No image of the Divine Feminine has inspired more awe and devotion than the Black Madonna.
Countless millions have made their pilgrimage to the feet of the dark-skinned madonnas over the course of a millennium, and they still continue with equal fervor today. The Black Madonna of Einsiedeln in Switzerland draws 500,000 pilgrims yearly, the Black Madonna of Montserrat, Spain draws one million, and the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, Poland draws 4 million. And these are only 3 of the hundreds of statues and paintings of the dark-skinned Marys across Europe and scattered around the globe.
The Black Madonna is a figure that feels awe-some and powerful, whose enchantment has captured the very depths of our souls.
And when discussing the Black Madonna, two obvious (but enormous) questions must be answered. First, what is it that makes these images so alluring, beyond depicting the mother of Jesus Christ? And second, why is Mary (in the very white, very patriarchal Europe) depicted as black?
Ultimately, these two questions share the same answer, but we’ll start with the second one because it’s a bit easier to tackle.
In the twelfth through fourteenth centuries, an interesting shift happened in Christian Europe. Marian cults began springing to life—groups that were equally devoted to Mary and Christ. Mary became a centerpiece of the Catholic faith, though she had been denied divinity since the Council of Ephesus in 431.
Mary, who was mother of Christ but held no formal power, was suddenly the deity to which people prayed for miraculous healing, divine guidance, and salvation. And, at this same time Marian icons with black skin began to appear across Europe. There was something different about these Marian figures. They did not display the same purity, obedience, demureness. There was something deeper and more energetically significant about these Black Madonnas. They held true power.
Now, the reason for their blackness is somewhat debated, but many historians would give you the logical answer—they were discolored from years of exposure to the residual soot of incense, the ash and singe-marks of candles, or grime from being stored underground. In other words, they were originally black, but became so over time. But, that wouldn’t be entirely true. Because there is equal evidence that many were painted black deliberately, or had their discoloration actively maintained.
So now we approach the first question—what makes the Black Madonna so important? Why were (and are) so many people drawn to approach her?
Jungian theorists Elinor Dickson and Marion Woodman propose that the birth of the Black Madonna was no accident, but came from two critical circumstances. First, the plunder of the crusades brought images of the black goddess to Europe—such as figures of Isis and Inanna—exposing a new visualization of the goddess archetype that inspired European artists; and second, the predominance of the Marian cult and the growing popularity of courtly love produced a preoccupation with the idealized woman (which the white Mary typically symbolized), generating the psychological need for a compensating element, or the earthly, potent woman of the Black Madonna. As Jungian analyst Ean Begg writes, “The Black Virgin is a Christian phenomenon as well as a preservation of the ancient goddesses and compensates for the one-sided conscious attitudes of the age.”
Thus, the real significance of the Black Madonna lies in the symbol of her blackness. Dickson and Woodman explain that while today darkness is associated with the unknown, the repressed, the shadowy side of life, in the Middle Ages it is linked to something much broader. They write, “The words positive and negative do not ultimately apply. They become judgemental words. . . . In feminine thinking, we hold the paradox beyond contradictions. She is the flux of life in which creation gives places to destruction, destruction in service to life gives place to creation.”
It is the darkness of the Black Madonna that symbolizes her depth and points to the natural feminine wisdom of the Great Goddess, the cycles of life, and—like the ancient Sophia—the path of spiritual transformation.
So what we learn from the emergence of the Black Madonna in the Middle Ages is that people were unconsciously reaching for this image of the deeper, more potent Feminine. They were seeking connection with the autonomous Goddess.
Begg writes that the traditional Virgin Mary acts as “the statutory female on a patriarchal board essentially hostile to women and nature,” while the Black Virgin openly embodies nature and manifests its healing power. She is an archetypal rebellion, a recovery of the deep, wise feminine lost to the past. Mary’s white purity signifies her chastity, and the Black Madonna’s darkness points to her sexuality; while the pale madonna is often depicted lovingly embracing the baby Jesus, the Black Madonna stands alone or holds the Christ-child with noble austerity.
And so it is the Black Madonna’s autonomy that is the source of her devotion.
I want to close this dive with the words of Scholar Robert Graves. Famous for his illumination of the Divine Feminine in the White Goddess, Graves provides insight into this phenomenon of dark Femininity in his lesser known work Mammon and the Black Goddess. While the White Goddess, the singular goddess with many names, is Muse and love-bearer, her counterpart—the Black Goddess—does not abide by the same laws of patience and cooperation with the male sphere:
“The Black Goddess is so far hardly more than a word of hope whispered among the few who have served their apprenticeship to the White Goddess. She promises a new pacific bond between men and women, corresponding to final reality of love, in which the patriarchal marriage bond will fade away.”
I agree with Graves, and believe that the Black Madonna rose out of our Collective Unconsciousness with the purpose of healing the injustice of our patriarchal contract. I believe she was born out of the hearts of the men and women who were longing for her, who could feel the lack of her in their bones, although they never became conscious of it.
Although the image of autonomous Divine Femininity reborn through the Black Madonna continues to call to us today, she is still largely invisible to us. When we find her we feel the awe she inspires, but the work of discovery is long and winding.
Our work is not to bury her back underground, but to acknowledge her, to show her reverence. And then, perhaps, she will teach us the depth, wisdom, and autonomy we all hold in the sacred centers within ourselves.