BLACK MADONNAS | VIERGES NOIRES
The Black Madonna Tradition
Black Madonnas are potentially the most exciting mystery and source of mysticism within the Catholic Church today. They can be frequently traced back to pre Christian mother goddess figures and have become even more than conventional Marian figures, associated with healing miracles, pilgrimages and even magical powers. For this reason they are often kept in crypts or dark corners of a church, tolerated, but often mistrusted by more conventional religious authorities.
The Black Madonna
The Black Madonna is the hidden secret in the heart of Catholicism, the old often demonised pagan goddess tradition actually thriving in churches today, though to those who worship her she is the Mother.
In some cases Black Madonnas are the oldest of statues. Often Catholic churches and cathedrals were built on top of former goddess shrines and in the case of at least some Black Madonnas, for example at Chartres Cathedral near Paris the original statues now worshipped as Black Madonnas may in fact have been originally pagan goddesses who were renamed to transfer worship of the Earth Mother to the Virgin Mary.
In France, where the majority of Black Madonnas are found, indigenous mother goddess worshipping traditions date back to the Goddess of Laussel, found in the entrance to an Ice age cave in the Dordogne region in central France. She was crafted around 23,000BCE and is important because she is the first representation of the Earth Mother as a lunar deity. She holds in her right hand a bison horn, shaped like the crescent-Moon. The horn is divided with 13 marks probably representing the 13 moons in a lunar year. Her other hand touches her womb.
Photo: Black Madonna at Meymac in the Correze department, France.
The Origins of the Black Madonna in Europe
Even today there are more than 500 known Black Madonna statues and paintings throughout the world, the majority in France, though many more that have been documented in historical records were destroyed during the French Revolution. Others too may stand unnoticed in shadowy corners of small churches and chapels, as they have done for hundreds of years, loved by the local worshippers and without any need to be rediscovered.
As the indigenous goddess worship evolved in Europe, statues of dark skinned Middle Eastern goddesses such as Inanna, Astarte, Artemis and Cybele were introduced to the European continent by Phoenician traders from 1550BC to about 300BCE. The Phoenicians came from the coastal regions of modern day Lebanon, Syria and Israel and were highly influential culturally. Indeed their phonetic alphabet is believed to be the forerunner of most modern alphabets. The Roman invasion of Gaul (France) and other parts of Europe also encouraged worship of these goddesses, to flourish.
The cult of Isis was the dominant religion of the Mediterranean during late Roman times, and had spread into Roman-occupied lands, including Gaul. Many Isis statues cradling her infant son Horus on her lap passed straight into Christianity as churches were created over the temples.
As late as 550 CE, Isis still had a temple in Soissons, just north of Paris and the Middle Eastern goddesses co-existed with the Celtic Gallic deities.
The Graeco-Roman Mother Goddess Cybele and Artemis/Diana of Ephesus, both dark skinned fertility goddesses were still worshipped in France and the Mediterranean coast from Antibes to Barcelona during the later centuries of the Roman Empire. Cybele was during the 3rd century the supreme deity of the town of Lyon that was capital of a vast area of South-eastern France, a region where many Black Madonnas are found. Marseilles was devoted to Artemis.
During the Middle Ages, the Crusaders returned from the Middle East, bringing goddess statues and some such as the mystical Knights Templar, many of whom who were wiped out as heretics,were involved in promoting the cult of the Black Madonna and her association with Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene was the alter ego of the Mary virgin birth. The Merovingians identified the Black Madonna as Mary Magdalene. Through the bloodline of Mary Magdalene, the Merovingians claimed to be the rightful Kings of France, with descent from Christ’s son by Mary Magdalene, the infant depicted in her arms in the Black Madonna statues. Some legends say she married Christ at the wedding at Cana where he turned water into wine.
The Goddess beneath the Earth
Further evidence of the Black Madonna’s pagan and nature worshipping origins is the fact that Black Madonnas were frequently discovered hidden in trees or caves in France and Spain as late as the seventeenth century. Legends grew up that suggested these dark wood statues had magical powers that called the chosen finders to hiding places sometimes deep in undergrowth. Of course there were priests who perhaps were sympathetic to the old ways who may have known that a pagan goddess statue was kept in a particular cave and brought out for worship in the old nature religions that are still practiced in woodlands and groves worldwide today.
At a particular time when the local religious climate was amenable to combining paganism and Catholicism, some priests may have persuaded simple peasants they had discovered one of the Black Madonna figures in its hidden natural place and so this was a way of introducing the pre Christian statue into the mainstream religion. In churches today, Black Madonna statues may by coincidence or design, be kept in a crypt or subterranean part of a church or cathedral near a sacred spring or well.
Photo: St. Quentin-la-Chabanne (La Creuse (23) France): Notre Dame de Sous-Terre situated in the crypt. 17th century replacing the original that was destroyed by the Protestants.
Our Lady of the Trees
Many Madonnas found locally are made out of local wood, as with the linden wood Madonna of Altötting in Bavaria. In Altötting the tiny chapel is described as womb like, windowless and painted black, with the walls studded with gold and silver images and ornaments. Her shrine is surrounded by thousands of ex voto or stone tablets expressing thanks for blessings received. Some date back to the 13th century and range from healing when all hope was lost to the safe return of a traveller and crutches were also left as proof of healing.
The site of the Altötting chapel was sacred in pre Christian times and the linden tree was revered by pre Christian peoples. The Black Madonna is the oldest Christian site in Bavaria, dating back to 680 CE and the Linden Madonna was placed there. In 907CE the town was ransacked by the Hungarians and only the chapel and statue survived. The present Black Madonna dates from 1300.The ancient linden tree stood next to the chapel, but in 1674 was cut down to make room for a basilica to enclose the chapel, but it was never completed. Centuries later a new linden tree was planted. A number of miracles have been attributed to the linden tree Madonna. In 1489 when a three year old boy drowned in a local stream and her mother took her dead child to the Virgin statue, the child was revived. Not long afterwards it was reported that a farmer’s six year old son fell off a horse drawn grain-wagon and was crushed beneath the wheels. The family asked for help from the Virgin and the boy was restored to full health. The unbroken Mother tradition associated with the tree has transferred comfortably to the people who visit the Madonna and many thousands of tourists flock to the site, so making her a valuable resource to the church which may outweigh any doubts about tree worship.
The Protective Virgins
Just as the Black Madonnas became cult worship for many pilgrims, so hatred of them was also very great; especially among those who consider them an affront to the sexless conventional Mary, or fear their darkness, since darkness is quite mistakenly popularly associated with evil.
Over the centuries a number have not just been destroyed but mutilated and decapitated. But the Black Madonna, like her pagan predecessors in nature who incorporates both the creative and destructive aspects of the earth, may fight back.
A fascinating story comes from Evaux-les-Bains in the Creuse area of France; a town famed for its hot springs and was made a spa town by the Romans. This Madonna is mentioned by Ean Begg in an older version of the book, though I have not as yet been able to find other references to this event. It describes how only the head of the statue was preserved after the statue was mutilated at the Revolution and thrown into a well. Of the four profaners soon after the event, one (according to popular legend) cut his throat; One died falling from a rock; one who boasted of breaking the statue’s jaw had his tongue cut out and one was struck by lightning.
In another church, Notre Dame de la Roche, near Mayres in the Puy de Dome, the 14th century black virgin holding a naked crowned child, was apparently stolen at the end of the 18th century, but brought misfortune on the family of thieves.
Photo: In October 2007, the BM pictured above, was decapitated by vandals. She was in the Notre Dame de Marceille just outside of Limoux, near Carcassonne. This photo was taken exactly one year before.
Defending her children
Even more graphically, Our Lady of Rocamadour, 100 miles north of Toulouse in France, who was reputed to bring dead babies back to life long enough so they could be baptised and so their souls go to heaven, took revenge on the attackers of three of her faithful pilgrims. It is told how in the 12th century, three pilgrims were robbed and guided on impassable ways they might have perished. They called out to the lady and she took away the sight and paralysed the hands of the robbers. But the pilgrims asked Mary to restore them and so she did. A bell on the ceiling of the Madonna chapel rings when she saves someone who calls on her for example sailors at sea as a sign she has saved them and they would make pilgrimages to thank her.
The original Rocamadour site was dedicated to Cybele and to later to Venus, the Roman love and fertility goddesses. This Madonna is one of a number attributed to St Luke but the present statue is 9th - 12th century.
But it is the painting of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland that is credited with the most magical powers to protect Poland from attack and is revered by Polish people throughout the world. It is a painting of the Madonna and Christ Child which legend states was originally painted by St. Luke the Evangelist, on a table top from a table built by Jesus.
The picture itself has been damaged in battle and again the Virgin took her revenge. In 1430 in the town of Czestochowa, in Poland where the painting was kept in a specially created monastery church, Hussites overran the monastery and one of the invaders slashed at the painting twice with his sword. One of the robbers drew his sword, struck the image and inflicted two deep gashes. While preparing to inflict a third gash, he fell to the ground and writhed in agony until his death. The two slashes on the cheek of the Blessed Virgin, together with a cut on her throat in an earlier attack, have always reappeared though many attempts have been made to repair them.
In 1655, Poland was overrun by the forces of the Swedish King Charles X, The monks defended the portrait against a forty day siege and, it was said, as a result of the Madonna’s intervention, Poland was able to drive out the invaders.
In 1920, the Russian army gathered the banks of the Vistula River, threatening Warsaw. The image of the Madonna was seen in the clouds over the city. The Russian troops withdrew.
Our Lady of the Snows, who takes her name from an apparent natural phenomena miracle
Like any good mother, our Lady of the Snows, the Black Virgin of Aurillac, the Cantal region of the Auvergne in France, defended her children with her life. The first Black Madonna in Aurillac was brought back from the Crusades by one of the local feudal lords. Yet though her body was destroyed by the Huguenots, it is believed she helped defeat them. On August 5th, 1581, the enemy were camped ready to storm the town by night. But the Black Madonna is credited with lighting up the sky as bright as the sun and so the cockerels began crowing. The noise and the light woke the people and the Black Madonna was seen at the chapel door holding Baby Jesus. She then sent a huge snowstorm to drive back the enemy. Freak electrical lighting? Hail? Whatever the effect the people were inspired to rally and defeat the enemy. Earth goddesses are traditionally said to have great power over the weather.
The Druids’ Black Madonna
Chartres Cathedral near Paris, home of the magnificent 11-coil labyrinth that is 40 foot (approximately 12 metres) in circumference, itself a mother goddess symbol, is home to two Black Madonnas. The pagan earth religion is never very far from the surface of this magnificent Gothic cathedral. Chartres Cathedral, built on a former Neolithic burial mound, was known to the Gauls as Carnutes and was according to Julius Caesar, the central annual meeting place for the Druids and Druidesses of Gaul and beyond.
Above the South door at Chartres Cathedral are sculpted oak twigs and tree spirits. Oak leaves are also entwined around the Black Virgin of the Pillar a statue who stands in the main church and it is believed that the wouivre, the ancient female earth power rises up through her from the well.
The Black Madonna of the crypt, Notre Dame sous terre (Our Lady Underground) made of pear wood, with her crown of Druidic oak leaves, was one of the major prayer and offering shrines on the mediaeval labyrinth pilgrimage. She is apparently a replica of an old Black Madonna, destroyed during the French Revolution when the statue was actually burned on an execution pyre during the Revolution. But this destroyed statue was itself an 11th or 12th century statue and there are earlier references to a small black image, of pagan origin, the Virgin whom it was predicted by the Druids would give birth to a saviour. What has happened to this is not known. Even today you can walk as pilgrims have for hundreds of years through the crypt past the Druidic healing well, through the centre of the labyrinth to the place in the east where the sun strikes a nail in the paving on the Summer Solstice. This is another ancient spot that has been Christianised, perhaps once the site of a monolith, a single stone aligned to the Midsummer sunrise, in both cases representing the birth into light. The Virgin Mary’s veil she wore to give birth is also kept here, so making it even more of a female fertility site, as it may have been for thousands of years albeit under a different goddess name.
Sick pilgrims would through the centuries sleep in the crypt, the womb of the mother and as they emerged, reborn, well again it was hoped and here nuns cared for them.
The 11-coil labyrinth shown here is situated in the nave of Chartres Cathedral, said to be the finest Gothic cathedral in Europe.
The Healing Madonnas of the leys, the Black Virgin of Montserrat
Great powers of healing are associated with Black Madonna statues. One explanation is that the statues conduct the powerful earth energies associated with Ley lines along which many Madonna sites are found. Montserrat near Barcelona in Spain, like Chartres is on a Ley line. Ley lines are hypothesized as invisible psychic energy tracks beneath the earth along which people from ancient times built their temples and shrines.
Their purpose was so that they might connect with a power beyond themselves that in earlier times was associated with the power of Mother Earth. The small wooden Virgin of Montserrat called La Moreneta (the Dark Maiden) is a statue of the Virgin Mary and infant Christ that is venerated at the Santa Maria de Montserrat monastery in the Montserrat mountain near Barcelona in Catalonia. The original statue is attributed to St. Luke, brought to Montserrat; it has been suggested by St. Peter in AD 50.
Centuries later, the statue was probably hidden from invaders, in nearby Santa Cova (now the Holy Grotto) and rediscovered in the late 9th century by shepherd children among rocks. They saw bright lights and heard singing coming from a cave in the mountain. Stories abound of how a Black Madonna chooses its own site and will either return there mysteriously if moved or become so heavy it is immovable Legend has it that the Benedictine monks could not move the statue from its Holy Grotto to construct their monastery, choosing to instead build close to the grotto. The Benedictines are said to be the last religious order to have knowledge of ley energies and to build their abbeys and monasteries along them. The present statue is carbon dated to the 12th century. On September 11, 1844, Pope Leo XIII declared this high profile virgin of Montserrat patroness of Catalonia.
Another Black Madonna who insisted on returning to her own site again associated with ley energies is the Black Madonna of Limoux, south of Carcassone in France, The church at Limoux is called the Notre Dame de Marceille and as with Montserrat the Madonna was found in the earth like the Montserrat Madonna.
It is told, though not accurately dated that a ploughman digging a filed on the slopes of Marcellan found his ox would not go forward whatever he tried. The ploughman started to dig and found the wooden smiling Madonna, brown and dark. He took the statue home but the next morning it had disappeared and was back in the place he found it. This happened three times and when the local monks heard they built a chapel there. Other Madonnas prove too heavy to move no matter how hard people try if they are in the right place. Our Lady of Oropa, the northern Italian region of Piemonte was brought to Italy by St. Eusebius (martyred in 371 A.D.) and placed in a cave that was a pre-Christian site sacred to Apollo and various goddesses. She had been found buried under ruins in Jerusalem. When more than a thousand years later a group of monks tried to move her to a new location, the three foot tall statue became so heavy the monks had to return her to her cave and she felt light again.
Photo: Black Madonna in the Notre Dame de Marceille just outside of Limoux, near Carcassonne
We hope during this year to introduce an on line course on the Black Madonna with downloadable and printable photographs. Let us know if you would be interested in this.
Debbie and I are in the process of researching a new book/project on Black Madonnas of France.
Of the books already published, most are lacking a full listing of all Black Madonnas (Vierges Noire) that still exist today in France that are able to be seen by the public.
We aim to address this and provide an encyclopaedic resource to help anyone in search of Black Madonnas.
Debbie, who lives in France, is gradually visiting all those listed in other books, but on her travels has already discovered several not listed anywhere.
How this project ends u being presented, we do not know just yet....but we are fascinated by the phenomenon of the Vierges Noires of France.
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