The Legend of The Golden Virgin, France’s Most Important Statue

by | 13 Nov 2023

Albert, in northern France, is a small town with a big reputation, thanks to its remarkable gilded sculpture ‘The Golden Virgin.’ This important statue is a golden masterpiece, portraying the Virgin Mary presenting the Christ Child towards the heavens. More than just a work of art; it is a symbol of hope and resilience, with a history deeply intertwined with the trials of World War I.

The starting point for any tour of the Somme Battlefields, Albert saw some of the hottest action on the Western front through the Great War. The town’s impressive Basilique Notre-Dame de Brebières made for an excellent observation post for whomever occupied it. It is on top of the basilica’s striking tower that the iconic ‘Golden Virgin’ statue stands.

See the Golden Virgin for yourself on: World War I Battlefields

The Birth of The Golden Virgin

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The Golden Virgin is also known affectionately as ‘The Leaning Virgin.’ She was designed by the sculptor Albert Roze and placed atop the Basilique Notre-Dame de Brebières on the building’s completion in 1897. Covered with 40,000 sheets of gold leaf and standing at a height of 5 meters (16 feet), this important statue is an impressive sight.

The basilica and statue became an increasingly popular pilgrimage site, even capturing the attention of Pope Leo XIII. He visited the site in 1898 and christened the Basilica as the ‘Lourdes of the North.’

For travel inspiration: France destination guide

The legend of the Leaning Virgin

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In 1914, as World War I engulfed the world, the Basilica and The Golden Virgin found themselves in the midst of a conflict that would leave a lasting mark on history. During the early days of the war, German forces suspected the basilica’s bell tower housed a French observation post. They had shelled the dome, slightly dislodging the statue.

However, on January 15, 1915, when the Battle of the Somme was raging, the sculpture was struck by artillery fire. It was in fact left leaning precariously just below the horizontal. Such a sight was too heavenly connected for passing soldiers to ignore, and the Legend of the Leaning Virgin and this important statue was born.

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A symbol of hope

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As the war raged on, The Golden Virgin became a symbol, not only to the French but also to British and German troops. The British believed whoever knocked her down would win the war, the Germans thought the opposite. Another version of the legend believed that her fall would signal the end of the war. All soldiers seemed to believe that a divine hand had interrupted the descent of the Virgin Mary and baby Christ, so its final destruction could mark the end of the war and the suffering.

You may also be interested to read: Tunnel of Hope: a survivor’s story of the Bosnian War

Toppled by the British in 1918

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Shored up by French engineers, the statue remained hanging until March 1918. German troops occupied the town of Albert and held the tactical position in the Cathedral tower. Though there are many differing reports of why, the British shelled the Basilica and The Golden Virgin was toppled, never to be recovered. World War I then ended on 11 November 1918.

The residents of Albert contemplated placing the sculpture back in its wartime pose but ultimately decided to restore it to its original standing position. The Golden Virgin was recast in 1929 and reinstated atop bell tower during the Basilica’s reconstruction.

Over a century later, The Golden Virgin remains a symbol of the triumph of good over evil. Her remarkable journey through war and its enduring legacy still touches the hearts of those who encounter it today.

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The Great War and its enduring legacy

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For those who are keen to explore the history and legacy of the Great War, the town of Albert and its important statue is one of the stops on our 4-Day World War I Battlefields tour. Alongside expert historians and guides, you’ll visit key battlefields and monuments in France and Belgium, including the battlefields of the Somme. Pay respects as you visit memorials, including the Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, the largest cemetery in the world for Commonwealth forces.

I'm a writer, editor and interview specialist with a lifetime's love of travel. There’s nothing more inspiring to me than meeting, and writing about, the world's leading destination experts and travel industry insiders. The thing I love most about writing for Insightful is that I'm always learning something new.