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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Black is Beautiful

The phenomenon of the Black Virgin, (aka Black Madonna or Vierge Noire) has elicited a lot of speculation over the years.  I was obsessed with them at one point, and, like many obsessed people, was prone to entertaining (but not necessarily promoting) the wildest of theories, if only to keep things lively.  I now find myself wondering if perhaps the most stolid of theories are not correct.

It may be that there is no intentionality to the blackness of the Black Virgins.  It may be, in some cases, that they're not even black....

Without recapitulating my own writings on the subject, let me summarize the most common theories about the origin of Black Virgins.

For those who see intentionality, the Black Virgins may have a mystical significance, related to:
  • the nigredo phase of alchemy.  In the search for the philosopher's stone, which signified (among other things) perfection and and immortality, alchemists believed all their ingredients first had to be cleansed by rendering them into a uniform black matter....nigredo.
  • fertile earth and vicariously a powerful feminine life-force.  
  • the sin-eating function of cult objects, such as al-Aswad, the black stone found in the Kaaba in the middle of Mecca, focal point of the Muslim Hajj.  It is said to have turned black after absorbing all the sins of those who have kissed it (that's a lot of smooches!)
  • St. Bernard, a crucial figure in the development of the cult of Mary in the 12th century who promoted the virgin as a "natural" presence, not a virgin so much as a mother.  It was Bernard who first postulated that the verse in the Song of Solomon (1:5) prophesized Mary. "I am black And Beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem...." (Nigra Sum Sed Formosa).  This theory was one of my favorites.
Another theory is not so much one of intention but of pagan survival.  It is well known that many pagan shrines were transformed into Christian churches.  These theories propose that as sanctuaries to Isis or the Magna Mater were converted into churches, they retained the iconography of the previous divinity.  Thus the current Black Virgins are based on darker pagan ancestors.  Maybe an antique Isis and Horus were found in the church and mistaken for Mary and Jesus.  When this sculpture deteriorated, it was replaced by what are now considered Black Virgins.  This could easily have happened.  If I'm not mistaken, a statue of Aphrodite was found in the Daurade church following a partial collapse as late as the 17th century, long after the church had ceased to serve a pagan function.

Then there are those who propose that there is no intentionality whatsoever.  They claim that the images are dark due to the accumulation of soot from votive candles over the centuries.  Or perhaps the paint or material used for these virgins darkened with age.  The face and hands used a different paint, turned black with age, leaving the rest polychrome.  A sculpture with hands and face of pewter, for example, could easily turn black like this, selectively, if the clothing were made of other materials.  I think this is the case with a small votive bust I photographed a few years ago.

Aucamville cemetery
What is certain is that the blackness of the Virgins over time became important, even if in early documents a dark hue isn't even mentioned.  For example, I have seen Notre Dame de Sabart, which I've written about, referred to as a Black Virgin in online articles as well by authors Ean Begg and Saillens.  She is in fact darker than other Virgins in the chapel, but these other virgins are especially pale.  A coronation hymn from about 1954 refers to her as "White and pure under her veils."  Blackness doesn't seem to be important.  In another case, I recently saw a photo the so-called Black Virgin at Oust, Notre Dame du Pouech.  I don't find her to be significantly dark, even though she is referred to as a Vierge Noire by some contemporaries, as well as by Begg and Saillens.  Indeed, a sign at the chapel (below) refers to her as polychrome wood.

Notre dame de Sabart

"It shelters three polycrome wood statues from the 13th century...." including the Virgin and Child referred to as Notre Dame de Pouech

I would posit that the perception and designation of blackness of the Virgins is in many cases relatively recent.  We can find a lot of books on the topic these days, as they've become a kind of New Age/Feminist icon.  I think people latch on to shared characteristics and see a hint of brown as being significant.  A Black Virgin is a kind of bragging point, bestowing a kind af prestige.

Cases of Black Virgins being restored have caused great distresss among the faithful, who grew accustomed to and attached significance to the blackness.  There are well-documented cases where a so-called Black Virgin was in fact revealed to be polychrome after cleaning, but that didn't phase her devotees. "We want her back to black" they cried, "She's not our Virgin anymore."  See (Scheer).

To me this is yet another example of a theme explored in Elisabeth Blanc's article (my translation) on Santa Héléna.  People want something different, unique, a more personalized intermediary.  They are ready to accept something on the margins, because there is some comfort there.  This may have to do with the paradox of Christianity, an outsider religion of reformists which became the status quo and enforcer of normalcy for over a millenia.  Maybe being in the margins is somehow more Christian than being in the mainstream.

Just a few more random thoughts on the topic kicked off by coming across this old photo I found in my images.  In a fortuitous coincidence, it was in preparing this post I had sad revelation that my old website, alive for over a decade, has disappeared in a migration SNAFU.  I'll try to get those essays posted on LoS as soon as it's feasible.  Endless formatting headaches, here we come!

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