One of the greatest challenges to being human lies with the issue of suffering. It seems like the wrong people are suffering, and those we think should suffer, never seem to encounter it, or make sure that everyone else is suffering but them. History is rife with such examples, and our current real, specifically with the upheavals that we are witnessing on all levels, suffering both personally and through witnessing seems to be the theme of the day.
I my many posts on the internet as well as through blogs and YouTube, something I always find fascinating is the low “clic-bait” the word “suffering” engenders. In the West, particularly in the US, suffering is either ignored or given promise of instant relief through various products, food stuffs and medications. Years ago, I read with interest in (the now defunct,) quarterly magazine of Gnosis, on the subject of the Russian Orthodox Church. The main difference the author suggested between the Eastern Church and the Western Church was the path to salvation. In the East, particularly in the Slavic Church, salvation was obtained through suffering. In the West the article suggested, being happy and joyful was the goal of salvation and suffering was something to avoid. Suffering was basically taken care of through the passion of Christ, no need for humans to engage in such unpleasantries. As the Protestant theology of the United States of America in the 19th century proclaimed; Gods favor was illustrated by wealth and prosperity, those who are poor and suffering must be doing something wrong. I see this reflected in some of the so called “New Age” philosophies, that suffering is simply a state of mind, or one is just not phrasing the requests in proper sentence structures in order for the universe to fulfill the order by the applicant.
Suffering is also the main reason that atheists reject the notion of supernatural divinity. How can there be a God when so much awful stuff happens? While I understand the question, it is interesting to me that those who deny the existence of God, seem to attribute all sorts of super hero power to him, and since he was not performing to their definition of god, the lack of action proves that he simply does not exist.
A quality that one can notice in the majority of Black Madonnas is the seriousness of their faces. There only seems to be a couple of them who barely crack a smile. The other thing I find fascinating is the stories of their narratives. As I have said before, there are no artists associated with Black Madonnas. If there is, he is considered to be The Evangelist Luke. It is typical of the Middle Ages that most religious art has no named artist, this was due to many factors, mainly that the Spiritual World was seen as the author of religious art, that the art flowed through human hands under the inspiration of Divinity. We see more artists being named starting in the very late Middle Ages and fully through the Renaissance. With The Black Madonnas, we have stories of discovery, of their tenures in their various shrines, of how they arrived and what they endured. What is revealed through these many narratives, that to my knowledge do not seem to apply to other genre’s of art relating to the Madonna Mary, is how the stories tell tales of immense trial and injury. These Madonnas are hacked into pieces, they are slashed, they survive bombs, fires, revolutions. Black Madonna’s are hidden for safe keeping and forgotten in caves, in grotto's, or in underground pits. Black Madonnas survive ship wrecks and are washed ashore. Numerous French Black Madonnas are replicas of ancient ones, that were burnt at the stake by anti religious hordes during the Revolution under Napoleon. These Madonnas are recreated lovingly from people’s memory and artistic renditions such as paintings.
Arguably the most famous Black Madonna of Czestochowa Poland has a typical Black Madonna legend associated with this image. She is considered to be the handiwork of St Luke the Evangelist, who painted the image on the dining table of the Holy Family, while listening to Mary give her account for the Gospel. The image survived until St Helen of the Cross came to the Holy Land in search of relics of Christ’s Passion. In addition to finding the True Cross and other treasures, St Helen found the Czestochowa image and brought it back to the Court of Constantine the Great, where it was subsequently given to a series of royal families until landing in what is now modern Poland. During the ages where the onslaught of Islamic invaders, the Madonna suffered various attacks and defacement. She was hacked into three pieces and miraculously mended herself. Her signature cheek slashes were inflicted by a vandal who struck her three times, and the legend states on his fourth attempt he fell down dead. What I find particularly interesting about this legend is that the scars on her face refuse to be healed. We are told that each time priests tried to cover the marks, the next day they reappeared through the coat of paint. One can see the scars on the original, but it is significant to me that the scars are prominently displayed on all reproductions of the Madonna.
Another consideration comes to us from St. John of the Cross, who wrote about "The Dark Night of the Soul." He wrote that through intense suffering, one can actually feel the Divine most acutely. It does not mean we should seek suffering, and many might have in the Middle Ages, but that we are held quite closely when we do, that we are not abandoned, but companioned on our journey through our trials.
As I have said before, these works of art came to the European Continent mainly through the age of the Crusades. Rudolf Steiner tells us that the Crusades were a preparation for the Age of Consciousness Soul. The main mystery we must confront during our current age, that of the consciousness soul, is that of evil. The mystery we had to confront during the preceding age, that of the Intellectual Soul, the mystery was that of Death. The Christ Event happened during the Intellectual age, and showed us that their is triumph over death, that death is not the end. Our current mystery is evil, and confronting it involves all of our strength, courage and will. It also involves suffering.
Through great trial, such as through fire, one can become refined, like gold does in the smelter. I think this is another image we have through The Black Madonnas, with so many of them burnt, or becoming blackened through centuries of candle smoke.
In artistic symbolism, the image of the Madonna is representative of the human soul and humanity. In essence the Madonna is us. The color of Cosmic Will transforming into Human Will is black. I think the Black Madonnas are a message from the spiritual world through their narratives and through their somber and sad countenance is that suffering is a condition of humanity that will be transformed. We are being shown that we can indeed survive our ordeal, it may not be pleasant, and we may be scarred because of it, but we will indeed not only survive but thrive. I believe these images were brought to the European continent as a preparation for the era to come, this era that has been so rife with evil on so many levels.
We would like to escape suffering, but it really is a human condition brought about by human actions that are weak in the face of trials and temptations. But if we use our wills, along with compassionate hearts, we can confront our suffering, the suffering of others and transform it into a beautiful jewel.
Blessings on your journey!