These statues or paintings are usually described by the Roman Catholic authorities as images of the Blessed Virgin Mary depicted with a dark or black skin.
St Bernard of Clairvaux was a great devotee of the Mother of Jesus, and he wrote numerous hymns and sermons which he dedicated to her. He also wrote several sermons on the theme of the Song of Songs in which the Bride sings “I am black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem." It is also possible that several Black Madonnas were originally images of the Goddess.
In his book, Cult of the Black Virgin, Ean Begg notes that in the early 1980s, “a pagan Black Virgin made according to ancient rites was venerated in the course of Druidic ceremonies at St Georges Nigremont.” I hope to present more evidence for the transition of these figures to Christian veneration during the course of this article.
So which aspect of the Goddess were these images meant to represent? Several goddesses from the different pantheons were termed “black”. For the purposes of this article, I will assume that the figures were (or are) black because of the chthonic aspect of the Mother. As Marija Gimbutas wrote in The Language of the Goddess, “Black did not mean death or the underworld; it was the colour of damp caves and rich soil, of the womb of the Goddess where life begins.” Indeed, several of the statues were and still are renowned as miracle workers.
The statues are usually made of ebony or another dark wood. The authorities, though, explain the images have become darkened by centuries of candle soot. However, several of the French Black Madonnas have links to Cybele, who was first worshipped in the form of a black stone. This stone was sent to Rome in 205 BCE at the request of the Senate since a prophecy in the Sibylline Books stated that only she could save Rome from Hannibal of Carthage.
By the third century CE, Cybele had taken her place as the supreme deity of Lyons in France, where a Black Madonna is honoured to this day in the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière.
In Mauriac in the year 507 CE, a Merovingian princess saw a gathering around an ancient dolmen. As she drew closer, she saw the stone was a statue of a woman guarded by two stone lions - symbols of Cybele. To house the statue, the princess had a church built from the stones of a temple to Mercury, and ordered a light to burn perpetually before the statue.
When Goddess worship was suppressed, many of her former titles were transferred to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, for example, Star of the Sea, Queen of Heaven. It is quite amazing how many of the images were found by chance in a natural setting - in a tree, a cave or next to a spring or well. For example, in Foggia, Italy, the statue known as Our Lady of the Poor was discovered in an oak tree in 1001 CE. One of the best known Back Madonnas is Notre Dame Sous Terre in the crypt of Chartres Cathedral, which is built on a former druidic site said to be dedicated to “the mother of the god yet unborn.” There is also a healing well located in the crypt believed to be part of the original druidic site, in addition to a labyrinth in the main church. Shades of the spiral dance of the Goddess, perhaps.
Sadly, the original statue was destroyed during the Reign of Terror in 1789, but the statue was replaced in 1856.
Chartres was not the only place of ancient feminine power to be taken over by Christianity. In both Rome and Assisi, there are churches dedicated to the Mother of Jesus named Santa Maria Sopra Minerva - St Mary above Minerva, and Goddess images were converted to Christian Madonnas. Was the original statue at Chartres one of these? Mary received many of the former titles of the Goddess, and by the time of the Council of Ephesus, 431 CE, several shrines formerly dedicated to either Cybele or Isis had been abandoned, but the Council decided to rededicate 48 of them to Mary.
It is possible that the image of Isis with the child Horus was a strong contender as the original Black Madonna, since Christians could easily interpret these images as Mary with the child Jesus. Ean Begg notes that “More than any other goddess, Isis is shown as a nursing mother, with the infant Horus as her breast.” Isis has a strong connection with Merovingian France and to Paris in particular. Childebert I, king of the Franks, was advised to build a church by his bishop, St Germain. The site they chose was that of the temple of Isis. A black statuette of the Goddess was venerated as that of the Blessed Virgin at the church of St Germain de Pres up to the 16th century, but it was broken up in 1514. However, veneration of a Black Madonna statue still continues.
Our final major contender is Artemis. According to legend, the first statue of Artemis was a black meteoric stone worshipped by the Amazons. Interestingly, the Ka’bah in the centre court of the Great Mosque at Mecca is by tradition a meteoric stone which resembles the vulva of the Goddess. Nearby is the holy well of Zamzam. Bob Trubshaw considers that this stone was originally venerated as a symbol of the triple goddess Ah’lat, each aspect corresponding to a phase of the moon.
Perhaps the best known statue of Artemis must be a bronze and alabaster statue dating from 2nd century BCE, which shows the Goddess with black face, hands and feet. As Lady of the Beasts, her dress is adorned with images of bulls, goats, deer and a bee. Ean Begg considers her to be patroness of Marseilles, and that the image was taken there by the Phocaeans around 600 BCE.
A similar image was housed in a temple at Ephesus which was built entirely of white marble, known as one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Ephesus was also where, according to legend, Mary, the Mother of Jesus ended her days.
Ean Begg notes a similarity between the cults of Artemis and the Black Madonnas. “They both tend to make their home in trees where they are later found. Artemis Orthia, like the Black Virgin of Bourg, was found in a hollow willow tree. Other images of her were adored in a myrtle and a cedar.”
Finally, Begg sees that it is as Queen of the Dead and the underworld that the Goddess and the Black Madonnas are very similar. As we know, the Shrine of the Black Madonna of Chartres is underground. Furthermore, “It is a characteristic of Black Virgins that they resuscitate dead bodies long enough to receive baptism. Our Lady of Avioth, found in a hawthorn tree, still preserves outside her basilica a unique architectural feature, La Recévresse, where dead babies were offered to the Black Virgin. (Artemis and Hecate both care for babies and bestow a quick death.)”
So, are the Black Madonnas really the Goddess in Christian guise? The similarities are certainly striking and there are perhaps too many for coincidence. My own belief is that several of the Black Madonnas were originally images of the Goddess taken over by the Catholic church as the original druidic sites were.
Ean Begg’s book also discusses how the Black Virgins could also be associated with Mary Magdalene and the Cathar sect, as in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, but that is another story.