The Powerful Black Madonna—Origin, History, Controversy And 5 Incredible Facts

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Photo by Persephone's Sister on Unsplash

The Black Madonna comes in two varieties. The first one alludes to any portrayal of Mary that is dark-skinned. These recent representations of Our Lady include Larry Scully’s Madonna and Child of Soweto.

These artworks are commonly referred to as “inculturated Madonnas,” which refers to artwork produced by African or African-American painters for individuals of the same or comparable cultures. These depictions may deliver a crucial message by highlighting the Christ occasion’s transracial and consequently universal relevance (including Mary).

The term “Black Madonna” refers to a type of Marian figurine or painting, primarily of medieval origin (12C–15C), with dark brown or black characteristics whose exact origins are often not clear, and, most importantly, of particular prominence. The latter, the Black Madonna’s prominence, is primarily due to the image’s allegedly miraculous nature.

Authors nonchalantly likened the ‘Black Virgins’ venerated by Catholics to pagan goddess images of similar appearance in the early days of the ‘comparative religions’ discipline, giving some a polemic argument against the Catholic Church.

Some feminist writers have recently suggested that the Black Madonna represents a perspective on Mary that is underappreciated in conventional Christian doctrine. In any case, over the course of centuries, black Madonnas have proven to be devotional aids in ecclesial life.

Many of these images have received ecclesiastical approval as a result of divine approval manifested through well-attested divine intervention (subsequently approved by Church leadership).

Black Madonna
Photo by Steve Sharp on Unsplash, Copyright 2022

1. Czstochowa’s Black Madonna and Montserrat’s Black Madonna

These places have significance and meaning that go beyond their religious associations. They serve as strong markers of national identity.

The fact that this image is so old and has no known provenance adds to its supernatural qualities, giving the impression that it was “dumped from the heavens.” According to legend, St. Luke, an apostle, “adorned a big image of the Virgin on the cedar oak desk at which she used to have her meals.”

The Virgin Mary is typically shown as having pale skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair—certainly not having black skin. It’s fascinating to meet a Black Madonna for the first time. Regardless of their nation of origin or racial background, the first query that the majority of our visitors ask is, “Why is she black?”

With conflicting points of view from the Church, academics, and researchers, this is where the discussion starts.

2. The History of the Black Madonna: An Ancient Cultural Memory

Leonard Moss appears to have presented the first noteworthy study of the source and meaning of the so-called Black Madonnas in English on December 28, 1952, at a gathering of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Surprisingly, Moss’ research revealed that every image had a history of supernatural influence. Moss divided the pictures into three groups, based on a research of roughly 150 samples from various countries:

  • Madonnas with brown or black skin, features, and skin pigmentation are similar to the local people.
  • Quite a lot of types of art have turned brown or black due to physical elements include the degradation of lead-based paints, accumulated soot or smoke from votive candles, and the buildup of filth over time.
  • There is no ready explanation for the residual category.

It seems self-evident that a whole percentage of black pictures belong to the first group. Many African pictures of Mary, for example, depict her as a black woman. This type of racial depiction can also be found in the Marian Library and its ethnic creches. Moss also included the iconic photograph of Our Lady of Guadalupe from Mexico City, which was not inevitably intended to depict Mary’s race as black, aka black women.

In relation to specific images, the second interpretation is commonly quoted by Catholic non-experts. Although cliched, it applies perfectly to a subset of Black Madonnas. This phenomenon is depicted by the renowned statue of Our Lady of the Hermits in Einsiedeln, Switzerland.

When the Madonna was returned in 1803, she had been cleaned during her stay in Bludenz after being evacuated to Austria in 1798 to escape Napoleon’s designs. It was immediately determined that Madonna should be returned to her usual blackness before even being exposed to the gaze of the faithful once more.

Similarly, the statue of Our Lady of Altötting was rescued from the ravaging of the church by a flame in the year 907.

Images from the first two sets have been removed, leaving us with a lot of black Madonnas that require explanation.

In the absence of writings expressing the artist’s intention, speculation is the only thing that can be done. We can provide some reasons, though, if we assume that some of the photos were purposely darkened. There seem to be two explanations that are especially plausible.

To illustrate the line from the Song of Songs, “I am black but beautiful,” Madonna’s images were darkened. (Formosa sed Black sum) Around the period of the Crusades, Bernard of Clairvaux published countless essays on liturgy passages, equating the soul to the brides, as well as many on Our Lady. This is when many of the black Madonnas in France were created.

He was also known to have chosen to go to Affligem and Chatillon, two Black Madonna shrines. The Bride in Canticles was specifically understood to be a reference to Mary during the Gothic era.

Some historians assert that the veneration of Mother Nature and other female deities in pre-Christian cultures is related to the Black Virgin Mary.

The importance of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agrarian fertility, is crucial. Demeter, her Greek equivalent, is derived from Ge-meter, or Earth Mother. The finest fertile soil is black in color, and the darker it is, the better it is for farming.

The only child deserving of special recognition is “The Christ Child,” in a similar vein. It makes sense that Christians would interpret whatever artefact they came across from these perspectives in the absence of any particular definition.

3. Controversy surrounds Black Madonna

A classic case of cultural whitewashing is expecting this great goddess to have nothing but white skin.

Despite her widespread popularity and influence, the Black Madonna is a remarkably misinterpreted figure in contemporary Christianity. Racism and ignorance frequently obscure her true origins. According to one popular story about the Black Madonna in France’s Chartres Cathedral, her skin was once white but darkened over time due to exposure to candle fumes and accumulated smoke.

Although easily debunked, this theory is widely accepted throughout Europe. In other cases, icons have been purposefully bleached, as in Rome’s Santa Maria del Popolo Church, where the main altar’s representation has been bleached while the same portrait on the choir altar remains black.

The Virgin of Regla icon, originally a single wooden statue, was split in half in Mexico, Spain to separate the Jesus figure from its mama under the guise of dressing the Madonna in luxurious robes—except that a white Christ child, instead of the original dark-skinned version, was replaced. Given the prevalence of cultural whitewashing, it is not surprising that little is known about the true identity of this ambiguous figure.

Dr. Malgorzata Oleszkiewicz-Peralba’s notable study specializes in syncretic religions and portrayals of the divine feminine. Her best-selling novel, The Black Madonna in Latin America and Europe, delves into the historical roots of modern-day Black Madonna worship. “It goes all the way back to the beginning,” she says Mother of God is a synonymous name for the Virgin Mary in Russia and Poland.” Quite similar to the “Mother Goddess”, her original name.

4. Buen viaje de antipolo

One of the most well-known Marian images in the Philippines is Nuestra Senora de la Paz y Buen Viaje, better known as the Virgin of Antipolo, whose shrine receives the most pilgrims throughout the year, especially from May to July, when the pilgrimage season is in full swing. People from all around the world, especially travellers, throng to her temple to ask for her protection and guidance.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, pilgrims have flocked to the building, which is famed for its Black Madonna paintings in the Philippines.

Every year, from May to July, the painting tends to attract massive numbers of worshippers from all around the city and overseas.

5. Medieval whitewashing?

Should this be interpreted as proof of medieval racism? Were medieval Christian art historians whitewashing a woman who they thought had dark skin in order to reconstruct her in their own image?

Generally, medieval artists illustrated the holy Virgin and other scriptural characters in clothing and settings that mirrored their own—though this changed slightly in the later Middle Ages when some artists attempted to historicize biblical depictions.

However, this does not imply that the practice of depicting her as a light-skinned medieval European woman was intended to erase an existing understanding of Mary as a black woman from the visual record.

Nonetheless, by attempting to create the Virgin and Christ in their own image, medieval Christian creators were responsible for painting art forms and a world in which people of color were clearly framed as others. They were not racist in the modern sense, but the legacy of their illustrations was centuries in which the Virgin and Christ were whitened.

Concluding Remarks

The Black Madonna’s story doesn’t really end in medieval Europe. Later, her image is transformed once more, and she plays other interesting roles in the colonized Americas.

However, what is it that she has to say to all of us today? What relevance does she have other than in terms of faith and religion? We can benefit much from statues of iconic figures like the Black Madonna. They have the power to change how history is presented. They can discuss all the different histories that were disregarded in favour of the European, male-centric tales that we have gotten accustomed to and that are frequently the foundation of museums.

There have been movements urging the recognition of oppressed people’ histories emerge in recent decades. These movements have been crucial in persuading museums to start the drawn-out process of acknowledging and grappling with their legacies’ existential conundrums. They continue to support innovative approaches to talking about current societal concerns.

Perhaps one day the Black Madonna will reclaim her throne as recognized as the Holy Goddess, the progenitor of actuality and humanity, and the cohesive element among ancient and modern spiritual traditions.

But for the millions of devotees who pray to her around the world, there is no need to wait. These people, whether consciously or unconsciously, engage in a potent form of religion that helps connect them to the very roots of humanity and, further, to the origins of the universe itself.

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