue “Fanny” after the then famous Australian swimmer, Fanny Durack - presumably because the dangling figure resembled a swimmer diving from the blocks. The statue was a popular subject for photographers, one of whom was Australia’s official war photographer Frank Hurley. Attempting to get a moonlight shot the explosion of his flashlight startled local residents who feared another bombardment. But it was not Frank Hurley’s photograph that I had seen. Rather it was the son of an Atherton farmer, Sgt Astley Bromfield who either photographed the ruined tower himself or acquired it while serving in France. We have already met Astley, and his younger brother Jack, in earlier posts this year. Only Astley returned from the war, bringing with him a remarkable collection of wartime images, many of which are held in the Special Collections.
Caption: Studio portrait of Astley James Bromfield
But back to the statue. In 1918 the town of Albert was recaptured by German forces and the statue eventually fell when British troops fired through the ruined basilica in April that year. By August the British had regained control of the town and within three months the war was over. The basilica was rebuilt by Louis Duthoit (son of the original architect, Edmond Duthoit) between 1927-1931. The fallen statue was never recovered but was replaced by an exact replica of the original design.

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