Black Madonnas

Michael P. Duricy

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 Altotting [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 100 samples from various parts of the world, Moss broke the images into three categories:


Lady of Guadalupe image]

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, negroid features accompany dark color in African images. This trait is also apparent in many of the ethnic creches in the Marian Library collection. Also, the famous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe from Mexico [at left], though not particularly dark, was included in this class by Moss.

The second explanation is frequently cited by Catholic non- experts in relation to particular images. Though overused, it certainly applies to a certain percentage of Black Madonnas. The famous statue of Our Lady of the Hermits in Einsiedeln, Switzerland illustrates this phenomenon.

Similarly, the statue of Our Lady of Altotting was rescued from the ravaging of the church by flame in the year 907. This might account for the darkened features, though Moss has his doubts. If not the image at Altotting, other Black Madonnas were certainly altered in appearance after 'miraculous' rescues from burning churches.

After accounting for images which fall into the first two categories, we are left with a number of black madonnas still requiring explanation. As Moss notes: "It is difficult to rule out artistic license." In the absence of texts stating the artist's intent, only speculation is possible. However, assuming that some of the images were darkened intentionally, we may attempt some explanations. There seem to be two particularly strong theories.

The first is that the images were darkened to illustrate a text from the Song of Songs: I am black but beautiful. In support of this theory, note that many of the black madonnas exist in France and date from around the time of the crusades, when Bernard of Clairvaux wrote numerous commentaries on the Canticles, comparing the soul to the bride, as well as many on Our Lady. He was also known to have visited several shrines of the Black Madonna, for example: Chatillon and Affligem. In the Gothic period texts explicitly interpreted the Bride in Canticles as refering especially to Mary. Once artistic precedent had been set, subsequent black madonnas may be explained by artistic convention rather than theological motivation. Based on historical correlations, Ean Begg speculates that the genre developed from an esoteric popular religion common among the Templars and Cathars, perhaps as a complement to the impetus from Bernard.

The other prominent theory is briefly summarized by Stephen Benko: "the Black Madonna is the ancient earth-goddess converted to Christianity." His argument begins by noting that many goddesses were pictured as black, among them Artemis of Ephesus, Isis, Ceres, and others. Ceres, the Roman goddess of agricultural fertility is particularly important. Her Greek equivalent, Demeter, derives from Ge-meter or Earth Mother. The best fertile soil is black in color and the blacker it is, the more suited it is for agriculture.

Were these images taken as is, renamed [baptised as it were] and reused in Christian worship? If so, the practice seems compatible in spirit with the norms on inculturation given by Pope St Gregory the Great in a letter to priests written in 601:

We may even wonder whether pagan statues of Mother and Child were thought to represent someone other than the Virgin Mary and her Son, Jesus. For Christians, Mary is "The Woman" (cf. Jn 2 & 19). Similarly, the only child worthy of special note is "The Christ Child". Lacking explicit identification, it seems natural that Christians read these perspectives into any art they saw. In fact, it seems that Eusebius of Caesarea took advantage of this predisposition and, sublimating any pagan roots [which he considered likely], used an image of the black madonna as preparatio evangelii or evangelical preparation, a readily accepted introduction to the full Christian mystery, which is indeed centered on the Word's Incarnation through Mary.

Far from condemning the phenomenon, Benko, a non-Catholic, goes even further in validating this example of inculturation. He begins by noting the Judaeo-Christian roots of the earth-mother concept in Adam's creation in Gen 2:7. Benko sees a parallel to the 'New Creation' in which Christ is the 'New Adam'. Structurally, Mary parallels the earth of the first creation. Benko also cites Ambrose (d. ca. 390) as an explicit example: "from the virgin earth Adam, Christ from the virgin." Moss mentions a similar teaching from Ambrose's pupil: "Saint Augustine noted that the Virgin Mary represents the earth and that Jesus is of the earth born." A number of similar examples could be cited from the Christian Tradition in and around Syria. For example, the following is from the Maronite Liturgy:

Benko continues:

Along similar lines, Benko mentions Gen 3:19 as closely related to the Creation account of Gen 2:7. The agricultural cycle images death and new life, themes closely connected the paschal mystery of Jesus. Indeed, some early Christian writers used pagan myths of life reborn from death, like the Phoenix rising from its ashes, as preambles to the announcement of Jesus' story.


Please see our meditations on specific Black Madonna images:

We received the following commentary to add to this information:

"Concerning why is she black - in Aramaic the language of Jesus - black means "sorrowful." It is a language of idioms. The links the Blessed Mother to Isis who was called "sorrowing" in her search for Osiris."

For further information on Black Madonnas, refer to The Cult of the Black Virgin (1985) by Ean Begg; Mother Worship:Themes and Variations (1982) by James Preston (ed.); and The Virgin Goddess (1993) by Stephen Benko.

Author of the the Black Madonna series: Michael Duricy.

See also: Still Black and Still Venerated
And: Miraculous Images
And: What about White Madonnas?

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This page, maintained by The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute, was created by Michael Duricy and last modified June 27, 2000 by M. Jean Frisk. Please send any comments to

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