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Ostensions limousines (Religious festival, France)

Part 1

Last modified: 2016-03-21 by ivan sache
Keywords: limousin | ostensions | limoges | saint-victurnien | javerdat | nexon | aureil | aixe-sur-vienne |
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Presentation of ostensions limousines

The ostensions limousines are a festival of religious (Roman Catholic) origin that takes place every seven years (ostensions septennales) in some 20 towns and villages of Limousin, most of them located in the Department of Haute-Vienne.
The press kit of the 71st ostensions (18 April - 6 October 2009) gives an historical account of the festival and its schedule.
The first ostensions (the name was coined later, from Latin, ostendere, "to show") were organized on 12 November 994, when Limousin was scoured by St. Anthony's fire, a gangrenous poisoning - ergotism, caused by the alkaloids released by the ergot fungus in wheat and rye and ingested with bread made with contaminated flour. St. Anthony's fire caused such a panic in Limoges, the capital of Limousin, that Bishop Hilduin and his brother Geoffrey, Abbot of the St. Martial abbey, decided to rely on the relics of the famous local saints. All the local archbishops and bishops gathered in a council in Limoges; on 12 November 994, following a three-day fast, they placed the body of St. Martial, the first bishop of Limoges (3rd century) and the patron saint of the town, on a golden reliquary that was carried in a procession led by Duke of Aquitaine William IV. The procession was joined by monks and pilgrims bringing relics from other local saints; all the relics were presented to the crowd on a small hill dominating the town. As expected, the epidemics stopped on 4 December when the saint's body was brought back to his tomb; the chronicles report that 7,000 were hailed. Short after the miracle, the church and the Duke of Aquitaine proclaimed the Peace of God, asking the local warlords to swear to exercize justice and promote peace.
The monks of the St. Martial abbey magnified the miracle in a "report" written in the early 11th century, several times copied, revised and embellished. Ostensions were subsequently organized on an irregular basis, in case of need - war, epidemic, starvation -, or to honor an important visitor - King St. Louis and his mother Blanche of Castile in 1244, Pope Clement V in 1307, King Louis XI in 1462 and King Henry IV in 1605. Inaugurated in 1519, the seven-year schedule has been strictly followed since 1806.

Paul D'Hollander (Les ostensions en Limousin au XIXe siècle, Revue de l'histoire des religions, 217, 513-516 [2000], text) gives more details on the ostensions and the evolution of the festival in the middle 19th century towards the modern ostensions.
Originally, the ostensions followed a basic, immutable time scheduled. On the third Thursday in Lent (in French, Mi-Carême), a flag was hoisted on the church steeple to announce that the relics were exposed to veneration. Verified by the church authorities, the relics were then exposed to the public for the next 50 days. The festival was closed on Trinity Sunday.
Suppressed in 1799, the festival resumed in 1806, but in much less places than before the French Revolution, mostly located in the Department of Haute-Vienne. In the middle of the 19th century, the bishops of Limoges, His Grace Fruchaud (1859-1871) and His Grace Duquesnoy (1871-1880) dramatically changed the set up of the ostensions; once an individual act involving a ritualized kiss of the relics, the ostensions were transformed into a public celebration allowing "the saints to visit the faithful" via colorful processions involving the church and civil authorities, brotherhoods, schools and music bands. Fruchaud organized the first opening procession in Limoges in 1862. The aim of the bishops was to struggle against positivism and raising anticlericalism and to increase the audience of the festival beyond the strict churchgoers. While the bishop of Limoges originally presided the ostensions only in the town of Limoges, Duquesnoy presided festivals in several other places, inviting the faithful to participate to several ostensions. He also increased the scope of the festival beyond St. Martial's veneration, emphasizing a wide array of more or less forgotten local saints. The boom of the ostensions was also favored by the development of railway in the region. At the end of the 19th century, the Limoges ostensions attracted more than 80,000 visitors, while the festivals of Saint-Junien and Le Dorat already included the costumed parade and the military parade, respectively, for which they are still highly prized today.
The modern ostensions, still centered on religious events (blessings, processions), are in the direct line of the festivals held at the end of the 19th century. They are now a strong, specific demonstration of the Limousin identity and unique in France. Sometimes deemed anachronistic, the ostensions also represent a paradox since Limousin has a radical, then Communist tradition. Saint-Junien is still a Communist stronghold, considered as one of the most dechristianized place in France, which does not prevent the urbanites to organize what is considered the more elaborated of the ostensions.

The 71th ostensions limousines (2009) were inaugurated in Limoges on 22 February and ended in the same town on 15 November. The schedule of the festival in the different towns and villages allows the brotherhoods to "visit" their neighbors with their relics.
The schedule of an ostension is more or less the same in all places, usually more elaborated in the big towns, with as the main events:
- a solemn, inauguration mass including the blessing of the ostension flag, its transport through the streets of the town and its hoisting over the church steeple; following the original tradition , the hoisting of the flag indicates that the relics are offered to veneration;
- in some places (Limoges, Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat), the "verification" (authentication) of the relics by the parish priest, the bishop, the mayor, a doctor and the president of the custodian brotherhood (bayle) (see an impressive film of the "verification" performed during the 1967 ostensions);
- a solemn procession of the relics (ostension stricto sensu), preceded by a mass and the opening of the reliquaries, including the blessing of the town;
- the closure of the festival, including the reincorporation of the relics into the reliquaries and the lowering of the ostension flags.
In the smaller villages, the festival has remained much closer to the pre-19th century schedule, with a limited number of or even no "non religious" events.

There are two main image sources for the 2009 ostensions, showing several flags:
- Capteur 87's blog (photos and videos)
- Henri Coldebœuf's website (photos).

Ivan Sache, 2 November 2011

Ostensions in Limoges

[Ostensions flag]

Flag of the Limoges ostensions - Image by Ivan Sache, 2 November 2011

The Limoges ostensions celebrate the three greater saints of Limousin, Sts. Martial, Aurelian and Loup, and the first martyr of Aquitaine, St. Valérie.
St. Martial, mentioned for the first time in St. Yrieix' will (572), was sent in the 3rd century by the Holy See to evangelize the Lemovices. The St. Martial abbey, founded to guard his tomb, flourished in the 13th-14th centuries as a center of religion, culture and arts (music, courtly literature, Limousin enamel work and goldsmith's trade), being then as famous and wealthy as Cluny. After the closure of the abbey in 1790, St. Martial's relics were transfered to the St. Michel des Lions church, the main site of the modern ostensions. The Grande Confrérie de Saint-Martial, founded in 1356 by 14 burghers of Limoges, today made of 72 members, has for goals the study of the life and teaching of St. Martial and the custody of his memory and relics. The reliquary is carried in procession by the Confrérie des porteurs de la châsse de Saint-Martial.
St. Aurelian, a former pagan priest, was converted by St. Martial and succeeded him as the second bishop of Limoges. His "chief" (head), kept in a silver reliquary made in 1803, is under the custody of the Confrérie de Saint-Aurélien, formerly the Butchers' Guild, founded around 1315 - or even earlier, in 930, according to an unsubstantiated tradition.
St. Loup, the 17th bishop of Limoges, signed in 632 the chart of the abbey of Solignac, founded by St. Eligius near Limoges. His chief, kept close to St. Martial's chief in the St. Michel des Lions church, is under the custody of the Confrérie de Saint-Loup, founded in 1153.
St. Valérie is a legendary cephalophore martyr, beheaded by her fiance because of her Christian religion; in 1172, Richard Lionheart, crowned Duke of Aquitaine in the cathedral of Limoges, was awarded St. Valerie's ring. Her relics are the custody of the Confrérie de Sainte-Valérie.

The Limoges ostensions flag, hoisted on the Saint-Michel-des-Lions church steeple by the Grande Confrérie de Saint-Martial (photos and video), is a square flag, amaranthine red with a white cross.

[Brotherhood flag]

Flag of the Grande Confrérie de Saint-Martial - Image by Ivan Sache, 2 November 2011

The flag is derived from the banner of the Grande Confrérie de Saint-Martial (video, a rectangular flag of the same design, with the writing "DIEUS GART LA VILA / E SENT MARSALS LA GENT" (in Limousin Occitan, "God protects the town / And St. Martial [protects] the people") in silver letters on the horizontal arm of the cross.
The banner of the Confrérie de Saint-Loup (video) is a yellow square flag with a white cross and writing.
The banner of the Confrérie de Saint-Aurélien (photos) is a checkered green and white flag (nine pieces), with a white cross in the middle, charged with year "930" and silver writing:
- middle row: ROME / 12-22 8 1887 - ROME 28 7 8 8 1891
- lower row: DE LIMOGES

Ivan Sache, 2 November 2011

Ostensions in Saint-Victurnien

[Ostensions flag]

Flag of the Saint-Victurnien ostensions - Image by Ivan Sache, 2 November 2011

The village of Saint-Victurnien (1,458 inhabitants), located 30 km west of Limoges, developed around the miraculous tomb of the saint hermit Victorinus / Vartunio, who lived in the 5th century on the banks of river Vienne - but was mentioned for the first time in the 10th century. Victurnien was a Scottish prince, whose existence was discovered only after his death, when a bellowing oxen crossed the river, revealing the saint's hermitage. His relics, placed in the 13th century into an enameled reliquary, were used against mental illness, as was the "good fountain" located near his hermitage.

The Saint-Victurnien ostensions flag (photos, video) is forked, horizontally divided white-blue.

Ivan Sache, 2 November 2011

Ostensions in Javerdat

[Ostensions flag]

Flag of the Javerdat ostensions - Image by Ivan Sache, 2 November 2011

Javerdat (600 inhabitants), located 35 km north-west of Limoges, is one of the few rural villages that has maintained its own ostensions, inaugurated in 1741.

The Javerdat ostensions flag (photos, video) is a vertical forked banner, vertically divided white-yellow, with the writing "OSTENSIONS / 2009" in gold in the bottom of the flag.

Ivan Sache, 2 November 2011

Ostensions in Nexon

[Ostensions flag]

Flag of the Nexon ostensions - Image by Ivan Sache, 2 November 2011

Nexon (2,390 inhabitants), located 20 km south of Limoges, honors St. Ferréol, the 16th bishop of Limoges (568-597), who often stayed in the town on his way to Saint-Yrieix. The fortified parish church keeps a copper enameled reliquary (13th century) and the reliquary bust of St. Ferréol, made in Limoges in 1346.

The Nexon ostensions flag (photos, video) is a square green flag with a red cross.

Ivan Sache, 2 November 2011

Ostensions in Aureil

[Ostensions flag]

Flag of the Aureil ostensions - Image by Ivan Sache, 2 November 2011

The village of Aureil (853 inhabitants), located 15 km east of Limoges, developed around the Saint-Jean priory founded in 1093 by St. Gaucher (c. 1060-1140) and his disciple St. Faucher.

The Aureil ostensions flag (photos, video) is a vertical forked banner, vertically divided red-yellow. "Static" copies of the flag, charged with a saint's silhouette and fleurs-de-lis, are displayed on the church facade, flanking the entrance (yellow-red on left, red-yellow on right).

Ivan Sache, 2 November 2011

Ostensions in Aixe-sur-Vienne

[Ostensions flag]

Flag of the Aixe-sur-Vienne ostensions - Image by Ivan Sache, 2 November 2011

The town of Aixe-sur-Vienne (5,532 inhabitants) is located on the confluence of the Aixette and the Vienne, 15 km west of Limoges. The Aixe ostensions are the unique ostensions limousines celebrating the Blessed Virgin, here a pieta statue made of painted wood in the 17th century and kept in the Notre-Dame d'Arliquet chapel (late 19th century), located outside the town, across river Vienne. Accordingly, the statue and the other reliquaries are transported in a procession from Arliquet to the Sainte-Croix church of Aixe, where they spend the night, protecting the town, and are brought back the next day to Arliquet.

The Aixe ostensions flag (photos, video), hoisted on the Sainte-Croix church steeple, is square, vertically divided yellow-white with a cross all over.

Ivan Sache, 2 November 2011

Part 2