When Americans think of the Virgin Mary, they are likely to picture the western image of the blonde, blue-eyed Madonna, as common an iteration as Jesus with long brown hair. However, some of the oldest paintings and statues of virgin and child depict the pair, for largely mysterious reasons, as Black. This discrepancy between the popular image and historical depiction is strange in and of itself, but especially mysterious is the fact that depictions of the Black Madonna are rampant in Europe, a continent not famous for its idolization of people of color.
There are estimated around 400 to 500 “Black Madonnas” throughout Europe, including about 180 in Southern France alone. These works are often sites of pilgrimage, like “Our Lady of Altötting in Germany, Our Lady of Tindari in Italy, or Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico (whether the last can be considered a “Black” Madonna has been disputed, but most art historians agree that she falls under one definition of the Black Madonna set forward by Leonard Moss by being “dark brown or black… with physiognomy and skin pigmentation matching that of the indigenous population”). Despite the prevalence of these Black Madonnas, many historians are still unsure why medieval Europeans depicted Mary as Black.
One theory is that they simply didn’t. Some historians believe that these works of art originally depicted a white virgin and child, but “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” (Moss). This theory is problematic on several fronts. First of all, historians have found themselves hard pressed to name a kind of smoke or grime that would only discolor the skin of a painting or statue, leaving the clothes and background brilliant. The prevalence of this theory can be attributed to two anti-Black beliefs—first that there is no historical precedent for Black deities or Black subjects of art, and second, that Black is not an aesthetic or artistic first choice but exists in art only as the decay of white.
A different theory suggests that these depictions result from a strict artistic adherence to the Bible. The Bride in the Song of Solomon, who in Gothic period texts was interpreted as referring to Mary, said “I am [Black], but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem” (Negra sum sed formosa). Others, like Jungian analyst Ean Begg, suggest that the Black Madonna was a facet of popular religion among the Christian sects of the Templars and Cathars (which would account for the high concentration of Black Madonnas in France). So while the first depictions may have been the result of a strict interpretation of the Canticles, Black Madonnas quickly became accepted, if not mainstream, for European Christians.
Another theory suggests that the Black Madonnas were not originally Madonnas at all. Instead, they could have been depictions of goddesses like Isis, Ceres, Demeter, and Gaia, as well as various pagan deities. The aforementioned goddesses are patrons of agriculture and fertility, and so they were often depicted as the color of the dark, fertile earth. It has been suggested that Christians claimed these works and renamed them to effectively ‘convert’ them, a theory further propounded by the 601 letter from Pope St. Gregory in which he wrote, “We may even wonder whether pagan statues were thought to represent someone other than the Virgin Mary and her Son, Jesus” to European priests. Christian inculturation is infamous for appropriating pagan holidays, temples, and imagery into Christianity, so this would track.
Whatever the reason, the Black Madonna is an important image today. It is vital that we emphasize that there is a place for Black women in history, in art, and in religion. Some more depictions where Black women aren’t mothers or magical would definitely be appreciated, but the historical importance of the Black Madonna remains. Black people do not exist outside of the scope of Christian or European history. Instead, they are integral to it. Any suggestion otherwise is ignorant at best, and shameless whitewashing at worst.