Reprinted from the now-defunct Reticenteer, my old website, written in 2006.
More than 500 representations of the Virgin Mary in existence today are considered to be Black Virgins. Miraculous in their powers, they have long inspired—and continue to inspire—fervent devotion. Yet despite their number and the intensity of their following, much about their origins lies shrouded in myth and conjecture. Long ago, there were many more of these mysterious effigies, but several succeeding depredations have taken their toll. First came the 16th century Wars of Religion during which the Huguenots, in their iconoclastic fury, sent many to the bonfires. During the French Revolution, many more—including Notre Dame de la Daurade in Toulouse—were likewise destroyed. In our time, robbery has accounted for most of the losses, with the result that in some cases, Black Virgins have been locked away in their churches and chapels, unavailable for viewing by the general public. Some Black Virgins have fallen prey to the restorer’s hand; it has been discovered in many cases that a Black Virgin began life as a polychromatic one and was later—as often as the 19th century—painted black for reasons unknown. This does little, however, to clarify their mystery.
A Black Virgin is not simply a Virgin painted black. There are many representations of a dark Mary (and Jesus) in Africa, for example, or wherever there are dark-skinned Christians. Many of these depictions are recent and some are hundreds of years old, but they are not capital “B-V” Black Virgins in the sense of what we are talking about here. “Black Virgins” are found all over the world but have their origin in a European tradition, where most are found today, the highest concentration being the south of France.
What exactly then is a Black Virgin?
First and foremost a Black Virgin is identified by its dusky hue. It is usually of Medieval (or prior) origin and has a particularly devoted following due to its miraculous powers. Its origins are usually as obscure as its skin is dark. Myth has it that many of the Black Virgins were chanced upon in unlikely settings: in caves and grottoes, buried in the ground near springs or under bushes, hidden in trees. Often they were discovered by farmers plowing their fields. In some cases the farmers were alerted to its presence by the strange comportment of their animals, especially bulls, some refusing to cross the spot where a Black Virgin was buried, some seemingly attracted to the spot. Many of these Virgins were brought from the spot in which they were discovered and placed in a chapel, only to disappear from the chapel, somehow making their way back to whence they were discovered. The common thread of these legendary origins is an association with the earth and its life-giving waters, earth and vegetation.
Why are they black? Many writers have given a very prosaic explanation: being the object of such devotion, the years of exposure to incense and candle smoke have rendered some statues black. A fine, rational explanation that nevertheless fails to explain why only the skin of a Virgin turned black and left her garments multi-hued. Another explanation is that the pigment used for the skin, over time, due to either chemical reaction or decay, turned dark. This seems possible in some, but by far from all cases; there are simply too many for them all to have had this experience. This leaves us with hundreds of surviving Black Virgins whose color cannot be explained away by "physical" theories; we must thus look at other possibilities.
One theory is that the original Black Virgins were painted black under the influence of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), who in his numerous commentaries upon the Song of Solomon associated the phrase "I am very dark, but comely" (Song of Solomon 1:5) with the Virgin Mary. Bernard is known to have visited several shrines of Black Virgins (including that of Toulouse) and his theology emphasized an emotional, “earthy” connection with the Christ and the Virgin as opposed to the rationalist strain of Medieval thought exemplified by Abelard, Bernard's (vanquished) rival; Bernard played a crucial role in the development of the Marian cult and in the 11th century she became the most important intercessor between humanity and the Savior. In this vein, some go on to state that the Black Virgin represents something out of Templar and/or Cathar beliefs. Make of that what you will; for although Bernard was a supporter of the Templars, he preached vehemently against the Cathars.
Another theory is that the Black Virgins are black because they follow the iconography established by religious images of various goddess cults of the Pagan world, be they Celtic, Teutonic or Greco-Roman; in short, Black Virgins represent a Christianization of whatever Pagan traditions were already present in a given region. Especially prominent among these theoretical predecessors are Cybele, Artemis and the Magna Mater. This theory seems to hold considerable merit in that these goddesses were frequently represented as black, and that in sites where a Black Virgin is present, an older pagan tradition often exists. A goddess who bears an especially striking resemblance is Isis, who by the Hellenistic period had become so popular that many other goddesses, including those previously mentioned, became identified with Isis in her various aspects. In Isis’ iconography (a crown of stars, a starry cloak, a crescent moon) and her numerous titles (“Queen of Heaven”, “Our Lady of the Waves”) there are certainly enough correlations to support the theory that she is an important forerunner of Marian iconography. One often finds Hellenistic statues of Isis suckling a baby Horus on her knee that are indistinguishable from the Christian version of this iconography, and by the Hellenistic era this iconography was already venerable. Like Mary, Isis has been associated with the rose (i.e. Apuleius’ 2nd century novel The Golden Ass) and one of the standard flowers of Isis, the lily, has also been associated with Mary in the form of the fleur-de-lis and/or lilies themselves. Ean Begg suggests that the lily carried by Isis may be echoed in the baton sometimes carried by Black Virgins, including Notre Dame de la Daurade.
The original Daurade Basilica was built on the vestiges of a Roman temple to Apollo, endowed by Galla Placidia in about 415 CE and beginning life as the Saint-Mary Basilica of Toulouse. Hereafter it served as a chapel for the Visigothic Kings of Toulouse. In the 9th century the church became part of a Benedictine monastery and in the 11th century a Romanesque nave was added. During the period of the troubadours, it was a center of poets and members of the Company of Gay Science, who held their jocs florals (floral games) in honor of the Black Virgin every May. The original cupola was destroyed in 1703 after threatening to collapse. A new dome was erected in 1760 but only a year later the whole building had to be demolished, the dome having compromised the integrity of the walls. Apparently during the demolition a statue of Aphrodite was found among the rubble. A reconstruction project began in 1764 but the ambitious plans were delayed and finally made impossible by the construction of the quays and walls of the Garonne River on which the Basilica sits. The plans had to be modified, and the nave of the original basilica serves today as the transept. Work on the project was interrupted again by the Revolution. As a consequence, the basilica, though dedicated by Pope Pius IX in 1876, was not finished until 1883.
In 109 CE, legend has it that the Roman Consul Cepio drained a lake at the site of the current Daurade Church looking for the legendary “gold of Toulouse” taken from Delphi by the Volcae Tectosages, uncovering a statue of Pallas Athena in the process. (Athena, incidentally, was one of the goddesses sometimes represented as black).
According to Wikipedia:
The name Delphoi is connected with δελφός delphus "womb" and may indicate archaic veneration of an Earth Goddess at the site. Apollo is connected with the site by his epithet Δελφίνιος Delphinios, "the Delphinian", i.e. either "the one of Delphi", or "the one of the womb."
Also of interest is that Daurade suggests dorée or dorada, which in French and Spanish, respectively, translate to “golden,” or more specifically “gilded.” Many statues of Athena are known to have been gilded. Historical documents at the present church suggest that the name Daurade referred to brilliant frescoes that adorned the original church; certainly, no less apt a name could be applied to the current edifice, which is, save the brightly-colored altar to the Black Virgin, as dark and gloomy a church as I have ever visited. Gilded black Athenas aside, it is worth noting that the discovery of the precursor to Notre Dame de la Daurade conforms to the pattern we find in other Black Virgin origin stories, and that it was made while searching for a treasure associated with a place etymologically connected to the womb.
In any event, this statue was installed in the temple where it rested until the site became Christianized under the patronage of the aforementioned Galla Placidia in 415 CE. At this point the histories are unclear, and myth and history collide. Was the original statue of Athena re-consecrated as a Black Virgin, or was a Black Virgin dedicated that recalled this earlier effigy? We cannot say for sure, and in the 14th century this original was stolen and immediately replaced by another effigy, which, if we are to believe an inscription found underneath the current solce, was sculpted in Auch. By the 17th century Notre Dame la Brune (the Brown)—was known as Notre Dame la Noire, after two hundred years of candle smoke supposedly further darkened the statue. During the Revolution her cult was forbidden, but her following was so strong that the authorities were forced to reauthorize it. However, in 1799 the effigy was burned on Place Capitole after public demonstrations of devotion by her followers alarmed the police. Another reproduction was carved from memory in 1807. One can only assume the memory was very faulty, because the current Virgin bears no resemblance whatsoever to a 14th century Christian icon. For an idea of what she looked like, we look to the Black Virgin of Solsona, in Catalonia, which was made in Toulouse and is believed to resemble the 14th century Virgin of the Daurade.
Notre Dame de la Daurade is especially protective of children, pregnant women and ensures safe childbirth—so much so that another one of her titles is Notre Dame des Bonne Couches (Our Lady of Good Childbirths)—and votive plaques to this effect cover the walls of her chapel to this day. Many other Black Virgins have the same power and not surprisingly, we find this attributed to many Goddesses of the Classical world, such as Diana/Artemis. Notre Dame de la Daurade has an uncommon but not unique feature in that she is draped in an actual dress, which is changed according to the season. In times past women could “rent” her belt to ensure a particularly fast and painless delivery. This very specific detail is recorded in cults dedicated to Hera and, tellingly, Isis.
Notre Dame de la Daurade has other powers. She has often been called upon in periods of drought to bring rain, which is in keeping with her role as a fertility figure. The last time a procession with the effigy was held for this purpose was in 1790—in the thick of the Revolution. She could also offer protection from other threats. Crowds were said to gather around her when Simon de Montfort laid siege to Toulouse in 1218 (apparently it worked; Simon was crushed by a stone launched by a catapult tradition says was operated by a team of women). In 1630, during a procession referred to as the “Descent of Notre Dame de la Daurade,” her image was carried in procession when the plague threatened the city. Again, in 1672, a procession with the effigy saved the Saint-Michel neighborhood from being destroyed by a fire. Two paintings in the church commemorate this event. In our own era, on August 15, 1944, the people of Toulouse carried her through the streets to pray for deliverance from the Nazi occupation.
The Basilica of the Daurade sits on the Garonne River just to the south of the plaza bearing its name. Although the façade is quite monumental (albeit unremarkable) and of a classical order, the front doors are rarely open and most people pass by without even looking up. Because the façade faces a narrow street on the other side of which sits the river, the casual passerby is given little opportunity to remark upon its existence; I imagine that many assume the church is part of the fine arts school to which it is attached. One enters the church by an unassuming hallway on the north side of the nave. The unprepared visitor is in for a shock, however, because the interior is much larger than one might anticipate, highly decorated but utterly gloomy. In fact, the chapel of Notre Dame de la Daurade is the only colorful place in the basilica.
The chapel of Notre Dame de la Daurade occupies the southern end of the transept. The effigy itself surmounts an altar decorated with lily motifs. Even the lamps to either side of the statue are suspended from brackets formed to look like lilies. The altar is made out of ceramic, and the wall behind the effigy is made up of a mosaic depicting God the father and a host of angels. The Black Virgin herself stands upright with the infant Jesus upon her left arm. She holds a baton stiffly in her right arm. Her body is draped with a real dress, which upon every occasion I can remember has been blue. Postcards in the church, however, depict a yellow dress; I am told that the dress is changed according to the season. Both Mary and Jesus are crowned, and an ovaloid halo of stars surmounts the pair.
Perhaps the most curious motif of the chapel is the serpent, which is repeated in at least six separate images throughout the basilica. The most striking is a mosaic on the floor directly underneath the Virgin. The mosaic depicts a jaunty fellow, his tongue flickering over the apple. The symbol of the serpent is repeated on a relief, which adorns the right pier that forms a kind of entrance to the chapel. In this the monogram of Mary is surmounted by a crown and radiates rays of light; four cherubs look on. Underneath is an upturned crescent moon around which the serpent has wrapped itself.
Directly across from this relief is another depicting the paraclete, emitting rays of light, descending upon a lily—one must assume Mary—held by a disembodied hand. Six cherubs look on
The serpent appears in other contexts. Around the corner from the relief of the hand and the lily, we find a depiction of the tablets of the Ten Commandments and a staff. A snake is coiled around the staff in the form of a Tau. This refers to a curious incident in the Old Testament book of Numbers. In Numbers 21 the Israelites have just set out from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea and, disheartened by their difficulties, speak reproachfully against God and Moses. So the lord sends fiery serpents among the people and many die from the bites. The people return to Moses and recognize their sin and ask Moses to pray for a reprieve. “And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” (Numbers 21:8-9) According to my annotated Bible this echoes the serpent magic practiced in the ancient world, e.g. Egypt. The bronze serpent, called Nehushtan, itself became an object of worship and the Israelites burned incense before it until the reign of Hezekiah, who broke it into pieces (2 Kings 18:4).
In Exodus 7:8-13, we find the famous story of Aaron’s rod. God instructs Aaron and Moses to impress Pharoah by throwing down the rod, which becomes a serpent. Pharoah has his sorcerers do the same, but Aaron’s rod swallows them up. The incident is repeated in the Quran, and many traditions developed around the rod, associating it not only with the Tree of Life, but the Cross. Indeed, Jesus himself makes the connection between the incident in Numbers and his own destiny: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15). Its inclusion at the Daurade sanctuary thus refers not only to the healing powers of the Virgin but of redemption through Christ.
Serpents were widely associated with healing in the ancient world. Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, was symbolized by and often depicted carrying a wand or rod around which a serpent was wrapped. It is still used in medical symbolism today. Another ancient symbol used in medicinal symbolism is the Caduceus, typically represented as a winged staff around which two snakes are coiled . It often used interchangeably with the Rod of Asclepius, although the latter is considered more accurate despite the common usage of the Caduceus. The Caduceus has been linked with Tamit, the Phoenician goddess of the moon, but is more usually associated with Hermes, father of alchemy and known to the Romans of Mercury. In alchemy, the crucified serpent was used to represent making the elixir of mercury, a healing potion of sorts, which was made by removing the “volatile” element. The serpent represents the poisonous mercury held in check by the “soufre d’or” of the cross.
At the northern end of the transept, in the position analogous to that of the relief depicting the monogram of Mary, we can find a cross emitting rays of light. The serpent is wrapped around the base of the cross. Five cherubs look on.
The final depiction of the serpent is located behind the altar in the apse. Here we find a massive oil painting of Mary as the Queen of Heaven. She has a halo of stars and stands upon an upturned crescent moon. In this image the snake is being vanquished. Mary’s right foot rests upon his head and his body seems uncomfortably pinioned underneath the moon.
Initially I was baffled by these representations of the serpent, but an illuminating essay on Biblical typology by George P. Landow, Professor of Art History and English at Brown University, partially clears up the matter of the unusual imagery:
Certain problems arise in making representations of Genesis 3:15 since it comprises a prophetic, rather than an historic or legal, type....
One common solution is to combine two realistically depicted images in a realistic - that is, non-historical - manner. For example, mediaeval carvings of the Madonna which show her with one foot upon a serpent take Mary as the seed of the woman. These carved Madonnas offer visual images of a symbolic or spiritual act, since Mary nowhere in the Bible treads upon a snake. The artist therefore has juxtaposed two realistic images, one of Mary and one of a serpent. Whereas the pictorial representation of a legal or historical type depicts only those elements present in the type itself, this portrayal of a prophetic type conflates two times, for it includes the serpent from the Fall and Mary, mother of Jesus, in the same image. A second instance of such conflation of two times appears in those mediaeval Crucifixions that include a snake curled around the Cross. The snake rarely gives the impression of having been bruised, and only the viewer's knowledge of Genesis 3:15 explains its presence.
Genesis 3:15 then, is where God says to the serpent after Eve admits to eating of the apple: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; it shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The logic of the paintings is thus explained, but the reason for the inclusion of the prophetic type in the Daurade remains elusive until we read on to 3:16: “To the woman he said “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children…”
Thus, the iconography of the chapel serves to remind the pregnant woman precisely why she suffers, and why the intercession of Mary is necessary. For Mary conceived without sin and gave birth to the Savior who, through his Sacrifice upon the Cross, gave humanity the opportunity of washing away their own sins. At the opposite end of the transept from the Black Virgin, there is a depiction of the Cross. As the Sacrifice of the Christ offers humanity the chance for salvation from sin, Mary offers the pregnant woman salvation from the punishment incurred through Original Sin as described in Genesis 3:16.
Begg, Ean. The Cult of the Black Virgin. London: Penguin Arkana, 1996.
Cassagnes-Brouquet, Sophie. Vierges Noires. Rodez: Editions du Rouergue, 2000.
Daurade Basilica, Corendal Art’Toulouse. http://www.corendal.com/java-corendal/arttoulouse/monuments/detail/?monumentid=APPL-MONM-8 (last visited December 11, 2005).
Delphi, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delphi (last visited December 11, 2005).
Landow, George P. Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows; Biblical Typology in Victorian Literature, Art, and Thought. Boston and London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980. 1998 web version: http://www.victorianweb.org/religion/type/ch4e.html (last visited December 11, 2005).
The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, New Revised Standard Version. Oxford University Press, USA, 1977.
 Galla, daughter of Emperor Theodosius and half-sister of Emperors Honorius and Arcadius, was a devout Christian and endowed many churches, especially in Ravenna. Her connection with Toulouse stems from her marriage to Athaulf in 414, brother of the Visigothic King Alaric who sacked Rome in 409 and took her hostage in that year or in 410.
 Tolosa was the capital of the Volcae Tectosages from sometime in the 3rd century BCE until conquered by Julius Caesar in 52 BCE.
 The inscription reads “Maître Raynaud me fit de sa main à Auch.” (Master Raynaud made me by his hand at Auch). The text appears to be in 14th century lettering and is all that remains of the first copy.
 The belt, now housed in the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires (Paris) is inscribed with the words: “O Marie, Divine Mére, Priez pour Moi. Protegez-Moi.” (O Mary, Divine Mother, Pray for Me. Protect Me.)