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

by Monique Scheer
From Majesty to Mystery: Change in the Meanings of Black Madonnas from the Sixteenth to Nineteenth Centuries
Monique Scheer
The American Historical Review
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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.'
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.? At the same time, it is important to avoid
The first incarnation of this article was a Magisterarbeit written at Tiibingen 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 fiir Empirische Kulturwissenschaft in Tiibingen as well as its photographer,
Martin Schreier, for financial and technical support in the preparation of the illustrative material.
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 ofthe Black in Western Art, clearly demonstrates
how the portrayal of human beings with black skin must be correlated with the portrayal and perception
From Majesty to Mystery 1413
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."
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
of Africans, See, for this time period, Vol. 2 by Jean Devisse, From the Early Christian Era to the ''Age
of Discovery":Part i-From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood, Part 2-Africans in the
Christian Ordinance of the World (Cambridge, Mass., 1.979).
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.
1414 Monique Scheer
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.' 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": 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 (Figure 1); 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 Altotting (Figure 2).
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." 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." Suffice it to say that there
is probably a core group of a few hundred European images generally accepted as
4 Mary and the baby Jesus are always both shown as black. I am aware of only a few examples ~here
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 Modem 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 ofthe 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'enigme 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," Kimigsteiner Iahrbiichlein (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
From Majesty to Mystery 1415
FIGURE 1: The black madonna of Einsiedeln, Switzerland, without its traditional dress . Reprinted with
permission of the photographer, P. Damian Rutishauser of Einsiedeln.
1416 Monique Scheer
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."
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." 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.'? This may be because, for a century or more, the dominant view among
Hill, N.C., 1982), 53-74. The Nolans counted 167 in their Europe-wide statistic, Christian Pilgrimage,
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: Hofische Kunst und Bayerische Frommigkeit 1550-1848 (Weissenhorn, 1992), cites a
1972 study counting 272 copies of the Altotting 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 Altotting,
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 CassagnesBrouquet
(Vierges noires) have devoted monographs to the topic. In Germany, theologians specializing
in Marian art have made article-length contributions: Martin Lechner, "'Schon 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
From Majesty to Mystery 1417
FIGURE 2: The black madonna of Allotting, Bavaria, in the dress in which it is presented on the allar of the
pilgrimage chapel today. From Gerhard P. Woeckel, Pietas Bavarica (Weissenhorn, 1992), reprinted with
permission of the publisher, Anton H. Konrad Verlag .
1418 Monique Scheer
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.U 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'? and, as in one particularly popular book, as representatives of heretical
Christian and occult traditions.t- 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
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 wdhrend 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 Kroll, 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 (Gottingen, 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, Wiirzburg ... , Ottingen ... , Puy ... , Marseilles and elsewhere"
(emphasis in the original).
From Majesty to Mystery 1419
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 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).'? 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."
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.!? 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.>' Their standpoint is further weakened by the lack of empirical
evidence supporting the view that not only morphology and function of preChristian
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
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.
1420 Monique Scheer
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." 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.P 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.>
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.>' 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." 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
21 Some examples: The Einsiedeln madonna was repainted black in 1799 (see artist's report in
Ringholz, Wallfahrtsgeschichte, 36, and below). The Altotting image was restored in 1911, remaining
faithful to the original colors, according to Robert Bauer, Bayrische Wallfahrt Altotting, 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 (CassagnesBrouquet,
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).
From Majesty to Mystery 1421
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 sixteenthcentury
records from the observer's perspective, such as the Mirakelbucher-" or
pilgrim's travelogues.s? In late medieval illustrations, Marian images seem to be
treated with a considerable lack of attention to detail." 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
26 These were small booklets distributed throughout the countryside reporting the miracles that had
taken place at a particular pilgrimage site-for Altotting, 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
Ortel (1521-22)," Mitteilungen aus dem Germanischen Nationalmuseum (1895): 61-82; Hermann Kunig
von Vach, Die Walfarth und Strass zu Sankt Jakob (Strasbourg, 1495); Reisebuch der Familie Rieter, R.
Rohricht and H. Meisner, eds. (Tubingen, 1884); Des bohmischen Herrn Leo's von Rozmital Ritter-, Ho]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 Mirakelbiicher from Altotting 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 spatmittelalterliche
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).
1422 Monique Scheer
"wounding," and so on.3D 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,>'
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.P 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
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.P 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 (Figures
3, 4). 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." 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
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 romischer 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 Potzl,
"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.
From Majesty to Mystery 1423
I _
!. ,
- -i :
3: Illustration of the madonna of Altotting in Wilhelm Gumppenberg's Atlas Marianus sive de
irnaginibus Deiparae per orbern Christian urn rniraculosis, Vol. 1 (Ingolstadt, 1657). Courtesy of the University
Library, Tubingen.
------ --
Monique Scheer
.~~-: ~;a
.== . . n - - --
FIGURE 4: Illustration of the madonna of Einsiedeln in Wilhelm Gumppenberg's Atlas Marianus sive de
imaginibus Deiparae per orbem Christianum miraculosis, Vol. 1 (Ingolstadt, 1657). Courtesy of the University
Library, Tiibingen .
From Majesty to Mystery 1425
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 Altotting 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
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.e? 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 Altotting, where an impressive collection of thousands of votive images
spanning five centuries are mounted on the walls of the chapel (Figures 5-7). The
other is a small, rural chapel some twenty miles away from Altotting, 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
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 Kiipferle, Histori von der weitberiihmbten 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).
1426 Monique Scheer
FIGURE5: Votive plaques from the mid-seventeenth century mounted on the wall of the pilgrimage shrine in
Altotting, Reprinted with permission of the photographer, Heiner Heine of Kastl, Germany.
From Majesty to Mystery 1427
of the famous Swiss image began working wonders itself and developed a
considerable local pilgrimage.w
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
Altotting, 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 Altotting 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 Altotting 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 Altotting 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." 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.f- 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
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: Beitriige zur Volkskunde aus
Osterreich, Bayern und der Schweiz; Festschrift fur Gustav Gugitz zum 80. Geburtstag (Vienna, 1954),98.
See also Sperber, Unsere Liebe Frau, 94. There were other borrowings in Altotting 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 Altotting 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 Altotting (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
1428 Monique Scheer
FIGURE 6: Votive image to the madonna of Allotting from the year 1782. From Robert Bauer, Bayerische
Wallfahrt Altotting, 4th edn. (Regensburg, 1998), reprinted with permission of the author/episcopal administration
in Allotting .
blackness of some images are not mentioned.'> 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?
4.' Gumppenberg, Atlas Marianus, 1672, Index 7.
From Majesty to Mystery 1429
FIGURE 7: Votive image to the madonna of Altotting from the year 1813. From Robert Bauer, Bayerische
Wallfahrt Altotting, 4th edn. (Regensburg, 1998), reprinted with permission of the author/episcopal administration
in Altotting.
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
1430 Monique Scheer
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." 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." 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." 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.'? On another, "I am black but
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 Gnadenund
Wallfahrtsorte mit den Heiligthumem 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
47 This passage from the Song of Songs has, as Sander Gilman put it, "even more than the discussion
From Majesty to Mystery 1431
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." 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."
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." 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.v
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.P
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.">' Considering that the chapel inside the
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 Bachtold-Staubli, ed., Handworterbuch des deutschen
Aberglaubens (1927-42; rpt. edn., Berlin, 1987), 20: 1189-1215.
49 Lechner, "'Schon schwarz bin ich,'" quotes extensive excerpts from this sermon, which was titled
"Schon Schwartz bin Ich / Das ist: DeB gottlichen GesponB / seiner schonen schwartzen Braut
Schwartze / 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; "'Schon schwarz bin ich,' " 48.
51 Lechner, "'Schon schwarz bin ich,' " 49.
52 Lechner, "'Schon 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, "'Schon schwarz bin ich,'" 50-51.
1432 Monique Scheer
FIGURE 8: Interior of the Altotting chapel. From Gerhard P. Woeckel, Pietas Bavarica (Weissenhorn, 1992),
reprinted with permission of the publisher, Anton H. Konrad Verlag.
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.v black had
become an interpretive element of the architectural framing of the image as well.>"
The impression of the chapel in Altotting 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 (Figure 8).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.v
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
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 Altotting, 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.
From Majesty to Mystery 1433
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 Altotting, 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 Diinninger, has pointed
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.v'
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 imagefocused
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.v-
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 Dreijiigjdhrige Krieg aus
der Niihe (Gottingen, 1999).
60 Wolfgang Bruckner, "Zum Wandel der religiosen Kultur im 18. Jahrhundert," in Ernst Hinrichs
and Gunther Wiegelmann, eds., Sozialer und kultureller Wandel in der liindlichen Welt des 18.
Jahrhunderts (Wolfenbuttel, 1982), 65-83.
61 Hans Dunninger, "Zur Geschichte der barocken Wallfahrt im deutschen Sudwesten," in Barock
in Baden- Wiirttemberg: Vom Ende des Dreifiigjahrigen Krieges bis zur Franzosischen 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 spatmittelalterliche Gnadenbild."
62 See Belting, Bild und Kult, 26. Influential post- Tridentine tractati on image theology published by
1434 Monique Scheer
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.v' 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." 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
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, BUd 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.
From Majesty to Mystery 1435
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."?
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 Altotting, too, the candle-smoke theme has, since the nineteenth century,
become integrated into the legends told of the madonnaw-s-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'v-i-itself closely linked to miraculous power/t-e-and that
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 Altotting 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 Altotting 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 Altotting 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
1436 Monique Scheer
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 thirdcentury
commentary by the theologian Origen, who saw in the bride the queen of
Sheba, generally known to be African." But she is not often portrayed with black
skin prior to the mid-fifteenth century. When she is, such as in the late twelthcentury
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." The material amassed for the
second volume of the comprehensive study The Image ofthe Black in Western Art led
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 Dobschiitz, Christusbilder: Untersuchungen zur
christlichen Legende (Leipzig, 1899).
71 See Freedberg, Power ofImages, 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.
720rigen 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 schon' (Hohes
Lied 1,5): Ein Beitrag des Origenes zur Theologie der negritudo," in Hans-Jiirgen 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
From Majesty to Mystery 1437
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
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."?
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
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."
1438 Monique Scheer
and elsewhere some dozens of black, ugly Madonnas, which all pass for the work of
his hands, and as such are revered."?" 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.?? 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 Aufkliirung, 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.
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, BUd 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 Kiinzli, communicated personally to Leonard
Moss by Alfred Vagts: Moss and Cappannari, "In Quest of the Black Virgin," 72.
82 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Asthetische Schriften 1816-1820: Uber Kunst und Altertum I-II,
Hendrik Birus, ed. (Frankfurt am Main, 1999), 75-76.
83 Theodor Mundt, Volkerschau aufReisen (Stuttgart, 1840), 234. Indeed, his comments are strongly
reminiscent of Goethe's and suggest he may have been familiar with his assessment.
From Majesty to Mystery 1439
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 midnineteenth
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 Laboure 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.v 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.s" 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
84 Cassagnes-Brouquet, Vierges noires, 258-59.
85 B. Craplet, "Vierges romanes," Richesses de la France, Le Puy-de-Dome 44 (1960): 66-68, quoted
in Forsyth, Throne of Wisdom, 21.
86 As the author of the article "Pelerinage" in the Encyclopedic theologique, 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. EI 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
weij3]" (April 26, 2001).
1440 Monique Scheer
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." 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.
89 The theme of Belting's Bild und Kult.
Monique Scheer is a graduate of Stanford University (BA, History) and
currently a PhD candidate at the University of Tiibingen, Germany, in the
department of Empirical Cultural StudieslEuropean 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.

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