The Chapel of the Immaculate Heart of Mary
In 1860, during his exile to Lang Son, Father Six endured a serious illness. He made a vow to the Mary: “Blessed Virgin, if I come through this ordeal, when I return to my diocese I will build a church to be dedicated to you, Holy Mother.”
Now the parish priest of Phat Diem, Fr. Six implemented the vow he made, and in 1883 he built the Chapel of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. This chapel was built almost entirely of stone, a stone of exceptional quality, and it was carved with the most painstaking attention to detail. It can therefore be regarded as the pearl within the cathedral complex.
The outer facade is a combination of various stone, giving majesty to the building and shows the talented hands of skillful craftsmen. The facade is includes a statue of Our Lady in the center flanked by two turrets. These square towers of five levels are modeled on the tower of Thap But (Tower of the Brush) located near the Hoan Kiem Lake (Returned Sword Lake) in Hanoi.
The central tower is beautifully carved with a heart pierced by a sword, a symbol of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. What is remarkable is that Fr. Six had the stone canopy carved with inscriptions in different languages. On top, a prayer is engraved in Vietnamese: “Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us.” Before 1991, this was the earliest example of a Vietnamese text carved in stone in the national language.
This chapel which is considered an architectural masterpiece of the first order. The stone has been carefully carved and decorated. The floor, columns, transoms, walls, balustrades, towers, and altars are made entirely of stone. However, these masterpieces have retained all the aspects of traditional wood carving. The interior stone is highly polished with very delicate features. For this reason, experts said that this chapel is to be counted among the most outstanding works of sculpture in Vietnam at the time it was built. Four sides of the chapel are walls made of stone balustrades, nearly upright panes with open work carved in striking relief with chrysanthemums, pine-tree, plum-tree, and bamboo. The plum-tree symbolizes nobility; slender bamboo rods represent uprightness; while the chrysanthemum flower is the only one who blooms in autumn, representing the overcoming of difficulties. Finally, the majestic pine-tree symbolizes eternal life because stays green all year long. These four plants are the symbols of men of honor.
The altar is carved from a solid piece of rock, and at its center is a hart pierced by a sword, reminding us of the suffering of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her role in the Mystery of Redemption. At left, a covered well is engraved with two Latin words: puteus signatus, sealed wells. At right, the sculpture depicts a garden enclosed on four sides, decorated with flowers and leaves that evoke the chastity of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. While the front of the altar depicts scenes of the life of the Holy Virgin in the Bible, the sides of the altar are covered with carvings of her life from the Vietnamese perspective: A lotus flower is considered a symbol of purity. Here, Father Six was particularly bold in putting this local flower decoration on a Christian altar. Indeed, the lotus was chosen as the emblem of Buddhism. The life of the lotus flower is depicted in its different stages: the shoot, the bud, the blossoming flower, and finally, the fruit before fading. The cycle of life of the lotus in the heart is carved in the shape of a cross. The lotus is a symbol of Buddhism while the cross remains that of Christianity. It seems that through this sculpture the artisan wanted to remind us that all religions and all cultures can coexist.
Admiring this high relief, we are reminded of ideas in the Buddhist tradition: birth, growth, and death which leads to a rebirth, but by including the image of the Cross in the heart of the carving, Father Six seems to send us a message of theological importance. The life cycle of the lotus is like the cycle of the ups and downs of the history of humanity, and the cross can purify them, transform them, and life will go ever on.
On these great carvings of the “stone church,” Father Six, pastor of the parish of Phat Diem, has distinguished himself for his courage for introducing an idea totally unrelated to the Christian understanding of the period: he included the symbol of Yin and Yang. Yin Yang is the foundation of the concept of the universe from the Eastern perspective. The extremity generates the Duality, the duality generates the Four Traits, the four traits generates the Eight Tigrams, and the Eight Tigrams transform into all things in the Universe. This is from the philosophy of The Book of Changes, reflecting the world view of Eastern thinking about the origin and the principle of everything in the universe.
The outside of this same work contains sculptures depicting the smiling features of a lion, the Lion of Judah, a symbol of Christ inspired by the Bible. Father Six seems to say that Jesus Christ should be considered as the center, the origin, the principle, the beginning and end of everything in the universe.
The phoenix is the symbol in the Eastern world of the purity, the happiness, and also of the Queen. In some way, this sculpture represents the virtues and the beauty of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Hanging from its beak are an inkwell and brushes. The phoenix seems to evoke the idea that Mary brings the Word to the world.