by Hillary Ratna
(Reprinted from ‘Faith and Freedom’. Vol. 61, Pt. 1, No. 166, 2008)
Standing in the crypts of great cathedrals or upon the altars of out of the way and humble churches and chapels, images of the Black Madonna are the objects of intense veneration, prayer and pilgrimages that have been going on for centuries. In the past decade there has been a new fascination with this phenomenon, among people not necessarily from Catholic backgrounds. Black Madonnas represent the ‘dark side’ of Christianity, a side that makes many conventional, male-identified Christians quite uncomfortable. Not only are their origins obscure, but they affirm the Divine feminine in a powerful way, which has made them of fresh interest to the women’s spirituality movement.
The miraculous Black Madonnas and why they are black has until recently remained an unexplored mystery. Why is so little known about them? One answer (by Ean Begg) is that scholars are notoriously uninquisitive about matters that lie outside of their own disciplines, and this subject falls uneasily between art history and ecclesiology or religious studies. To art historians, the Black Madonnas may appear crude, of doubtful provenance, replaced or restored. They are often difficult to date accurately. Theologians show, if anything, less interest in the topic than art historians, mainly because the popular cult of wonder-working images is considered non-Scriptural and reactionary. It also evokes memories of awkward subjects best ignored by the Church, such as the pagan origins of many practices in Christianity. Psychologists, from their own point of view, look upon the Black Madonna as an archetype – a recurrent symbol or image derived from the past collective experience and present in the individual unconscious – and the legends and traditions surrounding them can be seen in symbolic terms.
Many images of the Black Madonna still exist today. Ean Begg reports the existence of approximately 500 throughout the world, though that is probably an underestimate. Many still exist, are still black and can still be seen. Many more are found in the literature but were destroyed during the French Revolution and religious wars; some have disappeared or are in private collections; a few have been lightened or repainted and are no longer black. Still others are copies of the more famous Black Madonnas such as those of Monserrat, Le Puy or Guadalupe. They generally have their origins in the Middle Ages, sometimes earlier.
Black Madonnas belong, almost exclusively, to three types. One is the imported Byzantine icon or, in the majority of cases, the Byzantine-style icon, which was produced in great quantities in thirteenth and fourteenth-century Italy. Often these paintings are attributed to St. Luke. Some of these icons are national shrines, such as Our Lady of Czestachowa and OL of Kazan. In Italy one of the most famous is in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.The second and third types are statues, generally around thirty inches in height, almost always wooden and painted (polychrome), rarely of stone or metal. The oldest are the enthroned madonnas of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the highest concentration of which is found in south-central France. So many of the Majestas-type images in this region are black that these vierges noires are often treated as the epitome of the Black Madonna, overshadowing the other types, probably due to the more extensive French scholarship on the phenomenon. In southern Germany and the Alpine region, the third type is more common: the statue of Mary standing, holding her Child on one arm, which dates from the late thirteenth to the mid-fifteenth century (eg Einsiedeln and Altotting). Prior to the nineteenth century, local madonnas were important as identification figures for individual communities, but each Catholic country had its generally recognized national center of Marian devotion and, more times than not, this most highly regarded of all Marian images was black: for the French, she was Notre Dame du Puy; in Spain, the Virgins of Guadalupe (Estremadura) and Montserrat (Catalonia); for Catholic Swiss, Unsere Liebe Frau von Einsiedeln near Zurich; in northern Italy, the Madonna in the Santa Casa of Loreto on the Adriatic coast near Ancona, whose influence and popularity extended beyond the Alps into Bavaria, where the most venerated image was the Schwarze Muttergottes of Altötting
Important early studies of dark images in France were done by: Marie Durand-Lefebvre (1937); Emile Saillens (1945); and Jacques Huynen (1972). The first notable study of the origin and meaning of the so-called Black Madonnas in English appears to have been presented by Leonard Moss at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Dec. 28, 1952. All the images in Moss’s study had a reputation for miracles. Based on a study of nearly 100 samples from various parts of the world, Moss broke the images into three categories:
(1) dark brown or black madonnas with physiognomy and skin pigmentation matching that of the indigenous population
(2) various art forms that have turned black as a result of certain physical
factors such as deterioration of lead-based pigments; accumulated smoke
from the use of votive candles; and accumulation of grime over the ages
(3) residual category with no ready explanation
Most Black Madonnas fall into the third category – intentionally black or brown, for reasons unknown or not specified. That they are black because of candle smoke is an explanation popular with church authorities. Though overused, it applies to a few Black Madonnas. The famous statue of Our Lady of the Hermits in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, illustrates this phenomenon. After evacuation to Austria in 1798 to escape the designs of Napoleon, when the Madonna was returned in 1803, she was found to have been cleaned during her stay in Bludenz, resulting in her being transformed into a white Madonna. It was promptly decided that she should be restored to her wonted blackness before being exposed once more to the gaze of the faithful.
Similarly, the statue of Our Lady of Allötting was rescued from the ravaging of the church by flame in the year 907. This might account for the darkened features, though Moss has his doubts. If not the image at Allotting, other Black Madonnas were certainly altered in appearance after ‘miraculous’ rescues from burning churches.
Theories about Black Madonnas
Interpretations of the Black Madonnas usually combine some of the following elements:
Black Madonnas have grown out of pre-Christian earth goddess traditions. Their dark skin may be associated with ancient images of these goddesses, and with the colour of fertile earth. They are often associated with stories of being found by chance in a natural setting: in a tree or by a spring, for example. Some of their Christian shrines are located on the sites of earlier temples to Isis, Cybele or Diana of Ephesus.
The Black Madonna is often compared to Isis, seated with the infant Horus on her lap.
The original statue of the BVM in Le Puy was burned by the French revolutionaries. In the place where the statue was destroyed, a local farmer found an oval red stone inscribed with hieroglyphs and an image of a woman standing in a boat wearing a headdress of a crescent moon. This is an ancient symbol of Isis and curiously, before the Christian era, the worship of Isis was the most widespread religion in the Roman Empire, extending from Spain to Asia Minor, from North Africa to Germany. Originally from Egypt, Isis was associated with the fertility of the black soil irrigated by the flooding of the river Nile. Her priests wore black and burned incense (as do Roman Catholic priests) and the most sacred of her images were made from black basalt.
Cybele was a great Mother Goddess whose cult was spread throughout the Roman Empire. From Asia Minor she was brought to Rome in the form of a black stone and by the third century BCE she had become the main deity of Lyons. Nearby in the city of Clermont-Ferrand she was associated with a holy well. The well is now part of the crypt of a church called Notre Dame du Port. Next to the well is a very Black Madonna sitting on a marble throne. There is a modern sculpture of Cybele in New York City by Mihail Chimiakin.
A temple was built to Diana or Artemis of Ephesus at about 550 BCE in what is now Turkey. It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the largest building in the Greek world. Artemis was a virgin huntress, and goddess of the moon. The original meaning of virgin was single, independent of any male. It was centuries later that the idea of chastity was applied to a virgin goddess. So she was linked to women, to menstruation, and to independent female power. Her image, with many breasts or eggs to symbolize fertility, was passionately worshipped and kept decorated with jewelry.
Cross Cultural Links
A prominent theory is briefly summarized by Stephen Benko: ‘the Black Madonna is the ancient earth-goddess converted to Christianity.’ His argument begins by noting that many goddesses were pictured as black, among them (as we have seen) Artemis of Ephesus, Isis, Ceres, and others.
Ceres, the Roman goddess of agricultural fertility is particularly important. Her Greek equivalent, Demeter, means Earth Mother. There is also the fact that African traders brought with them to Europe their own mother goddesses – the Mother of All, resembling the first human beings, our own African origins. This could well be true of these famous images (ND de Molompize & Chasterix).
Black Madonnas express a feminine power not fully conveyed by a pale-skinned Mary, who seems to symbolize gentler qualities like obedience and purity. This idea can be discussed in Jungian terms. The ‘feminine power’ approach may be linked to Mary Magdalene and female sexuality repressed by the medieval Church. In France, there are traditions affirming that some statues arc of Mary Magdalene and not of Mary, the mother of Jesus. MM is often seen as the counterpart of the Virgin ‘Goddess’ Mary – an emblem of fertility and sexuality, a substitute for the missing ‘Goddess consort’ to Christ. Her darkness is to symbolize her hidden status within the orthodoxy of the Church, but these traditions and related theories are generally rejected by theologians.
In Southern Provencal tradition, the Black Madonna is associated with St. Sara, the patron saint of the Gypsies. She was said to be the black servant who accompanied the three Marys to France when they fled from the Holy Land after the Crucifixion. In local gypsy tradition, she is said to have been a gypsy (some say ‘Egyptian’) woman who helped them to land safely. A cult of St. Sara persists today at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, one of the earliest Magdalene sites in France.
References are often made to the Song of Songs, ‘Negra sum sed Formosa’ – ‘I am black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem’ (S. of S. 1:5). This is the basic text in the Judaeo-Christian tradition for the relationship between wisdom and blackness. However, a better translation substitutes the ‘but’ for an ‘and’ as in ‘Yes, I am black – and radiant!’, from honouring Darkness.
Black Madonnas are sometimes associated with the Templars and/or St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Ean Begg suggests they were revered by an esoteric cult with Templar and/or Cathar links, but this idea is dismissed by other writers, who may also reject stories of a connection with Mary Magdalene, and any Gnostic or heretical traditions.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux was born on the outskirts of Dijon, a place which had its own Black Virgin. He is said to have received three drops of milk taken from the breast of the Black Virgin of Carillon while still a boy. He later went on to help expand the Templar order. He wrote 280 sermons on the subject of the Song of Songs and many hymns to Our Lady.
Meanings – ‘Why is she black?’
Concerning why is she black, in Aramaic – the language of Jesus -black means ‘sorrowful’. It is a language of idioms. This links the Blessed Mother to Isis who was called ‘sorrowing’ in her search for Osiris. Begg believes she plays a leading role in the mysteries of death, rebirth and the underworld. She is the shadow aspect of the Madonna – relating to heretical knowledge.
‘She is black because she is the gateway and symbol of everything we could know in the apparent blackness beyond visible sight; because she represents all those forces that surround us which are not perceived (by our senses), but which extend from the visible spectrum into unexplored modes of being. She is also black because she is the goddess of clairvoyance and the second sight. The Black Madonna has been called Notre Dame de Lumiere – she is black light, Mary Lucifer – Mary the Light Bearer.’
Gilles Quispel, Historian of Religion at Utrecht University and a protégé of Jung, believes that the Black Madonna plays a crucial psychic role, symbolizing the earth, matter, the feminine in man and the self in woman. He adds that we must become conscious of this primeval image and integrate it within ourselves in order to become whole and to understand diversity in human beings. For him, the Black Madonna is the only living symbol left in Christianity. He relates her to the early Christian Gnostic tradition in which the Mother is called ‘wisdom’, the ‘Holy Spirit’, and even ‘Lord’. To the early Jewish Christians the Holy Spirit was personified as Mother and they prayed to Her because she was God as well’.
Several authors have linked the Black Madonna to those who protest against the status quo – both religious and political dissidents. Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum has documented her association with political activism in parts of Italy. In Brazil, China Galland interviewed the archbishop at their national shrine, Our Lady of Aparecida. He said: “All
who have been marginalized by conventional society are upheld and revered in the figure of the Virgin – the poor, the stricken, and the dark. She is their champion. She is black because she is the Mother of All.”
Black Madonnas and the Church
(a perspective on Mary underemphasized in traditional Christian doctrine)
Were these images taken as is, or renamed (baptized as it were) and reused in Christian worship? If so, the practice seems compatible in spirit with the norms on enculturation given by Pope St Gregory the Great in a letter to priests written in 601:
It is said that the men of this nation are accustomed to sacrificing oxen: It is necessary that this custom be converted into a Christian rite. On the day of the dedication of the (pagan) temples thus changed into churches, and similarly for the festivals of the saints, whose relics will be placed there, you should allow them, as in the past, to build structures of foliage around these same churches. They shall bring to the churches their animals, and kill them, no longer as offerings to the devil, but for Christian banquets in name and honour of God, to whom after satiating themselves, they will give thanks. Only thus, by preserving for men some of the worldly joys, will you lead them thus more easily to relish the joys of the spirit.
We may even wonder whether pagan statues of Mother and Child were thought to represent someone other than the Virgin Mary and her Son, Jesus. In fact, it seems that Eusebius of Caesarea took advantage of this predisposition and, sublimating any pagan roots (which he considered likely), used an image of the Black Madonna as preparatio evangelii or evangelical preparation, a readily accepted introduction to the full Christian mystery, which is indeed centered on the Word’s Incarnation through Mary.
Black Madonnas have proved themselves as devotional aids within ecclesial life over the course of centuries. Many of these images have received approval from ecclesiastical authority in light of the divine approval manifested by well-attested miracles.
In France, the fury of the Protestant Huguenots was aimed particularly at the Black Madonnas, considered evidence of ‘Gothic Superstition’; at least 25 were destroyed in the 16th century, particularly in the north and in Alsace. During the wars of religion, the Black Virgin of Lyons disappeared
and two in Orleans were burned in a public place, one of them the ‘Lady of Miracles’ to whom Joan of Arc had prayed before the siege of the city in 1429. This statue was attacked with special fury as ‘the Egyptian’ -’an epithet used for several of the other Black Madonnas that revealed the strains of nativism and nationalism often intertwined with religious polemic.’ (Sally Cuneen, in her book In Search of Mary)
As we know, Goddess reverence came to be forbidden as ‘idolatry’ and ‘whoring after false gods’, attacked as ‘heresy’ and ‘blasphemy’ and persecuted as ‘devil-worship’, and finally stigmatized as ‘superstition’ and ‘cult’. This repression was led by the social elite. Goddess veneration lapsed into invisibility, as if wiped out, but its vestiges persisted, marginalized and unmentionable, except when acceptably Christianized, as in the cult of the Virgin Mary.
A miracle is defined as: ‘an event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a divine or supernatural cause’; or, ‘an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs’. For Catholics, they are ‘special graces’ that come from the Spirit. The Madonnas are willing to dispense these graces, as is shown by one of her frequent titles: delle Grazie or de la Grace.
The Black Madonna’s powers are revealed through her miracles; through them we see evidence of the most ancient and primordial power – to create and to destroy. She can exercise control over elements beyond human control, such as the weather, famine, disease, accidental injury and death. She can protect and she can heal. She rescues those in danger and revives dead babies. But she can also punish and destroy. Belief in these powers is very strong and may be hard for rationalists to understand. In Eastern religions, such as Hinduism, the essence of the god or goddess is actually in the statue that is being worshipped and although it is not a part of Catholic doctrine, the same belief applies to the worship of the Virgin Mary. The statue does not simply represent the Mother of God, but contains her spirit.
The parish church of Maillane, in the archdiocese of Aix en Provence, has a wooden statue of the Virgin, who is called Notre Dame de Grace. No history of pilgrimage to the site has been recorded, which may be why
the statue, which is 46 centimeters high, escaped the ravages of the revolution. In 1844 she was removed from the church and placed in the local school, run by nuns. In 1854, Maillane was stricken by cholera which spread rapidly. In a fortnight, 50 people had died and more were on their deathbeds. The people turned to Notre Dame de Grace, and brought her back to her place in the church. On August 28th, the bells rang out to call all those who were able to come to church. The statue, dressed in purple, was carried through the streets by the priest, through crowds of people weeping and praying. The statue was returned to the church and from that day forward no-one else died of the cholera and thirty of the seriously ill recovered
Evidence of miracles – of healing and protection – is present in abundance at most Black Madonna shrines. These include many kinds of ex voto (from the Latin ‘out of a vow’). They are public acknowledgement of the special powers of the Madonna and may be marble plaques or paper, cloth or metal paintings or drawings of the situation, usually catastrophic or desperate. People also leave behind crutches that are no longer needed, items of clothing and photographs of loved ones who have been blessed or are being prayed for.
Black Madonnas are linked to the natural world, in that they have typically been discovered in the earth, in underground grottoes or caves, in a tree, near a spring (usually one with healing properties) and often through the intervention of animals, such as cows, like the Black Virgin of Manosque. The legend of her discovery includes her being found by a farmer after seeing his cows kneel down in a circle around a mysterious box which was revealed to contain a beautiful statue, wrapped in shimmering cloth. When removed to the nearby church, the statue miraculously kept returning to the spot where she was found – and so a new chapel was built on the spot.
On a spectacular cliff overlooking white sand beaches and turquoise blue waters is the small sanctuary of Santa Maria dell’Isola. The Marian statue supposedly arrived by ship during the time of the Iconoclast. The religious and civil authorities agreed to place it in a grotto in the rock, but the statue was too tall. They decided to have the feet sawn off to make it fit. At the first cut, the arm of the carpenter was paralyzed and the two authorities were struck dead.
In the 9th century, a man came into the church in Santa Maria Maggiore with the intention to kill the Pope during Mass. He was struck blind before he could commit the act.
The Black Madonnas in England
England has her own history of Black Madonnas: two of the most famous were Our Lady of Walsingham, who was the object of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages and until 1538; and Our Lady of Willesden, whose cult got started a bit later in the second half of the 15th century. At Willesden, there was also a holy well, famous for its cures, especially of eye problems. The lady of the manor, Richeldis, founded the Walsingham shrine after a dream. In the 14th century, the slipper chapel was founded, dedicated to St. Catherine, where pilgrims could remove their boots and proceed barefoot or in slippers. Both these popular shrines were destroyed by Henry VIII’s decree in 1538. Holinshed, writing in 1538, records the destruction of the shrine: ‘By a special motion of the Lord Cromwell, all the notable images unto which were made any special pilgrimages and offerings were utterly taken away- as the images of Walsingham, Ipswich, Worcester, the Ladye of Wilsdon.’ The statues were taken to the bank of the Thames at Chelsea and burnt. However, on dying, Henry VIII bequeathed his soul to OL of Walsingham. They were not forgotten, however, and both places now have separate Catholic and Anglican shrines. The Catholic chapel was recognized, with papal approval in 1934, as the national shrine of Our Lady. The statue there is white, but the replicas are dark, based on the seal of Walsingham. In the Anglican chapel, restored in 1921, there is a dark statue, also based on the seal.
But at Willesden, they are black and brown in the Anglican and the Catholic churches respectively and they have lively followings. The Catholic church’s statue was carved from an oak tree that stood on ‘the site’ (of the original church) in 1892 and in 1954 it was crowned by a cardinal (Bernard Griffin) in Wembley Stadium and processed through the streets back to Willesden. (see www.ourladyofwillesden.co.uk) and the Anglican Black Madonna looks like she has been carved out of ebony and is about 3/4 life size. The sculptor was Catherini Stern; it was unveiled in 1972. When I last spoke to the vicar at St. Mary’s the sacred spring had been unblocked and several cures had already been attributed to it. (see www. stmarywillesden. org. uk)
Another popular Marian shrine was Our Lady of Caversham (Reading). Also destroyed at the time of the Reformation, it was almost forgotten, but was revived and re-built on a stone bridge over the Thames. A dark Madonna, apparently from Northern Europe (allegedly found in a junk shop in London), was bought and installed in the chapel. It is now once again a thriving place of worship.
If you cannot get to Monserrat in Spain to see one of the most famous Black Madonnas in the world (known as La Moreneta) you can see a beautifully carved replica of her in the Catholic church in Farm Street, in the heart of London. It was made by a monk from the monastery at Monserrat and is hard to tell from the original. They also have a copy of OL of Guadalupe in the same side chapel. Then there is the church of Our Lady of Hal in Camden Town, where they have a copy of the Belgian ark wood statue that is venerated in Belgium.
Symbolism and Meaning – Conclusion
For all the differences in their perspectives, the theorists seem to agree that the darkness of the Black Madonna symbolizes power. Jung said she is Isis, whilst others consider her to be the iconic remains of prehistoric Mother Earth worship. As we have seen, she is linked with Cybele/Demeter, Diana/Artemis, Isis and Venus/Aphrodite. Cross-culturally she is associated with Kali, Inanna & Lilith. Historically she has ties to the Crusades and the Moorish occupation of Spain; and to the Conquistadors, who brought her to the New World. For modern psychologists she is said to express the archetype of the dark feminine.
Jungian psychologist Betty de Shong Meador (in Uncursing the Dark) explains the transformative power of darkness and why women in particular seem to resonate with a dark feminine figure. Because the archetypal feminine has been so deeply repressed as to become invisible in our culture, she says we have no framework on which to develop a sense of self. She explores darkness as a mythological framework and observes that women’s natural way of transformation is to go down into the dark. Religion emphasizes light and reason, but darkness is where creativity and transformation actually occur.
My personal view is that there is a human need for a Great Mother out there in the universe watching over us. For women, a Father God just isn’t accessible enough. What would he know of the pains and joys of pregnancy, of childbirth, of losing a child? Mothers go through these things all the time.
As paganism was replaced by Christianity in Europe, the worship of the Mother Goddess simply underwent a name change, but remained intact. In my experience of the sanctuaries of Montserrat, Notre Dame du Port, Santa Maria Maggiore, and many others, people there were not praying to an intermediary or to an abstract concept. They fervently believed that the Mother could grant their prayers, heal the sick, make their lives better. For them, She is real.
I waited in the queue in Montserrat for over an hour, surrounded by people speaking languages I do not know (mainly Polish and Russian). The one Spanish lady near enough to talk to was there on pilgrimage for perhaps the 100th time – she had lost count. She was bringing her niece and nephew, who were recently married and had never been to see La Moreneta. When I asked if she was important to her family, she said, ‘Oh yes – very important’. So I asked if she could tell me why, and she answered simply, “She is the patroness of Catalonia. She is our Blessed Mother”.
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