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The Black Madonna: A Folkloristic and Iconographic Investigation

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 39.5, September/October 2015

Black Madonna Painting Figure 1. The Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland, is the subject of many pious legends.

One of the most famous of true icons (traditional religious panel paintings) is the so-called Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland (Figure 1). Its notoriety was boosted when, following his election to the papacy, the “Polish Pope” John Paul II prayed before it on a visit in 1979. For an international History Channel series, Miracles Decoded, I was asked to look into the icon’s origins. I found that it has an intriguingly legendary history, an iconography that repays study, and a reputation for many miracles.

Folkloric Origins

According to legend, the panel for the dark-skinned Madonna and Child came from a table that had been made by Jesus himself while apprenticing to his carpenter father, Joseph. After Jesus’s crucifixion, his mother allegedly took the table with her when she went to live in the home of a disciple, St. John. Upon the top of this, according to fanciful tradition, St. Luke himself painted her portrait. It was subsequently discovered by Helena, the mother of Roman emperor Constantine the Great (274–337 ce), among a remarkable group of treasures on a trip to Jerusalem—or so it is said in pious tales (Aradi 1954, 62; Mullen 1998, 135).

The locations of the reputed treasures were allegedly revealed to the then almost eighty-year-old Helena by divine visions. She is said to have uncovered nothing less than the Holy Sepulchre and found that it not only contained the True Cross of Jesus but that it was an incredible storeroom of Christian artifacts. In addition to the Titulus Crucis—the Cross’s headboard (on which was inscribed, in three languages, “This is the King of the Jews” [Luke 23:38])—the disciples had thought to include the crosses of the “two thieves” crucified with Jesus (Mark 15–27). As well, there were nails from the crucifixion, the crown of thorns (Matthew 27:29), the chalice known as the Holy Grail, and more (Nickell 2007, 57, 77–95, 102). There, or elsewhere, she supposedly found the table-top portrait.

In other words, no one had any idea where such bogus items actually came from. The claimed Titulus, for example, has been radiocarbon-dated not to the first century but to 980–1146 ce, fully consistent with the actual time (1144–1145 ce) it had been acquired by a church in Rome. As to the True Cross, fragments were distributed as relics so frequently, noted Protestant John Calvin (1543, 67), that there were enough for “a whole ship’s cargo.” A supernatural explanation was provided by St. Paulinus of Nola (353–431 ce), who claimed that no matter how many pieces were removed, the cross never diminished in size! (See Cruz 1984, 39.) One piece has been radiocarbon-dated to 1018–1155 ce (Finding Jesus 2015).

Nevertheless, continues the Black Madonna saga, Helena returned with the picture to Constantinople, where it remained in a church until the eighth century. Then, threatened by war, it was carried for safekeeping to (curiously enough) Eastern Poland. In 1382 the Tartars invaded but failed to discover the Holy Virgin’s portrait because “a mysterious cloud enveloped the chapel.” Later, a local prince “was ordered in a dream by an angel to take the picture to an insignificant, obscure village named Czestochowa” (Aradi 1954, 63).

A contradictory legend tells how the icon was being transported for safekeeping when it was stored overnight in Czestochowa’s monastery of Jasna Gora. On the following morning, when the image was returned to the wagon, the horses refused to move—a miraculous sign, it was thought, that it should remain there (Mullen 1998, 135–136). In yet another tale, the balking horses are those of invading Hussites who in 1430 were attempting to take the icon as plunder. When the horses unaccountably stopped at the village limits, however, and no amount of beating could get them to move, the Black Madonna was abandoned (Aradi 1954, 63). Such variants (differing versions of a narrative), together with common motifs (story elements), are indicative of the folkloric process at work.

In the latter tale, the Hussites were so riled that they angrily grabbed up the icon, which had already been pierced by an arrow in the Madonna’s throat during the siege, and cast it on the ground, where it broke into three pieces. Moreover, one of the thieves struck the image with his sword, inflicting two gashes. As he started to strike a third time, he fell down and writhed in agony until his death (Cruz 1993, 400). It must have been embarrassing to the faithful that the icon—reputed to protect all of Poland (Aradi 1954, 63–66)—could not even protect itself. It could, however, inspire a tale about how it nevertheless exacted retribution.

A further magical tale relates that after the Holy Picture was abandoned by the Hussites and found covered in dirt and blood, the monks wanted to clean it. However, all the wells were dry from putting out the fires set by the invaders’ torches. Therefore, “It was at this time that a miraculous fountain sprung up, a spring that has since healed thousands and thousands of sick and has supplied water to millions of pilgrims” (Aradi 1954, 63; for a discussion of “miracle” healings see Nickell 2013, 175–222).

As we shall see presently, there were many black Madonna icons that were claimed to be the original. According to Scheer (2002, 1421–1422), “All share a common set of recurring motifs.” These include “the refusal of an image to leave a certain spot,” “the resistance to or revenge taken for damage or ‘wounding,’” and others. She adds: “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.”

Iconography

There are as many as perhaps a few hundred black Madonnas in Europe. In addition to small statues (commonly about thirty inches tall and mostly of polychromed wood), they consist of icons either imported from Byzantium (which Constantine renamed Constantinople) or rendered in Byzantine style. This style was influential across Europe for a millennium, and in icon painting it continued until the seventeenth century, traces of it surviving in paintings by El Greco (ca. 1545–1614). Byzantine-style icons were produced in quantity in Italy during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (Scheer 2002, 1413–1416; Levy 1962, 25).

Now, distinctly Christian images had begun to appear about 200 ce. By the beginning of the fifth century there had developed “a cult of portraits of saints, including the Virgin,” in different parts of the Christian Empire (Grabar 1968, 7–30, 84). Apparently the earliest icon of Mary reputedly painted by Luke was a large circular portrait of her head only. Its circular shape is unusual, and it may have indeed been painted on a table top or a semblance thereof. A tradition holds that in the first half of the fifth century it was discovered—not by Helena but (in this variant tale) by Eudokia (wife of Byzantine emperor Theodosius II) and sent by her from Palestine to Constantinople. There it was fitted into a great rectangular full-length picture of Mary holding the infant Christ. It was reportedly this composite that became known as the Hodegetria (“She who shows the Way”)—a representation of the Theotokos (“Mother of God”). In this type, the Holy Mother holds the Christ Child while gesturing to him as the salvation of humankind (Guarducci 1991; Grabar 1968, 84; Hodegetria 2014). As we shall see, this portrait set—now presumed lost (Hodegetria 2014)—probably had dark-complexioned figures. It was doubtless the prototype of subsequent Hodegetria-type “black” Madonnas.

The Black Madonna of Czestochowa is a late evolutionary example of this type.1 According to anthropologists Leonard W. Moss and Stephan C. Cappannari (1953, 320), it is “distinctly thirteenth to fourteenth century Byzantine in form.” Various additional sources agree that it is of “Byzantine origin,” that its “Byzantine style is obvious,” and so on (Leonard-Stuart and Hagar 1912; Duricy 2013). However, Pasierb (1989, 6) cautions that “In fact even today neither stylistic nor iconographic analyses are of much help.” That is because the icon was repainted in 1434.2 Pasierb insists that therefore it is only possible to say that it was a prototype of the fifth-century one in Constantinople and therefore “it could have been made some time between the 6th and 14th centuries."

Nevertheless, there are indications that the repainting was faithful to the original (Pasierb 1989, 6), and the image does actually contain a number of iconographic clues relating to its dating. Even as a work of imagination, it is anachronistic for the first century. For example, the infant Jesus holds in his left hand a codex (a bound book, as opposed to the earlier scroll), said to be a book of gospels. But there could be no such texts until, decades after Jesus’s crucifixion, they were separately written and eventually collected. That did not take place until the late second or even third century ce (Bible 1960; Price 2003, 40), long after the deaths of the supposed painter and his portrait subject.

One motif is of particular interest. The Madonna’s blue garment is studded with gold fleurs-de-lis, the lily being symbolic of the Trinity as well as of the Virgin (Webber 1938, 178). The combination of colors and motif also echo the royal French coat of arms—d’azur, semé de fleurs de lis d’or (“blue, interspersed with gold lilies”)—which was not officially adopted until the twelfth century (Black Madonna 2014; Hall 1979, 124; Fleur-de-lis 1960). From this, it has been suggested that the icon was probably produced at the Jasna Gora monks’ founding monastery in Hungary, during the reign of the Anjou dynasty, 1308–1386 (Black Madonna 2014). That time period is supported by the fact that the monastery was established in Czestochowa about 1382 (Leonard-Stuart and Hagar 1912), and the icon arrived there “most probably on 31 August 1384” (Pasierb 1989, 6). I would emphasize that the icon has no provenance before that time.

Art scholar Ernst Scheyer (2013) studied the image and concluded that “the present image was restored in the nineteenth century and painted somewhat darker than previously.” This brings us to the persistent question: Why is the Madonna of Czestochowa black? Some have claimed the picture darkened over time—either from the smoke of “innumerable candles” or the age-darkening of pigments used for the skin color (Beissel 1909)—or from the flames and smoke of a burning chapel (Broschart 1961). (In the case of one similar icon restored in 1799, the “thoroughly black” faces of mother and child were attributed to the smoke of centuries after examination of the paint flakes revealed underlying light flesh tones. In his restoration, the artist chose to repaint the faces black because that was what churchgoers expected [Scheer 2002, 1435].)

An alternate view is that many of the numerous black Madonnas (icons and statues) were intentionally created black (i.e., dark-skinned). That is in fact true of certain Madonnas whose features and skin color match that of the native population—for example, various “Negroid madonnas” in Africa (Moss and Cappannari 1953, 319) and the dark-skinned Image of Guadalupe in Mexico (alleged to have appeared miraculously but in fact painted by an Aztec artist [Nickell 1988, 103–117; 2013, 31–34]). Moss and Cappannari (1953, 324) go further, suggesting that “The black madonnas are Christian borrowings from earlier pagan art forms which depicted Ceres, Demeter, or Isis as black in the color characteristic of those goddesses of the earth.”


It may also be true that a dark complexion was simply thought appropriate for a Jewish woman, as one Dominican scholar insisted in the sixteenth century (de Barletta 1571). Also, as early as the sixth century appeared allegedly miraculous self-portraits of Jesus (termed acheiropoietos or “not made with hands”) that were actually painted (Nickell 2007, 69), and these were likewise dark-complexioned presumably for the same reason (Scheer 2002, 1425, n. 36).

Conclusions

The Black Madonna of Czestochowa is a traditional, Hodegetria icon, of a type that evolved from its probable prototype in fifth-century Constantinople. The claim that it was painted by Luke on a table-top made by Jesus in his father’s carpentry shop derives from that prototype—and, of course, is nothing more than pious legend. The image was apparently rendered with original dark flesh tones (there being no evidence that the “black” coloration resulted later from smoke, fires, or the discoloration of age). It is probably of fourteenth-century manufacture, consistent with the lack of provenance before 1384 when the icon appeared at the Jasna Gora monastery.

As to the claims of miracle healings and protection, the sad fact is that it was unable to heal or protect itself—despite the best efforts of further pious legend-making. It does stand as a testament to the faith of its countless devotees.

It remains for the Black Madonna of Czestochowa to be radiocarbon dated. A tiny sample of wood could be taken from the edge,3 specially cleaned to remove contaminants, and then subjected to the carbon-dating process—just as was done for the Titulus Crucis and piece of the True Cross (albeit with the devastating result of disproving their authenticity). The icon’s custodians should commission this test or admit, by their refusal, that their faith in its authenticity is weak.


Notes

  1. The wood panel measures (without the frame) about 13” wide by 19” high and is nearly 1/2” thick (Cruz 1993, 401).
  2. When the Black Madonna was repainted in 1434, two pen slashes were made to the right cheek to commemorate the previous vandalism (Black Madonna 2014).
  3. The back of the panel is illustrated with scenes from its legendary history, rendered in 1682 (Pasierb 1989, 210).

References


Topics: Black Madonna
Subjects: Fringe Theories

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.