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Seal of the Black VirginThe Black Virgin

If it is true that a large proportion of the ancient miraculous Madonnas of the world are black, why is this phenomenon generally so little known today? A poetic verse from 1629 catalogues some of the national shrines of Europe, all of which, at the heart, seem to represent an ancient tradition of devotion to a statue of the Black Virgin. Many such Black Virgins exist, often having survived centuries of war, some in large basilicas, others in village churches, yet others in museums and libraries. Many more are also in private hands, for a variety of reasons. Some are painted statues, others are murals or paintings, and some are statues carved from ebony.

Some of the most famous Black Virgin shrines are Chartes, Loreto, Zaragoza, Rocamadour, Montserrat, and Guadalupe. Early textual references describing images of Black Virgins are few, although Peter Comestor (12th c. biblical scholar of Troyes and Paris), St. Bernard of Clairvaux (an early leader of the medieval Knights Templar) and Nicephorus Callixtus (1256-1335), the Byzantine church historian, all have had something to say on this subject.

Many Christians, both clergy and laity, simply accept that these shrines to the Black Virgin, and the loyal, fervent devotion they foster, are ultimately inexplicable, a mystery of the divine feminine. Some writers believe they represent a Christian form of Isis, as a mother with child. These shrines are believed to have special healing powers, among other things, and to be places where newly married brides can go for fertility blessings. There is also a strong religious folk tradition connecting the Black Virgins to the medieval Knights Templar and also with Mary Magdelene. A famous Black Virgin - la Madone des Fenestres (the Madonna of the Windows), near St-Martin-de-Vesubie (one site where many Templars were massacred) was believed by folk tradition in the area to have originally been brought to southern France by Mary Magdelene. Whether such legends spring from a kernel of truth, or are purely legendary, it is still intriguing to examine the sheer number of such place-names, legends, and beliefs about these subjects and their interconnections, at least in the popular mind. And that in itself says something.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux was born at Fontaines on the outskirts of Dijon, a place said to have had its own Black Virgin. He is said to have received three drops of milk taken from the breast of the Black Virgin of Chatillon while still a boy. He later went on to help the Templar order expand quickly and to preach the Second Crusade - from Vezelay, a centre of the cult of the Magdalene and a Black Virgin site. After his death, he was canonized on the same feast day, 20 August, as the founder of another major Black Virgin site - St. Amadour of Rocamadour.

In Southern Provençal tradition, the Black Madonna is associated with St. Sara, the patron saint of the Gypsies. She was said to be the black assistant who accompanied the three Marys to France when they fled from the Holy Land after the Crucifixion. In local gypsy tradition, she is said to have been a gypsy (some say 'Egyptian') woman who helped them to land safely. A cult of St. Sara persists today at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, one of the earliest Magdalene sites in France.

The intriguing subject of the Black Virgin deserves more serious academic attention; meanwhile, it is known that the numbers of pilgrims to such shrines is increasing annually.

Dr Karen Ralls


To get started...

general, popular works on the Black Virgin

  • Begg, E., The Cult of the Black Virgin, Penguin Books: London, 1985; rev. ed., 1996
  • Charpentier, L., The Mysteries of Chartes Cathedral, Engl. transl. by Sir Ronald Fraser, CBE; RILKO Books: London, (Distributed by Thorsons, Wellingborough), 1972 [French orig. published by Robert Laffont, Paris, 1966]

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Ancient Quest, and Dr. Karen Ralls, do not necessarily agree with, or endorse, material in the publications noted above, but provide this list as a general introduction to learning more about this topic.

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