Statues depicting the Virgin Mary
Statues depicting the Virgin Mary
If you were born in Catalonia and raised Catholic, you probably adore ‘la Moreneta’ (the Black Virgin of Montserrat). Jointly with Sant Jordi (Saint George), she is the patron of Catalonia and historically represented the national spirit of this land and the values of resistance and strength attached to the Catalan identity.
When I was a child my parents organised an annual day trip to Montserrat (‘serrated mountain’ in Catalan), the site of the Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey, which hosts the Virgin of Montserrat sanctuary. I loved it, I couldn’t wait for the moment to happen each year.
This mountain is magical with its bizarre shape, breathtaking views, adventurous trails and all the historical narratives and legends around it. In my memories it will always be connected to my favourite family bonding time, a day we gave to us to walk together and get tired, to talk, to play, to kiss and hug, to laugh and of course to see our Black Virgin and pray to her, once again, to take care of us. As a white child in a predominantly white world, I always thought that she was unique.
But ‘la Moreneta’ wasn’t unique: according to some scholars, at one time, it could even have been the most common depiction of the Holy Virgin. She is one of the approximately 500 Black Madonna statues in Europe, many of them found in France, Italy, Germany and Spain. They’ve been also found in other parts of the world like South America or the Philippines, probably due to their colonial past.
The overall number could have been much higher but some were destroyed during wars, disappeared or are currently in private collections. They’ve also been lightened or repainted.
Remaining statues can be found in churches or sacred and religious places like Montserrat, ideal for pilgrims and processions.
Many of these processions in Europe happen in summer on 15 August, the feast of the Assumption of Mary, which is a public holiday in many countries with a Catholic or Orthodox background.
The Black Madonna figure is mostly found in Byzantine-style sculpture and paintings. The statues are up to 75cm high, sometimes made of stone but mostly made from painted wood. Some were produced in Italy between the 13th and 14th centuries but they are even older.
Over the last century, the common explanation for their black colour was that they darkened over time due to age, smoke, and grime. This is exactly what my parents were told and how it was explained by school nuns.
Recent research shows that the Black Madonna phenomenon has been highly misunderstood by mainstream Christianity because of racism and ignorance. The misleading true origins resulted in many cases in the whitening of some of the sculptures or removing the child from the mother figure to be replaced by a lighter little Jesus.
According to Ean Begg and other scholars, the devotion to Mary developed from Templars and Cathars who projected on her a divine femininity and the perception of women as compassionate and intelligent, beyond mothers and wives. Black Madonnas are frequently found in Templar cathedrals and churches, as they were responsible for bringing statues and paintings back from the Crusades to Western Europe.
These new studies and hypotheses suspect that the Catholic Church has neglected the origins of the Black Madonna because she represents the pre-Christian goddesses and the African folk religions associated with the earth and fertility. The Mother Goddess or Mother Earth is supposed to be the creator of humankind who nurtures and protects, who has power and wisdom. Some examples are Kali in India and Isis in Egypt. These goddesses usually have a crown, are seated on a throne and hold a child on their lap. Sounds familiar?
More contemporary studies show how African beliefs and mysticism influenced the dominant religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, but this has been underacknowledged and over-shadowed. Black Madonnas were depicted as more powerful and strong than the virginity, obedience and submissive ideal embodied by white statues of the Virgin Mary. Thus, by neglecting Black Madonna figures and conveying the Virgin Mary as white, Catholic doctrine has helped to perpetuate gender inequalities and consolidate a white male patriarchy for centuries.
Now, as an adult and mother of a daughter, open to new multiperspective historical narratives, free from religious constraints and able to give sense to a more plausible origin of our Black Catalan Virgin, I love ‘la Moreneta’ more than ever, and the family memories attached to her.