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BLACK MADONNAS: The Virgin Mary and her alter ego, The Black Madonna

The pure Virgin Mary images have as their alter ego the darker sensual Black Madonna. For black and white are two sides of the same coin and without one we would not have awareness of the other.

What is more the real Mary has become sanitized and represented in Christianity primarily as the milky white (though she was Middle Eastern by origin) flawless ever-smiling mother. In contrast the earthier dark wood Madonnas with lived in features, portrayed in statues throughout Europe and beyond, are considered more problematic to official church authorities, though some have become subject of intense veneration by ordinary people and countless pilgrims. In fact the earliest Christianised Madonnas reputedly created or painted by the apostle St Luke naturally enough portray the Virgin Mary as she actually was, with a naturally dark skin and Middle Eastern features.

However many Black Madonnas can be traced to pre-Christian mother goddess figures, who expressed destructiveness and fierceness as well as creativity. They have become even more than conventional Marian figures, associated with healing miracles, pilgrimages and even magical powers, but except for the higher profile ones are often kept in crypts or dark corners of a church or locked away for safety.

Encapsulated also in the perfect milk white Madonna have been thousands of years of societyís expectations that ordinary mothers automatically must emulate her and never experience a momentís anger, impatience or despair even if a baby screams day and night with colic or the mother is left to struggle alone with a challenging toddler or teenagers.

Black or white?

In the goddess-worshipping cultures of ancient European, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern worlds, black was not a gloomy colour at all but a symbol of fertility and prosperity. The old name for Egypt was Kemet or kmt which means the black land, referring to the rich soil left along the banks of the Nile after the annual flood. In contrast the white was for thousands of years the colour ofdeath and of the ancient bone goddesses who carried the deceased to rebirth, having stripped their bodies of the old flesh. In the remains of Neolithic villages in South Eastern Europe, archaeologists have discovered small featureless doll-like figures made of white bone or stone in which a regular pattern of holes has been created. Anthropologists believe these represent the White Lady of Death and Rebirth. There may have been many other such figures made of bleached wood that have not survived the millennia.

In contrast, the sky god worshipping Indo-Aryans, who invaded Europe from the 4th millennium BCE onwards considered white, gold and yellow as the symbols of life, purity and wealth because of the association with their all powerful sun gods. By the first millennia BCE the Earth Goddess colour black became increasingly linked to the goddesses of death and the underworld such as the ancient Greek crone goddess Hecate. In Christian times the beautiful black Isis and Artemis came to represent the heart of pagan darkness and evil which makes it all the more surprising the Black Madonna still holds power or exists at all in the church today.

Perhaps the contrast between the conventional approval to the beautiful perfect Mary of myth and the altogether more realistic faces of the Black Madonnas, is summed up in the notice I saw placed next to the fabulous Black Madonna and child statue in the Cathedral and Basilica of Our Lady of Moulins in Allier in the Auvergne region of France, a region that has its own very distinctive Black Madonna style. The following English translation of the notice is taken from the literature created by the church authorities. The actual notice directs the visitor to view a conventional more visually pleasing Madonna exhibition also within the church:

This virgin hasnít got a beautiful face. She is just like a caricature for us. But this masterpiece makes us forget of beauty, to better understand the role of Mary. She is the one who strongly intercedes on Jesusí behalf. She is just like an empress. Her relationship with Jesus is that of a mother with her child. When Roman Catholic people pray in front of a statue, they know the statue is not a person, but the statue helps them to turn their heart towards the beloved ones, just like the photo of a friend is not the friend itself, but help to think of the friend. The wood, through ages turned black.

In fact this Black Madonna of Moulins is very beautiful because of her dark colouring, though the Catholic Church tends to give various reasons such as candle smoke to explain away the darkness of these Marys, though invariably no other statues have been darkened in the same way within the same building.

Yet in spite of the ambivalence of church authorities towards the Middle Eastern or African featured Black Virgins they cannot help but acknowledge her power. Indeed many Black Madonnas called Majesties are portrayed on thrones, holding the infant on their lap and since she is the throne the image of the powerful Mother Goddess remains as source of life, death and rebirth.

The Virgin Mary, perfect mother, myth or reality?

The Virgin Mary is often called the Second Eve in contrast to the first sinful one who was blamed for leading Adam astray and so for almost everything that went wrong in the world thereafter and particularly the sexual temptation of men. Therefore it was considered essential by the early Christian Church fathers that Mary as the mother of Jesus was totally free from sin (i.e. sexuality). Naturally she could not conceive Jesus as the Son of God with a mortal man and the birth of Mary herself was described as being immaculate and miraculous.

This deity intervention was not uncommon. A number of Egyptian Pharaohs insisted that their mothers had been impregnated by the supreme creator God Amun Ra.

Mary then had to be seen as the prefect wife and mother at least according to the official versions of the Bible. But other sources paint a slightly different picture; for example the Infancy Gospel of St James or the Protoevangelium of St James (2) written around 150CE, tells of Maryís childhood and pregnancy. It was attributed to Jesusí stepbrother and so apparently was written much earlier, but this is disputed. The infancy Gospel of St Thomas written in the late 1st or 2nd century under the authorship of Thomas the Israelite as opposed to the apostle Thomas (3) tells of Jesusí childhood. Though they were not part of the official bible they are accepted as reasonably authentic and based on accounts passed down by word of mouth.

The History of the Virgin Mary

There are remarkably few actual references to Mary, mother of Jesus in the Authorised version of the Bible. Those that exist are like cameos, serene and still, showing the Annunciation of the Virgin when the angel Gabriel came to Mary or the angels and shepherds, gathered reverently around the manger.

In the Protoevangelium of James it is revealed that as a child Mary was dedicated as a virgin of the Temple at the age of three in gratitude for her miraculous birth and she was in popular myth fed by the angels or doves. It is stated that the elderly widower Joseph was her guardian initially rather than her husband and was not at all happy about Maryís pregnancy when he returned from building houses in the region to find Mary six months pregnant. What is more Joseph faced official accusations that he had defiled Mary, still a temple virgin. 

Protoevangelium Chapter 10

8. Then Joseph -- called her (Mary) and said, O you who have been so much favored by God, why have you done this?
9. Why have you thus debased your soul, who was educated in the Holy of Holies, and received your food from the hand of angels?
10. But she, with a flood of tears, replied, I am innocent, and have known no man.

Josephís fury is expressed even more graphically when he is viewed as her cuckolded husband in the mediaeval Cherry Tree Carol (4) in fact an amalgamation of three versions of the carol, one of which is first dated to the Coventry Miracle Plays performed during the Feast of Corpus Christi, ca. 1400. The carol refers to the pregnant Mary wanting cherries from a tree and Joseph telling Mary the one who got her with child could pick her cherries; whereupon Jesus from the womb in some versions or Mary herself asked the tree to bow down which it obligingly did.

For ye tre is so hyg it wold not be lyghtly,

-- lete hy pluk yon cheryes be gatt you wt childe.

      Maria: Now good Lord I pray the, graunt me yis boun,

      To have of yese cherries--,

      Now I thank it God, yis tre bowyth to me down,

      I may now gadery anowe & eten my fylie.

These alternative sources help to reveal beyond the official Madonna icon a very young mother living with a much older man and left to deal with a son who was very different from other children and caused much trouble for the family. Did she ever wish even momentarily in the dark of the night that her son was just an ordinary boy?

If we acknowledge this human side of Mary then we can understand she and the Black Madonnas are in fact one, and almost all mothers at the end of the day do their best.

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SOME BLACK MADONNA PAGES

BLACK MADONNAS: Home Page

BLACK MADONNAS: Women, Spirit and healing

BLACK MADONNAS: The Virgin Mary and her alter ego, The Black Madonna

BLACK MADONNAS: Photos

Debbie and I are in the process of researching a new book/project on Black Madonnas of France.

Between us we hope to visit every single one that is known of, and also hope to re-discover a few lost ones (we have had some success already on this).

Of the books already published, most are lacking a full listing of all Black Madonnas (Vierges Noire) that still exist today in France and 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.

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