Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"St. Astrid of Küssnacht"

Top: the mountains overlooking Lake Lucerne; Bottom left: "The King's Cross". Bottom center: perhaps the most famous photograph of Astrid, featuring her soulful beauty. Bottom right: Queen Astrid's memorial chapel.
The other day, I linked to an article by Alexander Schwartzenbach on the reactions to the death of Queen Astrid in Belgium and Switzerland. It is well known that Astrid was idolized by the Belgian people during her lifetime as an icon of beauty, romance and kindness, and that her terrible early death plunged her subjects into deep mourning. Perhaps less well known is the way the Swiss, particularly the people of Küssnacht-am-Rigi, took her to their hearts. I have been asked if a cultus ever developed around the Queen's memory, since she appears to have been a model Catholic. To an extent, this did occur. Schwartzenbach describes how she entered folklore in Belgium and Switzerland as a tenderly revered tragic heroine, almost a saint or a martyr.

Central to the pious cult of Astrid's memory, of course, was the scene of the tragic car accident, heavily laden with Catholic symbolism. While the numberless flowers, wreaths and candles deposited there in the aftermath of the tragedy were universal signs of mourning, many of the mourners explicitly portrayed their visit as a pilgrimage. The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls, November 1 and November 2, 1935, saw the peak of this religious activity. Then, in June, 1936, came the solemn, poignant consecration of the Queen's memorial chapel and the "King's Cross", marking the place where Astrid died in her husband's arms. Msgr. Colle, chaplain of the Belgian Royal Court, offered Mass in the presence of Belgian war invalids, other Belgian mourners, and Belgian, Swedish and Swiss dignitaries. King Leopold was too overwhelmed with grief to attend, although there were rumors that he visited the site incognito as early as May, 1936.

In Belgium and Küssnacht, both regions rich in Catholic lore, Astrid's memory became swiftly associated with devotion to Our Lord, Our Lady and the Saints. The Cross, the Crown of Thorns in the memorial chapel, and many accounts of the Queen's death, recalling the Passion of Christ by placing unusual emphasis upon the shedding of Astrid's blood, suggested she was a kind of Martyr-Queen. The immaculate, white stone Cross, and the radiant figure of Astrid, clad in a flowing white robe, in a central, stained-glass window of the shrine, together with the sculpture of the Virgin Mary over the entrance, linked the Queen of the Belgians to the Queen of Heaven. Astrid's image was flanked by that of her father-in-law, Albert I, in military uniform; after Astrid's death, a combined cult of the tragically lost King and Queen sprang up in Belgium.

Meanwhile, the people of Küssnacht adopted the beautiful, young Queen, famed for her love of her husband and children, as a sort of patron saint of romance and marriage. In the months following her passing, newlyweds bringing flowers to the scene of the tragedy became an almost daily sight.  A mere coincidence? Not so, according to the president of the commune of Küssnacht, who explained to the Belgian ambassador to Switzerland: "It is on pilgrimage that these couples arrive here from all over the canton. These young newlyweds, in bridal dress, whom you saw visiting the place where Queen Astrid passed away, are imploring her protection. Your young Queen has become part of Swiss legend; she is, for our people, who have beatified her in their hearts, the symbol of maternal love and conjugal fidelity."

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

I have recently bought an English language magazine clipping showing the chapel being moved from one side of the road to the other during road widening. When was this - it looks 1950s?

Jeremy J Gaskell
Dartford UK
A Queen Astrid collector of long standing - I give displays of my postcards, stamps and paper ephemera to Philatelic Societies across Southern England.