Saint Francis of Assisi founded the Penitent Brothers in his wish to allow laymen — even married ones — to take part in the Franciscans’ mission as apostles while remaining in society.. In order to preserve their anonymity, the Brothers wore sackcloth and an ash-grey cowl. During the XIVth century, the Penitent brothers — like the Cordeliers —started to wear the black sackcloth of the monastics. A brotherhood of Black Penitents was set up in Valréas at the end of the XVIth century under the spiritual guidance of the Franciscans. Unlike the brotherhoods in many regions, which were absorbed by the religious orders, the Black Penitents remained independent of the Cordeliers.
The Black Penitents in Valréas
During the XVIIIth century, the Black Penitents were given the task of improving the lot of prisoners in Valréas. They accompanied them to the scaffold and buried them. Moreover, every three years they had the right to set free one person who had been sentenced to death. This right disappeared with the Revolution. The Black Penitents also took care of some funerals and had mass said for the benefactors of the church and rich people of the town.
The Black Penitents today
Although the Brotherhoods of the Penitents performed their work to varying degrees depending on the period (they were dissolved at the Revolution), they have lasted for seven centuries and they still have the same aims today. The Penitents are now about 500 in number and are divided into 25 brotherhoods representing the regions of the Oc Language (langue d’oc), the Catalan regions and Liguria.
The Retable (a word which comes from the Latin word retabulum, meaning panel behind. Originally, it was a wall of pictures placed on or behind the altar. Retables disappeared after the Middle Ages).
In the middle of the XVIIth century, the brotherhood of the White Penitents started building a chapel called Notre-Dame des Miracles (Our Lady of Miracles). It had a wooden retable, probably dating from the XVllth century, with two pictures showing an Annunciation. Small scenes representing miracles are set in cartouches suspended by ribbons held by two angels on either side of the Virgin. Today the retable is in the Chapel of the Black Penitents.
You can find another information board in front of the Chapel of the Black Penitents.
- Religious heritage