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“Einsiedeln” means hermitage, and is named for St Meginrat, who withdrew to what was then wild forest in about 828 AD, where he lived and prayed, kept alive by food brought to him by two wild ravens. On January 21, 861, two bandits named Richard the Aleman and Peter the Rhaetian visited Meginrat with the intention of robbing him of the treasures they imagined he possessed; he received them with food and drink, only to be murdered in return. Meginrat’s two ravens pursued the criminals to Zürich and flew above their heads, screaming, until the two confessed to their crime and were executed. Hermits continued to come to Meginrat’s dark forest, and although his cell fell into ruin, the self-built altar at which he prayed was maintained, and a small chapel built around it. In 934, a provost of Strasbourg cathedral came to the forest, and persuaded the hermits living there to form a Benedictine community. He built a church on the site, and invited the Bishop of Konstanz to perform the consecration – the bishop was about to do so, when a voice was heard ringing through the church, insisting three times over that Christ himself had already consecrated the church. The Pope declared this to be a miracle, and issued a papal bull blessing the pilgrimage to Einsiedeln.
From then on, the monastery enjoyed special privilege, with large royal grants, positions of honour for the abbots, and protection afforded by the noble lords of the area. By 1286 a Chapel of Our Lady, built over the remains of St Meginrat’s cell, was already a focal point. This originally held a Romanesque figure of Mary, but after a destructive fire in 1468, a different statuette of Mary with the infant Christ, carved in wood sometime before 1440, replaced it. It is this figure, blackened by smoke from the candles of centuries, which became the focus for pilgrimage, and which has retained its numinous power to this day as the Black Madonna.
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