The Black Madonna
The famous icon, which arrived in Czestochowa in 1382, has a long, important history in Polish piety.
Of the thousand faces of Mary why is this one my final choice?
The reason is simple. Today Church documents talk again and again today about inculturation. It has been the theme of the general chapters of numerous missionary communities. Christian faith is very malleable and the Christian imagination is very creative. Consequently Marian devotion has been inculturated countless times in countless cultures. Recently I saw a painting of an Indonesian Virgin Mary at a seminary in Java. I have seen Chinese Virgins, Filipino Virgins, African Virgins. All have seen Our Lady of Guadalupe and perhaps many other Latin American Virgins.
There is something wonderfully paradoxical about all this. Intellectually, we know that Mary was a poor Jewish woman. She was not black nor did she have Chinese or Indian features. We know too of course that she did not wear the elaborate European robes in which Murillo and Lippo Lippi painted her. Her features were probably very much like those of Jewish or Palestinian women living in that area today; her clothes were those of the poor. We know all of that with our heads. But popular imagination shaped her to the features of the believing community. She is our mother, so the black has loved to see her black; the Indian has loved to see her Indian; the European, European; the Chinese, Chinese; the Mexican, Mexican. In fact, Octavio Paz once stated: “Our Lady of Guadalupe has been a sign in which each epoch and each Mexican has read his destiny.” Mexicans call her “la Morenita,” a term of endearment for the dark Virgin whom they love so much.
The “multi-cultural Mary” receives special inspiration from the words of the bride in the Song of Songs: “I am black and beautiful.” This theme flourished in Northern Africa and Ethiopia, as well as in Asia Minor; there are black Madonnas too in France, in Brazil, and in many other countries. The most famous “Black Madonna,” the celebrated icon at Jasna Góra in Czestochowa has become a central symbol in Polish popular devotion. Ironically, the blackened face of the Virgin in that icon was the result of smoke, not of skin color, but its darkness has symbolized for Poles the suffering that Mary bore heroically, hoping against hope. Because of Mary’s universal appeal, she has become a powerful force for liturgical and artistic inculturation, taking on local dress and skin-color effortlessly.
What can we learn from this fifth face of the Virgin Mary? We can learn to be creative and sensitive to cultural differences. “The poor have the true religion,” St. Vincent de Paul once wrote. Their religious forms are much less heady than those of us theologians. Of course, popular religion runs the danger of abuse, but so does my theology. The poor sense spontaneously how important inculturation is. They recognize that the essential thing is not that Mary lived in the territory of Israel and that her skin color was like that of middle-easterners. The essential thing is that she was one of us (whether us means European or African or Filipino or Chinese), that she responded affirmatively and wholeheartedly to God’s call, that God took hold of her life by being born of her flesh, and that she remained steadfast in faith through life’s joys and sorrows. The Black Madonna and many other similar Madonnas make it easier for many to see Mary’s story as applicable to any time, any place, or any culture.
I offer these five Marian faces as a way of reflecting on the rich, varied tradition surrounding the Virgin Mary. In conclusion, I say to the reader as Jesus said to the disciple whom he loved: “Behold your mother.” Behold her face, and let it speak to you.
Robert P. Maloney, C.M.
- Maria Chiara Stucchi, “La Bellezza e la Tenerezza di Maria in `Vita Consecrata’,” Religiosi in Italia (# 300; May-June 1997) 81*-88*.
- George Tavard, The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary (Collegeville, Minnesota, 1996). Cf. also, Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries (New Haven, Connecticut, 1996).
- Cf. Mk 6:3; Mt 13:55.
- Mk 3:31; Jn 2:1-12.
- Mk 3:21.
- Mk 3:31-35.
- Jn 19:25; Acts 1:14.
- For historical data about Mary, cf. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew (New York: 1991) esp. 253ff; also, Raymond E. Brown, Karl P. Donfried, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and John Reumann, eds., Mary in the New Testament: A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars (Philadelphia and New York: Fortress Press and Paulist Press, 1978), 28-29.
- Lk 2:19; 2:51.
- Lk 1:38.
- Lk 8:19-21.
- Lk 1:46-55.
- Pelikan, op.cit., lists ten apparitions as having received some form of ecclesiastical encouragement. Cf. pp. 178-179.
- John Prager, “María de Los Pobres, una relectura de la Medalla Milagrosa desde la perifería,” CLAPVI XXIII, N° 96 (July-December 1997) 171-179.
- Cf. René Laurentin, Vie de Catherine Labouré (Desclée de Brouwer: Paris, 1980) and Catherine Labouré et la Médaille Miraculeuse 2. Procès de Catherine (Congrégation de la Mission, Filles de la Charité, Dessain et Tolra: Paris, 1979).
- Octavio Paz, as quoted in Jacque Lafaye, Quetzalcóatl and Guadalupe: The Formation of Mexican National Consciousness, 1531-1813 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), xix.
- V. Elizondo, La Morenita: Evangelizadora de las Américas (St. Louis: Ligouri, 1981).
- Sg 1:5.
- Sally Cunneen, In Search of Mary (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996) 172ff.
- SV XI, 201.
- Jn 19:27.