Black Madonna

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom. (Psalm 51:6)

From time to time I have been visited in my dreams by a dark-skinned woman with important things to tell me. Her dark skin indicated that she represented the unconscious, and I guessed she was some sort of feminine archetype in the Jungian sense of a recurrent symbol that haunts one’s dreams. This mysterious figure would usually show up when a significant transition or transformation was about to take place in my life -- more often in my inner life than in any eternal circumstance, although the two often go together. I no longer remember exactly how I came to identify her. It was a chance reference or image I came across somewhere, one I connected immediately to my dreams. My nocturnal visitor turned out to be the Black Madonna.

There are an estimated 400 to 500 surviving images of the Black Madonna throughout the world, most of them in Europe, either paintings or painted statues made of wood. (A number were destroyed by French Huguenots during Protestant uprisings in the 16th century; others did not survive the French Revolution.) The figures are often depicted as pregnant or holding an infant. They are little different in appearance from the usual images of the Virgin Mother, except for the skin color. The local legends surrounding these figures often suggest they were found in a tree, a cave or near a spring – all elements associated with the earth. There is no simple explanation for why their skin color is dark, except in locations where the indigenous population is dark-skinned. Sometimes the color is attributed to candle soot; in other cases the figure was thought to have been rescued from a fire. There may also have been an ancient connection to the dark-skinned Egyptian goddess Isis, who was worshipped throughout the Mediterranean world during the Roman period and whose images were also brought back by Crusaders from the Holy Land during the Middle Ages.

Although the Black Madonna has been described as the “dark pole of the feminine archetype,” there is nothing sinister about her. She is associated with healing and wholeness, and a number of miraculous cures have been attributed to her at the many shrines across Europe where she is venerated. She is powerful. She also represents wisdom -- sophia in the Greek. However, this is not the wisdom of the Greek philosophers; it is wisdom that is characteristically female, manifested by insight, intuition and creativity. As embodied in the Greek goddess Sophia, the Gnostics regarded her as the feminine aspect of the divine. For the Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen, she represented the wisdom of God.

One would be hard pressed to discover in the writings of the church fathers or in the doctrines of the church any direct reference to the feminine aspect of God. There is no female figure in the three persons of the Trinity. The Virgin Mary comes closest; however, she is too mild and obedient to stand on her own. One must read between the lines to find any trace of the divine feminine in Scripture. There are references to it in the so-called books of wisdom, where “she” is identified by feminine pronouns but otherwise remains unnamed. In the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, the figure who embodies wisdom, again referred to only as “she,” is described as being “privy to the mysteries of the knowledge of God, and a lover of his works.” Is it the Black Madonna who speaks in the Song of Solomon, saying, “I am black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem”? With the divine feminine relegated to the shadows, where do we go to find wisdom? For now, it would appear, it may be found mainly in our dreams.

Fred Gufstason, The Black Madonna
Hillary Ratna, Black Madonnas

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