|A postcard of the original statue, destroyed in 1972*|
****Mare de Déu de Merixtell (Our Lady of Merixtell) is not, as far as I can tell, considered a Black Virgin, yet her origin story and role as tutelary figure of Andorra certainly are consistent with the profile. Though the original late-12th century statue was destroyed in 1972, several copies exist. Some of these are decidedly dark; others a riot of color upon a pink-faced mother and child. Photographs of the original, such as the postcard above, reveal that the original was indeed polychrome.
Why then, are some copies dark, defying the original coloration? There are at least two other Virgins in Andorra which are significantly dark, although I've had a hard time finding any information on them. Some of this is due to the fact, I'm sure, that I have very little (almost none) knowledge of Catalan and don't know what to look for. On the other hand, there seems to be a dearth of information about Andorra; internet searches are heavy on brief blurbs geared towards general tourism and light on details, at least in English.
I will address these two other sculptures of the Virgin and Child in Andorra which I have not seen identified as Black Virgins. My photographs, however, will show that they are very dark, especially striking when compared to sculptures just to either side of them. In my opinion, their darkness cannot be an accident.
The legend of Our Lady of Merixtell is as follows:
On January 6, in the 12th century, a wild rose was found blooming by peasants on their way to Mass. Miraculous enough that a flower would be in full blossom in the middle of winter, high in the cold and dark Pyrenées. But lo! at is base was the statue of Our Lady. The peasant naturally it placed in the nearby church at Canillo, but the sculpture disappeared....and was found again under the bush. Next it was taken to the church at Encamp. Same story, the statue returned to the source. So the villagers decided to build a chapel especially for her, where she wanted to be. We have already seen this element in our discussions of Notre Dame de Sabart and Notre Dame de Boisville and it features in several other legends surrounding venerable and highly venerated statues of the Virgin, both polychrome and "Black".
January 6 is Epiphany, the day when the Three Magi visited the baby Jesus and revealed that God would walk among humanity in the form of Jesus Christ. A fitting day for the Mother of God to be found. Whereas Protestants and Western Catholics celebrate Christmas Day with an exchange of gifts, Iberian and Latin American tradition places more weight on Epiphany. Epiphany marks a beginning, but it also signifies an end. "I am the Alpha and the Omega." (Revelation 1:8 and 22:13) Epiphany marks the beginning of the Carnival season, which ends with the Crucifixion. But just as Jesus rose from the grave and the Phoenix rose from its own ashes....so did Our Lady of Merixtell.
The original church for Our Lady burned to the ground in 1972 and was re-designed in 1976 by Catalan architect Richard Bofill, whose work we've seen before. The Mare de Déu de Merixtell, in what might have been a traumatic catastrophe, was destroyed. But the destruction of the statue did not destroy the cult. Like many examples of cults where the venerated object was destroyed, say by the Huguenots or the Jacobins, the cult may have only gotten stronger. I have seen several copies of the statue, and She is still the Patroness of Andorra. Merixtell remains, like Montserrat, one of the most popular names for girls in Catalan-speaking countries. (My wife's cousin married a young Catalan with this name).
The postcard at the top of this post reveals a colorful sculpture. But as you can see from the following pictures, the copies differ. The more brightly colored, pale and rosy-cheeked version on the right more closely resembles the coloring of the original. On the left, both mother and child are much darker. The fact that this dark varnish-like hue extends to the clothing may indicate that the darkness of skin tone was not meant to be emphasized, but that the artist merely wanted a less brightly-colored copy. Perhaps this was an accident, as time turned the varnish used by the artist darker. But these are relatively recent copies, and I think it more likely to be intentional. If the latter is true, why? It might be that the artist was referencing the tradition of the Black Madonnas, especially strong in the Pyrenées (Indeed, several examples we have looked at in other posts are Pyrenéen). Unfortunately, I don't recall where either of these were photographed, nor who made them. Further interrogation thus becomes difficult and we are left with speculation. A ridiculous situation given that the artists may very well be alive to ask! If anyone breezes through Andorra though, take a look at the sanctuary in Escamp and the Sant Esteve Church in Andorra la Vella, which is where (I think) I photographed these two.
The image below is a Virgin and Child from the retable behind the main altar of the Sant Esteve Church in Andorra la Vella. The darkness you see here is definitely not due to poor lighting. The shining gold adorning her would indicate she hasn't been blackened by candles or aging paint. The hands and face have a lush chocolate-brown tone, if you'll excuse the expression. Obviously, this would mean less if the other saints figured on the retable were likewise dark. But as you can see from the second photograph of St. John, the other saints are quite pale by comparison. There is a markedly lighter skin tone on all the saints depicted; take my word for it that the contrast is much more evident in person. The question then becomes, why? Of all my encounters with the Black Virgin, this example led me this question most forcefully. For those who have followed my posts on this topic, the question of why they're dark has become less important to me than the question of when people began to see this darkness as something important. But here, I'm led back to my original question.
Clearly, there is some reason to accentuate the Virgin's darkness. Unless these statues are separated by some years, I can't imagine that this is not intentional; some special meaning was to be communicated here. I find it incredible that in all the literature I've read on the topic, in all the lists of Black Madonnas I've read, no one has mentioned this Madonna at Sant Esteve.
On a final note, this second retable is found in the parish church of Ordino, dedicated to Sant Corneli and Sant Cebrià (Saints Cornelius and Cyprian). Again, one can clearly see that the Virgin is darker than the saints pictured to her left and right. She is not as dark as the Sant Esteve exemplar, but she is definitely darker than the pale saints beside her.
Once again, I am led to ask why, much more so than in French examples.
"Merixtell", ironically is a diminutive of merig, from the Latin word for midday, meridium, according to at least one Catalan philologist. Shepherds apparently use this to refer to a pasture which receives a lot of sunlight, particularly attractive in the mountains.
Somehow I doubt this is why Our Lady of Merixtell is dark. She doesn't, as Silvio Berlusconi once said of Barack Obama, simply have a good tan.
*An original of this postcard is available for purchase http://www.todocoleccion.net/postal-mare-deu-meritxell~x14245615. I have no interest in this, btw, but I'd like to make a gesture in return for using this image.