Not all Black Madonnas are black. Some are silver, grey, brown, or other colors. Some used to be black until they were painted white. Although some Black Madonnas clearly depict women of sub-Saharan African descent; many do not. The word Black when describing these Madonnas is not used in the modern sense of describing race, ethnicity, or skin color. In many cases, it is a literal description: many Black Madonnas are carved from black or very dark wood, but it is a metaphorical, metaphysical description, too.
Not every Black Madonna may be a Madonna, or at least not in the conventional sense. Madonna literally means “My Lady,” but the lady in question is universally understood to be Mary, Mother of Christ. When it comes to Black Madonna statues, however, nothing can be assumed.
At heart, the Black Madonna phenomenon is a cult of miraculous images: images understood to be animated by divine spirit. Most Black Madonnas are small statues, although some are paintings. There are approximately two hundred fifty surviving Black Madonna images worldwide, with the greatest number in France, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain. Others may be hidden in church vaults or private collections.
Black Madonnas are extremely controversial: many passionately refute their very existence,claiming that they are just unusual images of the Virgin Mary, their dark color ascribed to centuries of candle smoke. (Why comparable images of saints, often housed in the very same sanctuaries, are not similarly darkened is generally not addressed.)
Within the context of traditional Christian iconography, Black Madonnas are odd. Beyond their color, they do not subscribe to standard depictions of Mary. There are subversive qualities and undertones to many of these images and their shrines. Some are ornamented with motifs more commonly associated with other spiritual traditions.
Many have mysterious provenance: they appeared miraculously in wells, ghost ships, trees, or caves. Others were brought to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa by returning Crusaders. These statues Demonstrate supernatural power, making themselves light or heavy or refusing to stay where they are placed. They identify where they are hidden via apparitions and dreams. They choose the sites of their own shrines.
Who is the Black Madonna? And is there only one Black Madonna? This is a controversial topic: arguments are made on all sides. Here are some possibilities:
• Black Madonnas are depictions of the Virgin Mary. Some just show a little more creative license than the standard Madonna image.
• Black Madonnas are images of the Virgin Mary, but, in the manner of a goddess with many paths, she manifests differently in different places, thus the variety Demonstrated by Black Madonnas.
• The Sacred Blood Line Theory: Black Madonnas are deliberately unusual because they are encoded with mystical secrets. They do not depict Mary, Mother of Christ, but Mary Magdalen, his bride; sometimes in company with their child.
• Some or all of the above may be true.
Here’s a scenario: Paganism or idolatry is forbidden by law. Not only are shrines closed, but people must dismantle personal home altars. What will you do with your beloved altar image? Direct defiance leads to severe punishment or death. Will you be obedient or sneaky? Rather than destroy images as ordered, some will hide them, hoping that the political climate will shift and that a precious statue can someday be recovered. The statue may be buried, hidden in a cave, down a well, or in a hollow tree. But the political climate does not improve, and the statue stays hidden. Centuries later, the person who rediscovers it may genuinely know nothing about old, abandoned religious practices. When they see a statue of a mother and child, they do not assume that it is Isis and Horus or Aphrodite and Eros: they recognize it as Mary and Jesus.
Most Black Madonnas are not life-sized or super-sized statues. They tend to be small, comparable to those now produced for home altars, except that, back in the day, there was no such thing as mass production. Each was carved by hand and is unique.
Their modest size belies the miracles associated with Black Madonnas. Whoever they are, they are among the greatest miracle workers in the world. Although most are enshrined in specific locations, reproductions of their images also radiate power and they may be invoked for assistance anywhere. They produce miracles of healing, fertility, and protection. If they produce a miracle for you, the standard offering is a pilgrimage to their home shrine. Black Madonnas are usually identified by the location of their shrine. Here is a sampling of some of the most famous:
• The Black Madonna of Avioth, also known as the Black Madonna of the Thornbush and the Black Madonna of Life, was once literally black but has since been whitened. Her statue is considered especially ancient, comparable to those at Chartres. It was discovered in a hawthorn bush in 1140. In the fourteenth century, a basilica was built for her on the original site. (The statue refused to budge.) Avioth is in France on the Belgian border, once prime Merovingian territory. The Black Lady of Avioth is among those statues associated with Mary Magdalen, but suggestions are also made that she is Rosmerta.
In the seventeenth century, a Huguenot captain tried to manger his horse at her altar but immediately dropped dead. Her specialty was once resuscitating dead babies long enough for them to be baptized and thus admitted to Heaven. (It may still be her specialty but now there’s not as much demand.) Dead babies were once left near the underground spring by the gate of the former cemetery near her church. The last recorded was on 23 February 1786. The sanctuary is associated with healing springs, which allegedly grant fertility. (See Also: Mary Magdalen; Rosmerta.)
• The Black Madonna of Candelaria was found near the beach at Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1390 by Guanche shepherds. The Guanche are the indigenous people of the Canary Islands; the men understood the statue of a dark woman holding a child to be a goddess. They placed her in a grotto. Miracles began to be associated with the image. Fifty years later, a Guanche convert to Christianity reidentified it as Mary with Jesus.
Her reputation spread: in 1464, the statue was stolen by people from a different island who hoped to receive her blessings. Instead, no matter how often she was turned around, the statue was continually found facing the wall. She produced nothing but trouble and illness until returned to her home. She came from the sea and she returned to the sea: the original statue was swept away during a storm in 1826 and eventually replaced with a copy. Her dark complexion and association with storms led the Black Madonna of Candelaria to be syncretized with the orisha Oya. (See Also: Candelina; Oya.)
• The Black Madonnas of Chartres: there are actually two Black Madonnas enshrined in France’s Chartres Cathedral. Both are beautiful, evocative black statues:
Our Lady of the Pillar is the “official” Black Madonna. The current statue derives from the sixteenth century, replacing one that was enshrined in the thirteenth. She holds a child and is perched atop a pillar. That pillar may be an indication of pre-Christian traditions. Chartres is believed to have been the sacred capital of the Druid world. (Chartres derives its name from the Carnutes, an important Celtic tribe.) Wooden and stone pillars are characteristic of sacred sites from all over the Celtic world.
Our Lady Underground lives in the crypt. The Druids did not believe in enclosing sacred sites: their shrines were open to nature, often amidst groves and grottoes. The very first image enshrined at Chartres is believed to have been venerated by Druids and depicted a woman giving birth. She was kept in a grotto by a healing well. The well near Our Lady Underground is the most ancient surviving feature of Chartres. The present statue dates from 1856, replacing one destroyed during the French Revolution.
• The Black Madonna of Czestochowa is the most famous Black Madonna. Enshrined in the Basilica of the Jasna Gora monastery near Czestochowa, Poland, she was the emblem of the Solidarity movement and is known as the Queen of Poland.
This Black Madonna is an icon allegedly painted by Saint Luke on a tabletop built by Jesus. Saint Helena found it in Jerusalem in 326 CE. She gave it to her son, Emperor Constantine, who enshrined it in Constantinople. During the iconoclastic era of the eighth century when so many icons were destroyed, the Black Madonna was hidden in the Belsk Forest. It eventually came into Charlemagne’s possession. The painting passed between many owners until one, King Louis I of Hungary (5 March 1326–10 September 1382), in response to a dream, brought it to Poland where in 1382, during a Tatar attack, an arrow lodged in the Black Madonna’s throat. The prince fled, installing the painting in a small church near Czestochowa. A Pauline monastery and church were later built to house it and ensure its security.
In 1439, Hussites (Protestants) attacked the monastery and attempted to remove the icon. One man struck the Madonna with his saber. He instantly fell to the floor writhing in pain and died. The icon was stolen, but arriving at the city limits, the thieves’ horses refused to budge. The thieves found they could not leave town until they abandoned the Black Madonna, now covered in blood and dirt. The horses immediately moved and a miraculous healing spring emerged at the spot.
Saber scars on her cheek and the arrow wound in her throat remain visible. Polish soldiers brought copies of her image to Haiti. The wounds on her cheek resemble African tribal marks, and the Black Madonna of Czestochowa is now intensely identified with the Vodou lwa Ezili Dantor.
Spontaneous healings have been reported by those who have made the pilgrimage to the image. There is virtually no miracle for which she is not credited. Shrines are also dedicated to her in Doylestown, Pennsylvania; Eureka, Missouri; and Czestochowa, Texas. (Images in the United States generally have lighter skin and appear softer and more youthful than the original in Poland.) (See Also: Anaïs; Ezili Dantor; Lwa; Macarena, La.)
• The Black Madonna of Einsiedeln in Switzerland is a four-foot wooden statue of a standing Black Madonna. She holds a scepter in her right hand and supports a naked child on her left who carries a bird. According to legend, Abbess-Princess Hildegard of Zurich gave this statue to Saint Meinrad in the ninth century. He brought it with him to the forested slopes of Mount Etzel where he lived in solitude in the wilderness until he was murdered in 861. In 934, an abbey was founded on the site.
The Bishop of Constance arrived in 948 to perform the consecration, but just as he began, a disembodied voice spoke to him in Latin, saying, “Cease, cease, Brother. The chapel has been divinely consecrated.” Our Lady of the Dark Forest, as she is known, was evacuated to Austria in 1798 to escape Napoleon’s troops. When she was returned in 1803, devotees were dismayed to see that she had been artificially lightened. The decision was made to restore her to her former colour before allowing her to be exhibited. For many, the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln is the Black Madonna. Her miracles are innumerable. Carl Jung identified the statue as Isis.
• The Black Madonna of Guadalupe is not the same as Mexico’s Virgin of Guadalupe. Also known as La Extremeña, she is a Black Madonna statue from Extremadura, Spain, home of her devotee Hernan Cortes and many other conquistadores. Mexican Guadalupe was named in her honour, but the two images do not resemble each other. Guadalupe means “Hidden River” or “Wolf River.”
The Black Madonna of Guadalupe is a black, fifty-nine-centimeter-tall statue with mysterious origins. According to legend, in 711, when Christian Visigoths were defeated by Muslim Moors, knights placed the statue in an iron box, burying her in Guadalupe lest she be destroyed as an idol.
In 1321, Christianity now reestablished, an apparition directed a cowherd to the hidden statue, perfectly preserved after six centuries. King Alfonso XI built her a sanctuary in 1340. At the time of the conquest of the Western Hemisphere, it was Spain’s most popular sanctuary. La Extremeña has been eclipsed by her Mexican namesake, who is now very popular throughout Europe, but she remains a font of miracles. (See Also: Guadalupe.)
• The Black Madonna of Hal is enshrined near Brussels, Belgium. This wooden statue once belonged to Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, a gift from her husband who died en route to the Crusades after sending home four Black Madonna statues. (An alternative legend says the Madonna was locally crafted from a sacred tree.)
Eventually the statue was inherited by Elizabeth’s granddaughter, Matilda, Countess of Holland, who enshrined it in Hal in 1267. The Black Madonna of Hal performs miracles of healing and has allegedly resurrected those who are dead and buried. Her most famous miracle occurred in 1580 when she intercepted cannonballs with her robes and lap, saving the town from attack. These cannon-balls are still on display in her shrine, and her iconography depicts her with cannonballs.
The Black Madonna of Hal has several other shrines dedicated to her, many containing replicas of her image, for instance the Church of Our Lady of Hal in Camden Town, London. French knight Jean de Cordes invoked her while held captive: his chains fell off. On returning home, he built her a chapel in Ghissignies.
• The Black Madonna of Orcival in Puy-de-Dôme, France, is a carved wood statue covered in silver except for her face and her disproportionately large hands, intended to Demonstrate her generosity and power, unless one subscribes to the theory that she is originally an ancient bear goddess in which case her big hands resemble bear paws. Orcival means “Valley of the Bears.” According to tradition, the shrine was founded by Saint Ursin in the third century. Ursin is etymologically related to Ursus, Latin for “bear.” Ursine means bearlike. Once upon a time, bearskins were affixed to the church door.
The statue was found when a hammer was thrown to determine the site of a church. Efforts were made to move the statue; she returned three times. The Black Madonna of Orcival heals the blind, provides fertility, frees captives, and casts out Demons. She protects sailors and travellers on the sea, grants victory and success, and wards off epidemics. She is among the Madonnas deeply venerated by the Romani (Gypsies) and is considered their protectress. (See Also: Callisto; Macarena, La; Sara-la-Kali.)
• The Black Madonna of Regla is a small black statue holding a white divine child. The two figures were originally made from one piece of wood, but the original baby was replaced by the present white one in the sixteenth century. It resembles Phoenician statues. There are two theories as to her origin:
The statue of Mary was commissioned in the fourth century, possibly by Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, near Carthage, now modern Tunisia, but once an old Phoenician stronghold.
It is a statue of the Phoenician goddess Tanit.
The statue was hidden from the Moors in 713 but reappeared in 1330. Her shrine is in Chipiona, Spain. In Cuba, the Black Madonna of Regla is syncretized to Yemaya. (See Also: Tanit; Yemaya.)
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by : Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.