CHAPTER 7 –THE TWO MARIES
Perhaps the most famous woman in the world to wear the Bourbon fleur de lis was Marie Antoinette. Misunderstood, but surely a willful personality that attracted attention, Marie Antoinette came to symbolize all that was “excessive”with the French monarchial world into which she married. Of Austro-Hungarian birth, she was betrothed to the French Dauphine who would become King Louis XVI. The king (the same one who ceded Louisiana to Spain) was uninterested in governing the nation during a disastrous financial crises. The people of France blamed royalty for their suffering and targeted Marie Antionette. Eventually, it was “off with their necks”and the fleur de lis necklaces that graced them.
Today Marie Antoinette has become a symbol herself, associated with the luxury, frivolity and corruption of the court at Versailles. While the Bourbon Dynasty would briefly be reestablished, with the murder of the royals the fleur de lis came to symbolize a past from which revolutionaries would distance themselves. When Napoleon wanted regalia to reflect his power, he chose the bee. Ironically, many believe the fleur to be a stylized bee.
In Louisiana, the shock of the revolution, the American takeover and the subsequent immigration of wealthy San Dominguans resulted in too much change, too fast. This created nostalgia for a more secure, if not noble past. Many French fleeing the revolution ended up in New Orleans to save their own necks. Royalists and Bonapartists adapted to the city and kept up with the latest Parisian fashions. But they held on to their fleurs de lis. By now the symbol had become unique to a region that was - culturally - in danger of being overcome by Americans who were flooding in every day. The fleur was the symbol of resistance for the French and Caribbean citizens against a new nation with a value set and mores that were foreign to them.
At the same time, the fleur took on new meanings to people of African descent. People from West Africa had seen the symbol from their own continent in art and architecture. By the time many enslaved had gained their freedom in the rather fluid Louisiana society, the fleur was adopted into the Afro-Catholic synthesis religion that was prominently practiced until the late 19th century.
Voudou would go “underground”(just like the three lower “petals”of the fleur) for a century only to emerge in full force after Hurricane Katrina. The fleur de lis as a symbol of resilience and resistance remained in tact. This became fully apparent when the International Shrine of Marie Laveau was ceremonially dedicated in 2015 by Vodou Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman.
Perhaps the most famous Marie in Louisiana history - in fact, the most famous woman in New Orleans history - Marie Laveau worked tirelessly alongside the Catholic priests to serve yellow fever victims and comfort prisoners on "Death Row." Though a powerful mystic and leader of African non-violent resistance during transitional times, the “Voodoo Queen”was baptized in the Catholic Church and buried in the Catholic cemetery.
Ms. Glassman, an indoctrinated priestess who practices in New Orleans today says that she incorporated the fleur into her religious symbology - or “veves”- for Matrie Laveau after Katrina. “I felt that the fleur both symbolized the powerful resilience of the people of New Orleans and their long-time capacity to create beauty out of adversity. I incorporated the fleur de lis into the International Shrine of Marie Laveau’s mosaic design for the same reason.”