Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Way, the Camino, and Black Madonnas


I recently saw "The Way", a film with Martin Sheen, who walks the ancient pilgrimage route in Spain.  I found it a quietly wonderful movie, very true in the personal journey that Sheen makes to grieve his son, and wonderful to see  as you walk with him and his chance companions on "The Camino".  Synchronistically, I met a woman  a few days after seeing the movie who, in her early 60's, did the trek herself.  I want to!  And perhaps I will someday!

The Camino is the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, a 10th century Romanesque and Gothic cathedral that houses the bones of St. James, a Christian martyr.  It also houses a Black Madonna effigy.  Thinking about the Camino, and pilgrimages to "spirit of place", I  felt like sharing again this article I wrote in 2009. 

Black Madonna of Guadaloupe

Reflections on the Black Madonna 

"There was once a vast pilgrimage that took place in Europe. Pilgrims made their way towards the town of Compostella in Spain, where an ancient effigy of the BLACK MADONNA is housed. The word Compostella comes from the same root word as compost. COMPOST is the living, black material that is made from rotting fruits, grains and other organic matter. 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
I can't write about the Camino, and pilgrimage, without revisiting the mysterious "Black Madonnas" found in shrines, churches and cathedrals all over Europe - France alone has over 300. These icons have been the focus of millions of pilgrimages since the early days of the church, and most probably rest upon sites that were places of prehistoric  pilgrimage long before the advent of Christianity.

Why were these effigies so beloved that pilgrims traveled many miles to seek healing and guidance? Why, in a medieval 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, and ensuing miracles of healing? 

"Black Madonna" (2005)
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  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).

fresco from the Temple of Isis at Pompeii

Mother Earth

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

The Camino is also the title of a book by Shirley Maclaine, who undertook the journey in 2000. It's believed that the earliest pilgrimages were made to the "Black Madonna of Compostella", a very ancient effigy housed in the church. Compostella comes from the same root word as "compost". Compost is the fertile soil created from rotting organic matter, the "Black Matter". The alchemical soup to which everything living returns, and is continually resurrected by the processes of nature into new life, new form. Mater. Mother.
[Digitized image of Our Lady of Montserrat]
There are many legends and miracles associated with Black Madonna icons. The icon at Guadalupe, Spain, is said to have been carved by St. Luke in Jerusalem, although this is highly unlikely. It doesn't ultimately matter how old the icon actually is. The question is, what does it embody that strikes a deep chord, that speaks to those who come to contemplate the icon? And what does the icon emanate? Can it actually have healing powers, or is the site itself a "place of power", it's energies renewed by millenia of worship and pilgrimage? What resonance does it attune those who come there to? And how significant is the act of making the pilgrimage itself, the long effort to come to a sacred place, a sacred image?

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).  The earliest human paintings, some dating back more than 30,000 years,  are found in caves in France, beautiful paintings of animals and birds.  Within these caves were also found the earliest (and only) representations of human beings for many millenia, the little sculptures of seemingly pregnant women, the so-called "Venus" figures.  I agree with archaeologist Marija Gimbutas that these figures were not some form of "neolithic pornography and fertility fetishes" but represented the Mother deity herself, and the caves were regarded as  sacred wombs where the animals that provided sustenance and power to ancient hunters might be thus born again.  Caves of becoming.

In medieval Christian churches, it's interesting to note that  the black Madonna 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

Black Madonnas, not surprisingly, are also associated with the Grail legends. The Grail or Chalice may represent the mingling of Celtic mythology. Cerridwen's cauldron was an important myth about the womb of the Earth Mother, from which life is continually renewed, nourished, born, and reborn. 

The extent to which people make pilgrimages to these sites is amazing. For example, the Black Madonna of Montserrat, near Barcelona, receives up to a million pilgrims a year, travelling to visit the 'miracle- working' statue known as La Moreneta, the dark little one.

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. (In fact, there is a lot I could say about the black stone (the Kaaba) of Mecca, and its prehistoric origins, but I'll leave to another time.)
Black Madonna of Czestochowskad (Poland)
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)


Gail said...

I want to go with you! I've already been with you for a long time; I remember that article from when you first wrote it. Thank you for the wonderful journey so far. Gail

Lauren said...

hey gail,

ok. let's go! I feel another pilgrimage coming on...........!