Why are We Drawn to the Black Madonna? by Judith Shaw


judith Shaw photoOnce the opportunity came my way to spend two weeks with my sister in Paris, I knew I had to visit the Black Madonnas at Chartres.  I had been to Chartres many years ago,  before I knew about the Black Madonnas scattered throughout Europe.  I felt the power of the site at that time, but had little understanding of where that power came from.

History of the Black Madonna 

Isis

The indigenous goddess worship of Europe, was influenced by Phoenician traders who introduced statues of dark skinned African and Middle Eastern goddesses such as Isis, Inanna, and others to the European continent from 1550BC to about 300BCE.  The worship of these goddesses continued  with The Roman invasion of Gaul (France) and other parts of Europe.

Once Christianity took hold in Europe, churches were built on top of sacred pagan sites. But old ways die hard; many of these dark skinned goddesses were incorporated into the newly built Christian churches.  Today there are more than 500 known Black Madonna statues and paintings throughout the world, the majority in France.

The Black Madonna of Czestochowa

But why is She depicted as dark?  Certainly there has been the influence of Isis and other African and Eastern Goddesses. But how better to depict such an ancient Earth Goddess now transformed into the Madonna, than as dark, an embodiment of her chthonic powers of regeneration. Some also believe that Her  darkness can been seen as a metaphor; the Earth Goddess “veiled” behind the persona of Mary. Her darkness could have represented the deep, dark mystery of knowing.

Virgin of Montserrat

Whatever the  source of her darkness, there was a mini- renaissance during the 12th century which  included a resurgence of devotion to the Divine Feminine.  Humanity could not and would not live without their mother. Chartres, with its wealth of Sacred Feminine imagery and its school, cultivated with Platonic spirituality, was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites of that time.

Chartres Cathedral, an hour by train from Paris, is home to two Black Madonnas.  The name Chartres has its origins from Carnutes, a Druid tribe that lived in the area. Roman records reveal that all the druids of Gaul gathered yearly in an oak grove with a well, the sacred center of the Carnutes.  Many believe that the location of that gathering was deep beneath the present day cathedral in a cave, the ancient realm of the Mother Goddess throughout the world.  This same oak grove would become the future site of Chartres cathedral.


Our Visit to Chartres 

On a cold windy day in June my sister and I entered the Cathedral, immediately passing into a heightened consciousness of peace and love.  We were enveloped by the darkness which was brightened by jewel-toned light streaming through the many stained-glass windows. I was first enraptured by the huge rose window on the west wall, formed by a series of almond shaped petals,  reflecting the birthing capacity of female anatomy.

We continued deeper into the church, arriving at the labyrinth, whose origin can be traced back to the Goddess worshipping society of the Minoans. Unfortunately it was covered with chairs.  Apparently Friday is the only day one can actually walk the labyrinth; we were there on a Monday.   Nonetheless, we walked what we could and then continued further into the cathedral.

Arriving at the middle we saw two more huge, rose windows on the North and the South walls.  Both of these rose windows centered around the Madonna, one of whom is dark.  We were moving slowly, taking in the power of the Goddess all around us. Her symbols of roses, bees, and wheat are found in abundance within the windows. We felt Her holy presence, speaking in whispers of the beauty surrounding us and within us.

Due to renovation of the main altar area, we were unable to locate the stained glass window of the Madonna with a red robe and vibrant blue background, reputed to be the most beautiful stained glass window in the world.  Plus I was confused as to where to find the Black Madonna statue.

Rounding a corner of the closed area in search of a peep hole through to the Madonna stained glass, I found myself in front of the Black Madonna of the Pillar. I felt a power, a power beyond time, the power of the unmanifest streaming from Her to me.

My sister and I sat entranced by Her for a very long time.  I felt the ancient power of the Mother Goddess flowing from the earth through Her and emanating out to all with eyes to see.  I felt that we were part of an ancient tradition, honoring Mother Earth, honoring life.  I felt a strong sense of peace sitting in Her presence, the peace of love, of nurturing, of the great mystery, of the One Source from which we come.  Only the shortness of my time at Chartres pulled me away from Her.

Cathedral Timeline

The first cathedral at Chartres was built on this ancient site of Earth Goddess worship, probably in the 4th century by the Romans. Over the centuries the cathedral grew, was destroyed by war and grew again.  In 1020 a Romanesque cathedral was built there, and then was subsequently destroyed by fire in 1194.   The gothic cathedral as we know it today, was rebuilt over the remains of the previous buildings, completed in 1250 CE.  The previous structure is now know as the crypt, a gigantic subterranean church, today cast in total darkness

Notre Dame Sous Terre

In the crypt one finds  Notre Dame Sous Terre (Our Lady Underground).  She is a replica of an old Black Madonna, destroyed during the French Revolution.  But this destroyed statue was itself an 11th or 12th century replica of an earlier reference to a small black Goddess of pagan, Druidic origin. What has happened to this staute is not known.

One can only visit the crypt with a guided tour.  So the freedom to sit with Notre Dame Sous Terre, to feel Her power in Her presence, is not possible.  The guide, speaking in French, hurries us along the historical markers of the crypt. But I snapped many photos and upon my return home I was able to view Her again and feel Her power.  I knew a painting would spill forth from this visit.  I thought my inspiration would come from the Black Madonna of the Pillar but once I got started it was Notre Dame Sous Terre who called to me.

My Black Madonna painting by Judith Shaw

While working on my painting of Notre Dame Sous Terre, I felt Her power speaking to me, seeking through me to speak to the world.  I felt Her connecting me to the ancient Goddess, Isis.  For the 11th century pilgrims She was a bridge, connecting them to humanity’s ancient roots.  A bridge they could take to the other shore, away from a world full of hierarchies and violence.  Today she is still that bridge, inspiring modern pilgrimages from around the world. Once again the Black Madonna speaks to an ever growing audience who seeks a world in balance.  Humanity will not be denied the love of our Mother.

Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life. From a college paper on Beauty and the Beast to a much later series of paintings on Beauty and the Beast…From a student painting of circles to her current fascination with the interlocking circles of sacred geometry…From reading When God Was A Woman in the early 70′s to her ongoing visual exploration of the role of the Goddess in our modern world…From her very first oil painting of a tree to her most current painting, The Mother Tree— her early influences of Jackson Pollack’s abandon, and Van Gogh’s emotionality are evident. Originally from New Orleans, she has traveled in Mexico, Central America, China, Europe and Greece and lived in Mexico and Greece. The passion and bright colors of many of these places have affected her palette and style. Judith makes art, dances with abandon and experiences the world through travel and study. Her work, which expresses her belief in the interconnectedness of all life, can be seen on her website at http://judithshawart.com

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Categories: Art, General, Goddess, Spirituality, Women's Spirituality

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35 replies

  1. thank you, that was beautiful. Do you sell copies of that painting?

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    • Thanks to everyone for your comments. Life just slowed down a bit so I can refocus on “My Black Madonna”.
      Emily, I do have both small (8.5″ x 11″) prints and giclee prints (19″ x 13″) available of all my paintings. If interested, let me know and we can discuss details.
      Chartres Cathedral and town is so amazing – I’d love to spend a month or two there painting. In 2014 the renovations of the Cathedral will be finished – maybe then….

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    • I too felt the power and holiness of the black madonna..thanks for your essay. I understand that now she has been painted white and that makes me very sad.

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      • Barbara, That makes me sad also. Do you know when she was painted white and did you actually see Her that way?

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      • No I do not know when it happened. I loved the dark walnut wood. I bought a post card with the sculpture without clothing covering it. She looks strong, not ethereal as most Madonnas. She holds a pear in her had and the Christ child holds a golden ball and with his right hand points to Heaven.

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  2. I remember my feelings of entrancement in Chartes Cathedral more than forty years ago, long before I was a feminist or knew the Goddess. She was there and my younger self knew it.

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  3. Beautiful images and paintings!… yes, the Black Madonna lives on, her memory encoded in history… and in spirit, hearts and souls.

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  4. Thank you for this article which took me back to my time in Chartres a year ago. I was so moved by the Black Madonnas, particularly Notre Dame Sous Terre. We were able to attend Mass each day in the Crypt, which gave me my time with this Madonna. I also loved the Madonna on the wall. It reminded me of the cave paintings in our history books. We were told to stand close to the wall in the walkway across from the Madonna of the Pillar. It is supposed to be above where the original sacred well was. The energy there was incredible. We also were fortunate to be able to walk the labyrinth by candle light on a Thursday evening, which is by appointment for certain groups. Thank you again for refreshing those beautiful memories.

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    • Are you the Kate Sullivan who was a CPE Supervisor in Milwaukee? I’m checking out sacred spaces I want to put on my “bucket list”. Many talk about the energy felt in Chartes. I need my spiritual energy
      renewed.
      Patrick

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      • No, Patrick, I am not Kate Sullivan from Milwaukee. I am from Massachusetts. For me, Chartres was a beautiful experience. I went with a group who was able to get us access to our private time to walk the labyrinth which is only open one day. That was also a beautifully moving experience.

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  5. Excellent. It’s good to explain that the black doesn’t signify evil or anything negative, but the earth herself and care and protection. Our Mother Earth. It’s too bad the French guide was so unhelpful, but at least you got those wonderful photos. Lovely painting, too! Brava!

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  6. Your art and reflections are wonderful. I plan to write about the Black Madonna in the future at the Jesus in Love Blog, and this piece provides a wealth of information and inspiration. I enjoyed visiting your website and seeing more of your art too.

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  7. Reblogged this on saymberblondi and commented:
    Fascinating article about the Black Madonnas of Chartres. I would think given the region, a darker skinned Mother would be more accurate anyways.

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  8. Thanks to everyone for reading and sharing your thoughts.

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  9. Dark to “symbolize the earth, “or “the deep dark mystery of knowing”, ha,ha ! Here’s an idea…maybe she was Black!…., Jesus too! It’s very possible that Mary and Jesus were BLACK PEOPLE! uh oh!

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    • I think it’s probably more like 100% possible that Mary and Jesus (if they were historical humans) were dark-skinned. As to whether or not Medieval Europeans or even those earliest European Christians recognized that is another questions………

      It is my belief that the abundance of Madonna’s of various colors through out the Catholic world is proof that the need for the Goddess with Her values of love and nurturing run deep in the human spirit. The Goddess loves all Her children and calls us to do the same. Alas, we humans often miss that call.

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      • Thank you for this, your painting is beautiful…

        St. Luke painted the original Black Madonna, while he was painting Mary came to him and told him about the life of Yeshua (Jesus) which he later incorporated in his gospel. The painting disappeared until 326 AD and was found in Jerusalem by St. Helen who gave it to her son and had a shrine built for it. The picture was owned by many people up until 1382. The Original has an arrow hole in the side of her neck from Tartar attackers and two sword cuts from looters. It resides in Czestochowa, Poland.

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      • Thanks Tony, Just recently I was looking at that painting and thinking that I needed to work on it some more. Maybe I should leave it alone. Interesting to know those details of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa

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  10. Maybe she was dark because she was black just maybe… And Isis and other gods and goddesses originate from Africa not the Middle East.

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    • Ken, thanks for catching that error – will correct it. Of course Isis is from Egypt which is in Northern Africa. But Inanna is from Sumer, present day Iraq. Certainly there was trade and communication between Egypt and the Middle East. Some scholars believe that Jesus Christ spent years studying in Egypt with an Isis cult. But the question still remains – why so many Black Madonna’s in a geographical location in which anglo people resided.

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      • Because if Mary and Jesus were in a continent where black people flourished, do we have to make a logical leap to conclude that perhaps Mary, and subsequently Jesus, was black as well? Perhaps these paintings are more accurate representations of that fact? We all know that if Jesus was truly white with brown hair and blue eyes, he would have been described as having leprosy (those having white skin). If everyone was white, thus having white skin, leprosy wouldn’t have been so readily noticed against a sea of white skinned people. And of course such a powerful figure of faith couldn’t have such a “sickness” or he would have been discounted as a fraud by being able to heal others and not himself. There is no dark mystery, just false representations.

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  11. I find it interesting that there is such intrigue and wonder that surrounds the Black Madonnas. Is it the the sensation that they embody the lifeblood of the Earth? Do these Black Madonnas emit a radiance that can only be defined as Holiness? I ask these questions from pure and heart-filled curiosity. As a child I was captivated by Isis and Egypt. Why do certain myths feel more historical than mythological, I wonder.

    Brown and dark skin in this country seems to carry an invisible element that elicits a pendulum of reactions. Based on what has been going on in this country since it was founded, I have been led to the intuitive conclusion that there is a spirit or principality associated the perception of blackness. Not always but more often than not, to be of darkened hue evokes the desire for suppression or oppression. To be a woman invites additional stirrings including suppression or oppression. It is a mystery for certain. However, the mystical Black Madonnas (that I have never had the pleasure of experiencing in person) are soul-stirring. They, to me, represent the embodiment of the Earth Mother and of the original Creation. Perhaps it was they who planted, nurtured, tended and bore the fruit of humankind. Perhaps the Black Madonna was the androgyne Who was a Creator unto herself. I do not know, for I am still learning and yet listening to that which resonates with my own soul. Truth is not always in the historical accounts but perhaps the undefined soul knows All.

    Thank you for sharing your direct experience with the statues of the Black Madonna.

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  12. Why try and say the darkness is a Medafore ?
    If it were wouldn’t you think there was a reason not many people even know if the black madonna ? In stead most know only of the pop singer ? Why do you think that is so? Why do most churches exclude her and the history behind her?

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  13. Besides the features of the black madonna has been changed, compared to the original one who had features of a black woman to features of a European woman with dark skin….sounds like the statue implements a world 🌎 where people have the best of both worlds.

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  14. Hey Judith thank you for your post.
    Aset/Isis was a Black Egyptian Goddess who the Greeks adopted from the Black Africans and called Isis. The Phoenicians were Black Canaanites who like the ancient Egyptians worshiped Isis as it pertains to ancient Egyptian religion that spread through the continent of Africa and also where modern day Christianity evolved from and with a lot of modifications wrapped in the perspective of the European. Also when Phoenicians traded with the Greeks, The Greeks did not have an alphabet, As a result the Greeks adopted the African alphabet from them in order to transact business and passed this to the Romans. Even Pythagoras studied mathematics from the Black African ancient Egyptians. It is also important to understand that the Middle East was inhabited by Black people in antiquity and was considered an extension of the African Continent cause African people resided there previous to the Greco-Roman-Turkish Invasion of the Middle East (and with invasion comes displacement and miscegenation). As regards to Greek and Rome, Blacks were first worshiped in early Greece and Rome and placed in their mythology. Even the Occult of the (Black) Gods was adopted, converted, renamed and later whitewashed like that of the Black Madonna and Christ. In fact the Romans where the first to whitewash the image of Christ making him clean shaven with blue eyes sometime after they accepted Christianity which also evolved like the worship of Isis, Osiris and Horus to Mary and Christ from African culture and that is why they are/were depicted as Black because the people who created and celebrated them were also Black. They to like Isis evolved to the Black Madonna than later whitewashed into the image of the European. Changing the original Africoid features into Caucasoid ones.

    It is very important that we be truthful and not try to sanitize or whitewash history. When we do that we erase the faces and the contributions of the people who actually created them and place them in the people who merely adopted them.

    sources:
    Nature Knows No Color-Line by J. A. Rogers
    Sex and Race by J. A. Rogers
    Black Star: The African Presence in Early Europe by Runoko Rashidi
    From Babylon to Timbuktu by Rudolph Windsor
    also additional research

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  15. Hi Judith,
    I have just returned from a trip to Chartres couple of weeks ago. Like you I am drawn to Notre Dame de Sous Terre but I translate that as Our Lady of the Underworld, seems to fit her better. I knew it would be difficult to get to be with her in the Crypt. Like you and others I just wanted to sit with her. I had been with a group before when we had the chapel to ourselves, but that was interrupted and we were asked to leave. I signed up to the ‘tour of the Crypt’ like you, I wasn’t at all interested in all the historical and artistic information, only in being in the chapel. I plucked up courage and said to the guide that I had just come to sit with Notre Dame de Sous Terre, and could I go and sit there while they did the tour and wait for them there…..miraculously after a long pause, he just took me there and left me…and went back to the other tour members, so I ended up having 40 minutes of time alone, and in silence, all to myself with Notre Dame de Sous Terre!! If you don’t ask you don’t get as they say…..love your site…all blessings of the Goddess on you….sue lane (Machynlleth, Wales, UK)

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    • Hi Sue Lane,
      How great that you did ask and then did receive. What a blessing – 40 minutes alone, in silence, with Notre Dame de Sous Terre. I hope to be over on your side of the pond next year and would love to visit Chartres again.

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