Black Madonnas

Some of the images that most directly connect the Virgin Mary to the soil are the Black Madonna images. Sometimes when the term chapter 19: Mary and the Godess Black Madonna is used, people think of the famed Polish icon of the Virgin Mary (detailed in Chapter 12) that has become black through years of exposure to soot and the elements.

However the Black Madonna does not only describe a single icon but an entire school of imagery that encompasses many icons and statues of the Virgin Mary and child. All of them have dark skin.

While it used to be widely believed that these images had darkened (like the Polish icon) because of exposure to the elements, it now seems likely that many of the images were created dark to begin with for very specific reasons that would have expressed something unique about Mary.

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In the Middle Ages, many people came to revere the Black Madonna images for their miraculous powers. Some communities even decided to paint their statues black in the hopes that they could attract more miracles to their own communities.

The Black Madonna statues became especially prominent during the Middle Ages. Some of the most beautiful and poignant of them are located in France and can be viewed to this day.

Many of these statues have special legends associated with them. One of the most common is that they were often found in natural settings, sometimes in caves, sometimes near rivers where they might been seen as providing safety for those crossing over the waters. When Christians found these small statues, they would often attempt to carry them to suitable places for building a church. As soon as the Christians turned away from the statues of the Black Madonnas, however, the statues would disappear and would be later found back in their original locations. This disappearing act would be repeated multiple times until the Christians would finally resign themselves to the fact that statues could not be moved. Ultimately, these Christians were forced to build small chapels around the statues in their natural habitats.

discussion question

How are Black Madonna statues similar to Eastern icons?

Black Madonna statues share many qualities with Eastern icons. In them, the Virgin Mary holds the infant Christ and seems to be gazing out from behind him with a look of timeless compassion. She does not smile, but she does not weep, either. Like her image in icons, she seems to be beyond emotions and sentimentality. Her gaze is steady and unrelenting.

The Meaning of the Black Madonna

The darkness of the Virgin Mary's skin has had many different meanings attached to it throughout the years. While some say that the darkness of her skin is merely a result of exposure to the elements, others suggest that the darkness of her skin is suggestive of her ability to identify with many different ethnic groups — this belief would certainly echo many of the apparitions in which Mary was reported to have appeared in familiar guise, with a face and dress recognizable to the local people. This can be seen, for example, in the case in Guadalupe when she appeared to an Aztec as an Aztec.

Still others point to a relationship between the color of the Virgin Mary's skin and the color of the soil. This idea finds echoes in both Christian and pagan belief. The Virgin Mary was often linked to soil and gardens both in the Eastern Church and in the medieval period. The darker skin on some images of Mary may also reflect her Middle Eastern heritage.

In the fourth century, Saint Ephrem the Syrian said that Mary was the soil on which Christ the sun could shine on the world and humanity. This image expressed how she, rooted in the earth as all humans are, was illuminated by her encounter with Christ.

Mingling Legends

Increasingly, as devotion to Mary grew, some of the properties that people once ascribed to pagan goddesses began to be connected to the Virgin Mary. It is also likely that in cultures where pagan beliefs were deeply rooted in the local people, legends surrounding Mary may have mingled with pagan beliefs. This mingling was a continual source of concern for the Church, as it tried to cleanse the beliefs that were incompatible with Christianity while still meeting the needs of those who required a bridge between their pagan beliefs and Christianity.

symbolism

The Black Madonna imagery would have been easily understood within the pagan context, where black was connected to fertility and life while white was connected to death. This symbolic color scheme was an exact reversal of the symbolism widely held among medieval Christians, in which black symbolized death and white symbolized life.

As Christianity spread throughout Europe, petitions that would have once been directed at gods or goddesses sometimes were redirected toward the Virgin Mary. Myths and legends about gods and goddesses that would have once captivated the hearts of the local people were replaced by legends and stories about Mary and the saints.

One of these stories, in particular, would have helped draw a connection between Mary and the fecundity of the earth. This legend was connected to the story of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus' journey into Egypt.

According to the Biblical account, the Holy Family had to flee Bethlehem because of the “slaughter of the innocents” in which King Herod sought to kill Jesus by sending soldiers to kill every male child in the region who was two years old or under. The Holy Family fled in order to protect Jesus, but it was most likely a perilous, frightening journey for them.

According to one of the medieval tales related to this journey, as the Holy Family passed one Egyptian farmer's field, Mary made the entire crop grow instantly. She did this both to bless the farmer, but also to confuse the soldiers who might have been pursuing her. Should the soldiers come by the farmer's field and ask him if he'd seen the Holy Family pass by, he could report, quite honestly, that he'd only seen the Holy Family just when he'd planted his field.

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