"Older Yet, and Lovelier far,
this Mystery, and I will not forget."Robin Williamson
Why were these effigies so beloved that pilgrims travelled many miles to seek healing and guidance? Why, in an ancient world where European peasants were unlikely to see a dark skinned person was the Madonna black? Some of the effigy statues are made of materials that are true, ebony black. And why are there so many myths that connect the effigies with trees, or caves, or special wells?
In 2005, during a residency on the 150 acres of IPark, the land spoke to me, and I had time and space to speak back, to engage in a conversation, and my own Black Madonna arose from that numinous time.
Many suggest that the origins of the Madonna with Child originated in images of Isis with her child Horus (the reborn Sun God). Isis was a significant religious figure in the later days of Rome, and continued to be worshipped in the early days of Christianity. In general, when Isis arrived in Rome she adopted Roman dress and complexion, and was sometimes merged with other deities, such as Venus. The images of Isis that survived the fall of Rome were perhaps the origin of later Virgin and Child icons - temples devoted to Isis continued well into the third century. "Paris" derives from the name of Isis (par Isis).
Whether originally derived from Isis or not, most of these images are connected in place and myth to healing springs, power sites, and holy caves. The Black Madonna is the Earth Mother, in the form of Catholic Mary, and yet not entirely disguised. She is black like the Earth is black, fertile (and often shown pregnant) like the Earth is fertile, dark because she is embodied and immanent, as nature is embodied and immanent.
I did not realize until recently that there are many pilgrimages in Europe to Black Madonnas. The Cathedral of Santiago at Compostella is the endpoint of "The Camino", the long pilgrimage still made by thousands today across Spain.
Pilgrimage routes to Compostela
"From this compost -- life and light will emerge. When the pilgrims came to the Cathedral at Compostella they were being 'composted' in a sense. After emergence from the dark confines of the cathedral and the spirit -- they were ready to flower, they were ready to return home with their spirits lightened."
~~ Jay Weidner
In the Middle Ages when the majority of the Black Madonna statues were created there was still a strong undercurrent and mingling of the old ways. Black Madonnas were discovered hidden in trees in France as late as the seventeenth century, suggesting these were representations of pagan goddesses who were still worshipped in groves. Black Madonnas are also found close to caves (the womb/tomb of the Earth Mother). In churches the statues were sometimes kept in a subterranean part of a church, or near a sacred spring or well.
"Again and again a statue is found in a forest or a bush or discovered when ploughing animals refuse to pass a certain spot. The statue is taken to the parish church, only to return miraculously by night to her own place, where a chapel is then built in her honour. Almost invariably associated with natural phenomena, especially healing waters or striking geographical features" Ean Begg
So why am I writing all of this? Well, because it's important to know that the ancient "Journey to the Earth Mother", which exists in all cultures and times, never ended. It just transformed again. And, as an artist, these reflections on the meaning and function of Icons give me impetus to explore what kinds of contemporary Icons I might make, Icons that reflect my own source of wonder, reverence, and pilgrimage.
Procession to the Black Madonna, Poland
The Cult of the Black Virgin (1985) by Ean Begg;
Miraculous Images of Our Lady (1993) by Joan Carroll Cruz;
The Virgin Goddess: Studies in the Pagan and Christian Roots of Mariology (1993) by Stephen Benko.Martin Gray: Sacred Sites (http://www.sacredsites.com)