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

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Photo by Persephone's Sister on Unsplash

There are two kinds of Black Madonna. The former refers to any dark-skinned representation of Mary in general. Recent depictions of Our Lady, such as Larry Scully’s Madonna and Child of Soweto, fall into this category.

The term “inculturated Madonnas,” which refers to artwork created by African or African- American painters for folks of the same or similar cultures, is frequently used to describe these images. These representations may convey an important message by emphasizing the universal and therefore trans-racial significance of the Christ occasion (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. The Black Madonna of Częstochowa and Montserrat

Our Lady of Częstochowa in Poland and Our Lady of Montserrat (La Moreneta) in Catalonia are two of the most well-known. The meaning and significance of these locations extend beyond religion. They are also potent national identity symbols.

Another miraculous aspect of this picture is that it is so old that its origins are unknown as if it were “dropped from the heavens.” Legend has it that the evangelist St. Luke “adorned a huge portrait of the Virgin on the cedar wooden desk at which she used to take her meals.”

St. Helena, Emperor Constantine’s Queen Mother, is said to have discovered the portrait during a visit to the Holy Land and brought it to Constantinople in the 4th century. After five centuries, it was allegedly transferred in royal dowries until it arrived in Poland and came into the ownership of St. Ladislaus in the fifteenth century.

Most of us are accustomed to seeing the Virgin Mary as fair-skinned, blue-eyed, and blonde, but certainly not having dark skin. The first meeting with a Black Madonna is enthralling. The first question that most of our visitors have, regardless of their country of origin or ethnic background, is: why is she black?

This is where the debate begins, with opposing viewpoints from the Church, academics, and researchers.

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

Marie Durand-Lefebvre (1937), Emile Saillens (1945), and Jacques Huynen (1945) conducted crucial early research on dark images in France (1972). 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, every image in Moss’ research had a reputation for divine intervention. Moss classified the images into three categories, citing a study of nearly 150 samples from around the world:

  • Madonnas with dark brown or black skin, physiognomy, and skin pigmentation are similar to the indigenous population.
  • Various types of art have turned black due to physical factors such as deterioration of lead-based pigments, aggregated smoke from the use of votive candles or candle soot, and grime accumulation 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.

After removing images from the first 2 groups, we are left with a number of black Madonnas that need to be explained.

The only speculation is possible in the absence of texts stating the artist’s intent. However, assuming that some of the images were intentionally darkened, we can offer some explanations. There appear to be two particularly convincing theories.

The pictures of Madonna were darkened to demonstrate a text from the Song of Songs: “I am black but beautiful.” (Black sum sed Formosa) Many of the black Madonnas in France date from around the time of the Crusades, when Bernard of Clairvaux wrote innumerable opinion pieces on the liturgical texts, comparing the soul to the bride, as well as many on Our Lady.

He was also recognized to have decided to visit several Black Madonna shrines, including Chatillon and Affligem. During the Gothic period, the Bride in Canticles was explicitly interpreted as referring to Mary.

According to some historians, the Black Virgin Mary is linked to pre-Christian worship of Mother Earth and other female divinities. Stephen Benko summarizes the other popular theory: “The Black Madonna is the primitive earth-goddess converted to Christianity.” His argument begins with the observation that many goddesses, including Artemis of Ephesus, Isis, Ceres, and others, were depicted in black.

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.

This nation’s men are said to be attuned to sacrificing oxen. This tradition must be transformed into a Christian ritual. On the day of the dedication of the (pagan shrines) temples thus transformed into religious institutions, and similarly, for the cultural events of the saints, for whom the statues will be placed there, you should allow them to build green structures around these same churches, as in the past.

They will bring their animals to the churches and slaughter them, not as a service to the devil, but for a Christian feast in the name and honor of God, to whom they will give thanks after satiating themselves.

We might even wonder if pagan Mother and Child statues were thought to portray somebody other than the Virgin Mary and her Son, Christ. Roman Catholics refer to Mary as “The Woman.”

Similarly, “The Christ Child” is the only child worthy of special mention. In the absence of specific characterization, it seems natural that Christians would read these viewpoints into any artifact they encountered.

In fact, it appears that Eusebius of Caesarea took advantage of this tendency by using an image of the black Madonna as preparation evangelii, or evangelical preparation, a widely embraced emergence of the full Christian mystery, which is indeed focused on the Word’s Incarnation through Mary.

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

The miraculous image of Nuestra Senora de la Paz y Buen Viaje, also known as the Virgin of Antipolo, is one of the most famous Marian images in the Philippines, and its shrine is the most visited in the nation, especially during the pilgrimage season, which runs from May to July. People flock to her shrine to seek her guidance and protection, particularly travelers from all over the world.

The statue (a Black Madonna statue) is a representation of the Immaculate Conception and is housed at Antipolo Cathedral in Antipolo, Rizal. The same wood was used in the carvings of Quiapo’s Black Nazarene and Santo Nino de Pandacan.

The statue is one of the most revered paintings of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Black Madonna) in the Philippines, with devotees flocking to it since the mid-nineteenth century. Every year, from May to July, the painting tends to attract massive numbers of worshippers from all around the country 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.

But what does she have to say to us today? What significance does she have apart from religion and faith? Statues of icons like the Black Madonna can help us a lot. They have the potential to alter the way history is told. They can talk about all the other histories that have been overlooked in favor of the Western, male-centric narratives that we’ve grown accustomed to, and on which museums are frequently based.

In recent decades, we have seen the emergence of movements calling for the commemoration of the history of marginalized groups. These movements have played an important role in encouraging museums to begin the long procedure of confessing and questioning the existential dilemmas of their legacies. They also continue to encourage new ways of discussing current societal issues.

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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