The Heart of the Black Madonna

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Black Madonna and Lent

The Labyrinth at Chartres

 I want to thank you for spending your time with me as we explore the many aspects of the Black Madonna in Spirituality, History and Culture.

As I have often said, please understand that my insights, writings and speaking engagements are from my perspective and research. In no way to I claim to be the final word on what I personally am finding to be a “never ending story” of The Black Madonna. I hope that in my own small way, I inspire you to start your own journey of the soul with The Black Madonna.

The Black Madonna of Limoges

At the time of this writing, we are in the beginning weeks of Lent. In the Christian Community, we call this period leading up to Holy Week and Easter as Passiontide. In the Orthodox Christian Tradition, these weeks are referred to as “the great Lent.” In the northern Hemisphere, the weeks leading up to Easter usually fall during the last weeks of Winter. For many truly meaningful reasons, in Western Christendom, Easter is a movable festival that occurs on the first Sunday after the First Full Moon after the Spring Equinox. This date was decided in 325 AD at the Council of Nicea. Regardless of your personal beliefs, these last few weeks of Winter are really difficult on many levels. In some areas, people are just plain tired of the rigors of winter. In ancient times, these weeks before Spring are when the food was running out while people waited for Spring Planting and the new harvests. Some anthropologists think that this running out of food at the end of winter is a reason for so many culture’s tradition of fasting during this time. Depending on their tradition, Christians may abstain from all animal products during Lent, or simply refrain from all animal products on every Friday of Lent, eating only fish on these days. I know in my own experience, I am simply exhausted during these days, and seem to need extra sleep. This years late winter storms are not fun to say the least here in the Northern Hemisphere.

As Lent is a season of abstinence and inner journey towards Holy Week, I thought I would take one of the qualities I have noticed about The Black Madonna as a metaphor for Lent.

As I have said in previous segments, the Black Madonna is an artistic genre of the Madonna Mary and Christ Child, where the Madonna and Child have very dark or black skin tone. What is striking is that these images reside in Europe, and were brought to the Continent during the Middle ages. Many of the Black Madonnas are placed in Shrines and Cathedrals along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Another similarity of these Madonnas is that they are a very somber looking lot. Not only that, their hands tend to be quite large when one compares them to the scale of the rest of their bodies. When you compare Raphael’s Madonna’s with Black Madonnas, the difference is striking. What is also significant is that these Madonnas do not have artists associated with them, and if they do, the artistry is attributed to St Luke the Evangelist, who wrote the Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles.

So what do all of these qualities have to do with Lent? As I said before, Lent is a season of what I would call endurance. While Advent is an internal season of anticipation, Lent points us to abstinence, of journeying, towards Holy Week and the Cross. Not exactly a season of levity by any stretch of the imagination. When I was younger, I often purchased Lenten guide books, where each day there would be a thought and prayer on the subject and its relation to Lent. One book was on Labyrinths, another was being on a road called Santa Fe, but all these books had one thing in common: hang in there, it is tough but there is something at the end of the tunnel.

When you consider the Black Madonna, there are several qualities that stand out in terms of metaphor. The color Black for instance. In Anthroposophical artistic and color theory, Black is the color of Cosmic Will being transformed into Human Will. We often hear the term “will power” and for those of us who try to abstain or fast from something during Lent, it certainly takes will power to do that. I was listening to a series of Lenten messages on line, and the Priest said that Lent is also a season of contributing, say doing acts of charity, which obviously are acts of will. We have to get up and do something to help others. One of the agents of our will is our hands, we use our hands in many ways to carry out our will, our work.

The theme of St Luke the Evangelist as the artist of the Black Madonna is also quite relevant. He is often pictured in art and icons as painting Icons of the Madonna. His symbol is the Bull., and he is also often pictured with a bull sitting next to him while he writes the Gospel. The Bull is considered in Anthroposophical Cosmology to be the symbol of the Will. The Heart and Feeling is associated with the Lion, Thinking and the Head is associated with the Eagle, and the Bull is associated with the “guts” and limbs. The Gospel of Luke is considered a healing Gospel, containing the most healing stories of all the four Gospels. Another quality of Luke's Gospel is that after the Nativity, the entire gospel is one long journey to Holy Week and the Passion of Christ. An aside note is that many of the narratives of the Black Madonnas is that they are discovered by Bulls, meaning that there is a mound of dirt and a bull stands next to it mooing incessantly until someone starts to dig the mound where a Black Madonna is discovered buried beneath. 

The Black Madonna of Olot in Spain is one such Madonna, and you see here she is accompanied by a Bull. 

What is also interesting is that parents bring their children to this Madonna for blessings as the children begin to walk. I find that so interesting because as I said before, bulls are a symbol of the will and our limbs, meaning legs and feet, and arms and hands, are the agents of our will.

It seems as if the Black Madonnas, in addition to looking quite somber, we can understand why. These works of art seem to endure everything, from fires and floods, revolutions, wars and vandalism. They are buried, wash ashore from ship wrecks, lie dormant in trees and caves, you name it. The Famous Black Madonna of Czestochowa’s legend states that she was chopped into several pieces but miraculously mended herself. She was also slashed by a thief on the cheek, giving her famous scars. 

One of her miracles is that the wound will not be covered, numerous attempt to paint over it, result in the scars reappearing. Her story is not unusual for Black Madonnas.

Camino Pilgrim with Staff and Shell

And finally, another interesting association of the Black Madonna and Lent is the fact that so many of them are placed along The Camino De Santiago de Compostela. This ancient “way of St James” or Way of the Stars, was a pilgrim route of initiation. In the Middle Ages, the Camino was seen as a substitute for those who could not make the journey to the Holy Land. Another use of the Camino was as a prescription for penance, meaning, if someone had committed a crime, their “sentence” was to walk the Camino. In either case, pilgrimage or penance, it certainly took a lot of will to finish the long walk, and to this day, people find the journey one of transformation, where one can become resurrected so to speak by the experience.

These days, we are actually living in times very similar to those of the Black Madonna. We are in the midst of cultural upheaval, of great suffering and instability. People are longing for meaning, for something new, and we are also finding that we must really work quite hard to bring about the transformation needed. The Black Madonnas had their height of influence during the age of the Crusades. This age, Rudolf Steiner tells us was an era of preparation for the age we are in now, that of The Consciousness Soul. The age of Consciousness Soul is one where we must learn to think clearly, discern truth from falsehood and use our wills to become fully free and fully moral.

It seems on may levels we have been going through a collective Lent, we are on an endurance course. The lies and falsehoods, evil and violence swirl around us on levels not encountered before in human history. We are wounded, we are exhausted, and yet we must persist. We are being called to create a beloved community on earth. For me, this Lent is hearkening to the Black Madonnas, who are showing us by their stories, to not only use our wills, but that we can and will endure, Their somber faces tell us it will not be fun, but that there is something more, the Easter ahead for us all, if only we can stay the course. I hope you know you are not alone during your Lenten journey, and also not alone during your life journey. The Black Madonnas with their Bulls, their stories and their placements along the Pilgrim Route of Santiago de Compostela, are loving reminders from the Spiritual World that we can do it, that the spiritual world believes in us, and is encouraging us on our respective journeys. Blessings to you on the Lent!

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