Black Madonnas

The Black Madonna

These medieval statues of Mary depict her with dark skin. There are 500 of them in Europe, and at least 180 in France. Some statues were originally light-skinned but have become darkened over time, for example by candle soot, but others have always been dark. They may symbolize her suffering. In the light of scholarly studies and of long-standing traditions, writers seeking to interpret the Black Madonnas tend to suggest some combination of the following elements:

  • Black Madonnas have grown out of pre-Christian earth goddess traditions. Their dark skin may be associated with ancient images of these goddesses, and with the colour of fertile earth. They are often associated with stories of being found by chance in a natural setting: in a tree or by a spring, for example. Some of their Christian shrines are located on the sites of earlier temples to Cybele and Diana of Ephesus.

One of these two images is a famous mediaeval icon of Mary and Jesus; the other is a bronze statue of Isis nursing Horus from Ptolemaic Egypt.

  • Black Madonnas derive from the Egyptian goddess Isis. The dark skin may echo an African archetypal mother figure. Professor Stephen Benko among others says that early Christian pictures of a seated mother and child were influenced by images of Isis and Horus.
  • Black Madonnas express a feminine power not fully conveyed by a pale-skinned Mary, who seems to symbolise gentler qualities like obedience and purity. This idea can be discussed in Jungian terms. It may be linked to Mary Magdalene and female sexuality repressed by the medieval Church. In France, there are traditions affirming that some statues are of Mary Magdalene and not of Mary, the mother of Jesus, but these traditions and related theories are generally rejected by theologians. The suggestion that Black Madonnas represent feminine power may be linked with the earth goddesses and attributed to the archetypal "great mother" who presides not only over fertility, but over life and death. These ideas overlap with "feminist spirituality" or "women's spirituality". (Chiavola Birnbaum) Attributing power/sexuality to dark-skinned Madonnas and obedience/purity to fair-skinned female images is sometimes criticised as Eurocentric or racist.
  • Black Madonnas illustrate a line in the Song of Songs 1:5: "I am black, but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem …" This is inscribed in Latin on some: Nigra sum sed formosa.
  • Black Madonnas are sometimes associated with the Templars and/or St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Ean Begg (see bibliography) suggests they were revered by an esoteric cult with Templar and/or Cathar links, but this idea is dismissed by other writers, who may also reject stories of a connection with Mary Magdalene, and any gnostic or heretical traditions.
  • Some Black Madonnas may have been created because the artist was familiar with other similar images.

Monique Scheer approaches this topic from the perspective of symbolic anthropology. She believes that these statues and paintings came to be perceived as Black Madonnas after the Middle Ages, perhaps as part of a Counter-Reformation tendency to promote "the veneration of miraculous images of Mary". She discusses the "symbolic meanings communicated by the dark skin of the Madonna" rather than focussing on the origins of their colour, and suggests that these symbolic meanings have been different in different eras and contexts. For example, one 21st century suggestion is that the black mother and child remind us of the under-privileged black people of the world, and the nurturing care offered to the infant symbolises Jesus' love for the poor and dispossessed. This interpretation is more devotional than academic.

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