A Special Kind of Religious Heritage: Marian caves

A Special Kind of Religious Heritage: Marian caves

If you can’t go to Lourdes, Lourdes will come to you. That was the idea behind the many Marian caves you can observe all over Flanders. Such a cave is not only a place of prayer and veneration, but also a place of silence and rest in the middle of the daily hustle and bustle.

The caretakers of Marian caves are often confronted with the same challenges. These range from very practical questions about cement restoration and maintenance to the search for volunteers. But they are also asked how they can give their caves meaningful significance in today’s secularized society.

To respond to these challenges, PARCUM, the Flemish museum and expertise centre for religious art and culture in Leuven (Belgium), set up a network for the caretakers of Marian caves. As a centre of expertise for religious heritage, PARCUM offers a specific service for owners and managers of public and private religious heritage of the recognised religions in Flanders. PARCUM does this from an integrated vision in which movable, immovable, and intangible heritage are addressed.  

The network ‘Marian caves in Flanders and Brussels’ aims to bring together the caretakers of Marian caves. This allows them to exchange knowledge and expertise. The start of this network was planned for the 21st of March 2020, but due to the corona measures, the start was postponed to autumn. Nevertheless, PARCUM continues to work behind the scenes on the sustainable preservation and management of Marian caves. 

Origins of Marian caves

 Shortly after the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1858 in French Lourdes, the first copies of Lourdes or Marian caves were made in various places. The first Lourdes cave in Belgium was built around 1870 in Houthulst in the province of West Flanders. A noble lady brought the statue of Mary from Lourdes in 1860, barely 2 years after Bernadette Soubirous spoke about her meeting with Mary. The cave was consecrated in 1880 and is probably the oldest in Belgium. 

There are different types of Lourdes caves. Some caves are protected as monuments or are located in a so-called devotional park. Other caves are smaller and are part of private property. All caves have devotional value, but some Marian caves have a real piece of rock from Lourdes that visitors can touch.  

There is also a distinction between vera effigies or true images and fantasy caves. The vera effigies are accurate scale models of the cave in Lourdes. For the larger ones in a park the scale is often 1 to 4. Like the one in Jette near Brussels and Averbode in the province of Flemish Brabant. 

For a credible imitation of the cave, specialized workshops of rotseurs or rocailleurs were created, mainly in Belgium. With cement or concrete, they imitated the shapes and folds of the rock in Lourdes. Caves built with boulders or blocks, therefore, belong to the category of fantasy caves.  

There are some anecdotes of Flemish fathers and priests who found it necessary to travel several times to Lourdes to (re)measure the cave for a new construction initiative.

Multi-layered meanings of the Marian caves

Marian caves are first and foremost places of prayer and devotion. In May, Marian caves are traditionally visited to light candles, pray to the rosary, or as part of a pilgrimage.

But not everyone who visits a Marian cave is a believer. Some visitors are looking for some peace and quiet. In this sense, Marian caves are a typical example of places of silence in a secularized society or green spaces in the busy city. Marian caves respond to the need for peace and quiet that is also noticeable in other places in society. 

Responsables of Marian caves are therefore looking for ways to keep the cave relevant in the secularized society and for adapted forms of communication and public action.

Building a future for Marian caves

The challenges are the same for many caves: cement restoration, finding volunteers and resources, meaningful communication in a secularized society… 

In order to find a sustainable answer to these challenges, PARCUM started the network ‘Marian Caves in Flanders and Brussels’. To this end, PARCUM works together with local heritage partners such as heritage cells (erfgoedcellen). Scientific research is also stimulated. Step by step, all Marian caves are being mapped out. In addition, interesting initiatives such as walking routes, the development of an audio guide and restoration projects have already taken place here and there. PARCUM bundles this knowledge and makes it available to the caretakers. 

The caretakers of Marian caves can also contact PARCUM for advice and guidance on the preservation and safeguarding of the movable, immovable, and intangible heritage associated with the Marian cave.

More information: www.parcum.be

(Copyright for images (f.e. Mariagrot_Nerem_c_Jan Jaspers, copyright by Jan Jaspers).

Share this post: