Black Madonnas are found throughout the world. Belgium, Croatia, Ecuador, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Malta, Mexico, Poland, Romania, Sicily, Spain, Switzerland and the United States each have many black Madonnas. Most are sculpted out of wood, although sometimes they are hewn from stone. One is cast lead. There are also a few paintings, frescoes and icons. These are usually found in churches, chapels and sanctuaries, though a few are in museums and there are countless others which are hidden, undiscovered or sitting in private collections. All in all there are hundreds of known black Madonnas, but there are countless other Madonna sculptures and paintings that scholars suspect were once black but are now white, most likely from being lightened or repainted. Ean Begg, author of The Cult of the Black Virgin, reports that at one time there were 450, primarily in Europe. There are many more mentioned in literature but were destroyed during the French Revolution and religious wars.
Historically, alabaster-white madonnas are far newer than their black counterparts. White Madonnas only began appearing during the Middle Ages, around the time the Marian cult finally gained approval with the Catholic Church. The theories of the origins of the Black Virgins vary, depending upon the source. Reconstructive feminists and Orthodox Catholics usually have very differing views on the subject.
Many Catholic clergy brush off the question of, "Why is your Madonna statue black?" with a simple answer, "Because she is black." Those that delve further offer various explanations, such as dark brown & black Madonnas resemble the physiogonomy and skin pigmentation which matches that of the local population. For the black Madonnas existing within light-skinned populations, a fire and subsequent soot is often blamed, as is the accumulation of grime over the ages, or smoke from centuries of votive candles or the deterioration of lead-based pigments.
The Orthodoxy sometimes cites more symbolic explanations, since there are so many black Madonnas which the previous explanations cannot account for. One theory is that artists deliberately created black Madonnas to illustrate the text from the Song of Songs, which reads, "I am black, but beautiful..." (Song of Songs 1:5) Many of the existing black Madonnas are found in France and date from around the time of the Crusades, when Bernard of Clairvaux scribed numerous essays on the Canticles, comparing the soul to the bride. He also visited many shrines of the Black Madonna, and most interpreted the Bride as Mary.
Bernard of Clairvaux influenced the Templars and Cathars, who were persecuted and repressed by Catholicism during their heyday (1100 to 1300 A.D.), and are reputed to have brought with them many black Madonnas on their return from the Crusades. Many black Madonnas (at least in France, which was where the Templar & Cathar movements were most prominent) are dated from this time. Cathar symbolism represents figures with disproportionately large hands, which is a common feature of many black Virgins. It is believed the Templars brought the Black Madonna from Ethiopia. The colors of their order were black and red, which symbolized light and sacrifice. Around their necks they wore a double black and red cord and their flag consisted of black, white and red. The Black Madonna reminded them of the Queen of Sheb and her son Menelik, the first emporer of Ethiopia and the guardians of the Ark of the Covenant.
The Templars followed the symbolism of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which describes the Madonna as the "Mother of the Light". To them, she must have dark skin, because anything placed close to the sun (the Christ was symbolized as the Light & the Sun) turns dark.
Some Christians explain the existence of Black Madonnas from an artistic precedence being set by the Templars and Cathars, and subsequent representations were based on artistic convention rather than theological motivation. Ean Begg (The Cult of the Black Virgin) notes that there is little reference by the artists as to their motivations in creating Black Madonna sculptures and paintings.
The Catholic Church used the technique of inculturation - adapting the local indigenous "pagan" beliefs and customs into their own local church practices, to aid in the assimilation of the newly-converted to Catholicism. Many obvious examples exist, such as the ancient tradition of Samhain, which was a feast day for the dead. This transformed into All Hallow's Eve or Halloween and the day after - All Saint's Day, a day which honors the dead saints. Cherubic angels derived from representations of the Greek god Eros, or its Roman counterpart, Cupid. The Devil with its goat-like face and horns is based on The Horned God of the vast forests of ancient Northern Europe and the ancient fertility Greek and Roman god of Pan, which was half-man, half-goat. Stephen Benko, author of The Virgin Goddess, writes "The Black Madonna is the ancient earth-goddess converted to Christianity." He notes that many goddesses were represented as black, including Artemis of Ephesus, Isis, Mariamne, Aphrodites-Mari, Juno the Blessed Virgin, Maya, the Trinity of Fates and Ceres/Demeter (the Greek/Roman Earth Goddess). Demeter/Ceres, he says, was especially influential, because as an earth goddess, she represents the fertility of the soil, and as any farmer knows, the blacker the soil, the more fertile is its potential.
A few Catholic clergy have conceded to the inculturation theory. The Canon of John de Satge included: "The evangelical has a strong suspicion that the deepest roots of the Marian cults are not to be found in the Christian tradition at all. The religious history of mankind shows a recurring tendency to worship a mother-goddess....May it not be the case, the evangelical wonders, that what we have here is in relaity an older religion, a paganism which has been too lightly baptized into Christ and whose ancient features persist under a thin Christian veil?"
Some ferminists, such as Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor (The Great Cosmic Mother) believe the Black Madonnas are the direct result of early matriarchal Africans traveling throughout the ancient world, spreading the pyramid technologies, the stone and clay arts, hieroglyphic scripts and images of the Great Mother/Black Goddess. Numerous other historians and archeologists point out that humans probably originated in the African Continent.
The Gypsies also worship a Black Goddess, which they call Sara, and which most scholars believe to be an incarnation of Kali. The Gypsies are most likely from a band of 12,000 musicians and dancers given to the Shah of Persia between 420 and 438 A.D. from a prince in India. The Sha banished them because their sheer numbers overwhelmed his court. Although the Rom (Gypsy) language is derivative of Hindi, Gypsies have long forgotten their origins and have subsituted colorful tales and legends. Many groups of Gypsies found a warm welcome and were able to take advantage of their hosts in middle Europe when they claimed their origins were of the lost tribes of Egypt (hence the name Gypsy, though they refer to themselves as Rom or Romani.) Since Sara is an ancient character from Judaism as well as the legendary Egyption maid of Jesus' two Aunt Marys, the name change of the Black Goddess Kali to Sara may or may not have been intentional. After being somewhat converted, some Gypsies began identifying Sara-Kali as the Virgin Mary. Perhaps the Gypsies' eternal diaspora has also contributed to the plethora of Black Madonnas.
Some suggest that the black color of the Madonnas represent something archetypal and unexpressed in Christianity: black represents the Death Mother, the Crone, the Shadow Self. In Catholic countries, black is usually associated with magic and black Madonnas are considered to be possessors of hermetic knowledge and magic, as well as more powerful in manifesting miracles.
In the Aramaic language of Jesus, black means "sorrowful." Some believe the Madonna is represented as black, because of her sorrowful grief over her son. Christianity even has a name for this Crone aspect of the Madonna - the Pieta. Many scholars believe the Black Madonnas were originally the statues of Isis, who sorrowed for her lover, Osiris. The cult of Isis was extremely popular at the time of Christ. Later, in the sixth century, a very popular temple of Isis at Philae was rededicated to Mary.
There are many plausible explanations for the Black Madonna, but the
most likely is the Christian religion adopting and assimilating the variety
of cultures and customs it converted. The Judeo-Christian sky god religion
is the singular dogmatic religion that has only one prominent female and
the Christian clergy fought desperately to not allow her to be prominent,
holy, or on par with the male god-figures. After millenias of having pantheons
of powerful goddesses, it is inevitable for the many faces of the Goddess
to appear in the one channel allowed - Mary. Whether this has historical
or archetypal roots doesn't matter, because it fulfills the need of many.