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Re: Vierges noires


Christopher Crockett <[log in to unmask]>


medieval-religion - Scholarly discussions of medieval religious culture <[log in to unmask]>


Fri, 22 Apr 2005 10:24:37 -0500





text/plain (264 lines)

medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

Jim Bugslag is, of course, the list's Resident Expert on this subject, but he
wrote me yesterday that he is "scrambling, right now, to finish all my
marking, write a conference paper, and get my research notes together. I head
for England, and then Paris, on Sunday. Will be out of contact until 10 May."

i definitely can't fill la breche, but can offer a few comments on some of
what has been said, and add some Rocamadour- & Chartres-specific info in
another, shorter post.

From: John Briggs <[log in to unmask]>

>The reason for all these black madonnas is that they are made of wood, which
has blackened over the centuries.

as far as i am aware, this is not true.

although most woods do "darken" --i wouldn't say "blacken"-- with age (and oak
more than most, a reaction of the natural tanin in the wood with the oxygen in
the air), the simple fact is that most (all?) figural carving (in wood, stone
and even ivory) in the early and high m.a. was polychromed.

and, freqently, repainted as needed, black face and hands as well.

here's the present statue at Rocamadour, in "Blackface" :


and the one at Merlande:


another possibility for "blackening" is the accumulation of soot from
devotional candles over many decades/centuries.

candles in the m.a. were made of good old-fashioned beeswax, rather than the
typically cheap and tawdry paraffin favored by the modren Cult, and therefore
burned with much less smoke, stench and soot.

there would still be some blackening, surely, but it wouldn't be selective,
only affecting the exposed skin of the figure.

in addition to candles, we have ample textual and visual evidence of lamps
playing an important role in the shrines associated with cult statues, and
these presumably burned "oil" --what kind of "oil", i don't know; perhaps, in
the South, olive, but surely not in the North, where fat may have been

there certainly would be some soot from that source, as well.  and,
presumably, lamps and candles would have been kept burning perpetually before
and around the statue, as we see today in several places, most notably (for
me) at the shrine of "Notre-Dame du Pilier" in Chartres cathedral:


the question then becomes: Why isn't every Madonna cult statue in Europe a
"Black Madonna"?

ebony was mentioned on some otherwise unidentified "reliable" website, but
that Dog won't Hunt either, there not being much ebony thick on the ground in
Northern Europe in the M.A. (or now, for that matter).

i know of no european species which is naturally black (though the heartwood
of very old growth oak can be very, very dark brown) --but, even if there were
one, that would just beg the question: Why was a black wood chosen as a medium
for carving a Madonna, and, if it indeed were, why was it left unpainted?

From: Marjorie Greene <[log in to unmask]>

> A website that appears reputable has this to say:

> "If it is true that a large proportion of the ancient miraculous Madonnas of
the world are black, 

i question whether this assertion is supportable.

and, one thing which must be kept in mind here is that we have surely *lost*
about 99% of all such statuary which ever existed, so the percentage of a
certain type which still survives is a very, very skewed sample, probably
reflecting more of early modren sensibilities than middlevil ones.

>why is this phenomenon generally so little known today? 

mmm.... i donno, because our own Age is particularly "Dark"??

> A poetic verse from 1629 catalogues some of the national shrines of Europe,
all of which, at the heart, seem to represent an ancient tradition of devotion
to a statue of the Black Virgin. 

a perfect example of the naive use of a skewed source.

>Many such Black Virgins exist, often having survived centuries of war, 

yes, if they still exist, they have survived centuries of Europe's favorite

>some are statues carved from ebony.
if talking about genuine middlevil statues, an assertion which is absurd on
its face.

not much ebony growing in Northern Europe in the m.a., i believe.

> Some of the most famous Black Virgin shrines are Chartes 


>Loreto, Zaragoza, Rocamadour, Montserrat, and Guadalupe. 

that last is just a *tad* late.

>Early textual references describing images of Black Virgins are few,
although... St. Bernard of Clairvaux (an early leader of the medieval Knights

my temptation is to begin to make a judgement about the quality of this
"reputable" site (URL?) based on things like the characterisation of St.
Bernie as "an early leader of the Knights Templar"... 

as in: DUH?

Say WHAT??

> Many Christians, both clergy and laity, simply accept that these shrines to
the Black Virgin, and the loyal, fervent devotion they foster, are ultimately
inexplicable, a mystery of the divine feminine. 


begging yet another question.

>Some writers believe they represent a Christian form of Isis, as a mother
with child. 

no doubt "some writers" do.

> These shrines are believed to have special healing powers, among other 
things, and to be places where newly married brides can go for fertility 

not surprising attributes, for a Mother Godess.

>There is also a strong religious folk tradition connecting the Black Virgins
to the medieval Knights Templar 

there's that Templar Topos again, popping up like a Bad Penny.

>A famous Black Virgin - la Madone des Fenestres (the Madonna of the Windows),
near St-Martin-de-Vesubie (one site where many Templars were massacred) 

and again.

say, does this site talk about the Shroud of Turin, too?

>it is still intriguing to examine the sheer number of such place-names,
legends, and beliefs about these subjects and their interconnections, at least
in the popular mind. And that in itself says something."


it is.

just *what* it is saying is the question at hand, however.

> I don't believe that the "black" in question has anything to do with 
Benedictines, traditionally called "black monks," because of the color of
their habits. My question was spurred by what is mentioned above: "folk
tradition" and "sheer number."

i assume that this is you talking, MG, and not this "reputable site".


no connection with the Black monks at all, as far as i know, though there may
have been a BV at some Benedictine houses, here or there (what kind of
institution was Rocamadour?).

From Denis Martin (i believe --sorry if not) :

>If the simple explanation for the phenomenon is the blackening of wood over
the centuries

a simple explanation, but, alas, not at all a credible one, after a moment's

> then there might be a statistical correlation with Benedictines simply
because they established themselves early on and at a time when wood was
preferred to other materials?? 

we can't really say which materials were "preferred" "early on", since, with
very, very few exceptions, only the most durable (stone) has survived,
providing us with a vastly skewed statistical sample of what may have
originally existed.

if, by "early on" you mean, say, the Merovingian period, keep in mind that, as
far as we can tell from the survivors, figural sculpture in stone (like
figural imagery in general) went into a very steep decline.

there is just enough in the way of survivals in stucco, however, to allow us
to think that this medium was much more widespread than we might otherwise
think --but, again, virtually all of those surviving bits are non-figural in
subject matter (architectural decoration and the like).

>(Simply because it was available at an early stage of establishing a monastic


wood was "available" --and much more plentiful than at present-- throughout
the early & high m.a.

>if a miracle occurred, then the wooden Madonna was retained rather than being
replaced with stone or bronze or precious metal later??

certainly cult statues --whether associated with "miracles" or not-- were in
continuous use over centuries; when they had to be replaced (because of, say,
destruction by fire) most frequently it was by a "copy" which was "faithful"
to the original.

which means, virtually always, that the copy retained the *iconographic*
attributes of the original but not the *stylistic* forms, the latter being
very time and culture specific.
> This pattern (early outpost of Benedictines in a wilderness setting) 

*IS* that the "pattern" of Benedictine settlement "early on" ?

if so, certainly not the only one : as far as i know, every major _civitas_ in
Gallo-Roman Gaul had its Benedictine house just outside its walls.

i'll add some bibliographic material in my next post.

best from here, 


"What about the older ones [Indians] ?"

"Well, we can't seem to cure them of the idea that our Everyday Life is only
an Illusion, behind which is the Reality of Dreams" 

--Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo"

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