The first time I saw a Black Madonna medal, my reaction was 'Our Lady of ....what?' The names and locations of many of the Black Madonna representations are not familiar to us; however, they represent a unique and intensely spiritual time in the life of the Catholic Church.
Collecting this type of medal is both challenging and fun since they can prove to be difficult to find. Rosa Mystica Medals is fortunate to be able to offer two medals featuring Black Madonnas: Notre Dame de Vie (Our Lady of Life), which is based on the Black Madonna statue located in Amelie-les-Bains, France; and Notre Dame de Fourviere, located in Lyon, France.
Now let me attempt to answer a few questions about the Black Madonna.
What is a Black Madonna?
Black Madonnas are statues representing the Blessed Virgin Mary and Christ Child with dark skin. They frequently date back to the Middle Ages and are typically associated with a history of miracles. There are an estimated 450 to 500 Black Madonna statues known in the world today. Typically petite, measuring only about 3 feet high, these statues have European features that contrast with the darkness of their skin tone. Usually they are made of wood, but some are made of stone.
Why are they black?
This is the $64,000 dollar question. There are several suggestions for the darkness of these Madonna's skin. On some, the features have been darkened over the centuries with grime and candle soot, leaving them very black in color. However, this does not explain those Madonna statues that are recorded as having always been black.
Some of these images were certainly brought back to Europe by soldiers returning from the Holy Land Crusades. They were crafted by and for the darker skinned people of that area of the world. Knowing that these statues came from the actual area that was home to Jesus and Mary reinforced and made acceptable the idea that the Madonna and Child should be represented with dark skin, influencing European craftsmen in their work. This idea probably was reinforced by the scriptural passage from the Song of Solomon 1:5, 'I am black, but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem...'. The female elements of this book of poetry were typically thought during the Middle Ages to represent the Virgin Mary, so the connection between Mary and dark skin could have been easily made.
Black Madonnas may also represent some link with pre-Christian earth goddess traditions or early representations of the goddess Isis with her son Horus. Their blackness shows a connection with this goddess and the darkness of the earth.
I think it's safe to say that, whatever their origins, when a typical worshipper in the Middle Ages saw one of these unique statues, they primarily saw the beauty of the Mother of God cradling her infant son, Jesus. Each statue showed a connection to the divine to which even the most humble peasant could relate, regardless of skin color. Often the Madonnas were part of a pilgrimage route to the shrine of a saint or were noted for miraculous healings and protection. They represent a simple and profound faith that shaped the lives of everyone who came in contact with them.
Many Black Madonnas are very old, even ancient, but modern artists still make icons, statues, and paintings showing the Virgin Mary with black or dark skin. These modern representations are no less Black Madonnas than the ancient, but more famous, statues that are found on religious medals. Black Madonnas still carry a potent, even defiant, message to the world. Just read the popular novel The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd to see how powerful this image still is today!
What about Ancient Madonna Statues?
Similar to Black Madonnas, "ancient" Madonnas (as I call them) are very old, small statues of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child found throughout the world. These representations have been venerated and invoked for assistance and protection for hundreds, sometimes over a thousand, years. The main difference between these statues and Black Madonna statues is that ancient Madonnas lack the dark skin tones of Black Madonnas, and they are always very, very old. Black Madonnas are frequently also very old, but not always - Our Lady of Guadalupe is considered by some to be a "newer" black Madonna! Occasionally a Black Madonna statue has been cleaned to reveal a lighter toned ancient Madonna. However, in one case, the residents of the town insisted on re-tinting this statue back to it's original black tone because that’s what they loved!
What does this teach me?
I think that the lesson we can learn from these representations of the Virgin Mary is that since she is our mother, mother of the world, and mother of all peoples, she must look like all of her children. What child does not look like his or her mother in some way? Even my friends’ adopted children look like their adoptive mothers in expression, tone of voice, or mannerism. So, of course, our representations of our heavenly mother will also resemble the people who created them.
I teach preschool, and frequently children will draw pictures of their mothers. Do these pictures actually look like their mothers? Not really! But I've never seen a mother not love a picture that her child has made of her. And this is the important thing to remember when learning about all representations of the Blessed Mother - what was in the heart of the creator of that image? If it was love for his or her heavenly mother, then that image is beautiful and truly shows what our mother looks like.