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The “Leaning Virgin”, James McBey & WWI




We’ve all heard of the “Leaning Tower of Pisa”, but who has heard of the “Leaning Virgin”? The “Leaning Virgin” became a legend in Northern France during World War I. It was destroyed in April 1918, and we want to take time this April to remember it in its perplexing glory.

Sergeant John Lord (Australian, 1896 – 1951), ‘Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières, Albert, France’, 1916, photograph, Museums Victoria.

The Golden Virgin was a sculpture designed by Albert Roze (1861 – 1952) that sat atop the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières located in the city of Albert, in the Somme region. In January 1915, the Basilica, three miles from battle, was hit by a German shell and the statue fell to an almost horizontal position. It became known as the “Leaning Virgin” to British, French, and German soldiers passing by, infatuated with how it remained attached to the rooftop for years. This peculiar “resistance” fostered many legends; the British army believed whoever made the statue fall would lose the war, while the German army actually claimed the opposite. When German troops took Albert in March 1918, British forces soon retaliated, and the Basilica was sadly destroyed. The German legend turned out to be right: the Allies, whose missiles took down the statue, won the war.

Today, you can visit Heroes & Battlefields: World War I Prints by James McBey, on display until June 25, 2017. This exhibition commemorates the 100th anniversary of America’s entry in World War I with McBey’s haunting etchings of the cities, people, and landscapes affected by the conflict. McBey captured the “Leaning Virgin” in a print while stationed in Albert with British forces in 1917.

James McBey (British, 1883 – 1959), ‘Albert, Somme’, 1917, drypoint, 9 15/16 x 5 7/8 in., Gift of Mrs. James McBey, AG.1961.1.73.

His rendition shows the statue looking over the decimated town as brave soldiers in the foreground make their way to the front lines. A landmark in a once lively market place, the “Leaning Virgin” seems to embody the resilience of a whole town in the midst of its physical devastation.

Although the “Leaning Virgin” and the Basilica were rebuilt to their original splendor after the war, it is important to remember how it symbolized, for many years, the war’s impact on the world.

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