Seeking Light in Darkness: The Black Madonna

When she was 16, Maxine Wyman discovered an image that changed her life. Leafing through a book at the Library of Congress, she focused on a photo of the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln in Switzerland, a Virgin Mary with coal black face and hands."It was a shock to conceive of God as a black woman," she says. "I was thrilled to see God could have my face. The dark, sacred feminine saved me. I'd felt distant from the fair-skinned, light-eyed Jesus and his family."The Black Madonna is capturing the popular imagination with a force unseen since the great age of the Black Madonna in the 12th century. Pop culture spouts Black Madonna books, documentaries, lectures and European tours. There's a Black Madonna Web site. More than 500 shrines venerating the Black Madonna draw streams of pilgrims from Brazil to France.Her re-emergence reflects a convergence of major trends calling for new rights for women, for blacks and for indigenous peoples. Ebony, mahogany, maple or plum, her darkness is a mirror that magically reflects the beholder regardless of theology.James Noel, a black Protestant, has painted images of the Black Madonna for nearly two decades. When he began, his son, age 2, pointed to Jesus in the painting and said "That's me!" Noel says, "Obviously that meant the Black Madonna was mommy. He saw himself in the arms of this warm, loving, protective figure.Black Madonnas are considered particularly powerful with respect to love and fertility. In Montserrat, Spain, one room in the Black Madonna shrine overflows with wedding gowns, offered as thanks for answered prayers.There are also reports of something like miracles in Northern California. "Two women in our Black Madonna women's group couldn't get pregnant, but after honoring her they now have children," says China Galland, who started the group after writing Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna.Dark Virgins symbolize majesty and power, the flip side of the traditional Madonna's tender maternity, a love of great strength, unbroken and enduring.Father Bernardino Andrade of Oakley, California, started a statue garden of Dark Virgins dedicated to "Mary, Mother of All Nations," that mirrors his multicultural congregation."When Brazilian people come to church and see their Black Madonna, they feel at home. Many Filipinos came here and asked, 'please, let us have her here.' This variety of statues is extremely important to them."To understand the resurgence of the Black Madonna, scholars look back to the 12th century, when troubadours honored women, love and the feminine principle of relationship."In the 12th century, the Black Madonna ushered in a grassroots renaissance about women, young people and serfs," says Matthew Fox, once Catholic, now Episcopalian priest and founder of the University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, CA,Black Madonna icons are often traced back to the Great Mother of Neolithic times, a figure whose darkness embodied great creative powers."The Black Madonna is inspired by some aspects of feminism, especially in relation to the goddess figure," says Father Johann Rotan of the University of Dayton. "The goddess figure is a symbol of fertility, matriarchy, and original womanhood. The Dark Madonna is especially related to the earth connection with life, and with the beginning of life."But her most revolutionary message is that darkness is not bad. For centuries people have been afraid of the dark. Traditional religions emphasize the light, and many cultures prize light skin over dark, but veneration for the Black Madonna suggests a re-evaluation of darkness."We have to understand the universe is made of darkness and light," says Paulo Coelho, of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, author of By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, a novel about the feminine face of God.Coelho is devoted to Our Lady of Aparecida, the Black Madonna of Brazil. He believes her popularity is part of the spiritual process created by St. John of the Cross, called the "dark night of the soul.""This is a process of enlightenment using darkness," he says. "If we look toward the sun all the time, we become blind. We need this contradiction to see the world as it really is, and then accept our own inner contradictions."Matthew Fox says, "Our culture has been running around in the light so long it's ignored what the dark has to teach. It teaches us about silence and the importance of meditation. The heart is in the dark, too. The eyes need light, but real deep hearing takes place in the dark.""The Black Madonna is about going into the dark and trusting the darkness, which is all part of creativity."After centuries of materialism, according to Ean Begg, an Oxford-educated scholar who visited shrines throughout Europe, believes the Black Madonna personifies the search for the soul."Underneath all our conditioning, hidden in the crypt of our being, near the waters of live, the Black Virgin is enthroned with her Child, the dark latency of our own essential nature, that which we were always meant to be."


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