From Majesty to Mystery: Change in the Meanings of Black Madonnas from the Sixteenth to Nineteenth Centuries

Mary’s appearance , like that of her son, is the stuff of popular imagination, a product of consensus, formed by the templates provided by popular religious art. [1] Just as the contemporary conception of her beauty bears the indelible stamp of the apparitions at Lourdes (1858), the early modern imagination was shaped by medieval polychrome statues and icons of the Mother of God—not “high art” but rather the kind of personal image to which candles, incense, and other votive gifts were offered in thanks for miracles worked. These sacred objects were dressed in sumptuous garb and bejeweled, carried about in processions, enshrined in pilgrimage centers small and large, and visually reproduced on countless souvenir replicas, prayer cards, and other secondary images.

Many of the most highly visible images of Mary at this time depict a Mother and Child with black faces and hands. They often have names that highlight this feature: “La Noire,” “La Morenita,” or “die Schwarze Muttergottes.” For decades, these black madonnas have presented scholars with a conundrum for which no completely satisfactory answer has been found. Debate centers on the question of whether the color was intentional and what it meant, based on the assumption that explaining the color’s origin would explain what worshipers saw in these images. As a result, because these images were not originally intended to be depictions of Mary as an African (thus setting them apart analytically from other prominent black images in sacred art), scholars have hardly touched on the question of their perception as such. In my view, however, black madonnas must be examined as part of the history of the perception of black skin in Europe. [2] At the same time, it is important to avoid a projection backward in time of modern concepts of skin color and identity. Black madonnas present us with an extraordinarily complex and yet cogent example of how perception and aesthetic experience are determined by culture. [3]

A positivistic approach toward ascertaining the ontological status of their blackness is most likely futile and in any case tells us nothing of how the color was perceived and interpreted among believers. That is why, in this essay, I will approach the question of when and why the madonnas became black in terms of a history of perception. What patterns of interpretation would have been available and relevant to viewers to make sense of the skin color? How do these change over time? And can the explanation for the existence of this coloring be sought in these meanings? Although the prototypical images date from the Middle Ages, there is no evidence that indicates they were widely perceived as black at that time. I will argue that this perception becomes integrated into the Counter-Reformation program of legitimizing and promoting the veneration of miraculous images of Mary. The development of race as a construct of scientific discourse at the end of the eighteenth century undermines dramatically the plausibility of pious interpretations and thus contributes to the rise of the modern notion that the madonnas must have become black by accident. My goal is to understand why black madonnas were among the highest ranked images of Mary for so many years, and then to trace the perceptive changes that turned them into inexplicable curiosities, focusing on those in the German-speaking areas, which have received less attention up to now. The approach is highly context-bound, and I would not suggest that my findings from these regions are valid per se for France, Italy, or Spain, but I would hope that a similar approach for madonnas of these regions could open new perspectives on a discussion of these objects that has more or less run aground.

Black madonnas (also known as “black virgins”) are found in all Roman Catholic regions. They are mostly mid to late medieval images of Mary with Child, and are known as black due to their complexions, which can range in hue from light brown to black. They belong, almost exclusively, to three types. One is the imported Byzantine icon, or in the majority of cases, the Byzantine-style icon, which was produced in great quantities in thirteenth and fourteenth-century Italy. The second and third types are statues, generally around thirty inches in height, almost always wooden and painted (polychrome), rarely of stone or metal. The oldest are the enthroned madonnas of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the highest concentration of which is found in south-central France. So many of the Majestas-type images in this region are black that these vierges noires are often treated as the epitome of the black madonna, overshadowing the other types, probably due to the more extensive French scholarship on the phenomenon. In southern Germany and the Alpine region, the third type is more common: the statue of Mary standing, holding her Child on one arm, which dates from the late thirteenth to the mid-fifteenth century. [4] Prior to the nineteenth century, local madonnas were important as identification figures for individual communities, but each Catholic country had its generally recognized national center of Marian devotion, and, more times than not, this most highly regarded of all Marian images was black [5] : for the French, she was Notre Dame du Puy; in Spain, the Virgins of Guadalupe (Estremadura) and Montserrat (Catalonia); for Catholic Swiss, Unsere Liebe Frau von Einsiedeln near Zurich ; in northern Italy, the madonna in the Santa Casa of Loreto on the Adriatic coast near Ancona, whose influence and popularity extended beyond the Alps into Bavaria, where the most venerated image was the Schwarze Muttergottes of Altötting.

A clear definition is difficult: not only is the judgment of what is “dark enough” to be termed “black” subjective, but the application of the name “black madonna” to a particular image does not appear to follow any consistent set of rules. [6] Because of differing opinion among scholars on what makes a madonna black—a dark complexion in the eyes of a given viewer or the consensus of the local population and/or church officials—estimates of their number vary. [7] Suffice it to say that there is probably a core group of a few hundred European images generally accepted as black madonnas as well as many hundreds of secondary images, that is, copies placed in votive shrines. The vast majority of these date from the mid-sixteenth to mid-eighteenth centuries. [8]

With regard to dating, it is important to note that the point in time at which an image was created does not necessarily correspond to the point at which it became black, or known as black, nor does it correspond to the point at which the pilgrimage itself was established. Especially in the case of the primary shrines, the pilgrimage can have begun much earlier, focused on a different object, and later shifted to a Marian image, which is not necessarily (already) black. Even though many of the pilgrimage sites in question originated before the Reformation, I would not argue that they were necessarily devoted to madonnas known as black from the beginning. Subsidiary shrines present a bit of a different case. As copies of primary pilgrimage sites, they reproduce and represent a particular historical moment in the status of that cult and its visual scheme. Most of these subsidiary shrines, especially widespread in the southern German-speaking regions, were established in the post-Reformation period, [9] as part of the rise in devotion to miraculous Marian images in the course of the Counter-Reformation and, in Germany, after the Thirty Years’ War. Although we cannot be sure the secondary images were black from their creation, either, I will present evidence that supports the thesis that the common perception of the primary images as dark began no earlier than the proliferation of their copies.

The blackness of these madonnas is sometimes mentioned in general works on Marian art, but neither theologians nor art historians have devoted much attention to them. [10] This may be because, for a century or more, the dominant view among these scholars has been that the color of these images is not intentional but rather the result of discoloration due to the soot and smoke of candles and incense as well as chemical reactions in the paint. The Parisian architect and religious archaeologist Charles Rohault de Fleury is generally accepted as the first influential source of this hypothesis. In 1878, he suggested that silver plating on the images that had blackened with age had been misunderstood by copyists as intentional and therefore copied in black. All black madonnas stemmed, in his view, from this original misunderstanding. [11] In Germany, the Jesuit scholar of Marian art, Stephan Beissel, became the authority on this issue. He wrote in 1909 that the blackness of most images was not intentional: “Many types of paint, especially the vermilion and red lead used to make skin tones as well as the silver used here and there as the base, turn black with age . . . Other images of this kind stood for decades, even centuries, in the midst of innumerable candles, whose smoke blackened them.” [12] Although the novelty of a black madonna seems to be a source of pride for local pilgrimage centers today, among most scholars the phenomenon has been deemed rather uninteresting, as it is customarily considered to be nothing but darkening by candles and age and thus not warranting greater investigation or elaboration.

Considerable interest in these images has been shown of late in the field of depth psychology, in which black images of Mary are interpreted as Jungian archetypes [13] and, as in one particularly popular book, as representatives of heretical Christian and occult traditions. [14] These publications can draw not only on a long tradition of viewing Mary as the “feminine face of God” or even the “secret goddess of Christianity” but also on academic research. Scholars working from the perspective of comparative religion have maintained that the devotion to black madonnas is the continuation of cults of pre-Christian earth and mother goddesses who were also sometimes portrayed with black skin. This theory, which in Germany has its roots in Romantic Volkskunde beginning with Jakob Grimm, was developed further around the middle of the twentieth century in the works of the French art historian Marie Durand-Lefebvre (1937) and folklorist Emile Saillens (1945). [15] Leonard Moss, an American anthropologist who became interested in black madonnas after having come across one as a soldier in Italy in the 1940s, arrives at the same explanation, a viewpoint he first expressed in the United States at a conference in 1952, to very mixed reactions. [16] Most recently, the comparative religionist Stephen Benko has summarized this school of thought, which points to the erection of churches housing black madonnas on the sites of former temples to Cybele (as in Tindari, Sicily) and to the Ephesian Diana (for example, in Marseilles). [17] In another recent monograph, the feminist historian Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum bases her conception of black madonnas as “a metaphor for a memory” of earth-centered spirituality on the hypothesis that pre-Christian beliefs are preserved in folk culture. [18]

Where the discussion of black madonnas is concerned, the primary focus of interest has been on clarifying the origins of the fleshtones, then going from there. Thus it has not progressed much beyond the debate over whether the color came about intentionally or not, oscillating between extremes of exoticization and denial. [19] Those who argue that the color was intentional tend to place so much emphasis on the color alone, on its “mystery” and “power,” that one begins to wonder why anyone ever venerated a white image of Mary at all. Many attributes characterized by this school as unique to black madonnas are, in fact, equally represented among images of Mary never considered black—but since these scholars hardly look for meanings of these images from within the cult of Mary, they do not notice this. [20] Their standpoint is further weakened by the lack of empirical evidence supporting the view that not only morphology and function of pre-Christian images were adopted by Christian art but also their cultic meanings—that is, the “continuity theory” favored by this camp. On the other hand, the argument that the color is accidental has generally been used to imply that the blackness is secondary, if not utterly devoid of meaning. While this standpoint has the advantage that it views black images within the context of the cult of Mary as a whole, it tends to gloss over the color issue and thus fails to explain why so many pilgrimage shrines of the greatest renown housed black madonnas. Furthermore, the contention that they were not originally black leads many scholars to discount the significance of them eventually becoming (known as) black, and thus they are hard pressed to explain why as late as the nineteenth century, rather than being cleaned, madonnas were repainted black. [21] Both sides have largely missed engaging issues regarding the meanings of blackness on images of Mary for worshipers and the transformation of those meanings over time. [22] An 1890 collection of legends surrounding madonnas notes, “the blackness of these antique images was supposed to enhance their sanctity,” a remark that bears closer examination. [23]

Although the works of art historians Hans Belting, Michael Baxandall, and David Freedberg have provided interesting insights, my approach to this question is not as a member of their discipline. [24] Rather, it is informed by principles of symbolic anthropology, according to which religious symbols are to be understood from within the context in which they are used, using the internal logic of the local system. [25] The study is therefore grounded in a historical-anthropological method focused on describing those contexts from roughly the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Not only the images themselves but also the discourse on them, as well as representations of them (votive art, illustrations, etc.) form the material basis of this inquiry. Both image and text will be viewed in relation to the tides of popular devotion as they were influenced by the Catholic Church. Historical contextualization of these cults can lead to a clearer understanding of the symbolic meanings communicated by the dark skin of the madonna, if and when it was perceived as such. In this regard, my method relies on Baxandall’s notion of “cognitive style,” which firmly links perception to experience and thus to culture. I believe this approach avoids the pitfalls of previous scholarship on black madonnas outlined above by decentering the question of the color’s origin, making it instead part of an analysis of cult traditions and the complex interactions of elite and popular worship.

How can we know when the general characterization of these madonnas as black began? The intentionalist literature would have us believe that the images were black from their creation and were venerated as such. But no records of the commissioning of these works exist in which the color was specified, no reports from the artists’ workshops detailing the choices of paint for the flesh tones. Neither is reference made to the color of the cult images in fifteenth and early sixteenth-century records from the observer’s perspective, such as the Mirakelbücher [26] or pilgrim’s travelogues. [27] In late medieval illustrations, Marian images seem to be treated with a considerable lack of attention to detail, [28] and texts simply speak of the “image of Our Lady” but do not describe it. If any information is given in these texts at all, it comes from the legends telling of the image’s miraculous origins. These oral narratives were collected and published in the seventeenth century as part of a primarily Jesuit program to revitalize the cult of the miraculous Marian image. Particularly well received was the Atlas Marianus, a collection of cult legends surrounding 1,200 Marian pilgrimage centers worldwide, published by Wilhelm Gumppenberg in Munich in 1672. [29] In these narratives, whose primary function is to legitimate the pilgrimage, that is, provide information on the venerability of the object and the aura of the site, very little mention is made of the color of the madonnas now known as black. A comparison of the legend traditions from about sixty pilgrimage sites also does not reveal any consistent differences between legends surrounding black madonnas and those surrounding images not known as black. All share a common set of recurring motifs, such as the miraculous finding of the image in a tree, bush, well, spring, or underground place; the refusal of an image to leave a certain spot; the resistance to or revenge taken for damage or “wounding,” and so on. [30] Only one motif can be said to come up relatively often in connection with black madonnas: that of the prestigious artist—in most cases, St. Luke the Evangelist. Evidence for this legend in connection with Byzantine icons in the West goes as far back as the iconoclastic debates of eighth-century Constantinople, [31] but many madonnas that are said to be “true portraits” of Mary, painted from the life by St. Luke, acquired this status only in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Though far fewer in number than the icons, some statues are also said to have been created by St. Luke. As far as I have been able to ascertain, they are all black madonnas of the oldest, enthroned style, such as the madonna of Montserrat, with one prominent exception: the black madonna of Loreto, which is in the standing style. [32] But not all portraits by St. Luke are considered black, so not even this legend motif can be deciphered as a sure indication of a madonna’s status as black from the time of the legend’s genesis, much less its installment as a cult object.

This apparent lack of interest in the color of the images continues well into the seventeenth century. In an earlier, smaller compendium of Marian pilgrimage sites, [33] Gumppenberg included copperplate engravings illustrating the miraculous images. Even though attention to the accuracy of reproduction is greater than in the representations from the late fifteenth century, the facial features were left to the artist’s interpretation—if he had even viewed the original to begin with. And still, most of the madonnas known as black today are not shown with dark skin. If the descriptions of the images the artists were going on were anything like the descriptions offered in the accompanying text in the book, they did not include instructions on darkening the image’s complexion.

The Le Puy madonna is an exception here: it is depicted and described in the text as dark (fuscus), [34] suggesting perhaps an earlier perception of this madonna as black than the others in the compendium. [35] However, the madonna of Loreto—the very cult with particularly high status for the German Jesuits, and the one spreading all over the southern German-speaking regions in the seventeenth century—is shown as white. This is particularly odd, since it and other Italian images attributed to St. Luke appear to have been known as dark at least in some circles in the sixteenth century or even earlier. In 1571, the Dominican Gabriel de Barletta cites not only a thirteenth-century authority on the question of the Virgin’s complexion but also images renowned as true portraits, which he describes as dark:

You ask: Was the Virgin dark or fair? Albertus Magnus says that she was not simply dark, nor simply red-haired, nor just fair-haired . . . Mary was a blend of complexions, partaking of all of them, because a face partaking of all of them is a beautiful one . . . And yet this, says Albertus, we must admit: she was a little on the dark side. There are three reasons for thinking this—firstly by reason of complexion, since Jews tend to be dark and she was a Jewess; secondly by reason of witness, since St. Luke made the three pictures of her now at Rome, Loreto and Bologna, and these are brown-complexioned; thirdly, by reason of affinity. A son commonly takes after his mother, and vice versa; Christ was dark, therefore . . . [36]

Leonard Moss cites the Scots Catechism of 1552 as a direct reference to black madonnas: “[these statues] darkened into something not far from idolatry . . . when . . . one image of the Virgin [generally a black or ugly one] was regarded as more powerful for the help of suppliants.” [37] A Mirakelbuch from Altötting of 1674, about the same time as Gumppenberg’s work, mentions nothing of the madonna’s blackness in the text, but the copperplate frontispiece is highly suggestive of a dark complexion. [38]

So there is indeed evidence that, between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries, some of these images were known to be particularly dark. But the fact that the popular narrative tradition surrounding them does not refer to it at all makes one wonder how common a perception this was. An interesting source in this regard are the ex voto images dedicated to black madonnas by pilgrims, in most of which a representation of the miraculous image was integrated into a picture documenting the crisis in which the Virgin had successfully interceded on behalf of the donor. [39] At two sites in Bavaria, there are a large number of such votive plaques ranging from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. One is the large pilgrimage site at Altötting, where an impressive collection of thousands of votive images spanning five centuries are mounted on the walls of the chapel. The other is a small, rural chapel some twenty miles away from Altötting, in Teising bei Neumarkt-St. Veit, in which some sixty votive plaques are on display, the majority of the collection having been destroyed in a fire in the late nineteenth century. The chapel in Teising is a subsidiary Einsiedeln shrine established in 1627 by a local nobleman in gratitude for his wife’s recovery from a serious illness. Soon, the copy of the famous Swiss image began working wonders itself and developed a considerable local pilgrimage. [40]

The representations of these black madonnas in the votive art share a surprising pattern: they are “white,” that is, depicted with light skin, until about 1700. In Altötting, the earliest representations of a black madonna are from the last decade of the seventeenth century, alongside many still in the old style. In Teising, the earliest plaque with a depiction of the madonna as black is from 1739. Not until around 1750 are the representations of the cult object in both chapels always black. Does this prove that the madonnas of Altötting and Teising/Einsiedeln were not originally black? Did they indeed turn black from candle smoke beginning in the late seventeenth century? The comparison of the two chapels makes this conclusion less easy to draw: the cult in Teising was 150 years younger and the image exposed to far fewer candles than the Altötting madonna, and yet both suddenly appear black on votive tablets at the same time. Were both images painted black around this time? There has been speculation on whether the Altötting image might have been purposely darkened to make it more similar to the madonna of Loreto, but this is generally assumed to have been in the late sixteenth century. [41] One could contemplate how black the Einsiedeln original might have been around 1627 and to what extent this blackness was transferred in the creation of the Teising copy. [42] In either case, it was not represented in the early votive tablets, just as it was not part of the legends or learned illustrations of the seventeenth century. In fact, it was a century before the color appeared in the votive tablets.

I would argue that the votive tablets say far less about exactly when the madonnas turned black than about when they began to be perceived as black madonnas, a fact that is more closely connected with discourse on the images and the availability of interpretive schemes than with “actual” blackness. Therefore, although it is possible that some black madonnas were indeed not yet black at the time of Gumppenberg’s collection, the fact that he does not mention their blackness in his otherwise painstakingly thorough compendium is more likely an indication of the fact that, regardless of the actual color of the image, the concept of a black madonna had not yet been fully developed as an accolade heightening an image’s prestige. This would also explain why, although Gumppenberg provides an encyclopedic list of designations for the various images, the names referring to the blackness of some images are not mentioned. [43] If, therefore, the perception of an image as a black madonna was more dependent on it being talked about as black than on any actual gradation of skin color that could be measured on the image itself, what kind of discourse would have supported such a perception and when did it come about?

It is no accident that the Jesuits promoting the cult of the miraculous Marian image used the legends to support their cause. Legends are a highly important discourse framing these images, for they represent the primary semantic context in which miraculous images, regardless of color, were embedded. The reiteration of themes among holy sites familiar to the faithful heightens the plausibility of each one’s claim; the fact that the same types of events are connected with images generates a sense of recognition that reaffirms for believers the truth of all the legends. It is impossible to know just what kind of aesthetic effect a black madonna had on an average early modern worshiper. However, for the faithful, the recurring motifs of oral tradition provide a relevant fabric of meanings into which cult images were woven. They provide a key to understanding where blackness of the image would have fit in for the common worshiper, that is, what sense would have been made of it. Three narrative motifs are particularly significant.

First, many legends emphasize the age of the image. This can probably be seen as the background of the most frequent motif: inventio, the miraculous finding of the image, sometimes after it had been lost or hidden away from infidels for centuries. [44] Antiquity as an attribute of prestige not only follows the aristocratic model of heritage, whose value increases the farther back in time the family line can be traced, but also the notion that the older an image of Mary is, the greater the proximity to the time in which she lived and indeed to her. In a sense, this theme reaches its logical extreme in the second important motif, the story of St. Luke and the true portrait. This story is also related to a third theme frequently encountered in legends: that of the image’s origin in or near the Holy Land. It is then often said to have been found by an early Christian pilgrim, such as St. Helena, or brought back by Crusaders. [45] Visualization of this motif was achieved in the Byzantine style used for paintings and in the type of wood claimed for statues. The dark color of a statue could have suggested not only aged wood but also precious types such as ebony or cedar thought to grow only in the Eastern Mediterranean. In sum, the legends indicate that blackness is part of a triad of mutually reinforcing attributes: Eastern provenance, antiquity, and the legend of the true portrait. The color could serve as a visual metaphor for authenticity, augmenting the message of the legend motifs and supporting them in their legitimizing function, and ultimately, proving useful in cult promotion.

Two aspects of this popular, or folk, understanding of the color within the context of the legends are important to note: it was tacit, and it applied primarily to the object, not the person depicted. This is not the case in theologically informed interpretations. Blackness becomes explicit in the discourse on these madonnas when the biblical phrase “nigra sum sed formosa” (Song of Solomon 1: 5) is used to understand them. [46] On one level, placing these images in the interpretive context of the Song of Songs connects them with a longstanding exegetical tradition of identifying Mary with the church, the bride of Christ. [47] On another, “I am black but beautiful” was useful as an interpretive aid to bridge over the grave dissonance felt between blackness/sinfulness and beauty/virtue, as in the iconography of black skin in religious art, as well as to counteract negative connotations of the color in folk traditions. [48] In Teising, there is evidence of this kind of interpretation being offered the faithful: at the centennial celebration of the chapel in 1726, a sermon was preached that uses the Song of Songs to make sense of the image’s blackness. [49] Father Benedikt Frumb begins with the blackness of the bride in the Song of Solomon, who is black and yet beautiful, and asks: “Who can believe that? . . . Who does not know that the color black has always been considered a metaphor and sign of sadness, grief and hideousness?” [50] In the rest of the sermon, Frumb explains how, through the love between the bride (Mary/the church) and the groom (Jesus/God), this opposition is transformed. The blackness comes, for example, from the grief Mary feels at the Crucifixion. [51] The power of her love is likened to the sun, which darkens the skin of the bride. Finally, Frumb interprets blackness as a symbol of the humble attitude of the bride of the Song of Solomon, which parallels Mary’s at the Annunciation. He then presents this humility as the great advantage of the madonna of Teising, who would turn no supplicant away. [52]

The earliest votive tablet on display in Teising that includes the blackness of the madonna was donated by a nobleman in 1739, thirteen years after this sermon. [53] Could the sermon’s explicit interpretation of the blackness have generated an awareness of it as an essential and meaningful part of the image, only then making it part of the representation on votive plaques? In Einsiedeln itself, the earliest explicit reference to the image’s blackness comes from a sermon in 1698, in which Mary is characterized as a blacksmith: “This black color of the holy image, these blackened walls, this steam and smoke in the holy chapel persuade me . . . that this must be a wondrous forge in which, by way of the holiest Mother of God, through her fiery, motherly love, the arrows and rays of God’s wrath are forged and changed into so many arrows of grace and mercy.” [54] Considering that the chapel inside the great Benedictine church had been recently renovated—beginning in 1617 and again in 1683, until the entire structure was covered in black marble, making the inside dark but for the light of the candles and lamps burning there, [55] black had become an interpretive element of the architectural framing of the image as well. [56] The impression of the chapel in Altötting would have been similar: the immense silver altar framing the madonna as well as the rest of the dark chapel interior was created in the years following the Thirty Years’ War. [57] It would seem that, by the turn of the eighteenth century, the color black was becoming an integral part of the dramatic presentation of these cult images. [58]

The larger context here is a pilgrimage revival initiated in part by reform measures, which, instead of simply suppressing “superstitious” popular belief, began harnessing its energy while controlling its forms of expression in an explosion of organized rituals, prayers, processions, and the like. The wars of the seventeenth century, causing great suffering and destitution of the population, also created a greater need among believers for heavenly aid. The majority of local pilgrimage centers in southern Germany were founded during or immediately following the Thirty Years’ War. [59] These included many copies of the chapels in Loreto, Einsiedeln, and Altötting, but it also meant that other, older chapels that had fallen into disuse during the Reformation were reactivated. In most Catholic (or re-Catholicized) territories, Jesuits were assigned the task of (re)establishing pilgrimage sites, processional activities, congregations, and sodalities dedicated to specific Marian cults. Concrete measures emerging from the decisions of the Council of Trent took time to arrive at the local level and in many areas of Germany were delayed by the war, so they were not fully implemented in many areas until about 1660. [60] As one of the elements of Catholic devotion that clearly distinguished it from Protestantism, image veneration was strongly promoted. Medieval shrines and centuries-old images were given special emphasis. Focus on the miraculous image was not an innovation of the Counter-Reformation, but it took on new significance in opposition to Reformation iconoclasm. Whether the reinstated images had been regarded as miraculous before was not necessarily provable in every case. As one scholar of German popular piety, Hans Dünninger, has pointed out,

Due to the lack of written documentation and as a result of undependable oral traditions, revitalized pilgrimages acquired the reputation for having been centers of an image cult as early as the Middle Ages. Under the changed circumstances [of the Counter-Reformation], one could not imagine there might have been such a thing as a pilgrimage without a cult image. Thus, pre-Baroque paintings or statues came to be seen as having been miraculous images of medieval pilgrimages. Not infrequently, they are even claimed to have triggered the pilgrimage. [61]

Be that as it may, the point that Gumppenberg’s collection is part and parcel of revival activity as an “invention of tradition”—in the sense of discovering certain forms and interpreting their historical significance in terms of current motivations and needs—is well taken. Gumppenberg must be read as a discourse on idealized pre-Reformation, unified Catholicism, epitomized in an imagined form of image-focused Marian devotion at illustrious pilgrimage sites. The continual use of the attribute uralt (ancient) in the ancient legends refers to an idealized Middle Ages, or even to the first Christians, in refutation of the Protestant notion of an image-less original church. [62]

This perspective sheds an important light on the history of black madonnas. It suggests that in the course of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, black madonnas may have reached the apogee of their popularity because they came to embody this imagined medieval tradition. The visual metaphor of blackness and the legends surrounding them were essential parts of this performance: in mutual reinforcement, they supported the image’s claim to authenticity, which is why both might have been more or less consciously implemented by cult promoters. Even though he does not single out black madonnas, Belting notes in this regard: “The myth of origin also guaranteed the rank of a particular image, which was derived from its age (or supernatural creation). Age was a quality that should be perceptible in its form. Therefore, the form also had a (real or fabricated) evocative value. Archaism as a fiction of age is among the characteristics of a new cult image.” [63] Clearly, not all images favored by the Jesuits were black, and I am not suggesting that all black madonnas were blackened for this purpose. Indeed, in sixteenth to eighteenth-century Jesuit writings on image theology, hardly any explicit mention of black madonnas is made. [64] But the framing of the images in traditional narratives and visual presentation drew attention to and gave meaning to the blackness of an image. Whether it was already visible or in fact “helped along” to its blackness at this time is not as important as the point that the color eventually became an indispensible visual marker for these particular images. [65] In this sense, black madonnas are more a product of Counter-Reformation image theology than of medieval popular religion. Indeed, the popular reception of the concept of a black madonna seems not to have taken hold, at least in Germany, until the early eighteenth century, as the votive tablets show.

A rare document of artistic work on a black madonna, from the turn of the nineteenth century, shows how the color had become an identifying element of the Einsiedeln madonna, guaranteeing its authenticity. Miraculous images had begun to come under attack by the anticlerical forces of the French Revolution. In France, many black madonnas were destroyed at this time—including the illustrious madonna of Le Puy, on June 8, 1794. [66] In the face of such events, the madonna of Einsiedeln was hidden away in Austria when republican troops approached the area. By the year 1799, the statue had suffered considerable damage and had to be restored. In his report, the restorer, Johann Adam Fuetscher, writes:

The face was thoroughly black; yet this color is not attributable to the paintbrush, but rather the smoke of the candles and lamps that have been burning constantly in the holy chapel of Einsiedeln for so many centuries; for I found and saw it obviously that the paint on the face had been flesh-colored in the beginning, which can be well recognized on the flakes that had fallen off and have been saved.
I found the face and the hair of the Child sitting on the left arm, with regard to the color, like the Mother. The body of the same, as anyone can clearly see, is painted in flesh tones, which is clear proof that the face of the Child as well as the Mother were painted according to nature [nach der Natur] . . .
After I had removed everything loose and easily detached from the face, and smoothed out as much as possible the firmly affixed bits of paint, I proceeded to paint the entire face of the mother as well as the child with black paint, similar to the previous color, also on those parts where the previous black color held on; that is where the elevations that one can see here and there come from. [67]

Fuetscher goes on to note that, because the image was carved with open eyes, “but because of the black color seemed to be eyeless,” he was advised to paint rosier cheeks and lips onto the image as well as blue irises onto the eyes. But when the image was put on display in Bludenz, where the work was being done, several individuals who had seen the image before expressed their doubt that this madonna was in fact the original. At the request of an Einsiedeln monastery official, Fuetscher repainted the face, eyes and all, in black “as it was before.” [68]

A document like this is not simply proof that this madonna was never intended to be black, allowing us to dismiss the issue altogether. Rather, it illustrates the multivocality of the blackness. The madonna, according to the custom of the time, was always “dressed,” so that only the face and hands of Mary and Jesus were exposed to the candle smoke, which apparently blackened them. And yet it did not occur to the artist to restore the original color. The slightest deviance from the image’s familiar appearance aroused protest among believers. This document vividly illustrates how sacred meaning can exist in tandem with profane interpretation. In Altötting, too, the candle-smoke theme has, since the nineteenth century, become integrated into the legends told of the madonna [69] —for what more eloquent proof of the veneration of centuries of believers can one ask than the complexion of a madonna darkened by ritual devotion in the form of millions of candles? In a sense, it is a positivistic twist on the theme of the uralt image, as well as visible proof of long tradition—the central category of Counter-Reformation image theology and a criterion more important than artistic virtuosity or accuracy of representation.

I have argued that blackness connoted age and Eastern provenance, which guaranteed authenticity [70] —itself closely linked to miraculous power [71] —and that this symbolic potential could have been tacitly integrated into the narrative and visual framing of uralt images, beginning in earnest in the later seventeenth century. The first explicit explanation of the color was the biblical reference offered by clerics. The use of the phrase “nigra sum sed formosa,” however, makes an important shift in emphasis: it is no longer a black image of Mary that is spoken of but an image of a black Mary.

If black madonnas were read as depictions of Mary as the bride of the Song of Songs, was she then understood to be depicted as an African woman? We have seen in the eighteenth-century sermon in Teising that the blackness of the bride/Mary is interpreted symbolically. Most commentaries on the “nigra sum” passage also interpreted the bride’s blackness allegorically, as the soul fallen from grace, or as the Gentile Church. This latter interpretation comes from an influential third-century commentary by the theologian Origen, who saw in the bride the queen of Sheba, generally known to be African. [72] But she is not often portrayed with black skin prior to the mid-fifteenth century. When she is, such as in the late twelth-century altar by Nicolas Verdun in Klosterneuburg near Vienna, the color is not complemented by secondary characteristics typical for depictions of Africans, even at that time—in fact, she has long, golden hair, as does the Einsiedeln madonna. It appears that the blackness of the bride only connotes Africanness if she is connected with the queen of Sheba, and even then, the allegorical meanings appear to be primary. The queen of Sheba, though conceived of as African, is primarily seen as representing the Gentiles, like the bride, whom Paul Kaplan describes as “a character largely divorced from ethnic considerations, who represents a facet of religious belief rather than a material segment of the universe of the faithful.” [73]

The medieval and early modern terminology for blacks also stems from a dominance of religious categories over racial considerations: like the English term “moor,” in Germany, Africans were subsumed under the term “Mohr” until the end of the eighteenth century. This term was religiously unambiguous, since it almost always referred to a Muslim, but ethnically quite ambiguous, as it encompassed Turks, Arabs, even Indians, as well as Ethiopians. [74] The material amassed for the second volume of the comprehensive study The Image of the Black in Western Art led the authors to conclude: “Until the end of the fifteenth century the representation of the black was based on symbolic rather than ethnological considerations.” [75] Although the statement is perhaps too broad, the evidence points to a perception of the black in which anthropological precision took a back seat to symbolic, primarily religious, categories. Given this more tenuous link between skin color and ethnicity, the question as to whether a black-complected image of the Virgin properly represented Mary’s racial heritage would have been secondary, if it would have been asked at all. There is occasional mention in early texts such as Gabriel de Barletta’s (above) that the dark skin color has to do with Mary’s Jewishness, thus making even stronger the claim of the image’s authenticity. But I maintain that black skin on Marian images was multiply encoded and that its symbolic value as a marker of ethnic or racial origin was not primary until the turn of the nineteenth century.

The range of meanings narrowed when the concept of distinct, color-coded human races was developed in scientific discourse. At first, when in 1735 the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus divided humanity into four distinct groups, black, white, red, and yellow, this was no more than an idea in the heads of a few scholars. By the 1770s, when Johann Friedrich Blumenbach developed a system of five groups that were associated with the colors white, black, red, yellow, and brown, and a lively debate over the definition of race had developed, the convergence of aesthetic and political considerations—blackness of skin and the justification of slavery—was fully under way. [76]

As we have seen, the negative connotations of black as a color could be allegorically reversed in reference to the Song of Songs. Beginning around 1800, this interpretive aid would have increasingly lost its effectiveness, as a more deeply essentialist notion of race-as-color became commonplace. In Germany, the ambiguous term “Mohr,” though still in use, was recognized as less precise than the various anthropological terms—in the case of black Africans it was “Neger,” a borrowing from the Romance languages which implies the color designation—and it becomes common to refer to “black” and “white” people. [77]

But before the notion that skin color is first and foremost a racial sign becomes apparent in secular commentary on black madonnas, aesthetic considerations are at the fore. Leonard Moss and Stephen Cappannari cite the following remark by Henry Swinburne, from Travel in the Two Sicilies on the Madonna di Constantinopoli in a Benedictine abbey in Monte Vergine near Naples: “This image is of gigantic or heroic proportion, and passes for the work of St. Luke the Evangelist, though the very size is an argument against its being a portrait from the life, had we even the slightest reason to believe he ever handled the pencil. There are in Italy and elsewhere some dozens of black, ugly Madonnas, which all pass for the work of his hands, and as such are revered.” [78] Although the Council of Trent had instituted an evaluation process for all cult images, eliminating those that did not conform to the newly established criteria, which emphasized the “beauty and piety” of the images, the black madonnas were not affected. The portraits attributed to St. Luke were, in fact, often referred to as particularly beautiful, their aesthetic being based on their cultic value. [79] But outside the religious context, in the age of Johann Winckelmann and the idealization of classical Greek art, blackness represented the antithesis of everything beautiful. [80] Even Karl Marx, in 1856, knew of the notorious ugliness of black madonnas, as he wrote in a letter to his wife: “Bad as your portrait is, it serves me to the best purposes, and now I understand how even the ‘black Madonnas,’ the most offensive of the portraits of the divine mother, could find indestructible veneration, and even more venerators than did the good portraits.” [81]

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also expressed a sense of aesthetic disappointment in black madonnas in a comment from 1816: “How the most unhappy of all appearances could have crept in—that, probably for Egyptian or Abessinian reasons, the Mother of God is portrayed as brown, and the face of Our Savior printed on Veronica’s veil was also given a moorish color—may be clarified when that part of art history is more closely examined.” [82] His is the earliest example of an explicit linkage of the images to a portrayal of African ethnicity known to me. Never before the nineteenth century does a black virgin evoke African race—only implicitly, if one follows the exegesis of the “nigra sum” verse that views the bride as an Ethiopian. But biblical interpretations of images and pious legends are thoroughly rejected by intellectuals committed to the German Aufklärung, like Theodor Mundt. He writes in his recollections of a visit to Czestochowa, published in 1840, with the unconcealed disdain for the rites of pilgrimage and their participants typical of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century rationalist discourse. The “schwarze Maria” he mocks evokes for him nothing but ethnic associations. Even though he ridicules the belief that the icon was painted by St. Luke, he finds the legend plausible where it connects the image to Byzantium, “where all kinds of Egyptian and Ethiopian elements could have played into giving the Virgin Mary this skin color.” [83]

The ascendancy of African origin as that which is necessarily signified by black skin meant that the earlier perceptions and meanings of black madonnas were more or less submerged. The blackness’s former multivocality was narrowed to one meaning: race—in particular, one into which Mary could not be fit. In contrast to those black images meant to depict Africans, such as the Black Magus or St. Maurice, it would have become increasingly difficult as the nineteenth century progressed for people to explain why Mary, whom they knew to be a Jewish woman from Palestine, was portrayed as an African. Even for the very pious, this would have undermined dramatically the value of black madonnas as actual portraits of Mary and made the legends that associated these images with St. Luke highly implausible. The color, once a sign of authenticity and venerability, was no longer understood in this way, as reported in the case of the madonna of Chastreix: When it was painted black in 1892, [84] parishioners complained “that their Virgin had been made a negress.” [85] The allegorical meaning of the skin provided by the “nigra sum” verse could partially be integrated into the modern encoding of black skin as a primary signifier of race, [86] but the more subtle authenticating effect of the dark color connected with the pious legends was lost and, with it, any other plausible basis for the intentionality of the color. Black madonnas then became the enigmas they are made out to be today.

Not surprising, then, that the accidentalist theory took hold in the mid-nineteenth century, not only within the Catholic Church because of its opposition to the comparative religionist stance, but also because this theory resolved the cognitive dissonance created by the racial encoding of black skin. This development corresponded with a new conception of Mary’s appearance that began with the highly popularized French apparition cults of the mid-nineteenth century. The images of the Miraculous Medal (based on the visions of Catherine Labouré in Paris in 1830) and of Lourdes (based on the visions of Bernadette Soubirous in 1858), like their medieval predecessors, claimed authenticity, but, unlike earlier cult images, they were closely associated with the new dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and their visual scheme was dominated by the color white. The cults, promoted by the church with an intensity not seen in a century and with modern instruments of industrialized production and railway transportation, dominated devotion to Mary during the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. [87] Visions and apparitions patterned after these cults continued on up to Fatima in 1917 and later. Each reappearance of Mary as a European woman reaffirmed her whiteness, adding another layer of sediment to the social construction of her appearance. After the scientific assertion that black madonnas are “actually” white, [88] the most sympathetic interpretation left for the blackness was as a patina resulting from intense devotion or simply age (a modernization of the theme from the legends?), all the while corroborating the “truth” of Mary’s whiteness.

The history of the changing perception of black madonnas is, of course, also a story about its transition from sacred object to work of art. The accidentalist theory explaining their blackness makes sense only if these images are seen as material objects with a history, rather than miraculously appearing emissaries from heaven. And the question “why are they black?” can only be asked when they are seen as products of an artist, however anonymous. This general development among religious images is also part of what makes black madonnas open for racial associations and other desacralizing interpretations. [89] It is not that these madonnas lost their sanctity because they were perceived as African but that the loss of their aura helped bring non-religious strata of meaning to the fore, most forcibly a secularized notion of accurate representation and the question of race. The idea of a black madonna as possibly African was not disturbing enough to cause any reference to it until the early nineteenth century, and then it was primarily among those for whom sacred meanings were invalid—rationalist, even anti-Catholic, intellectuals. Although the old and new style of perception surely existed side by side, the characterization of black madonnas as “mysteries” so often encountered today has to do with the modern inability to see past skin-color-as-race, or, to paraphrase Zygmunt Bauman, with the modern mind’s intolerance of ambiguity. The (re-)sacralization of these objects today takes place primarily among followers of a New Age–style spirituality, picking up on the continuity theory and its literature but taking the (ethnically coded) blackness of the madonna as the necessary starting point.

Historicizing our perception of black madonnas may be the necessary first step to reapproaching these figures with new questions. This has been a primary aim of this article, namely, to show how a closer look at the contexts in which black madonnas were venerated can, to a certain extent, demystify their color. A further objective was to add a small tile to the developing mosaic of knowledge about the European perception of black skin through history. At the same time, it has been a study in how meanings can be lost and thus render an image (or an aspect of it) illegible. In response to much of the literature on black virgins in particular, it should have become clear that most of these images are probably far less archaic than their presentation would have us believe, and that it is always wise to keep a careful eye on the Baroque predilection for appropriating medieval forms in a highly selective fashion. It is my hope that the implications regarding the origins of black madonnas may have opened up a new perspective on these objects.

The first incarnation of this article was a Magisterarbeit written at Tübingen University under the guidance of Gottfried Korff, to whom thanks are due for advice in the early phase of research. I also thank the organizers and participants of the conference “The German Invention of Race” at Harvard University in May 2001 for their encouragement and comments, as well as Christine Beil, Nikolaus Buschmann, Andrea Hoffmann, Christian Rak, Klaus Schreiner, Keith Vincent, Ralph Winkle, and John Zilcosky for taking the time to read various versions of the piece and giving valuable feedback. I should also like to express my warmest appreciation to the AHR readers and editors for their insightful comments and helpful suggestions. Finally, I also owe a debt of gratitude to the Ludwig-Uhland-Institut für Empirische Kulturwissenschaft in Tübingen as well as its photographer, Martin Schreier, for financial and technical support in the preparation of the illustrative material.
Monique Scheer is a graduate of Stanford University (BA, History) and currently a PhD candidate at the University of Tübingen, Germany, in the department of Empirical Cultural Studies/European Ethnology, where her major field of interest is popular religion. Her dissertation project on war experience and the cult of the Immaculate Conception is being funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

 

Notes
1 On a constructivist definition of popular religious art, see David Morgan, Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images (Berkeley, Calif., 1998).

2 The series edited by Ladislas Bugner, The Image of the Black in Western Art, clearly demonstrates how the portrayal of human beings with black skin must be correlated with the portrayal and perception of Africans. See, for this time period, Vol. 2 by Jean Devisse, From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”: Part 1—From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood, Part 2—Africans in the Christian Ordinance of the World (Cambridge, Mass., 1979).

3 This theoretical position is also succinctly described in Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (Oxford, 1972), 29–30. See also Thomas Luckmann, The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society (New York, 1967), esp. chap. 3; and Morgan, Visual Piety, 1–17.

4 Mary and the baby Jesus are always both shown as black. I am aware of only a few examples where Mary is black and the Child is white (seventeenth and eighteenth-century copies of Loreto madonnas) and of no examples of the reverse. Debate has centered on the depiction of Mary as black since Jesus’ color is assumed for various reasons to be derived from hers.

5 In the quantitative study of contemporary pilgrimage shrines by Mary Lee Nolan and Sidney Nolan, Christian Pilgrimage in Modern Western Europe (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1989), they find “Forty percent of the dark images are venerated at shrines classified as major pilgrimage centers, in contrast with fifteen percent of the light images. Thus, a cult image characterized by darkness of skin tone is well over twice as likely as a light image to be venerated at a shrine with substantial visitation from an extensive area, and even more likely than usual to be found as a primary cult image at an extremely important shrine” (p. 207). However, the caveats below regarding statistics on these images due to the difficulties in defining them also apply here.

6 Some images have a light complexion and yet are referred to by local tradition as black because they were darker prior to a recent restoration. For “whitened” images in Italy (in Lucera, Montenero, Avellino, and Chiaramonte Gulfi), see Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion and Politics in Italy (Boston, 1993), 3. In France, the images in Tournus and Orcival were “restored” to a lighter color in 1860 and 1959, respectively, although they are still referred to by the local population as vierges noires; see Sophie Cassagnes-Brouquet, Vierges noires: Regard et fascination (Rodez, 1990), 89–91 and 102–03 (incl. photos). Copies of black madonnas in which the dark skin was not reproduced, as well as madonnas that appear to the average viewer to be quite dark and yet are not referred to as such, present authors such as Ean Begg with problems when attempting to catalog these images; see his gazeteer of over 500 black madonnas in Europe and the Americas: The Cult of the Black Virgin, 2d edn. (London, 1996), 153–293.

7 French scholars estimate that there are some 180 black madonnas in France alone. See Marie Durand-Lefebvre, Etude sur l’origine des Vierges Noires (Paris, 1937); Emile Saillens, Nos vierges noires leurs origines (Paris, 1945); Cassagnes-Brouquet, Vierges noires. Jacques Huynen, L’énigme des Vierges Noires (Paris, 1972), distinguishes between “authentic” black madonnas and those “artificially” blackened (p. 185), and thus counts fewer. These authors count some sixty to seventy black madonnas outside France, although they do not clearly distinguish between main shrines and secondary images that have developed their own pilgrimages. In the German literature, Franz A. Schmitt, “Vom Geheimnis der Schwarzen Madonnen,” Königsteiner Jahrbüchlein (1957): 85–87, is often cited; he counts 272 black madonnas in all of Europe, 188 of which are in France. Leonard Moss, who produced the first study in English, reports having collected 100 examples of black madonnas in the course of his research. See Leonard W. Moss and Stephen C. Cappannari, “In Quest of the Black Virgin: She Is Black Because She Is Black,” in Mother Worship: Theme and Variations, James J. Preston, ed. (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1982), 53–74. The Nolans counted 167 in their Europe-wide statistic, Christian Pilgrimage, 202.

8 No comprehensive study of these secondary images has been done, so their number can only be pieced together and estimated. Stephan Beissel, Wallfahrten zu Unserer Lieben Frau in Legende und Geschichte (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1913), mentions 142 Loreto chapels in Europe. Gerhard P. Woeckel, Pietas Bavarica: Höfische Kunst und Bayerische Frömmigkeit 1550–1848 (Weissenhorn, 1992), cites a 1972 study counting 272 copies of the Altötting image worldwide (p. 349). Odilo Ringholz, Wallfahrtsgeschichte Unserer Lieben Frau von Einsiedeln: Ein Beitrag zur Culturgeschichte (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1896), lists 49 copies of the madonna of Einsiedeln in Europe, although most are in the Swiss and the Alpine regions (pp. 175–76). See also Cassagnes-Brouquet, Vierges noires, 126–33, on copies of the Le Puy madonna. Nolan and Nolan, Christian Pilgrimage, 107–08, also note a seventeenth-century peak in secondary shrine formation in the South German region, specifically those to Loreto, Einsiedeln, and Altötting.

9 See Nolan and Nolan, Christian Pilgrimage: “Subsidiary shrines, where copies of black images are venerated, are . . . much more recent on the average than other dark image shrines. The oldest date from the fifteenth century, and 89 percent of the 43 that could be assigned to time periods were established after 1530” (pp. 207–08). They find it “tempting to speculate that a generalized association of dark skin tones with miraculous qualities was yet another Renaissance innovation,” since there was a “proliferation of shrines subsidiary to dark images during and after that period” (pp. 208–09). However, it must be pointed out that only 11 percent of their own sample originates from before 1530, which would place the emphasis squarely on the post-Renaissance period. Furthermore, as they themselves are aware (p. 208), the presence of a dark image in a shrine at the time their data were gathered does not mean it was dark at the time of shrine establishment.

10 Except in France, where art historians Durand-Lefebvre (Etude sur l’origine) and Cassagnes-Brouquet (Vierges noires) have devoted monographs to the topic. In Germany, theologians specializing in Marian art have made article-length contributions: Martin Lechner, “‘Schön schwarz bin ich’—zur Ikonographie der schwarzen Madonnen der Barockzeit,” Heimat an Rott und Inn (1971): 44–61; Schmitt, “Vom Geheimnis.” The articles on pilgrimage and Marian art in the Handbuch der Marienkunde, vol. 2 (1997), say nothing to the topic. Although a section is devoted to the Loreto madonna (pp. 467–68), for example, it mentions nowhere that it is widely known as a black madonna.

11 See Ilene H. Forsyth, Throne of Wisdom: Wood Sculptures of the Madonna in Romanesque France (Princeton, N.J., 1972), 21; as well as Saillens, Nos vierges noires, 30; and Cassagnes-Brouquet, Vierges noires, 169–70. This explanation is curious, however, since the silver plating applied to most images did not cover the skin parts.

12 Stephan Beissel, Geschichte der Verehrung Marias in Deutschland während des Mittelalters: Ein Beitrag zur Religionswissenschaft und Kunstgeschichte (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1909), 345. (My translation here and in all subsequent quotations from foreign-language publications.)

13 See, for example, Fred Gustafson, The Black Madonna (Boston, 1990); Ursula Kröll, Das Geheimnis der schwarzen Madonnen: Entdeckungsreisen zu Orten der Kraft (Stuttgart, 1998); China Galland, Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna, a Ten-Year Journey (New York, 1990).

14 Begg, Cult of the Black Virgin.

15 Jakob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie (Göttingen, 1835), 195, n. 1: “the ancients also depicted the wrathful earth goddess Demeter as black …, indeed, from time to time even her daughter, Persephone, the fair maiden . . . Pausanius mentions the black Aphrodite (Melanis) . . . [T]he Ephesian black Diana is well known, as is the fact that in the Middle Ages black images of Mary were carved and painted; the Holy Virgin appears then as a mourning goddess of the earth or the night: images such as this at Loretto, Naples, Einsiedeln, Würzburg …, Öttingen …, Puy …, Marseilles and elsewhere” (emphasis in the original).

16 Moss and Cappannari, “In Quest of the Black Virgin,” 55: “Apparently our discussion touched the raw nerves of some rather religious members of the audience, for every priest and nun walked out. Other reactions were less hostile, and we were urged to submit a somewhat lengthier version of our thesis for publication . . . [I]mmediately [afterwards] the chaplain of the Newman Club at Wayne State University gave a sermon in which he fulminated against the campus atheists who would defile the name of the Blessed Virgin.” My thanks to Uli Linke for providing me with an offprint of their original paper, titled “The Black Madonna: An Example of Cultural Borrowing,” published in The Scientific Monthly 76, no. 6 (June 1953): 319–24.

17 Stephen Benko, The Virgin Goddess: Studies in the Pagan and Christian Roots of Mariology (Leiden, 1993), 213–16. It must be pointed out that many sites of Christian worship, to Mary and other saints, black and not black, were formerly non-Christian. This school of thought is also connected to an argument that sees black madonnas as African imports: see Danita Redd, “Black Madonnas of Europe: Diffusion of the African Isis,” in African Presence in Early Europe, Ivan Van Sertima, ed. (New Brunswick, N.J., 1985), 108–33.

18 Birnbaum, Black Madonnas, 3–15.

19 See David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago, 1989), 13–17, for a description of how scholars can “resolutely fail to notice” unpleasant or somehow embarrassing elements of images and take great pains to explain away or simply deny “pictorial facts.”

20 Cassagnes-Brouquet, Vierges noires, 39–74, does look at Christian legends for meanings, identifying certain motifs as “typical” for black madonnas, which, however, they are not.

21 Some examples: The Einsiedeln madonna was repainted black in 1799 (see artist’s report in Ringholz, Wallfahrtsgeschichte, 36, and below). The Altötting image was restored in 1911, remaining faithful to the original colors, according to Robert Bauer, Bayrische Wallfahrt Altötting, 2d edn. (Munich, 1980), 28. The Czestochowa icon was darkened in the nineteenth century according to Moss and Cappannari, “In Quest of the Black Virgin,” 57. The madonna of Marsat was painted black in 1830 (Cassagnes-Brouquet, Vierges noires, 86–87) and the madonna of Chastreix in 1892 (Cassagnes-Brouquet, Vierges noires, 258–59, and below). Ilene Forsyth, an expert on the seated Romanesque madonnas of France, had only this to say about the issue of their frequent blackening: “The reasons for these alterations have to do with religious customs of the communities in which the Majesties are honored”; Throne of Wisdom, 21.

22 The discussion of black madonnas in Klaus Schreiner, Maria: Jungfrau, Mutter, Herrscherin (Munich, 1994), 213–48, is the only scholarly treatment of the subject known to me that engages the question of believers’ perceptions and the interpretive schemes they had available. Although his assumption of the fundamental “foreignness” of black madonnas is somewhat problematic, his approach is infinitely more useful than most of the literature on these images.

23 Mrs. Jameson, Legends of the Madonna (New York, 1890), quoted in Moss and Cappannari, “In Quest of the Black Virgin,” 53–54.

24 Hans Belting, Bild und Kult: Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst (Munich, 1990); Baxandall, Painting and Experience; as well as Michael Baxandall, The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (New Haven, Conn., 1980); and Freedberg, Power of Images.

25 As Clifford Geertz put it in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973), “It is explication I am after, construing social expressions on their surface enigmatical” (p. 5). In Victor and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (Oxford, 1978), the authors are more focused on ritual action, but their approach can also be made useful for the analysis of images, as it “refers to the interpretation of symbols operating as dynamic systems of signifiers (the outward forms), their meanings, and changing modes of signification, in the context of temporal sociocultural processes” (p. 243).

26 These were small booklets distributed throughout the countryside reporting the miracles that had taken place at a particular pilgrimage site—for Altötting, a particularly well-documented pilgrimage site, copies have been preserved from as far back as 1492. They continued to be produced well into the seventeenth century. Woeckel, Pietas Bavarica, 349–54.

27 German travelers to Santiago or Rome often took the route through Einsiedeln. Theodor Hampe, “Deutsche Pilgerfahrten nach Santiago de Compostella und das Reisetagebuch des Sebald Örtel (1521–22),” Mitteilungen aus dem Germanischen Nationalmuseum (1895): 61–82; Hermann Künig von Vach, Die Walfarth und Strass zu Sankt Jakob (Strasbourg, 1495); Reisebuch der Familie Rieter, R. Röhricht and H. Meisner, eds. (Tübingen, 1884); Des böhmischen Herrn Leo’s von Rozmital Ritter-, Hof- und Pilger-reise durch die Abendlande 1465–1467: Beschrieben von zweien seiner Begleiter, J. A. Schmeller, ed. (Stuttgart, 1844).

28 Copperplate engravings made in 1466 by the master E.S. as souvenirs from Einsiedeln, for example, do not represent the image there at that time accurately; see Belting, Bild und Kult, 477. Late fifteenth-century Mirakelbücher from Altötting are often illustrated with images of Mary that have little resemblance to the actual statue in the chapel at that time. See Gabriela Signori, “Das spätmittelalterliche Gnadenbild: Eine nachtridentinische ‘Invention of Tradition’?” David Ganz and Georg Henkel, eds., Rahmen-Diskurse: Kultbilder im konfessionellen Zeitalter (forthcoming).

29 Guilielmo [Wilhelm] Gumppenberg, Atlas Marianus: Quo sanctae Dei genitricis Mariae imaginum miraculosarum origines duodecim historiarum centuriis explicantur (Munich, 1672). The images are ordered according to location and rank. The first is Loreto; the second is the icon of Santa Maria Maggiore, later widely known as a black madonna, whose cult had had the particular support of the Jesuit order since 1569, when it sent copies to all the monarchs of Europe to have them organize shrines and general devotion to it (Belting, Bild und Kult, 539).

30 Beissel, Wallfahrten zu Unserer, gives a systematic overview of legend motifs, albeit with an eye to exposing the “natural” causes of what were described as “supernatural” events.

31 The oldest source of the legend of St. Luke as portraitist of the Virgin is widely considered to be a passage from the Historia Tripartita by Theodorus Lector, written around 530 AD. However, since the original text is lost and all that has been preserved are sections copied into church histories of the thirteenth century, it has been suspected that this passage was added later. Belting, Bild und Kult, 70–72; and Gerhard Wolf, Salus populi romani: Die Geschichte römischer Kultbilder im Mittelalter (Weinheim, 1990), 141–45.

32 Devotion to the image takes place within the context of the pilgrimage to the Santa Casa, according to legend the Nazarene house in which Mary lived, transported to Loreto by angels in 1294. The madonna, which was said to have been of cedar, was destroyed in a fire in 1920 and replaced by a replica. For an overview of the cult and its dissemination in southern Germany, see Walter Pötzl, “Santa-Casa-Kult in Loreto und in Bayern,” in Wallfahrt kennt keine Grenzen, Lenz Kriss-Rettenbeck and Gerda Mohler, eds. (Munich, 1984), 368–82.

33 Guilielmo [Wilhelm] Gumppenberg, Atlas Marianus sive de imaginibus Deiparae per orbem Christianum miraculosis, 2 vols. (Ingolstadt, 1657).

34 Gumppenberg, Atlas Marianus, 1657, 88. See Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1985), 26–28, for a discussion of the ambiguous nature of the Latin word fuscus, which has been translated as “swarthy” and “dark-haired.”

35 This madonna is also explicitly referred to as black in a poem from 1518; see Schreiner, Maria, 240–41. A pious history of the Le Puy madonna by the Jesuit Odo de Gissey published in 1627 also includes an illustration of the madonna with black skin; Cassagnes-Brouquet, Vierges noires, 167.

36 Gabriel de Barletta, Sermones celeberrimi, I (Venice, 1571), 173, quoted in Baxandall, Painting and Experience, 57. The proof that Jesus was dark-skinned is usually also taken from a “true portrait,” the Veil of Veronica, see note 70 below.

37 Archbishop Hamilton, quote (with ellipses) in Moss and Cappannari, “In Quest of the Black Virgin,” 65.

38 Gabriel Küpferle, Histori von der weitberühmbten unser lieben Frawen Capell zu Alten-Oetting in Nidern Bayern, 4th edn. (Munich, 1674), 118.

39 For a survey of votive art, see Lenz Kriss-Rettenbeck, Ex Voto: Zeichen, Bild und Abbild im christlichen Votivbrauchtum (Zurich, 1972).

40 Helmut Sperber, Unsere Liebe Frau: 800 Jahre Madonnenbild und Marienverehrung zwischen Lech und Salzach (Regensburg, 1980), 99–100.

41 See Thorsten Gebhard, “Die marianischen Gnadenbilder in Bayern: Beobachtungen zur Chronologie und Typologie,” in Leopold Schmidt, ed., Kultur und Volk: Beiträge zur Volkskunde aus Österreich, Bayern und der Schweiz; Festschrift für Gustav Gugitz zum 80. Geburtstag (Vienna, 1954), 98. See also Sperber, Unsere Liebe Frau, 94. There were other borrowings in Altötting from the customs in Loreto, for example the veiling of the madonna on Good Friday in black cloth, which was then cut into tiny squares, glued to holy cards of the madonna and distributed among the visitors. In 1623, a Jesuit observer remarked on the popularity of the shrine, “one can rightly claim that Altötting does not take second place to Loreto, Montserrat and Einsiedeln in Switzerland” (quoted in Woeckel, Pietas Bavarica, 354), which itself betrays the rivalry among them. See also Oliva Wiebel-Fanderl, Die Wallfahrt Altötting (Passau, 1982), 64–65.

42 The madonna of Teising is now no longer black. Records of when and why the restoration took place could not be found in the city’s archives. One possibility would, of course, be the same fire that destroyed the votive tablets in 1861. But the remaining votive tablets suggest that the madonna changed her color right around 1900, when suddenly the madonna is no longer portrayed as the dark virgin of Einsiedeln.

43 Gumppenberg, Atlas Marianus, 1672, Index 7.

44 In Spain, the common enemy from which images were hidden were the Moors—a classic example is the legend of the Virgin of Montserrat; see Wilhelm Herchenbach, Die heiligen katholischen Gnaden- und Wallfahrtsorte mit den Heiligthümern und Reliquien: Nach geschichtlichen Quellen und Legenden (Stuttgart, 1884), 658–63; and Beissel, Wallfahrten zu Unserer, 463. In Germany and Bohemia, they were Hussites and, later, Protestants; see Beissel, Wallfahrten zu Unserer, 8–13, 27–31. The theme of the hidden image has, of course, the advantage of explaining why there are no historical records of it and allows its date of origin to be placed as far back as deemed necessary.

45 See Beissel, Wallfahrten zu Unserer, 86.

46 “I am very dark but comely.” The application of this verse is quite unanimously found to be a later interpretation of an already black(ened) image, not the original reason for painting Mary with dark skin. Beissel, Geschichte der Verehrung Marias, 345. Use of the phrase seems to have begun earlier in France (in particular for the Le Puy madonna) than in Germany. Schreiner, Maria, 239–42. See also Cassagnes-Brouquet, Vierges noires, 167, on Jesuits as primary disseminators of this interpretation in France.

47 This passage from the Song of Songs has, as Sander Gilman put it, “even more than the discussion of the origin of the races from among the sons of Noah, provided commentators with a text upon which to discuss the nature of blackness.” Gilman, On Blackness without Blacks: Essays on the Image of the Black in Germany (Boston, 1982), 14.

48 The damned, sinners, demons, and those possessed by them, and, above all, Satan were traditionally portrayed with black skin in Christian art throughout the Middle Ages. See Devisse, Image of the Black, vol. 2–1. Folk traditions in Germany overwhelmingly associate the color black with negativity; see the article on “Farbe” in Hans Bächtold-Stäubli, ed., Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens (1927–42; rpt. edn., Berlin, 1987), 20: 1189–1215.

49 Lechner, “‘Schön schwarz bin ich,'” quotes extensive excerpts from this sermon, which was titled “Schön Schwartz bin Ich / Das ist: Deß göttlichen Gesponß / seiner schönen schwartzen Braut Schwärtze / an dem Marianischen Gnaden-Bild von Einsidl zu Teising,” and published along with other centennial sermons in 1727 in Landshut under the title of Teisingerisches Erstes Marianisches Jubel-Jahr . . . The Teising pilgrimage was at its apogee at this time—and no other anniversary celebration drew as large a crowd as the first one. Sperber, Unsere Liebe Frau, 100.

50 Lechner, “‘Schön schwarz bin ich,'” 48.

51 Lechner, “‘Schön schwarz bin ich,'” 49.

52 Lechner, “‘Schön schwarz bin ich,'” 52.

53 In Einsiedeln, the sermon offering an interpretation of the blackness was also held around the turn of the eighteenth century. But as no votive tablets from this time survived fires and plundering by French troops at the turn of the nineteenth century, it cannot be confirmed when the representation of a black madonna on them began there.

54 Lechner, “‘Schön schwarz bin ich,'” 50–51.

55 Georg Holzherr, Einsiedeln: Kloster und Kirche Unserer lieben Frau; Von der Karolingerzeit bis zur Gegenwart (Munich, 1987), 30.

56 With this renovation, the Einsiedeln madonna was positioned above the altar surrounded by the Trinity: the Son she is holding, the Father crowning her, and the dove (Holy Spirit) floating above them. The current presentation was introduced in 1704: the madonna standing alone before a golden backdrop of clouds and lightning bolts (see cover illustration).

57 Bauer, Bayrische Wallfahrt, 26–27. The chapel’s inner walls were painted black until they were finally covered in black marble in 1886; Wiebel-Fanderl, Wallfahrt Altötting, 40.

58 See Beissel, Wallfahrten zu Unserer, 157–72, on the dressing and crowning of images. See also Walter Hartinger, Religion und Brauch (Darmstadt, 1992), 108–12, for a concise overview of the dramaturgy of image presentation during this time, which often included covering the image most of the year and ceremoniously revealing it to the sound of trumpet fanfares on special occasions.

59 This is pointed out, for example, in Nolan and Nolan, Christian Pilgrimage, 107, 112. No other war prior to the twentieth century was as devastating in its impact on the German population. See Benigna von Krusenstjern and Hans Medick, eds., Zwischen Alltag und Katastrophe: Der Dreißigjährige Krieg aus der Nähe (Göttingen, 1999).

60 Wolfgang Brückner, “Zum Wandel der religiösen Kultur im 18. Jahrhundert,” in Ernst Hinrichs and Günther Wiegelmann, eds., Sozialer und kultureller Wandel in der ländlichen Welt des 18. Jahrhunderts (Wolfenbüttel, 1982), 65–83.

61 Hans Dünninger, “Zur Geschichte der barocken Wallfahrt im deutschen Südwesten,” in Barock in Baden-Württemberg: Vom Ende des Dreißigjährigen Krieges bis zur Französischen Revolution (exhibition catalog) (Bruchsal, 1981), 415. The medieval historian Gabriela Signori has also questioned whether the seventeenth-century concept of the miracle-working madonna existed in late medieval Europe. Signori, “Das spätmittelalterliche Gnadenbild.”

62 See Belting, Bild und Kult, 26. Influential post-Tridentine tractati on image theology published by Italian authors at the end of the sixteenth century also placed emphasis on long tradition as a legitimizing factor in the proper use of images. For an overview, see Christian Hecht, Katholische Bildertheologie im Zeitalter von Gegenreformation und Barock: Studien zu Traktaten von Johannes Molanus, Gabriele Paleotti und anderen Autoren (Berlin, 1997), on this point esp. 145.

63 Belting, Bild und Kult, 24.

64 Hecht, Katholische Bildertheologie.

65 Detailed archival research of each of the primary black madonnas, beyond the scope of this study, might also reveal whether the popular names (Schwarze Muttergottes, etc.) were established in the mid to late seventeenth century.

66 The image on display there today is a recreation based on drawings and descriptions of the original done by Faujas de Saint-Fond in 1778; Saillens, Nos vierges noirs, 86–92.

67 Quoted in Ringholz, Wallfahrtsgeschichte, 36–38.

68 Quoted in Ringholz, Wallfahrtsgeschichte, 36–38.

69 It is not mentioned in Gumppenberg, but in Herchenbach, Die heiligen katholischen Gnaden- und Wallfahrtsorte, a late nineteenth-century collection of legends, the Altötting madonna is explicitly referred to as the “Schwarze Muttergottes.” Herchenbach explains the color with the smoke of candles and incense “that have surrounded her for 1200 years” (pp. 583–84). This remarkably long period corresponds with Gumppenberg’s version, which tells that the image was brought to Altötting around 700, at the time of the conversion of the first Bavarian leader to Christianity (see Atlas Marianus, 1672, 56–57). Art historians estimate the Altötting image to be no older than late fourteenth century.

70 What the Luke portraits were for Mary, the Veil of Veronica was for the adult Jesus. Since the early thirteenth century, legend has it that, on the path to Golgotha, a woman named Veronica (vero ikon = true image) wiped the blood and sweat from Jesus’ brow as he labored past, bearing the cross, and his image appeared spontaneously on the cloth she used. On display in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, this cloth (and its many copies around the Catholic world) is venerated as a true portrait of Jesus. The image is also recognized as being unusually dark complected. Here again is a convergence of darkness of skin and the notion of a vera effigies, or authenticity of representation. On the tradition of Veronica, see Ewa Kuryluk, Veronica and Her Cloth: History, Symbolism and Structure of a “True” Image (New York, 1991); as well as the classic Ernst von Dobschütz, Christusbilder: Untersuchungen zur christlichen Legende (Leipzig, 1899).

71 See Freedberg, Power of Images, 205–12, for a discussion of the power of the belief in an authentic representation being particularly effective in working miracles and worthy of veneration.

72 Origen saw the role of the Gentile Church in a positive light, which is why he advocated a translation of the verse as “I am black and beautiful.” Ernst Benz, “‘Ich bin schwarz und schön’ (Hohes Lied 1,5): Ein Beitrag des Origenes zur Theologie der negritudo,” in Hans-Jürgen Greschat and Herrmann Jungraithmayr, eds., Wort und Religion: Kalima na dini; Studien zur Afrikanistik, Missionswissenschaft, Religionswissenschaft (Stuttgart, 1969), 225–42.

73 Kaplan, Rise of the Black Magus, 42.

74 For a more detailed discussion of this point, see the comprehensive study of the perception of blacks in German society by Peter Martin, Schwarze Teufel, edle Mohren (Hamburg, 1993), 83; the term even engendered a certain respect: the “Mohr” embodied a high (even superior) culture and, as a militarily aggressive non-Christian, was to be feared. See also Kaplan, Rise of the Black Magus, 4.

75 Devisse, Image of the Black, 2–1: 136.

76 Gilman, On Blackness without Blacks, 49–56, and see p. 93: “From the middle of the 18th century to the mid 19th century, the concept of the slave was conterminous with the image of the Black.”

77 Martin, Schwarze Teufel, 85, 101. “Neger” remained the common term for blacks in colloquial German until the mid-twentieth century. In recent years, the term “Schwarzer” has generally taken its place; however, it is a somewhat ambiguous term, since white people with black hair have traditionally been referred to as “Schwarze,” just as redheads are referred to as “Rote.”

78 Henry Swinburne, Travel in the Two Sicilies, Vol. 1 (London, 1783), 123, quoted in Moss and Cappannari, “In Quest of the Black Virgin,” 64–65.

79 Belting, Bild und Kult, 483–96.

80 On blackness in the aesthetic theory of seventeenth and eighteenth-century German thought, see Gilman, On Blackness without Blacks, 19–34, 57–60.

81 From a biographical profile of Karl Marx by Arnold Künzli, communicated personally to Leonard Moss by Alfred Vagts: Moss and Cappannari, “In Quest of the Black Virgin,” 72.

82 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Aesthetische Schriften 1816–1820: Über Kunst und Altertum I–II, Hendrik Birus, ed. (Frankfurt am Main, 1999), 75–76.

83 Theodor Mundt, Völkerschau auf Reisen (Stuttgart, 1840), 234. Indeed, his comments are strongly reminiscent of Goethe’s and suggest he may have been familiar with his assessment.

84 Cassagnes-Brouquet, Vierges noires, 258–59.

85 B. Craplet, “Vierges romanes,” Richesses de la France, Le Puy-de-Dôme 44 (1960): 66–68, quoted in Forsyth, Throne of Wisdom, 21.

86 As the author of the article “Pélérinage” in the Encyclopédie théologique, vol. 43 (Paris, 1850), illustrates on page 715 when he writes that the face of a madonna is black “like an Ethiopian woman” but nevertheless “lovely.”

87 On the French apparitions and their significance in popular religion, see Thomas A. Kselman, Miracles and Prophecies: Popular Religion and the Church in Nineteenth-Century France (New Brunswick, N.J., 1983).

88 See recent media reports on the madonna of Montserrat. El Mundo headlines: “‘La Moreneta’ es blanca” (April 15, 2001); the German news agency Deutsche Presseagentur reports: “The dark brown Madonna of Montserrat is actually white [Die schwarzbraune Madonna von Montserrat ist in Wirklichkeit weiß]” (April 26, 2001).

89 The theme of Belting’s Bild und Kult.

BY: MONIQUE SCHEER