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A number of years ago while traveling in Spain, I decided to visit the Monastery of Montserrat, which is 50 kilometers from Barcelona in the massif of Serra del Montserrat. Perched precariously high on the mountains, the monastery is an amazing sight. In the monastery is a Black Madonna which has been revered by the Catalan people for centuries. Some years later, I went to Provence and observed the gypsy festival honoring Saint Sarah, a black statue, which they carry to the nearby Mediterranean and bathe during this annual event. A few years after this, I happened to visit Chartres Cathedral on the 1st of May, a holy day for Catholics. There is a Black Madonna on a pillar in a side altar and I watched people pray to the Madonna, kissing the pillar and leaving offerings of flowers. Whenever I happened to be traveling nearby, I visited more Black Madonna sites and eventually made a special trip to Le Puy en Velay where a famous cathedral with a Black Madonna is one of the stating points for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. There are other Black Madonna sites along the route to Compestela, including Rocamadour.
Pilgrimage to holy places such as Jerusalem, Rome and sites with relics of saints was important in the Middle Ages as punishment for crimes; as penance; to fulfill a vow; to request a cure; or simply to gain spiritual blessings. In the 9th century according to legend, a mysterious star revealed the remains of Saint James, thus the cathedral and town are named Santiago de Compostela, a field of stars. The route from Le Puy en Velay to Compostela is 1000 miles and takes 2 1/2 months to walk but today pilgrims only need to walk the final 63 miles to Compostela to earn the certificate of completion. During the 11th and 12th centuries, pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago were as many as a half million per year.
The Black Madonna figures were often superimposed on earlier pre-Christian goddess cults in these formerly Roman regions, especially the cult of Isis. Early churches were often built on sites of Roman temples and in fact some early Madonna figures were later replaced after it was discovered that they were actually statues of Isis and Horus. The Egyptian deities, Isis and Osiris, were responsible for bringing agriculture and viniculture to the people and Isis for restoring Osiris to life. Thus she was a goddess of the living and the dead, a fertility and mother goddess. Her statue nursing Horus is one of the earliest artistic representations of a mother and infant. The goddess figures that were worshiped in the pre-Christian era were associated with fertility, motherhood and nature and the earliest figures were earth mother sculptures. Among the goddess cults spread through the Greco Romans or Gallo Romans were Demeter, Cybele, Isis and Artemis or Diana of Ephesus, all associated with grain, fertility or the agricultural cycle.
The Black Madonnas could similarly signify an association with earth and nature, which made them accessible to the peasant people who invoked their intercession. Seeds germinate within the earth and make renewal possible hence blackness is associated with fertility because soil is black. Black is also connected to wisdom, and esoteric knowledge. Thus Black Madonnas are particularly seen to possess hermetic knowledge and powers of wonder working. Some suggest that the blackness of these Madonnas was the result of the figures being made from woods of ebony or cedar to represent their antiquity and origins in the Holy Land, and thus their authenticity. In fact color was relevant as a symbolic category in early Christianity. In this symbolic sense, blackness is interpreted as a metaphor of grief but can also signify Mary as the crucible through which the Christ assumed material form.
Why did these icons multiply during the 11th and 12th centuries? French scholar, Jean Hani believes that during the early Christian era, the pagan icons were forbidden and thus hidden, which would explain their apparently miraculous discovery in the ground or a cave under the disguise of representing the Virgin Mary.