Showcasing the art and ritual of the African and African-diaspora religions

Black Madonna statue

Catalog Number: F003


21.0 x 9.5 x 8.0 cm


8.2 x 3.7 x 3.0 in


Religion and Denomination: Christianity
Materials: pigment
Usage: N/A
Detailed Description of Significance:

This statue is a miniature version of an eleventh-century Romanesque statue of the Madonna in Majesty known as the Madonna of Clermont-Ferrand, and the Vierge d’Or (The Golden Virgin).  It is one of the many statues known popularly, as the Black Madonna. This statue depicts Mary seated as the Throne of Wisdom, the figure of the Christ seated on her lap, which forms his own throne. The original was based on Mediterranean and Byzantine models, made of wood, and covered in metal foil. Less than a meter tall, it would have been easily carried in processions and removed from its permanent position for re-enactments of the Adoration of the Magi at the Nativity.

In the twelfth century, Clermont-Ferrand, the French home of the statue, became a pilgrimage site for travelers on the way to Santiago de Compostella. Art historian Ilene Forsyth suggests that the original likely did not have black skin but was instead darkened over time from the smoke of candles left by devotees. Margaret Starbird counters that the black skin must have been deliberate. Some Roman Catholics have suggested that the black skin signifies Mary’s Semitic heritage. Some devotees of Afro–Diasporic religions in the Americas instead suggest that the statue’s complexion suggests a connection to the devotion of the Black Isis, an Egyptian goddess.

After thousands of viewings, the statue inspired hundreds of replicas and spiritual sisters in the Middle Ages. Some of these were made much smaller, to be used in personal devotion. The black face of the figures likely contributed to their appeal; such coloration recalled both Biblical references to dark-complected women (as in The Song of Solomon) and earth goddesses that predated the arrival of Christianity in Europe.  Indeed, many of the figure now generated as Black Madonnas had before their re-consecration by Christians, represented Egyptian-inspired Greek goddesses.  Once erected by Greek traders, they became the face of pilgrimage routes that endured beyond their re-consecration.

Roman Catholics in Europe report simply finding black Madonna statues in natural settings, and some of the statues took on a will of their own and demanded to be enshrined in natural chapels. For instance, Our Lady of Vassivière urged her devotees to place her at a pass through the Pyrenees mountain range, where she acted as a guardian for travelers. Others were placed in tombs or crypts.   In the late 20th century she became an important reference in a new feminist spirituality that is a part of the larger New Age Movement.