The paintings are usually icons, which are Byzantine in origin or style, some of which were produced in 13th- or 14th-century Italy. Other examples from the Middle East, Caucasus or Africa, mainly Egypt and Ethiopia, are even older. Statues are often made of wood but are occasionally made of stone, painted, and up to 75 cm (30 in) tall. They fall into two main groups: free-standing upright figures or seated figures on a throne. About 400–500 Black Madonnas have been recorded in Europe, with the number related to how they are classified. There are at least 180 Vierges Noires in Southern France alone. There are hundreds of copies made since the medieval era. Some are displayed in museums, but most are in churches or shrines and are venerated by believers. Some are associated with miracles and attract substantial numbers of pilgrims.
Black Madonnas come in different forms. Speculations behind the basis of the dark hue of each individual icon or statue vary greatly and some have been controversial. Explanations range from Madonnas made from dark wood, or Madonnas that have turned darker over time, due to factors such as aging or candle smoke, to a study by Jungian scholar Ean Begg into the potential pagan origins of the cult of the black Madonna and child.
Another suggestion is that dark-skinned representations of pre-Christian deities were re-envisioned as the Madonna and child.
Studies and research
Research into the Black Madonna phenomenon is limited. Begg links the refrain from the Song of Solomon, ‘I am black, and I am beautiful’ to the Queen of Sheba. Recently, however, interest in this subject has gathered more momentum.
Important early studies of dark-skinned holy images in France were by Camille Flammarion (1888), Marie Durand-Lefebvre (1937), Emile Saillens (1945), and Jacques Huynen (1972).
The first notable study in English of the origin and meaning of the Black Madonnas appears to have been presented by Leonard Moss at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on December 28, 1952. Moss divided the images into three categories: (1) dark brown or black Madonnas with physiognomy and skin pigmentation matching that of the indigenous population; (2) various art forms that have turned black as a result of certain physical factors such as deterioration of lead-based pigments, accumulated smoke from the use of votive candles, and accumulation of grime over the ages, and (3) residual category with no ready explanation.
In the cathedral at Chartres, there were two Black Madonnas: Notre Dame de Pilar, a 1508 dark walnut copy of a 13th-century silver Madonna, standing atop a high pillar, surrounded by candles; and Notre Dame de Sous-Terre, a replica of an original destroyed during the French Revolution. Restoration work on the cathedral resulted in the painting in 2014 of Notre Dame de Pilar, to reflect an earlier 19th-century painted style. The statue is no longer a "Black Madonna" and the restoration was severely criticized for wiping away the past.
Some scholars have chosen to explore the significance of the dark-skinned complexion to pilgrims and worshippers rather than focusing on whether this depiction was intentional. By virtue of their unusual presence, the Black Madonnas have sometimes acted to make their shrines revered pilgrimage sites. Monique Scheer attributes the importance of the dark-skinned depiction to its connection with authenticity. The reason for this connection is the perceived age of the figures.
Le Havre,(Seine-Maritime): statue near the Graville Abbey (Abbaye de Graville)
Le Puy-en-Velay: In 1254 when passing through on his return from the Holy Land Saint Louis IX of France gave the cathedral an ebony image of the Blessed Virgin clothed in gold brocade (Notre-Dame du Puy). It was destroyed during the Revolution, but replaced at the Restoration with a copy that continues to be venerated.
Toulouse: The basilica Notre-Dame de la Daurade in Toulouse, France had housed the shrine of a Black Madonna. The original icon was stolen in the fifteenth century, and its first replacement was burned by Revolutionaries in 1799 on the Place du Capitole. The icon presented today is an 1807 copy of the fifteenth century Madonna. Blackened by the hosts of candles, the second Madonna was known from the sixteenth century as Our Lady La Noire
Positano (Campania): Located in the church of Santa Maria Assunta, the story of how it got there—sailors shouting "Posa, posa!" ("Put it down, put it down!")—gave the town its name.
San Severo (Apulia): "La Madonna del Soccorso" (The Madonna of Succor), St. Severinus Abbot and Saint Severus Bishop Faeto. Statue in gold garments, object of a major three-day festival that attracts over 350,000 people to this small town.
Kališta, Monastery: Madonna icon in the Nativity of Our Most Holy Mother of God church
Ohrid, Church: Madonna with the child
Ħamrun: Our Lady of Atoċja, a medieval painting brought to Malta by a merchant in the year 1630, depicting a statue found in Atocha, a parish in Madrid, Spain, and widely known as Il-Madonna tas-Samra. (This can mean 'tanned Madonna', 'brown Madonna', or 'Madonna of Samaria'.)
Toledo (Province of Toledo): Virgen Morena (Dark Virgin), statue of La Esclavitud de Nuestra Señora del Sagrario in the Cathedral of Toledo (Catedral Primada de Santa María) (The Enslavement of Our Lady of the Tabernacle)
^Scheer, Monique (2002). "From Majesty to Mystery: Change in the Meanings of Black Madonnas from the Sixteenth to Nineteenth Centuries". The American Historical Review. 107 (5): 1412–1440. doi:10.1086/532852. JSTOR10.1086/532852.