Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Black Madonna and Pilgrimage to the Source

"Our Lady of the Shards" Lauren Raine 2012


¨Visual images of the Goddesses stand in stark contrast to the image of God as an old white man, jarring us to question our culture's view that all legitimate power is male and that female power is dangerous and evil. The image of the naked Eve brazenly taking the apple from the serpent, then cowering in shame before a wrathful male God, tells us not only that female will is the source of all the evil in the universe, but also that the naked female body is part of the problem. This image communicates to the deep mind the message that female will and female nakedness must be controlled and punished by male authority. In contrast, the Goddesses show us that the female can be symbolic of all that is creative and powerful in the universe. The simplest and most profound meaning of the image of the Goddess is the legitimacy and goodness of female power, the female body, and female will.¨

 -Carol P. Christ, Rebirth of the Goddess

 Black Madonna of Einsiedeln
The mysterious, ancient, and ubiquitous   "Black Madonnas",  both paintings and effigies,  are found in shrines, churches and cathedrals all over Europe - France alone has over 300. They are also found in other parts of the world as well, notably Mexico and South America.  For a map of Black Madonnas throughout the world  visit:

These icons have been the focus of pilgrimages since the early days of the church, and most certainly are found in  sites that were earlier pre-Christian  pilgrimage sites, such as sacred springs or caves,  as well as often  being  sites of former Roman temples.  

"Black Madonna"
Lauren Raine(2005)
Why were these effigies so beloved that pilgrims travelled many miles to seek healing, offer their devotions,  and perhaps hope for oracular  guidance? Why, in Medievil times when European peasants were unlikely to ever  see a dark skinned person,  was the Madonna black? Some of the statues are made of materials that are true ebony black.   And why are there so many myths that connect the Madonnnas  with springs, or caves, or special wells?

In 2005, during a residency on the 150 acres of I Park Artists Enclave, the land spoke to me, and I had time and space to speak back, to engage in a creative artistic  conversation.  One of my first "Black Madonna" sculptures  arose from that numinous time - eventually She found a home in a tree, and if she has since disintegrated into that tree through the passage of the seasons, well, that is appropriate.

Many scholars believe that the origins of the archetypal  Madonna with Child in Europe began with earlier pagan  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.  Imported from Egypt, Isis had shrines throughout the Roman Empire.  Rome was home to many deities, the cosmopolitan city of its time, and worshippers of  Isis, as well as the Christ of early Christianity, co-existed.   When Isis arrived in Rome she was sometimes  adapted to Rome with  Roman dress and complexion, and she was also occasionally merged with other Roman deities, such as Venus.  Images of Isis survived the fall of Rome,  were ubiquitous throughout the Roman Empire,  and temples devoted to Isis continued well into the third century AD. "Paris" probably derives from the name of Isis (par Isis)......."city of Isis"

fresco from the Temple of Isis at Pompeii

The Camino

Nevertheless, the origins of Isis  are Egypt, where she was represented as a dark skinned deity, as were the people of that land, and no doubt many of  her images transplanted to Rome and beyond retained the  coloring  of the peoples of Egypt.  But many believe (as do I) that  there are other associations that account for the archetype of the  Black Madonna and Her enduring devotion.  She represents the  Earth Mother,  and Her black color is the color of the rich, dark, fertile soil whose Mysteries sustain the cycles of life.

An image that especially interests me, for example, is one of two (!) Black Madonnas found at the shrine of Le Puy, France, which is one of the beginning points for the great Camino Pilgrimage.* In the Le Puy  Madonna  the Christ child emerges from the area of the figure's womb, rather

than being held in her arms.  Pilgrims  gather in the church  and pray to the Black Madonna at the start of their journey to the great Cathedral of Compestela.  Christians of the Middle Ages approached the Camino de Santiago de Compostela  as an act of transformation, an opportunity to make a long contemplative journey toward a divinely inspired life.  The Pilgrimage routes themselves have very  ancient,  pre-Christian origins associated with them,  which like Pilgrimages (called Mysteries) in ancient Greece  concerned  healing and rebirth, and like the Elusinian  Mysteries, were in some way associated with the Great Mother-Triple Goddess. 
Camino pilgrimage routes 

Pilgrimages to the Black Madonna still occur throughout Europe following long traditions -a  prolific annual pilgrimage, for example,  to the Black Madonna of Czestohowa in Poland engages thousands of worshippers, and there have been many claims of miracles that were granted by the pilgrimage.   

Procession before Mass. Photo: PAP/Marcin KmieciƄski.

As previously noted, there are quite a few  Black Madonna shrines  associated with the great pilgrim route of Camino de Santiago de Compostela, called "the Camino".  When Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of Rome, he also gave the Imperial blessing to the Roman "Camino"  which he re-established as a Christian pilgrimage.  Santiago Means "Saint James".  According to legend,  St. James brought Christianity to Spain, where, in his travels, the Virgin appeared to him in a vision.  When he later returned to Palestine he was martyred, but  his disciples returned his body to Spain and interred it in what became the  great Cathedral and the  final destination of the pilgrimage.  But whether Saint James is actually buried at Compostela or not,  long before the Virgin was called the Virgin people were making pilgrimages on that route to the Mother Goddess - perhaps bearing offerings, at Roman shrines, to Isis.
Black Madonna of Czestochowskad (Poland)

Isis and her husband Osiris were the deities of agriculture,  and Isis was responsible for bringing the dead Osiris back to life, resulting in the birth of Horus, God of the Sun ( and associted with the Solstices).  As a fertility as well as mother Goddess, she was thus a Goddess of both the living and the dead, containing within Her the cycles of earthly existence - life, death, and rebirth.   Egyptian statues of Isis nursing the infant Horus are important as the probable origins of the Madonna and Child images, embodying the Great Mother Goddess archetype with prehistoric origins  ghosting all the way back to the Neolithic.   

Since some of the shrines dedicated to the Black Madonna occur in caves or at special springs  of geomagnetic potency she was associated with healing, and the dark earth that the common people depended upon and lived with  intimately.  Within the dark dormancy of winter, fertile seeds wait underground  in the black soil to germinate, bringing the renewal  of life.  In this sense, blackness and darkness  represent fertility, as well as the endarkened  underground realms of rebirth.  

In very ancient times, I personally  believe,  the magnificent Cave paintings, such as those in the Chauvet Cave which was made into a 2010 Documentary, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" by Werner Herzog,  were created in the darkness of caves as symbolic offerings within the great "womb" of the Mother Goddess.  One of the older drawings, far in the back of the cave, is that of a woman's vulva, the only representation of a human form within the cave, and indeed, it may be the earliest known drawing of a human.  It is generally called a "Venus" by archeologists, but I doubt it is there as a figure of male eroticism.  A more likely explanation is that it represents the source of birth - the Great Mother.  In that light the paintings of animals are acts of prayer,  honoring their  rebirth  within the "womb" of the cave.

Vulva form from Chauvet cave, ca. 30,000 bc. 
The bull and lion forms were apparently added at a later date.

Mother Earth 
Whether originally derived from Isis or not,  Black Madonna  images are connected in place and myth to healing springs, power sites, and holy caves.    The Black Madonna is thus a manifestation of the primal Earth Mother, transformed once more, this time  into the form of Catholic Mary.  But  She is not entirely disguised, because She is black like the rich Earth is black - fertile like the Earth is fertile, and dark because she is embodied and immanent, as nature is embodied and immanent. 

There are many sacred sites housing Black Madonna effigies, and quite a few of them are associated with "The Camino", of which the  Cathedral of Santiago at Compostella is the endpoint.   Scholar and film maker Jay Weidner has suggested that the earliest pilgrimages on the Camino were made to the Black Madonna of Compostella.  He points out that Compostella comes from the same root word as "compost", which is the fertile soil derived from the decomposition (and re-creation) of rotting organic matter, the "Dark Matter"  from which new life emerges.  Composting could be viewed as the alchemical soup to which everything returns, continually resurrected by nature into new life, new form.  "Mater" is Latin for Mother.
"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
There are many miraculous legends associated with Black Madonna icons and sacred sites. The power of sacred sites and sacred images has multiple layers of potency.  What inner significance does the image have to the devout who come before it?  What does the icon, as well as the "spirit of place" emanate?  Can an ancient statue or painting have healing powers, or is the site itself a "place of power", it's energies renewed by millenia of geomantic reciprocity,  of millenia of devotion and pilgrimage? What is the power of place, pilgrimage and symbol combined to change consciousness and to effect the miraculous?  The extent to which pilgrimages to such sites are made is quite amazing - the Black Madonna of Montserrat in Spain receives as many as a million pilgrims a year who make pilgrimage to the the "miracle working Madonna" called La Moreneta, the little dark one.    
Here's a commentary by Martin Gray, who documented his 20 year worldwide pilgrimage to sacred sites in his magnificent book, illustrated throughout with his photography,  Sacred Earth: Places of Peace and Power. He is writing about the Black Madonna of Guadalupe, Spain, the object of a thousand years of  pilgrimages.
"It is important to consider the legendary description of the icon as having miraculous healing powers. How are these powers to be explained?

 The current author theorizes that the healing powers of certain icons, statues and images derive in part from their capacity to somehow function as both receptacles and conduits for some manner of spiritual or healing energy..........Perhaps, in some currently unexplained manner, sacred sites and sacred objects are able to gather, store, concentrate and radiate energy in a similar way."

And, to turn to an entirely different part of the world, yet perhaps not unrelated, I would like to mention briefly the great Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and the Black Stone of Mecca  which is enclosed in a silver enclosure that very distinctly resembles a Yoni.  No one really knows what significance this stone, or site (which was a pilgrimage site in pre-Islamic times as well, and had a simple open air shrine in the shape of a cube, hence, the "Kaaba", or Cube, structure of the present day shrine) had to the ancient peoples who made pilgrimage there, except that there were ancient  traditions of honoring special stones there.  Allat  (Al-lat)  was  an ancient mother and fertility goddess of the pre-Islamic people people of  Mecca, although I also read that she was considered an underground goddess, which would perhaps identify her with the Earth Womb/Yoni and the significance of Blackness.

Her name (Al-lat) means literally "the Goddess".  Allah means "God, or Creator". This deity of  great antiquity is one of a trinity of desert goddesses, the "daughters of Allah" that are named in the Koran. The Moon was associated with her,  hence perhaps the stones enclosure in a yoni shape made of silver.   These female  deities would have  been prominent  in Mecca during Mohammed's lifetime.   It is interesting  to consider the Black Stone's  current housing, and also fascinating,  from a symbolic point of view, that millions of people annually circle a 4-sided building that houses an ancient black stone, which was probably originally identified with a Goddess, that is made of silver like the moon, and is shaped like a Yoni.  And which only men may now view.

Black stone of Mecca By Amerrycan Muslim
I have been touched and fascinated by the Black Madonna for many years, even though I am not Catholic. As I came to study the significance of these mysterious Icons, I came to understand the enduring meaning of pilgrimages from the dawn of human culture as the ancient "Journey to the Great Mother".  With the ascent of patriarchy (and the descent of the Goddess) the Great Mother became hidden, buried under folk traditions, origins lost or hidden or co-opted by an all male deity.  That primal pilgrimage to the Source may have been represented by the great prehistoric monument of Silbury Hill, or called Isis nursing the Sun God Horus, or Demeter/Persephone/Hecate at the Eleusinian Mysteries, or She may have become  Mary with Jesus.......but it never really ended.  It just transformed again.  


Begg, Ean, The Cult of the Black Virgin (1985) 
Benko, Stephen, The Virgin Goddess: Studies in the Pagan and Christian Roots of Mariology (1993) 
Christ, Carol P.,  Rebirth of the GoddessFinding Meaning in Feminist Spirituality (1997)
Cruz, Joan Caroll , Miraculous Images of Our Lady (1993) 
Gray, Martin, Sacred Earth - Places of Peace and Power (2005)   Sacred Sites (

The World Map of Black Madonnas
Weidner, Jay  ( 

* (in 2014 my friend Zoe made the Pilgrimage, with marvelous photographs, and here is the Blog I created for it:


Patricia Ballentine said...

What a wonderful and wonder filled sharing! Thank you, Lauren!

Annie Bee said...

A thorough telling of the tale, thank you Lauren! Great scholarship with some of my preferred versions of myth woven between. I have wished to see more of the images in person, and count myself lucky for the dozen I have visited in France and Italy, and Cuba too.
She is drawing more and more people (so many women) from within the Christian trad into connection with Gaia and the Divine Feminine, for that I am grateful. We may turn this ship around yet!!!
The many years you have pursued the myths and encouraged me to teach and speak, to write and produce - with your masks - is one of my great life treasures! Grateful for you, and your work.
~ Annie