Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Black Madonna


I am pleased with this, the last of my "Our Lady of the Shards" series.   Over the years I've made quite a few Black Madonna images.  To me, the Black Madonna, and there are many greatly revered throughout Europe, represents the essence of the ancient sacred places that many of these images still "inhabit".  The Black Madonna is Mother Earth, the Source, the Root and Leaf and Fruit that sustain us.   She is felt  most keenly in sacred places like caves and springs.  

The one to the right  I made to install in a tree in 2005, after a numinous residency at I Park Artists Enclave.  Truly, I felt the forest there speak to me, and the "Black Madonna" became my own humble offering to the Numina of place.

The Camino is the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, a 10th century Romanesque and Gothic cathedral that supposedly houses the bones of St. James, a Christian martyr.  It also once housed a beloved Black Madonna effigy.  Thinking about the Camino, and pilgrimages to sacred places that were once considered to be inhabited by Numina, by what the Romans called "Genious Loci" I  felt like including here  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 think about European traditions of pilgrimage to sacred places 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? 

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). 

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, reborn as  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 really like Mr. Weidner's reference to "compost" in speaking of the great pilgrimage to Compostella.  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.

There are many legends and miracles associated with Black Madonna icons.  I suggest that the sanctity of place and intention also contribute to these myths, and phenomena.
 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?
Black Madonna of Czestochowskad (Poland)
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 prime deity, 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 both return and  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 special 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.
Black virgin of Montserrat

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.)


1 comment:

Joyce Jordan said...

Hi Lauren. I would like to put you in touch with Kayleen Asbo ( who is teaching a class I am taking right now through Ubiquity University ( The class is a pilgrimage of the sacred feminine in the Dordogne area of France. Today covered the Black Madonna. After class I just "happened" to find your recent work by that name, and your splendid series Our Lady of the Shards.

I have sent Kayleen the link to your series, with the same recommendation for you two to meet somehow. I hope this blog is the right place to contact you.

Blessings and Encouragement, Joyce Jordan