Her dark face and Black features proliferate in every corner of the earth; in churches and homes; on shrines; and in the private psyche of people who look nothing like her. She is the Black Madonna, also known as the Virgin Mary.
She is not as well-known or prayed to in the United States, possibly because of racist ideals and Westernized traditions, but the Black Madonna is typically the woman who represents the godmother, goddess, and queen mother of the earth and of salvation.
The Black Madonna is a Black or dark brown-skinned mother and child, resembling the more common images of Mother Mary and infant child Jesus, sometimes with European or African features. Usually the pair is painted or sculpted free standing or seated on an elaborate throne. Catholics usually reverence the mother and child with a passing prayer or shrine of candles, incense and other sacred gifts.
For years, historians have speculated as to why the Virgin Mary is depicted with dark skin, as if the image needed an explanation. Theories about the mother’s dark complexion continue to circulate; some claim time or other damaging forces have turned her skin Black. Others affirm she descended from pre-Christian ancient African traditions.
Rev. Matthew Fox, a spiritual lecturer, professor, and author of more than 28 books tells the story of his first encounter with the Black Madonna in France:
“I stood before the statue of the Black Madonna and was quite mesmerized. ‘What is this? Who is this?’ I asked myself. A French woman came by, and I quizzed her about it. The answer was as follows. ‘Oh, this is a statue that turned black over the years because of the number of candles burning around it,’ she declared. I didn’t believe her. It made no sense. I looked carefully and saw no excessive candle (residue) around the statue.”
The French woman’s claim is not an uncommon petition. In fact, some theorists concluded soot from burning candles at the shrine of Black Madonna paintings have turned a pale-faced Virgin Mary into a dark-skinned Black woman and child. Yet evidence suggests it has been the artist’s intention to paint a dark-skinned Mary and Jesus.
Fox goes on to say the story is simply a product of ignorance and racism.
Early sculptures of the Black Madonna were crafted out of black ebony wood. Scientists have questioned whether or not the wood was symbolic or if it was chosen out of convenience.
Other theories state the depiction has been simply molded in response to a line of Biblical Old Testament text Song of Solomon 1:5: “I am Black but comely, O daughters of Jerusalem …” The line is commonly found inscribed on Black Madonna sculptures.
Ancient African traditions suggest, however, that the Madonna comes from the Egyptian queen mother, Auset, and son, Heru, whose images and story predates Christianity.
Lucia Birnbaum, a cultural historian and author of “Dark Mother: African Origins and Godmothers” writes in her book that the mother of civilization is African.
“Belief in the African origin of world civilization; a civilization centered on a dark mother, was widely held in the ancient world, up until the first centuries of the common epoch, when clerical and secular authorities destroyed her images and attempted to suppress her memory.”
She also writes that according to archeological evidence found in caves around 50,000 B.C., migrant Africans left evidence of the divine mother on the walls of caves and cliffs.
Today, her presence is known in Italy, Ireland, Belgium, Croatia, Ecuador, Mexico, and even interwoven in the fabric of Eastern religions in China, India and Nepal. The Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland, is the country’s national shrine to the Virgin Mary.
However, racial cover-ups continue to deny the Black Virgin’s African roots. Many lingering images of her have been destroyed, lightened or repainted to cover up her Black skin. Yet some prominent depictions such as the Our Lady of Guadalupe statue in Spain remind the world of her existence.
In the 21st century, scholars and religious leaders are still scrambling to understand the Black Madonna’s significance. While dark is commonly associated with negativity and evil, some are reassured that her dark skin represents power, fertility, peace and harmony.
Fox says she, “calls us to the darkness … darkness is something we need to get used to again; the ‘Enlightenment’ has deceived us into being afraid of the dark and distant from it.” He suggests her dark color calls those who pray to her to reach into the innermost parts of the soul, reach into the depths of the human essence and flee superficiality.