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You are here:Home / Family News / NEF 2016 / Family News - April 14th, 2016 / The Calvary of Betharram (4)
Apr 13, 2016

The Calvary of Betharram (4)

Betharram’s “Calvary” until the Eve of the Revolution

The Calvary of Betharram (4)

Here we are back at the 17th century in Betharram. Inspired by his devotion to the mystery of the Cross and assured by the truth of the miracle of September 1616, the Chaplain, Hubert Charpentier, planted three large crosses at the top of the hill. This was the first “Calvary” at Betharram, inaugurated in 1623. Charpentier had conceived a more ambitious project that he couldn’t see through to the end. Before his departure in 1638, the generosity of Louis XIII, King of France, had all the same allowed the building of a great Oratory, standing over the original chaplains’ chapel: it is the sixth chapel, called the “St Louis” chapel, of the current Way of the Cross.

The reputation of Betharram, sustained by the wonders performed there, did not stop spreading. Whole villages came there, and the chapel of Hubert Charpentier proved to be insufficient. It is in all likelihood on that site that the chaplains had the current sanctuary built. Our Lady’s Chapel was finished in 1661 and consecrated a little later by the Bishop.

As early as 1659, St Vincent de Paul wrote: “We are envisaging setting up a residence of our Company in a place of great devotion; this place, if it isn’t the second, is at least the third most visited in the kingdom. It is Our Lady of Betharram, where miracles often happen …”. Indeed from the 17th Century, a remarkable tradition was established at Betharram: Whole villages organised a march each year, at a predetermined time. “Of all the parishes, Bruges1 was the most hasty to come to Betharram, as early as 1623. According to the town’s accounts, the pilgrims, numbering a thousand or fifteen hundred, marched in communities, preceded by the banner of St Martin and the clergy. Special marshals ensured order. At Betharram, the Mass was sung, by the chapel’s choir, to the sound of the organ, and municipal magistrates came holding candles in their hands.”. (cf. Henri Lassalle SCJ, Notre-Dame de Bétharram, p226.) Lestelle made his pilgrimage on the morning of the Ascension and on the evening of 15th August, with the Municipal Council at the front. The pilgrims who had come from far off places were already there on the eve of the big celebrations. The night had to be filled; chaplains organised prayer vigils. The more fervent pilgrims spent the night in the chapel. Others rested in hotels or private houses. Sometimes the crowd was so large that it was impossible to find shelter. If the weather was nice, the pilgrims would make a bed of ferns and sleep in the shadow of Betharram’s “Calvary”, wrapped up in their coats. At the time, there were still only four prayer stations. From 1705, through the drive of the chaplains’ Superior, Baratnau, Betharram’s “Calvary” saw a particularly glorious period. The simplification of the project depicted in the Lasnes engraving2, made it possible to reserve all the resources for the interior embellishments of the Stations of the Cross. Baratnau gave up the symmetrical plan; this beautiful layout, so pleasing to the eye, was put aside. Starting in 1716, the work was efficiently carried out; it only took four years. The complete “Calvary” comprised 8 small Charles guarding paintings and statues. People could contemplate the Passion of Christ in 14 stations.

In 1730, the “Calvary”, which was to be found at Betharram during the entire 18th Century, was finished. But many benefactors were needed to maintain Betharram; the chaplains borrowed or begged. As such, “on the 25th April 1761, they requested 80 golden Royal coins (‘Louis coins’) from Mr De Capdevielle, Lord of Gomer, to provide for the household’s needs.”

A traveller from Bordeaux wrote in 1765, after his visit to Betharram: “The statues, larger than life, are rather skilfully made, the positions just right, the draperies well made”. Chaplain Touton appreciated the living expression of the characters and affirmed: “All that is missing is speech”. Two precious relics of this “Calvary”, conserved at the Betharram museum, and ranked by the Fine Arts, The Scourging of Christ3 and the vandalised head of the Virgin, explaining the judgment of the first witnesses. They give us, at the same time, a measure of the vandalism that was going to hit us during the revolutionary troubles.

Raymond Descomps scj (1916 - 2009)
Extrait de Notre-Dame de Bétharram - La Mère qui sauve de et de «L’Écho de Bétharram» (1973)

1 Municipality of Béarn
2 See the illustration in NEF from February 2016
3 This sculpture is now at the entrance of Our Lady’s Chapel

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