Black Madonna

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Our Lady of Einsiedeln, a Black Madonna whose shrine is located near Zürich, Switzerland

The term Black Madonna or Black Virgin refers to an apparition, physical statue, or painted icon of The Virgin Mary in which she is depicted with black or dark skin, but not otherwise ethnically Black in appearance. In Germany these representations are called Schwarze Mütter Gottes (Black Mothers of God) and in France they are known as Vierges Noires (Black Virgins). It is estimated that there are 450 to 500 Black Madonnas in Europe, of which 180 are found in France. Because The Virgin Mary is so central to Greek, Russian, and Eastern Orthodox Churches as well as the Roman Catholic tradition, a number of feast days throughout the year have been assigned to her varied apparitions and to important moments in her life, thus there is no single feast day for the specific veneration of the Black Madonnas as a group, and any specific Black Madonna may have her own local feast day, solemnity day, or memorial day.

Black portrayals of The Virgin Mary originated in Catholic Europe during the Middle Ages, between the 9th and 15th centuries. Various reasons have been proposed to account for their blackness in a part of the world where the native population has historically been fair-skinned. The most common explanation is that they were carved of wood or stone which darkened over the centuries from continual exposure to candle and incense smoke, and that devout restorations left their faces and hands black while their clothing was periodically refurbished and re-gilded. Another explanation, attributed to some of the Black Virgins of France, is that they were brought back from North Africa by Crusaders and were "black from the source." A third explanation is that in small towns which had no ancient Black Madonnas, clever Medieval woodworkers who knew the trade secret of ebonization crafted Black Madonnas in imitation of those which had naturally darkened, in order to attract visitors to their shrines. A fourth explanation is specifically applied to Black Madonnas which are seated on thrones: it is claimed that they are either original late Roman statues of the Egyptian goddess Isis in her role as a saviouress in the underworld, repurposed to represent The Virgin Mary, or that they are copies of Isis statues which were found by early Church fathers in the ruins of Roman temples when they were being rebuilt as Christian churches. These four explanations are not mutually exclusive, and no single explanation can account for the vast number of Medieval European Black Madonnas or their deep and long-standing popularity in the Roman Catholic church.

Black Madonnas are either veiled or crowned, standing or seated on a throne, and are represented holding the infant Jesus. Churches and chapels that contain Black Madonnas, especially those which are associated with miracles and healing, are often places of devotionary pilgrimage and veneration. Although originally European in origin, Black Madonnas have been adopted in regions with large ethnically Black populations, such as Africa, Brazil, and the Caribbean. In these areas, images or representations of well-known European Black Madonnas may be informally syncretized with African and African Diasporic deities within religious traditions such as Santeria-Lukumi, Palo, and Voodoo. For instance, in Cuba the orisha Yemaya is popularly syncretized with the Black Madonna known as Our Lady of Regla, and in Haiti the lwa Erzuli Dantor can be represented by any of the Black Madonnas, but most often is depicted as a variation on the Black Virgin of Czestochowa, Poland. Among modern European and American Pagans and Neo-Pagans, Black Madonna images are often identified as chthonic or dark goddesses and may be cross-culturally syncretized with the mother-goddesses of other cultures, including the Kemetic deity Isis, who journeyed to the underworld in search of her dead husband Osiris, and with the dark-blue or black-skinned Hindu deva Kali.


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