Black Madonnas: Our Lady of Montserrat

Michael P. Duricy

    On the mountain named Montserrat, near Barcelona, in the Catalonia region of Spain, a church now contains a 'miracle- working' statue of the Madonna and Child known as La Moreneta, that is: the dark little one.

Legend relates that the miraculous image was first known as La Jerosolimitana (the native of Jerusalem), since it is believed to have been carved in that city during the early days of the church.

    Another account, seemingly well-attested, indicates that the image was moved to Montserrat in 718, to avoid the danger posed by invading Saracens.  The image disappears from the historical record at this point, to reappear in a legend holding that shepherds found the lost statue under supernatural guidance in 890:

While tending their flocks that night the shepherds were amazed to see lights and to hear singing coming from the mountain.  When this was repeated, the shepherds reported the situation to their priest, who investigated.  When the priest also heard the singing and saw the mysterious lights, he informed the Bishop, and he also witnessed the phenomenon.  The statue of Our Lady was discovered in a cave and was brought out and placed in a small church that was soon erected.

[Digitized image of Our Lady of Montserrat]    However, the statue presently kept at the Montserrat shrine [at left] appears to have been introduced in the twelfth or thirteenth century.  Its Romanesque style is consistent with this estimate.  Beyond general style, the genre of the statue is certainly that of an 'enthroned virgin', typical of the earliest icons of Mary.  On behalf of Madonna and Child representations, Stephen Benko notes:

"It is well known that the iconography of Isis and [her son] Horus was basically adopted by Christians when they started to portray Mary and Jesus as Mother and Child."

    Benko adds that Isis was sometimes "pictured as black."  These observations indicate only a correlation, not a causal relationship.  They do not answer the question why the Montserrat figures are black.  Perhaps a lost statue of Isis was located by ninth-century shepherds and assumed to be a Madonna and Child, in spite of the dark features.

   
The present copy could have reproduced the general style with adaptations to accommodate Romanesque taste.  However, no less likely is the theory that the present copy was modeled on the Christian genre of the enthroned Virgin.  Why then the black color of the figures?

    Perhaps it was done in imitation of earlier Christian Black Madonnas which the sculptor had seen.  This sounds plausible, but is unsupported by hard data.  Perhaps, it was inspired by the commentaries on the Song of Songs ["I am black but beautiful"] which were popular at that time.  Again, we have no evidence of this beyond the temporal coincidence of events.  On the negative side, Montserrat is located in Spain, not in France where St. Bernard of Clairvaux and others produced well-known commentaries on the Canticles.  Perhaps the image was created black to represent some esoteric religious symbolism.  Ean Begg notes that the Shrine of Montserrat is among the best candidates for former sanctuaries for the Holy Grail.  Further, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries esoteric Christian sects proliferated, though not primarily in Spain.  Again, these are correlations, not proofs.  Perhaps Cruz is right:

the dark color of Our Lady of Montserrat is attributed to the innumerable candles and lamps that have burned day and night before the image.

    In any case, certain facts may not be disputed.  The statue has always been considered one of the most celebrated images in Spain.  However, like Our Lady of Einsiedeln in Switzerland, its popularity is limited to a regional rather than a universal scope.  Also, the shrine has received innumerable pilgrims over the years, currently at the rate of at least one million per year.  This multitude includes secular and ecclesial rulers as well as a number of canonized Saints.  The most notable of these was St. Ignatius of Loyola, who laid down his sword and embarked on his religious mission "after spending a night praying before the image," a miracle in the order of grace.

For further information on Our Lady of Montserrat, refer to The Cult of the Black Virgin (1985) by Ean Begg; Miraculous Images of Our Lady (1993) by Joan Carroll Cruz; and The Virgin Goddess: Studies in the Pagan and Christian Roots of Mariology (1993) by Stephen Benko.


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This page, maintained by The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute, Dayton, Ohio 45469-1390, and created by Michael P. Duricy , was last modified Wednesday, 03/26/2008 12:44:32 EDT by Victor Pennekamp . Please send any comments to jroten1@udayton.edu.