Black Madonna  

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"Black Madonnas express a feminine power not fully conveyed by a pale-skinned Mary, who seems to symbolise 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 are of Mary Magdalene and not of Mary, the mother of Jesus, but these traditions and related theories are generally rejected by theologians. The suggestion that Black Madonnas represent feminine power may be linked with the earth goddesses and attributed to the archetypal "great mother" who presides not only over fertility, but over life and death. These ideas overlap with "feminist spirituality" or "women's spirituality". (Chiavola Birnbaum) 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." --Sholem Stein

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A Black Madonna or Black Virgin is a statue or painting of Mary in which she is depicted with dark or black skin. This name applies in particular to European statues or pictures of a Madonna which are of special interest because her dark face and hands is thought by some to be the true color. In this specialised sense "Black Madonna" does not apply to images of the Virgin Mary portrayed as explicitly black African, which are popular in Africa and areas with large black populations, such as the United States. However, it has been argued that European Black Madonnas have their roots in African traditions (see below).

Some statues get their color from the material used, such as ebony or other dark wood, but there is debate about whether this choice of material is significant. Others were originally light-skinned but have become darkened over time, for example by candle soot. For a time this was thought to be the explanation for all medieval "black" images of Mary, but this has been contested by commentators starting in the 1950s with Leonard Moss, who believed the color of originally-dark Madonnas had significance. Occasionally, a Madonna's face has been re-painted black after restoration had returned it to its original pale-skinned coloring, though the blackness of even these is sometimes significant to devotees.

The Black Madonnas are generally medieval, or copies of medieval figures, and are found in Catholic areas. The statues are mostly wooden but occasionally stone, often painted and up to 75 cm tall, many dating from between the 11th and 15th centuries. They fall into two main groups: free-standing upright figures and seated figures on a throne. The pictures are usually icons: Byzantine in style though sometimes made in 13th or 14th century Italy. Most are an image of Mother and Child. Their faces tend to have recognizably European features. There are about 450-500 Black Madonnas in Europe, depending on how they are classified. There are at least 180 Vierges Noires in France, and there are hundreds of non-medieval copies too. A few are in museums, but most are in churches or shrines and are venerated by devotees. Many are associated with miracles and some attract substantial numbers of pilgrims.

Contents

Theories about the Black Madonnas

After a late 19th and early 20th century theory that applied dark skin color was due to the candles burnt in prayer to the Virgin Mary putting soot all over the statue, there was little study of the Black Madonnas for several decades. Some theologians and historians still believe that all examples of dark coloring can be accounted for by the natural color of the wood used or by changes in color over time. They may add that a pale alabaster face was a post-medieval development. A counter-argument points to the apparently un-sooted bright colors of the clothing on some images with painted black face and hands.

Interest in studying Black Madonnas revived in the late 20th century. Scholars of comparative religion have suggested that Black Madonnas are descendants of pre-Christian mother or earth goddesses (Moss, Benko). Some have highlighted Isis as the key ancestor-goddess (Redd, McKinney-Johnson). Psychologists have discussed the maternal and female archetypes from a Jungian perspective (Gustafson, Begg). Although these approaches have stimulated academic interest, there is no well-established consensus about medieval motives for carving or painting Black Madonnas.

A direct link between the Black Madonnas of the European Middle Ages and ancient pagan traditions and representations has been asserted typologically since direct historical and artistic influences cannot be proved. Although no direct Catholic theological sources are available, it has also been suggested by many authors that the medieval veneration of Black Madonnas was in response to a line from the Song of Songs 1:5 in the Old Testament: "I am black but comely, O daughters of Jerusalem, ..." or "Nigra sum sed formosa" in Latin, words discussed at length in the sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux. Several surviving Black Madonnas are inscribed with these words, for example the figure from Tindari below; it is possible, however, that in some cases the inscriptions were added at a later date.

The revived interest, especially from feminist, neo-gnostic and neo-pagan writers and scholars, psychoanalysts and others in the 20th century, has led to various theories about the Black Madonnas. Many of these link the images of the Black Madonna either with pre-Christian traditions, or with themes such as feminine power.

Monique Scheer approaches this topic from the perspective of symbolic anthropology. She believes that these statues and paintings came to be perceived as Black Madonnas after the Middle Ages, perhaps as part of a Counter-Reformation tendency to promote "the veneration of miraculous images of Mary". She discusses the "symbolic meanings communicated by the dark skin of the Madonna" rather than focussing on the origins of their colour, and suggests that these symbolic meanings have been different in different eras and contexts.

Many writers seeking to interpret the Black Madonnas suggest some combination 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 Cybele and Diana of Ephesus.
  • Black Madonnas derive from the Egyptian goddess Isis. The dark skin may echo an African archetypal mother figure. Professor Stephen Benko among others says that early Christian pictures of a seated mother and child were influenced by images of Isis and Horus. (See figure.)
  • Black Madonnas portrayed the original skin tone of the Virgin Mary, thus placing the figures in apt historical contexts, as Jesus' family was more likely than not to have semitic colors and features.
  • Black Madonnas express a feminine power not fully conveyed by a pale-skinned Mary, who seems to symbolise 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 are of Mary Magdalene and not of Mary, the mother of Jesus, but these traditions and related theories are generally rejected by theologians. The suggestion that Black Madonnas represent feminine power may be linked with the earth goddesses and attributed to the archetypal "great mother" who presides not only over fertility, but over life and death. These ideas overlap with "feminist spirituality" or "women's spirituality". (Chiavola Birnbaum)
  • 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.
  • Some Black Madonnas may have been created because the artist was familiar with other similar images.

One 21st century suggestion which is devotional and not academic, and which illustrates Scheer's point about different eras and contexts, proposes that the black mother and child remind us of the under-privileged black people of the world, and the nurturing care offered to the infant symbolises Jesus' love for the poor and dispossessed. This idea itself is dismissed and thought of as racist, judgemental, and stereotypical.

Black Madonnas in Europe

Belgium

  • Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van Regula (Moeder van Regula van Spaignen), Brugge
  • Chapelle de la Vierge Noire, Maillen (Assesse)
  • Our Lady of Flanders, Tournai
  • Gothic Church of Our Lady, Halle

Croatia


France

Many examples exist, including:

Germany

Ireland

Italy

Luxembourg

Lithuania

Malta

  • In Malta a medieval painting of a Black Madonna rests in a small church in Hamrun, with the church being possibly the oldest one in the area, originally built in honor of St. Nicholas. Brought to Malta by a merchant in the year 1630, the painting is of a statue found in Atocha, a parish in Madrid, Spain, and is widely known as Il-Madonna tas-Samra. (This can mean 'tanned Madonna', 'brown Madonna', or 'Madonna of Samaria'). She may also be called Madonna ta' Atoċja, corresponding to the Spanish Nuestra Señora de Atocha. There were celebrations in 2005, the painting's 375th year in Malta.

Poland

Portugal

  • Nossa Senhora da Nazaré, Nazaré

Russia

Serbia

  • Church of the Black Madonna, Kosovo, Letnice

Spain

Switzerland

Black Madonnas or important replicas in the Americas

Brazil

Chile

Costa Rica

Mexico

  • Our Lady of Guadalupe (Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe). Her skin is not as black as the European Black Madonnas but she is not white. The general opinion is that she represents an indigenous woman. A comparative religious belief traces her figure to the Egyptian Goddess Isis, since her apparition day (December 12th, or 1212) can be read as an anagram for her name. Some experts argue that the Templars's affection to the Black Madonna was related to Isis; Notre Dame in Paris was built above a Roman temple dedicated to the Egyptian Goddess.

Trinidad and Tobago

United States

Miscellanea

A Black Madonna is an important motif in The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. She inspires spiritual strength in the female characters in the novel, and has been connected with "the solidarity of the divine mother with those who are oppressed", according to Jennie S. Knight. This Madonna is not of the specific European kind discussed above.

References

  • Begg, Ean The Cult of the Black Virgin (1985)
  • Benko, Stephen Virgin Goddess: Studies in the Pagan and Christian Roots of Mariology (1993)
  • Chiavola Birnbaum, Lucia Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy (2000)
  • Gustafson, Fred The Black Madonna (1990)
  • Gustafson, Fred The black madonna of Einsiedeln : a psychological perspective (1975)
  • Hale, Susan Elizabeth Sacred Space, Sacred Sound: The Acoustic Mysteries of Holy Places Quest Books (2007) ISBN 0835608565
  • Knight, Jennie S Remythologizing the Divine Feminine in Religion and Popular Culture in America ed. Forbes and Mahan (University of California, 2005)
  • LeMieux, Raymond W. The Black Madonnas of France (1991)
  • McKinney-Johnson, Eloise Egypt's Isis: the Original Black Madonna in Black Women in Antiquity (Journal of African Civilizations ; V. 6) edited by Ivan van Sertima
  • Moser, Mary Beth Honoring darkness: exploring the power of black madonnas in Italy (2005)
  • Moss, Leonard In Quest of the Black Virgin: She Is Black Because She Is Black in Mother Worship:Themes and Variations (1982) edited by James Preston
  • Redd, Danita Black madonnas of Europe: diffusion of the African Isis in Black Women in Antiquity (Journal of African Civilizations ; V. 6) edited by Ivan van Sertima
  • Ralls, Karen Knights Templar Encyclopedia, Career Press (2007) ISBN 1564149269
  • Scheer, Monique From Majesty to Mystery: Change in the Meanings of Black Madonnas from the: Sixteenth to Nineteenth Centuries. The American Historical Review 107.5 (2002)
  • Schmid, Margrit Rosa Schwarz bin ich und schön ([SJW] Schweizerisches Jugendschriftenwerk 2002)
  • Schmid, Margrit Rosa Die Wallfahrt zur schwarzen Madonna Documentary film, 30 minutes (Margrit R. Schmid Zurich 2003)

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Black Madonna" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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