“Why are the majority of the virgins that are revered in the celebrated pilgrimages black?” queried writer Romain Rolland, puzzling over the curious existence of religious icons known as the Black Madonna found in hundreds of Christian churches throughout Europe:
“At Boulogne-sur-mer (France) the sailors carry a Black Virgin in the procession. At Clermont in Auvergne (France), the Black Virgin is revered as also at Einsiedeln, Switzerland, near Zurich, to which thousands of pilgrims — Swiss, Bavarians, Alstatian — go to pay her homage. The famous Virgin of Oropa in the Piedmont (Italy) is still a Negress, as well as the not less legendary one of Montserat in Catalonia (Spain), which receives 60,000 visitors a year. I have been able to trace the history of this one to the year 718 AD and it was always black. It is highly interesting to know, therefore, if the mother of Christ was not a Negro woman, how it happens that she is black in France, Switzerland, Italy and Spain?”
Though a significant portion of the world’s Westernized population, both within and outside the Christian faith, are still largely unaware of it, the religious icon type known throughout Europe as the Black Madonna, has been one of the most revered icons of the Roman Catholic Church, the oldest on the European continent, for untold centuries.
How very remarkable – and even ironic – that, in addition to widely known Europeanized depictions, Europe has also sustained an ancient tradition of picturing Mary, the Mother of God, with an infant Christ as black. A hidden tradition that dates back nearly two thousand years.
Smoke and Mirrors
The 19th-century religious historian Sir Godfrey Higgins was one of the first European authors to document how:
“In all the Romish countries of Europe, in France, Italy, Germany, etc., the God Christ, as well as his mother, are described in their old pictures and statues to be black. The infant God in the arms of his black mother, his eyes and drapery white, is himself perfectly black.”
Author Gerald Massey, a contemporary of Higgins, would also report how: “At Oropa [Italy], near Bietta, the Madonna and her child-Christ are not white but black, as they so often were in Italy of old and as the child is yet conditioned in the little black Jesus of the Eternal City.”
And wherever the ancient icons are to be found, theories, myths, and untruths about the dark-skinned depictions of Mary and the Jesus Child circulate.
Most common among them is the oft’ embraced notion that the figures had originally been white, “fair” or “flesh-colored,” but became blackened from the ash and soot of devotional candles burned in their presence. Critical of that unimaginative excuse, Higgins taunts:
“When the circumstances have been named to the Romish priests, they have endeavored to disguise the fact by pretending that the child had become black by the smoke of the candles; but it was black where the smoke of the candle never came … The mother is, the author believes, always black when the child is. Their real blackness is not to be questioned for a moment.”
Like the enduring representations themselves, questions regarding the dark complexion persisted. But some would also look for answers.
Three studies were carried out in France during the 20th century. These surveys were conducted by Marie Durand-Lefebvre (1937), Emile Saillens (1945), and Jacques Huynen (1972). In the United States in 1952, researchers Leonard Moss and Stephen Cappannari conducted a joint study. On December 28 of that year, Moss and Cappannari presented their shared findings at a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As their controversial presentation began, the Catholic priests and nuns who were in attendance reportedly made their way to the exit doors.
Basing their research on a collection of nearly 100 such icons from various parts of the world, Moss and Cappannari believed that Black Madonna images could be categorized into the following three groups:
1) Madonnas with black or brown skin pigmentation and or physiognomy similar to that of an indigenous population.
2) Icons that were turned black by environmental factors like the accumulation of smoke from the use of votive candles or the deterioration of lead-based pigments.
3) A residual category with no ready explanation.
In 1952, when their study was conducted, the first category considered by Moss and Cappanari might have seemed like a logical leap. Moss cites Mexico’s Our Lady of Guadalupe as an example of this type. But this author is inclined to disagree. Images in Spanish churches indicate that centuries before Spaniards brought Our Lady of Guadalupe images to the Americas, the Holy Virgin was depicted with a dark complexion in churches all across Spain. The oldest Guadalupe image dates to the 12th century and the Christianizing of America’s indigenous peoples didn’t begin until nearly 300 years later, after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492.
As to the second explanation for Black Madonna images, the one most frequently relied upon by priests, parishioners, and non-experts, it could certainly apply to a percentage of the icons. But of the more than 500 statues and paintings that I have studied, virtually none appears to have been darkened by accident. All have been made dark out of pure intention, each of them having been painted with a black or a brown complexion.
With regard to the third category, Moss suggests that there is difficulty in ruling out “artistic license.” But there are a couple of stronger theories.
The first suggests that the Madonna was made dark-skinned in a, perhaps, subconscious remembrance of the Great Mother, once worshiped as the Creator by various prehistoric peoples. History shows that in the days of antiquity, the color black was symbolic of fertility, likened to the rich, black soil of river valleys such as the Egyptian Nile. And the ancient Egyptians often used the color black to symbolize both death and the underworld. Conversely, the Egyptians also used the color black to represent fertility and resurrection.
After the death of Egypt’s 18th dynasty queen Ahmose-Nefertari, the beloved monarch was deified as the patron goddess of Thebes. What’s more, in tomb murals the queen was commonly painted with black skin, akin to the Egyptian god Osiris, the husband of Isis, and the king of the afterlife whose name translates literally to “the black one.”
According to Godfrey Higgins, other goddesses revered in antiquity were also represented as black women, including Benum, Hecate, Juno, and Metis of Greece. Other goddess figures of the ancient world also depicted in this fashion were Isis of Egypt, Astarte of Phoenecia, Lilith of Babylon, Manat of Mecca, Cybele, and Artemis/Diana of Turkey, and also Aphrodite, Demeter, and Medusa of Greece. Goddess figures of India including Maya (mother of Buddha), Devaki (mother of Krishna), and the beautifully fearsome Kali were also black.
The second popular theory suggests that the dark complexion of the Virgin might have been influenced by a literal interpretation of the biblical verse “I am black but beautiful,” spoken by the Shulamite bride in the Song of Solomon. A number of European icons contain an inscription or are adorned with banners with the phrase “Nigra sum sed formosa,” the Latin translation of the Biblical verse.
I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.” – Song of Solomon 1:5
As early as the 4th century, after Rome had been declared a Christian state (378 AD), the mother of Christ was linked to the Shulamite bride from the Songs of Solomon. This early connection appears in the book De Virginibus by St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan. And this interpretation continued to be embraced by other influential Christian theologians like Honorius Augustodunensis, author of Sigillum Beatæ Mariæ (Seal of Blessed Mary), Germany’s Rupert of Deutz, and France’s illustrious monk St. Bernard de Clairvaux.
In further support of the second theory, researchers often point out that a number of Europe’s Black Madonna icons date to around the time of the Crusades and that a sizable number exist in France, a country where more than two hundred such icons, mostly statues, have been identified. The heavy proliferation throughout France is often attributed to the efforts of St. Bernard de Clairvaux, a priest who displayed a particular devotion to Mary. During his lifetime, he would pen more than eighty sermons likening the Mother of Christ to the black-skinned bride invoked in the Song of Solomon.
A connection is also further drawn to the Knights Templar, the Order of warrior monks supported by both Clairvaux and the Vatican. According to various traditions, the Templars are said to have brought such statues back from Jerusalem after the Crusades.
White Knight takes Black Queen
Near the close of the eleventh century, Muslims from Turkey had taken control of Jerusalem and cut off all of Europe’s pilgrimage routes to the Holy Land. In response to the Islamic aggression, Pope Urban II announced a plan for a holy war to commence on August 15, 1096; a “crusade” to recover Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre from Muslim control.
After three long years of a bloody war that resulted in the virtual extermination of Jerusalem’s Muslims and Jews, the Crusaders finally gained control of the city on July 15th, 1099. And virtually overnight the city’s Muslim and Jewish citizens would come to be replaced by Christians from Europe and West Asia. French would quickly become the day-to-day language and Latin the language of prayer. Again, Jerusalem would take on a more Christian character, as churches and monasteries were rebuilt. Once again, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the prime destination of the Crusaders, became the prime destination of Christian pilgrims.
St. Bernard de Clairvaux was only a schoolboy the year the Crusaders captured Jerusalem. He was a student enrolled at the renowned school of Chatillon-sur-Seine, known to have once housed its own statue of the Black Virgin. According to a popular tradition, so favored was he that three drops of milk are said to have fallen from the breast of the statue onto the head of the young Bernard as he knelt before the image in prayer.
In 1113, as a young man, Bernard joined the Benedictine monastery at Citeaux. Because he was an outstanding initiate, within two short years he would be asked to lead a group of twelve Cistercian monks in establishing an offshoot monastery at Clairvaux. And under Bernard’s leadership, the Citeaux monastery would soon become one of the most famous monasteries in all of Christian Europe.
Recognized as the most eloquent and influential man of his age, Bernard’s power as a preacher attracted people by the throngs. He was believed to have conducted miracles of healing, and pilgrims came from great distances in the hope of being cured by his touch. Bernard also developed a reputation as a brilliant mediator. Popes asked for his counsel, princes called on him to solve disputes, bishops requested his opinion on difficulties within their churches, and knights sought out his influential favor.
In 1118, the military order called the Poor Knights of Christ was formed in France. Originally comprised of only nine knights, the Order was founded by Hughs de Payne, a fighter from the First Crusade, and André de Montbard, the uncle of Bernard de Clairvaux. Shortly after their formation, the Order traveled to Jerusalem and presented themselves to King Baldwin II, who had been crowned the new protector of Jerusalem earlier that year. Before the king, the knights bound themselves by perpetual vow to protect the Holy Land and the pilgrims who sojourned there. The king granted the Order lodging in the structure believed to have been a remnant of the ancient Temple of Solomon. It was after this that the Order would come to be known as the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, or more commonly, the Knights Templar.
For the first nine years spent in Jerusalem, it is believed that the Knights Templar didn’t actually patrol the roads of the Holy Land protecting pilgrims, as proclaimed in their formal announcement. Instead, the Order apparently spent nearly a decade secretly excavating a network of ancient tunnels located beneath the Jerusalem Temple.
It was believed that the Holy Ark of the Covenant had been hidden away under the Jerusalem Temple before the city had long before fallen to the Romans. The Copper Scroll, one of the famed Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1952, reports the existence of a number of ancient burial sites where items described as the treasure of the Temple of Jerusalem were hidden. It is believed by many today that the Templars found that treasure, as well as countless sacred artifacts and religious documents, over the course of their excavations.
While researchers can only speculate as to the exact nature of the documents found by the Templars, a reasonable consensus suggests that they contained scriptures, treatises on sacred geometry, information on the arts and sciences, and the hidden wisdom of the initiates who were well versed in the Egyptian and Judaic mystery traditions.
In December of 1127, with their excavations complete, Hughs de Payen, André de Montbard, and the Templar Knights returned to France. Soon after their arrival, Hugh de Payne and André de Montbard are said to have visited with Montbard’s nephew, Bernard de Clairvaux. It is believed that the men shared the details on their excavations in Jerusalem and that they requested the assistance of the influential monk in securing the support of the Roman Catholic Church.
The next month, at the Council of Troyes, Bernard requested that the Council and the Pope endorse the Templar Knights as a kind of “new soldiery.” And upon his weighty recommendation, the Order was granted a formal constitution, a Rule that would legitimize the Templars, defining their then heightened status as warrior monks of the Church. Their Order was also given legal immunity from bishops, emperors, and even kings. It was declared that members of the Order were answerable only to the Templar Grand Master, and the Grand Master was answerable only to the pope.
With Bernard and the Vatican behind them, Templar membership swelled. Noblemen rushed to join their ranks, offering their land and deeds to the Order in the spirit of brotherhood, thus making the Templar Knights the richest, most powerful and most influential force in Europe. The Order soon financed the erection of palaces, government buildings, and cathedrals. They also laid the foundation for the development of an international banking system upon which the world’s modern banking system is based. Soon, a Templar presence was established in every part of Latin Christendom. Concurrent with their progress, Bernard founded more than sixty monasteries throughout France, Spain, Portugal, England, Germany, and Italy. And it is assumed that Bernard’s particular veneration of the Black Virgin was disseminated this way.
In 1135, Bernard was in Italy overseeing the establishment of the Cistercian monastery “Chiaravalle” (named after Clairvaux), the first of five other monasteries founded there under the same name. That year he also began work on the unfinished Sermones Super Cantica Canticorum, a series of eighty-six sermons based on the Songs of Solomon. Bernard’s presence was wanted all throughout Europe, but perhaps more so in Italy than anyplace outside France. He assisted at the Council of Pisa, met with Roger of Sicily at Salerno, and reconciled Pisa with Genoa. On behalf of Innocent II, he debated Peter of Pisa in Rome.
Perhaps it was during his time in Italy, there in Rome possibly, that Bernard, and thus the Templars, received confirmation on the dark complexion of the Virgin. Though various traditions attribute the introduction of such icons to Templars returning home from Jerusalem, this image, so greatly embraced during the Gothic Age, may have been forged in honor of Rome’s far more ancient, but lesser-known Black Madonna tradition.
Our Lady of the Catacombs
Unknown to most Christians outside of Europe, under much of modern Rome exists a series of ancient underground galleries, tombs, and vaults referred to as The Catacombs. Their excavation began under the direction of the Church early in the 2nd century AD and continued until around the early part of the 5th century. Once believed to have been used by early Christians to escape religious persecution, these catacombs are now understood as a vast series of subterranean cemeteries once used by early Christians to intern their deceased, keeping them separate from the dead interred in the pagan cemeteries of Rome.
Etched expressions and painted scenes of religious faith adorn walls throughout the catacombs. It is here that the earliest known depictions of several biblical themes, like Jonah and the Whale, the Raising of Lazarus, and Christ’s Last Supper are found. Located on a fractured wall in the catacomb of Priscilla, perhaps the earliest and most important of all the catacombs can be found the oldest known depiction of Mary with the infant Jesus in existence. The creation of the painting, commonly called the Madonna and Child, has been dated to as early as 170 AD, and as late as 250 AD.
Created nearly two thousand years ago, this little-known fresco offers a fascinating bit of perspective into early Christian imagery.
In the ancient painting, the Virgin Mary is depicted as a brown-skinned woman garbed in a reddish tunic, her head covered by a reddish veil. She is seated, and on her lap holds the infant Christ, who clutches at his mother’s breast. The Christ, a brown-skinned reflection of his mother, has his head turned toward the viewer. A bushel of woolly brown curls crowns his head, and his eyes peer out from the painting through dark eye sockets.
Standing beside mother and child is a man of similar, brown-skinned complexion, garbed in philosopher’s tunic. There is some debate among historians as to who the man with Mary and Jesus is supposed to represent. Some say it is a depiction of Mary’s husband Joseph, while others suggest that the figure represents the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who foretold the birth of a messiah saying, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14).
In one hand the man holds a book or scroll, and with the other, he points to the Star of David, now barely discernible above the heads of mother and child. Arching over all three figures are the branches of a large tree, curved under the weight of blossoming fruit. The tree is understood to symbolize the messianic prophecy that described the coming Christ as “a rod out of the root of Jesse.”
Despite the apparent decay wrought upon the image by the passage of centuries, it is a remarkable example of early Christian faith, rendered in graffiti for an eternity. Despite the ancient frescos significance — or perhaps because of it — many Christians remain completely unaware of its existence.
Not at all surprisingly, books and articles dedicated to the art of the catacombs have commonly provided vague, or even misleading descriptions of the ancient fresco. Some publications, while presenting artwork from the catacombs, neglect to include this particular image, preferring instead to provide only vague descriptions — as if that should suffice.
Commentaries on the image, even those few that do include a picture, all uniformly avoid making any reference to the brown-skinned appearance of Mary, Jesus, and the man shown with them. This uniform line of silence suggests a de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy assumed by authors who offer only the most cursory description of the image possible. Certainly, detailed descriptions might possibly result in inadvertent suggestions that the oldest known depiction of Mary and Jesus in existence pictures the Holy Mother and Son as blacks, as Ethiopians.
Elsewhere in the Priscilla catacomb, the vision of the dark-complexioned Mother of God is maintained in two additional frescoes representing Gabriel’s Annunciation to the Virgin and the Adoration of the Magi; works that additionally represent the two oldest known representations of these biblical themes.
In the Annunciation fresco, as with numerous Black Madonna icons from the Gothic period, the Virgin is enthroned. She is garbed in tunic and pallium. Before her stands a wingless Archangel Gabriel robed in a similar fashion. His arm is raised authoritatively, and the scene appears to depict Gabriel’s appearance to Mary as described in the gospel where the Lord’s herald proclaims, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” (Luke 1:30–31)
Though not as clear as the first two frescoes, a third painting in the Priscilla catacomb still allows us to discern it is a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi. Here too, Mary is seated with the infant Jesus held to her bosom as the noble pilgrims present the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Interestingly, the Magi are depicted in complexions that suggest black, brown, and then white. The darkest of them is pictured nearest to the Madonna and Child, with the brown appearing at the center, and the white appearing third.
The fact that this is mentioned isn’t to suggest that they were originally pictured in an order that would indicate significance or importance. What is noteworthy, though, is the difference between this fresco and hundreds of later, Gothic depictions of the Annunciation. Typically, two kings, who are depicted as Europeans, are placed closest to Virgin and Child (also rendered as European). And the Ethiopian King — when he is rendered as such — is generally the one who is placed furthest away.
Combined, these remarkable images from the Priscilla Catacomb represent not only the earliest known depictions of Mary and Jesus in existence, but also represent three of the earliest known examples of the icon type known today as the Black Virgin throughout Europe, and other parts of the world where her iconography is known. Most remarkably, these images convey that at the very birth of Christianity, the Holy Virgin, in contrast to how she is generally imagined today, was prefigured as Ethiopian.
Why is she black?
One of the most practical explanations of the Black Madonna’s countenance is cited in the early pages of Ian Blegg’s book, Cult of the Black Virgin. The author relates how in 1944, the previously mentioned researcher Leonard Moss entered a church at Lucera, a city in southern Italy. For the first time, Moss saw a Black Virgin statue. Puzzled, he approached the priest in attendance and asked, “Father, why is the Madonna black?”
In a way that seemed almost matter-of-fact, the priest replied, “My son, she is black because she is black.”
Today, there are innumerable priests, parishioners, and philosophers who continue to explore and then explain away dark-skinned representations of the Holy Virgin as the by-product of candle smoke, stylistic flourishes, or adaptations made by dark indigenous populations who’d sought to give Mary and Jesus a more acceptable appearance, i.e., the physical appearance of themselves.
Ironically, with regard to the adaptation theory, it seems that, with specific regard to Christian Europe, this could not be more true.
Limited by false conceptions, those who imagine themselves today as the progenitors of all humanity, civilization, religion, the sciences, and the arts still typically fail to realize that the white-skinned representations of Mary and Jesus propagated today are actually the indigenous adaptations of their ancestors: popes, priests, and artists who recast the godly depiction of mother and son in their image because the figures whom they’d appropriated for themselves were not quite like themselves.
Placing that grossly overlooked angle into its proper perspective, it seems that the next time a curious observer fixes it in their mind to repeat the now oft’ asked riddle, “Why is the Madonna black?” The question they might ask instead is: Why is she white?
Remarkably, we have grown so much more knowledgeable of many of the most basic aspects of the Bible, particularly the geographical locations of many of its stories: Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, Jerusalem, etc. We also now better understand the ethnicities of the peoples that have inhabited those lands since time immemorial. Yet, in spite of this, most of us remain content still nursing on the breastfed prejudices of yesterday and reeking of the drunken but blissful stupor of willful ignorance.
Nonetheless, it is the aforementioned — when rightly considered — that makes a Mary who is black, brown, or even olive-skinned, a much more logical representation than their ivory complexioned counterpart.
It’s somewhat amusing to think there are millions of Christians whose measure of faith allows them to accept that God created the world in seven days, that Adam was created from dust (and that Eve was created from Adam’s rib); that Moses spoke to God in the form of a burning bush, that the virgin Mary became pregnant by way of immaculate conception, that Jesus, the son of God, performed a number of miraculous acts including — but not limited to — walking on water, healing the sick, turning water into wine, raising Lazarus from the dead, and also returning from death himself after being nailed to a cross and crucified.
These very same folks can find it in their minds to accept all of that, but at the same time find it an impossible consideration that Mary, who — according to the Bible — lived close enough to Africa make the ten-day foot trek into Egypt after the birth of Jesus, was visualized as dark-skinned because she was dark-skinned.
The acceptance of such would seem to require a whole different kind of faith.
Nigra Sum sed Formosa
Though a significant portion of the world’s Westernized population, both within and outside the Christian faith, do not know that she was, and many who know still strive to understand why she was, the ancient art of Christianity reveals that there was a time when throughout Europe, Mary, the mother of God, was visualized as being black.
These remarkably ancient depictions, hundreds of which still exist, hearken back to an age when a dark-complexioned mother holding her blessed child was once idealized throughout Europe and even adored. A time long before the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade of the 16th Century, the divisive concept of race devised by Johann Blumenbach in the late 18th century, and every idiotic notion of white racial supremacy that has been rabidly volleyed about ever since.
Best of all, though, these icons remind us of a now-forgotten time when Christian Europe searched the face of the Earth for the mother of creation and found her to be what they could only describe as nigra sum sed formosa.
Black and beautiful.
 According to several reports, Christianized Mexican Juan Diego, received a visitation from the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe in 1531. The well-known painting of the Guadalupe Virgin is attributed to him.
 According to Romain Rolland, the Black Virgin of Chatillon-sur-Seine that the young Bernard prayed before was destroyed in a fire caused by revolutionists in Oct. 1793.
 To the ancient Greeks who coined the word “Ethiopia,” this portion of the ancient world was comprised of Africa, including Egypt, Mesopotamia (Middle East) all the way to India; lands inhabited by people whose skin appeared to them to have been burned by the sun.
 With regard to common interpretations of nigra sum sed formosa, a Latin translation from Hebrew text, the Oxford Dictionary of the Bible advises that the Hebrew connector wé should be interpreted as a conjunctive “and” rather than the disjunctive “but,” which is actually uncommon to Hebrew.
Augenti, Andrea. Art and Archaeology of Rome: From Ancient Times to the Baroque. New York: Riverside Book Company, Inc, 2000.
Begg, Ean. The Cult of the Black Virgin, 1985. London: Arkana
Bernard of Clairvaux, In Praise of the New Knighthood, Copyright © 1996. Prologue-chapter five, translated by M. Conrad Greenia OCSO, from Bernard of Clairvaux: Treatises Three, Cistercian Fathers Series, Number Nineteen, © Cistercian Publications, 1977, pages 127–145 (without notes).
Gildas, M. Transcribed by Janet Grayson. St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II, Copyright © 1907 by Robert Appleton Company Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight Imprimatur. + John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York
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Saint Bernard of Clairvaux Abbot, Doctor of the Church — 1153. Taken from “Lives of Saints”, Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc. Provided Courtesy of Eternal Word Television Network 5817 Old Leeds Road Irondale, AL 35210
The Black Virgin, Dr. Karen Ralls, 2000 © 2000–2003 Karen Ralls / Ancient Quest
Rogers, J.A. Sex and Race — Vol. I, Ninth Edition 1968
Rolland, Romain. Intermédiaire des chercheurs et des curieux, Vol. 34, p. 193, Paris, 1864
Paco Taylor is a writer from Chicago. He loves old history books, Japanese giant monster movies, hip-hop, anime, comics, Kit Kats, and kung fu flicks.