Remembering When Mary Was Black

Thoughts on the Black Madonna iconography of medieval Europe

Paco Taylor
20 min readMay 1, 2021


Credit: Wellcome Gallery

“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?”

“How?” indeed.

Spanish painting of Our Virgin and Child of Guadalupe, 1745. • Source: Wellcome Collection

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…



Paco Taylor

Paco writes about Eastern and Western pop culture, history, and art. Has bylines at NeoText, Nextshark, G-Fan, Comics Beat & Comic Book Resources | stpaco@gmail