One of the most famous Catholic icons is the model for a Haitian Vodou goddess who protects lesbians.
Traditional images of Erzulie Dantor, the Vodou defender of lesbians, are based on the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. They even share the same two scars on the dark skin of the right cheek.
Every year more than 100,000 people view the original Black Madonna of Czestochowa icon in Poland at one of the most popular Catholic shrines on the planet. John Paul II, the Polish pope, was devoted to her. Few suspect that the revered icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary has a lesbian connection.
Our Lady of Czestochowa is among dozens of Black Madonna icons remaining from medieval Europe. The reason for their dark skin is unknown, but people speculate that the images may have been created black to match the color of indigenous people or they turned black due to smoke and aging. Some see her dark skin as a metaphor for the earth or a reference to the lover in Song of Songs who declared, “I am black but beautiful.”
Black Madonnas are said to embody the shadow side of the Divine Feminine, the unconscious and unpredictable aspects that are usually buried or kept in darkness. Erzulie Dantor reveals Mary’s hidden bonds with lesbians.
Legend says that the Czestochowa portrait of Mary was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist while she told him the stories about Jesus that he later wrote in his gospel. The icon traveled from Jerusalem through Turkey and Ukraine, ending up in Poland in 1382. The painting is considered so important that it even has its own feast day: Aug. 26, the date that it was installed at its current home. In the 15th century looters pried two jewels off her cheek, leaving a characteristic pair of marks.
Events in Haiti soon took Our Lady of Czestochowa in a new direction. In the 18th century hundreds of thousands of slaves were brought from Africa to Haiti, where they were forced to do heavy labor and convert to Christianity. Through the process of syncretism, they developed a hybrid form of Christianity mixed with Vodou, an ancestral folk religion from West Africa.
Copies of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa were brought to Haiti by about 5,000 Polish soldiers who fought on both sides of the Haitian Revolution starting in 1802. She was transformed into Erzulie Dantor when Haitians merged her with Vodou.
Erzulie Dantor is a loa or lwa (Vodou spirit) who is recognized as a patron of lesbians. Her name has many alternate spellings such as Ezili Danto. She fiercely loves and defends women and children, especially lesbians, independent businesswomen, unwed mothers, and those who experience domestic violence. She has a reputation for taking revenge on abusive husbands and unfaithful lovers. Scar-faced warrior Erzulie Dantor liberated slaves by helping to start and win the Haitian Revolution. She is fond of knives, rum and unfiltered cigarettes.
Like Our Lady of Czestochowa, she holds a child with a book. But instead of the infant Jesus with the gospels, the baby on her lap is her daughter Anais. The Catholic Church in Haiti identifies these images as neither Erzulie Dantor nor Mary, but “Saint Barbara Africana.” Erzulie Dantor is a single mother who has given birth, but some believe she is bisexual or lesbian herself.
The two scars on her cheek are explained either as tribal scarification or wounds from a fight with Erzulie Freda, her light-skinned and coquettishly feminine sister. Erzulie Freda, the goddess of love and sexuality, is the patron of gay men, especially drag queens and those who are effeminate. She is associated with images of the grieving Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows.
Erzulie Dantor and Erzulie Freda are among many Vodou spirits who appear to be LGBT, androgynous or queer. Many others are described in detail in “Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Participation in African-Inspired Traditions in the Americas” by Randy P. Conner and David Hatfield Sparks.
These queer Vodou deities include La Sirene, a pansexual mermaid who rules the seas; La Balen, her mysterious butch lesbian intimate companion who is often depicted as a whale; transgender divinity Mawu-Lisa, patron of artists and craftspeople; androgynous Legba, a Christ figure who mediates between the living and the dead; Ayido Wedo and Danbala, a married pair of queer rainbow serpents who bring prosperity, joy and peace; the sexually complex Gede family that oversees the transition to the afterlife; and many more. Each loa or spirit can possess or engage in spiritual marriage with Vodou practitioners of either gender, leading to many queer possibilities.
Black Madonna figures continue to inspire folk artists and fine artists. One of the best known and most controversial contemporary versions is the 1996 painting “The Holy Virgin Mary” by British artist Chris Ofili. He surrounded a stylized black Madonna with mixed media including elephant dung and images from pornography and blaxploitation movies. While using shock value to critique definitions of sacred and profane, he enraged the religious right.
Throughout history some church officials have attacked images such as Erzulie Dantor as illegitimate and incompatible with Christianity. But many Haitian Christians today see Vodou as a way to enhance their faith. Meanwhile Our Lady of Czestochowa is celebrated for revealing the dark face of God’s own mother.
Adapted from Jesus in Love.
Rev. Kittredge Cherry, lesbian Christian author and art historian, blogs about LGBT spirituality and the arts at the Jesus in Love Blog. Her books include Equal Rites and Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More.