Who are they?
The Black Madonnas are ostensibly medieval images of the Christian Mother of God, often with her child, the incarnate God Jesus, in which she is depicted as black. Mary is so typically presented throughout medieval Europe as white and often even blonde (even though the human Mary would not have been) that many believe that black depictions of Mary are intended to convey a specific, perhaps secret, spiritual belief about her. The most popular theories are:
1-Her color is a reference to the Song of Solomon (aka Song of Songs), a biblical book containing a love story about a man (often assumed to be King Solomon) and his beloved, who is described as black. (“I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,” she sings in Song of Solomon 1:5)
2-Her depiction as black refers to a “dark secret,” a hidden truth. Some assert that the secret identity of this woman is Mary Magdalene, alleged to be Jesus’ wife, and the child is theirs, allegedly the carrier of the royal blood (the Holy Grail). This theory has been presented clearly by Margaret Starbird’s book The Woman with the Alabaster Jar, which was one of the sources for Dan Brown’s popular (and controversial) conspiracy thriller novel The DaVinci Code. It has also been suggested that the black color might refer to a less literal, more abstract identity of the Feminine Divine as, for example, personifying wisdom.
3-The dark color is due to the fact that the Christian converts of Middle Ages France and Spain (where most are found) were still actually worshiping older earth goddesses, which were often thought of as black, like the earth. In particular, both France and Spain were areas where Isis with her son Horus were worshiped during the days when they were part of the Roman Empire, and Isis was often depicted as black. It’s worth noting that these explanations are not mutually exclusive. More than one of them could be true. The Feminine Divine has great staying power and many of her devotees have been less concerned with dogma than with felt experience. Her maternal presence, and her evoking of the idea of the bride or beloved (directly or by analogy the beloved of God) are what is sought. Her name may have been less important.
Where are they?
There are several hundred Black Madonnas found throughout Europe but most of these are to be found in France and Spain. Famous Black Madonnas also appeared in Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines after contact from Spanish explorers/conquerors.
Some Black Madonnas:
The Black Madonna of Czestochowa (above) is a Polish icon at least 600 years old and possibly much older. It was allegedly created by St. Luke himself while Mary told him the story of Jesus’ life, later to be retold as the Gospel of Luke. The fleur-de-lis, the symbol of France, must necessarily have been added later. Whatever her origins, the Madonna arrived in Poland sometime during the Middle Ages and is credited, like so many Black Madonnas, with both personal healings and wartime victories. She is said to have protected Poland from Swedish invasion in the 17th Century. The scars on her cheek were made by the sword of one of the thieves who attempted to steal the painting from the monastery in which she was living in the 15th Century. They were unable to steal the painting. Those familiar with Black Madonnas have learned that her images turn up where they want to, demand to dwell in particular locations, and cannot be moved from them unless they choose to go. This Madonna was crowned Queen and Protector of Poland in 1656 and was more recently beloved by John Paul II (1920-2005), the first Polish pope.
The Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, Switzerland (right) was given by Abbess Hildegarde to the hermit St. Meinrad in the 9th century. Poor Meinrad just wanted to worship alone but continued to be sought out by the faithful no matter how far he retreated into the wilderness. Once his retreat in the Dark Forest near Lake Lucerne was discovered, he felt it necessary to build a chapel and placed this statue in it. She gained a reputation for answering prayers and thus the chapel became a pilgrimage site. In the 10th century, a church was built around the chapel. Allegedly the night before the church was to be consecrated, God himself was seen standing at the altar of the church. Also in attendance was the Queen of Heaven on a throne of light surrounded by angels. Interestingly, the angels purportedly altered the usual prayers by saying of Jesus “blessed be the Son of Mary” rather than “he who cometh in the name of the Lord.” In the 11th century the church was destroyed by fire, but the older chapel inside and the Black Madonna within it survived. This same pattern — church burned to the ground but chapel survived — repeated itself four more times over the centuries. Despite the evidence that the chapel could fend for itself, the faithful eventually decided to surround it with marble — just in case.
The original statue of Our Lady of Vassiviere (above) was unfortunately destroyed during the French Revolution. (It was recreated in 1805.) The original was located near a sacred spring in the mountain town of Vassiviere, France, whose name means the temple of water. Reportedly, unorthodox rites performed there earned the disapproval of the church. The modern replica is semi-nomadic. She is carried to Vassiviere every summer and remains until just before the Autumn Equinox. She spends the school year in another town, Besse et Saint Anastaise.
Legend has it that the Virgin of Montserrat (above) was carved in Jerusalem in the early days of the Christian church and brought to Spain. It reportedly disappeared in the 7th century when the Saracens invaded Barcelona and was rediscovered 200 years later, in 890, in a cave in Montserrat mountain. She was discovered because shepherds saw mysterious lights and heard singing coming from that place and brought the Bishop, who witnessed the phenomenon as well. The current statue may be a 12th century replica of the earlier one. Her popularity has never decreased. More than one million people visit her each year.
The Virgin of Rocamadour (right) is believed to be about 1,000 years old. Her shrine, reached by climbing 216 stairs carved into the rocks of a large gorge, was one of the four most popular pilgrimage sites of the Middle Ages. She was reportedly visited by Charlemagne and by Henry II of England (which included western France at the time. Henry was the father of Richard the Lionheart, the “true king” of the Robin Hood stories).
The two images below are of Black Madonnas believed to have been brought to the rural region of Auvergne, France during the crusades. Below left is an 11th century statue which resides at St. Christophe les Gorges. Below right is the virgin of Molompize, thought to have originally come from Antioch.