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he glory days of Christianity are long gone. However, the narratives it has weaved over the last two thousand years continue to have a powerful presence in Western culture. Our thinking is prone to polarization. We have a tendency to classify everything in the world and ourselves as good or terrible if we are not careful. Colors, in particular.

To the majority of Western Christians, light means good and darkness equals evil. God is surrounded by brightness in heaven. The Devil is submerged in darkness underground. After your time on Earth is through, you will belong to one of them for all eternity. When confronted with the Black Madonna phenomenon, white Christians often find themselves at a loss for words.

What is known about the Black Madonna?

“In 1944, Leonard W. Moss, entering the church at Lucera in Southern Italy, came across his first Black Virgin and asked the priest, ‘Father, why is the Madonna black?’ The response was, ‘My son, she is black because she is black.’

The priest’s response to Moss may appear to be a charming example of holy simplicity, but there was no mistaking the open hostility on 28 December 1952, when Moss and Cappannari presented their paper on Black Virgins to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and every priest and nun in the audience walked out.”

This excerpt from Ean Begg’s book “The Cult of the Black Virgin” gives a glimpse into the Church’s two basic responses to the almost 500 Black Madonnas seen in Europe since Medieval times and the devotees and travelers they attract: apathy or ridicule.

The Black Madonna is rarely mentioned. Few academics have studied her. The Church, with hundreds of sculptures and paintings representing her, cannot deny her presence, but it also does not rush to elevate her prominence. It accepts her with two conditions: she must stay anonymous. Her dark skin is completely unintended.

The Black Madonna at Chartres Cathedral before she was made white
The Black Madonna at Chartres Cathedral before she was made white | France | Photo by Elena Dijour

Why is she Black?

Whenever the subject of the Black Madonna comes up, it sparks debate. People are naturally drawn to the question, “Why is she black?” They recognize how unusual it is in Medieval Europe for any saint, let alone the Mother of God, to be represented as anything other than white. Several theories have been proposed in an attempt to solve this question. The Church, of course, has the most simplistic.

Those representing the Christian church say that she turned black due to the long exposure to candle smoke. This could be a plausible theory that dismisses any feeling of a deeper significance. Until we take a closer look.

Why didn’t more saints become black if candle smoke and the environment were so severe on the paintings and statues? Only the Virgin Mary remains dark after centuries of exposure. And it just so happened that the elements had merely browned her skin. Her garments’ colors appear to have resisted the smoke.

The accuracy theory, which was also offered by Moss and Cappannari in 1952 when all the priests and nuns walked out, is a far more accepted and intuitive explanation.

Given that she was born and lived in the Middle East, Mary must have had dark complexion.

But, just as white Christians choose to portray Mary, Jesus, and the saints as white, sacrificing historical authenticity in favor of a physical mirror between themselves and their God, many populations around the world have done the same. African Christians have shown Mary as racially Black in their art, whereas Mexican and Middle Eastern Christians have depicted her as brown.

One of the older theories states that she may actually represent the old Goddess. By the 1400s, Europe had been Christianized, and all other religions had been outlawed. But they never fully vanished.

Many Christian customs, rituals, and symbols have pagan roots, including the Christmas tree, carnivals, carol singing, the father giving his daughter away at her wedding, and the halo.

This was a calculated approach employed by Christian leaders. In 601 AD, Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote to his priests about an annual pagan ritual of slaughtering cattle. His instructions were to keep the ritual the same, but with a slight re-frame.

You should allow them, as in the past, to build structures of foliage around these same churches. They shall bring to the churches their animals, and kill them, no longer as offerings to the devil, but for Christian banquets in name and honor of God, to whom after satiating themselves, they will give thanks. Only thus, by preserving for men some of the worldly joys, will you lead them thus more easily to relish the joys of the spirit.

However, Christianity brought about many fundamental changes. The first was the conflict between Good and Evil. The elevation of the Masculine principle above the Feminine was another.

God was a man, and he had a son who atoned for humanity’s crimes. A feminine emblem had no place in divinity. Despite being the Mother of Jesus Christ, Mary was not canonized by the Catholic Church until 1933. And Protestants continue to caution against idolizing Mary because it diverts attention away from God’s worship.

However, in ancient religions, Gods coexisted with Goddesses. And these Goddesses were frequently represented in black. Just have a look at the ancient Egyptian culture and how they depicted Goddesses. Yet, there are some historical records that state Black Maddona have some strong spiritual powers.

During one of Europe’s worst natural disasters, the 1248 landslide in Savoy, France, which flattened an entire valley and hundreds of people, the church in Myans was one of the few surviving structures. According to folklore, the church was saved because attendees were praying to the Black Madonna within its walls at the time of the avalanche. The Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland, has a long history of miracles.

The army of Sweden’s King Charles X seized Poland almost totally in 1655. Only the area surrounding the Czestochowa monastery, which is home to the Black Madonna, remained unconquered. Poland miraculously drove out the Swedish army after a 40-day siege. As a result of her victory, the “Lady of Czestochowa” was designated as a national symbol of unity and crowned Queen of Poland.

Russia attempted but failed as well. In 1920, as Russian forces gathered on the banks of the Vistula River to prepare for an attack on Warsaw, clouds formed in the shape of the Madonna. The Russians took flight.

Miracle legends surround the Black Madonna and all of her monuments and paintings. Many pilgrims still seek her out nowadays.

However, modern society has evolved since the Middle Ages. We dismiss superstition and enjoy miracle stories primarily for fun. Nonetheless, the Black Madonna continues to irritate people.

The Madonna at Chartres Cathedral
The Madonna at Chartres Cathedral now | Picture by Roberto Frankenberg for the New York Times

France’s Chartres Cathedral just concluded a contentious decade-long state-funded repair. The magnificent Gothic cathedral has been brightened, lightened, and shinier. The 16th-century Black Madonna in it has been whitewashed.

The project’s supporters argue that the public outrage is unjustified. The Madonna had gathered smoke and filth, as had the rest of the cathedral. They did their utmost to restore things to how they were 800 years ago when Chartres was erected. The overall purpose was to remove themselves from what they refer to as “Gothic doom and gloom.”

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