The Mystery of the Black Madonna
A symbol that has inspired both devotion and derision
Christianity’s glory days are long gone now. But the narratives it has woven for the past two thousand years still have a strong pulse in Western culture. Our thinking easily polarizes. If we’re not careful, we tend to label everything about the world and our selves as either good or bad. Especially colors.
To the mainstream Western Christian mind, light equals good and dark equals bad. God is in heaven, surrounded by light. The Devil is underground, engulfed in darkness. After your time on Earth ends, you will belong to either one or the other for all of eternity.
So when faced with the Black Madonna phenomenon, white Christians tend to not quite know what to do.
“In 1944, Leonard W. Moss, entering the church at Lucera in Southern Italy, came across his first Black Virgin and asked the priest, ‘Father, why is the Madonna black?’ The response was, ‘My son, she is black because she is black.’ […]
The priest’s answer to Moss may seem a charming example of holy simplicity, but there was no mistaking the open hostility, when, on 28 December 1952, as Moss and Cappannari presented their paper on Black Virgins to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, every priest and nun in the audience walked out.”
This extract from Ean Begg’s book “The Cult of the Black Virgin” provides a glimpse into the two standard kinds of response from the Church when it comes to the nearly 500 Black Madonnas found in Europe from Medieval times and the devotees and pilgrims they attract: either disinterest or derision.
The Black Madonna is not talked about. Very few scholars have researched her. With the hundreds of statues and paintings depicting her, the Church cannot deny her existence but it doesn’t rush to raise her profile either. It accepts her with what can only be called two caveats: She should remain in obscurity. And her dark skin is unintentional.
Why Is She Black?
Whenever a conversation about the Black Madonna does arise, it causes controversy. People gravitate naturally to the question “Why is she black?” They sense how abnormal it is for any saint, let alone the Mother of God, to be depicted as anything other than white in Medieval Europe.
There are several theories that attempt to answer this question.
The most simplistic one, of course, comes from the Church.
It Was Unintentional
Ean Begg writes in “The Cult of the Black Virgin,”
Spokesmen of the Church, when asked to explain the origin of Black Virgins, tend to invoke candle smoke or general exposure to the elements.
This could be a believable theory that easily downplays any sense of a deeper meaning. Until we look closer.
If candle smoke and the elements were so harsh on the pictures and statues, why didn’t more saints end up black? After centuries of exposure, only the Virgin Mary is dark. And it just so happens that the elements darkened only her skin. The colors of her clothes seem to have withstood all that smoke.
According to Begg, the spokesmen of the Church can’t quite defend this theory, though not for the lack of trying.
After a time, they would say, as at Einsiedeln, the faithful become accustomed to the sooty image, and the clergy pander to their prejudice by the use of paint where necessary. [However, there is] considerable contrary evidence of clerical antipathy to Black Virgins and disregard for parishioners’ wishes.
Even with the little we know about Black Madonnas, we can be certain of one thing. Their existence was intentional.
Historical Accuracy and Indigenous People
A much more accepted and intuitive theory, which was also presented by Moss and Cappannari in 1952 when all the priests and nuns walked out, is one of accuracy.
Mary herself must have had dark skin, considering she was born and lived in the Middle Eastern lands.
But also, just like white Christians tend to depict Mary, Jesus, and the saints as white, abandoning historical accuracy in favor of a physical mirror between themselves and their God, so have many populations over the world done the same type of mirroring. Mary has been depicted as racially Black in art by African Christians and as brown in art by Mexican and Middle Eastern Christians.
Scholar Monique Scheer stipulates that most of the Black Madonnas in Europe are of eastern origin and the inherent resemblance to the historical figure Mary is what gives them their numinosity.
But this is not all there is to the Black Madonna.
The Old Goddesses
By the 1400s, Europe was Christianized and all the old religions were banished. But they never truly went away.
Many Christian traditions, rituals, and symbols — such as the Christmas tree, carnivals, singing carols, the father giving his daughter away at her wedding, the halo — have pagan roots.
This was a deliberate strategy by Christian leaders. For example, Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote in a letter to his priests in 601AD about an annual pagan tradition of killing oxen. His instructions were for the ritual to remain the same but with a slight re-frame.
[…] 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 honor 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.
But Christianity did bring many fundamental changes. One was the split between Good and Evil. Another was the elevation of the Masculine principle above the Feminine.
God was a man, and he had a son who saved humanity from their sins. There was no room in divinity for a feminine symbol. Mary, despite her being the Mother of Jesus Christ, was not officially canonized by the Catholic Church until 1933. And Protestants still warn against idolizing Mary too much because it distracts from the worship of God.
But in the old religions, Gods existed alongside Goddesses. And these Goddesses were very often depicted as black.
Ceres, the Goddess of fertility. Isis, the Egyptian Goddess who inspired devotion across the Greco-Roman world. Artemis of Ephesus.
All of them were traditionally pictured with dark skin.
And then the countless incarnations of the ancient Earth-Goddess were all wiped away and replaced by one single male God.
Some scholars, like Stephen Benko, believe that the Black Madonna is an echo of these old religions. The Feminine symbol, and all it represents, was relegated underground. No room whatsoever was left for it on the surface. But it never lost its pulse and it kept sending ripples from the depths.
The Color Itself
There is an overlap in the Christian split between Good and Evil, Man and Woman, Light and Dark.
Just like the feminine principles of intuition, subjectivity, and feeling have been labeled as devilish and trickster-like, so have darker colors been associated with the Devil.
But this was not always the case. The old religions, just like they recognized the balance between Masculine and Feminine, also recognized the equality between darkness and light.
The color black was not seen as evil. It was associated with the night and its proximity to the Divine and the Unconscious. Most of all, however, it was associated with the earth and fertility. The blacker the earth, the more fertile it is. Black was equal to life-giving all-encompassing power. Centuries before chromatics scientists found that we perceive as black objects that absorb all colors, the ancients already sensed that everything is contained in it.
In his analysis of the Black Madonna, Ean Begg finds the nucleus in this recurring verse from the Song of Solomon.
‘I am black, and I am beautiful.’
The answer to the question “Why is she black?” seems to have its foundation in this ancient wisdom. The black color, despite centuries of denigration, carries indomitable numinosity.
The Power of the Black Madonna
Despite the contempt from the Church, the Black Virgins have inspired much devotion among worshipers throughout the centuries.
To this day, the Black Madonna attracts pilgrims and her statues and pictures are imbued by stories of miracles. Her power hasn’t lost its numinosity.
During one of the biggest natural disasters in Europe — the 1248 landslide in Savoy, France that obliterated an entire valley and thousands of people — one of the few surviving buildings was the church in Myans. According to legend, the church was spared because, at the time of the landslide, worshippers were praying to the Black Madonna inside its walls.
The Black Madonna in Czestochowa, Poland has a longer list of miracles in her history.
During the Siege of Constantinople in the 7th century, the painting was displayed from the city walls during a critical battle and credited with the decisive victory of the Byzantines over the Arabs.
In the 11th century, after it had been transported to Ruthenia, northwest Hungary, the King prayed to it during an invasion. Afterward, a darkness descended on Ruthenia, and the enemy troops, in their confusion, started killing each other. Their invasion failed.
A few centuries later, the painting was transported to a monastery in Czestochowa, Poland. In 1430, during an attack by the Hussites, a looter struck it twice with a sword. Before he could complete his third strike, he fell dead.
In 1655, Poland was almost entirely invaded by the armies of Sweden’s King Charles X. Only the region around the Czestochowa monastery, home to the Black Madonna, remained unconquered. After a 40-day siege, Poland was miraculously able to drive out the Swedish forces. Because of this victory, the “Lady of Czestochowa” was made a national symbol of unity and named Queen of Poland.
Russia tried and failed as well. While Russian forces were massing on the banks of the Vistula River in 1920 and preparing for an attack on Warsaw, the clouds over the city formed in the image of the Madonna. The Russians fled.
Legends of miracles surround the Black Madonna and all of her statues and pictures. Today, many pilgrims still seek her out.
But modern society has changed since medieval times. We look down on superstition and indulge in legends of miracles mostly as entertainment.
And yet, the Black Madonna still bothers people.
The Chartres Cathedral in France recently completed a controversial decade-long state-funded renovation. The impressive Gothic cathedral is now brighter, lighter, and shinier. And the 16th-century Black Madonna in it is now white.
Defenders of the project claim that the public outcry is unwarranted. The Madonna, like the rest of the cathedral, had accumulated smoke and dirt. They did their best to restore things to what they looked like when Chartres was built 800 years ago. The entire goal was to create distance from what they call “Gothic doom and gloom.”
But visitors and worshippers hate it. They say it feels sterile, arrogant, and fake. The sense of wonder, the divinity, has been bleached.
After all this time, there are still people desperate to erase darkness. Its power and numinosity is too much to bear, too difficult to fit into their version of the world. And when they succeed, the rest of us are left to feel the emptiness of a bright and sterile world.