It was 105 years ago on this day that St. John’s photographer T.B. Hayward captured a snapshot of the legendary Virgin Mary iceberg — come to be known as “Our Lady of the Fjords” or “The Crystal Lady” or, my favourite, “The Virgin Berg.”
Kodak had just five years earlier produced the “Brownie,” the first mass marketed camera, and some say this photo is the oldest purported to be a depiction of a supernatural Christian apparition — definitely the beginning of a long tradition.
In a research paper called “Kodak Catholicism,” Jessy Pagliaroli called this “miraculous photography.” Pagliaroli says this kind of thing has popped up because of a “a desire to re-awaken what [the Roman Catholic Church] perceives is a lost sense of the sacred in the modern world.”
The photo has inspired a number of creative works…
Michael Francis Howley, the Catholic Archbishop at the time, wrote a sonnet which was published in the Newfoundland Quarterly in 1909:
Our Lady of the Fjords
Hail Crystal Virgin, from the frozen fjords
Where far-off Greenland’s gelid glaciers gleen
O’er Oceans bosom soaring, cool, serene
Not famed Carrara’s purest vein affords
Such sparkling brilliance, as mid countless hordes
Of spotless glistning bergs thou reignest Queen
In all the glory of thy opal sheen
A Shimmering Shrine; Our bright Atlantic Lourdes.
We hail thee, dual patront, with acclaim,
Thou standest guardian o er our Island home.
To-day, four cycles since, our rock-bound strand.
First Cabot saw: and gave the Baptist’s name:
To-day we clothe with Pallium from Rome.
The first Archbishop of our Newfoundland!
Contemporary author Wayne Johnson says his father grew up in a house blessed by water from this iceberg, which they called the “Virgin Berg.” Johnson wrote about the iceberg in his memoir, Baltimore’s Mansion:
In 1905, on June 24, the feast day of St. John the Baptist and the day in 1497 of John Cabot’s landfall at Cape Bonavista and “discovery” of Newfoundland, an iceberg hundreds of feet high and bearing an undeniable likeness to the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared off St. John’s harbour. As word of the apparition spread, thousands of people flocked to Signal Hill to get a glimpse of it. An ever-growing flotilla of fishing boats escorted it along the southern shore as it passed Petty Harbour, Bay Bulls, Tors Cove, Ferryland, where my father’s grandparents and his father, Charlie, who was twelve, saw it from a rise of land known as the Gaze. [...]
How relieved he was when the Virgin Berg and her attending fleet sailed out of sight and his parents and the other grownups stood up and blessed themselves. Soon the miracle became mere talk, less and less miraculous the more they tried to describe what they had seen, as if, now that it was out of sight, they doubted that its shape had been quite as perfect as it seemed when it was looming there in front of them.
They heard later of things they could not see from shore, of the water that ran in rivers from the Virgin, from her head and from her shoulders, and that spouted from wound-like punctures in her body, cascading down upon the boats below, onto the fishermen and into the barrels and buckets they manoeuvred into place as best they could. Some fishermen stood, eyes closed and mouths wide open, beneath the little waterfalls, gulping and gagging on the ice-cold water, their hats removed, their hair and clothing drenched, hands uplifted.
You can read more of this excerpt here.
I’d say, though, that if a similar iceberg were to float by these days, people might interpret it slightly differently.