Is the Black Madonna African?

There are black Madonnas and Black Madonnas. The former applies generically to any dark-skin-colored representation of Mary. Falling into this category are recent depictions of Our Lady like Larry Scully’s Madonna and Child of Soweto. The term used frequently to designate these images is inculturated Madonnas, meaning artwork by African or African-American artists (sometimes also by artists of a different racial background) for people of the same or similar cultures. These representations may convey a critical message inasmuch as they highlight the universal and thus trans-racial significance of the Christ event (including Mary). Most of these images are of recent origin; others came to prominence only recently. In the latter case we are dealing with sometimes century-old artwork of Africa whose artistic and spiritual values have been ignored for a long time.

However, this is not the topic of the following feature. The meaning of Black Madonna used here refers to a type of Marian statue or painting of mainly medieval origin (12C-15C), of dark or black features whose exact origins are not always easy to determine, and most important, of particular prominence. The latter, the prominence of the Black Madonna, is mostly due to the allegedly miraculous character of the image.

Among the miraculous Marian images are the so-called “Black Madonnas.” Many of these images are quite popular among the faithful. Of the hundreds which presently exist at various shrines, some of the better known images are: Our Lady of Altötting [Bavaria, Germany]; Our Lady of the Hermits [Einsiedeln, Switzerland]; Our Lady of Guadalupe [Mexico City]; Our Lady of Jasna Gora [Czestochowa, Poland]; Our Lady of Montserrat [Spain]; and Our Lady of Tindari [Sicily].

In the early days of the ‘comparative religions’ discipline, authors casually equated the ‘Black Virgins’ venerated by Catholics with pagan goddess images of similar appearance, providing some with a polemic argument against the Catholic Church. More recently, some feminist writers have suggested the Black Madonna as indicating a perspective on Mary underemphasized in traditional Christian doctrine. In any case, Black Madonnas have proved themselves as devotional aids within ecclesial life over the course of centuries. Many of these images have received approval from ecclesiastical authority in light of the divine approval manifested by well-attested miracles (subsequently approved by Church leadership).

History of the Black Madonna Genre

Important early studies of dark images in France were done by: Marie Durand-Lefebvre (1937); Emile Saillens (1945); and Jacques Huynen (1972). The first notable study of the origin and meaning of the so-called Black Madonnas in English appears to have been presented by Leonard Moss at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Dec. 28, 1952. Amazingly, all the images in Moss’ study had a reputation for miracles. Based on a study of nearly one hundred samples from various parts of the world, Moss broke the images into three categories:

1) dark brown or black madonnas with physiognomy and skin pigmentation matching that of the indigenous population.

2) various art forms that have turned black as a result of certain physical factors such as: deterioration of lead-based pigments; accumulated smoke from the use of votive candles; and accumulation of grime over the ages.

3) residual category with no ready explanation.

That a certain percentage of black images falls into the first group seems self-evident. For example, many African images of Mary depict her racially as a Black woman. This particular racial depiction is also apparent in many of the ethnic crèches in the Marian Library collection. Also, the famous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe from Mexico, although not necessarily intended to depict Mary’s race as Black, was included in this class by Moss.

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