Our Lady of Czestokowa, Gouache on paper, 7” x 10”, 2008
My interest in the Black Virgin may have begun at the Porta Coeli Museum in San Germán, my hometown in Puerto Rico, the first time I was able to visit this ancient colonial structure. As a child, I had heard my father tell the story of visiting “the convent,” as it was called when he was a young boy and my grandmother took him and his brothers to hear the Latin mass. By the time I was old enough to be curious, the Convent was closed and I never got a chance to visit it until my thirties, when it had been a museum for several years. Like a book, I always start looking on the left side of a room, and there she was, a magnificent wooden statue of the Black Virgin, dressed in a white gown, holding her beautiful little Man-Child on her lap. I took some photos and then forgot her until some years later, when I discovered her connection to Mary Magdalene.
In Puerto Rico, I have heard people say that the Black Virgin is the syncretism of the Virgin Mary and the African slaves' religion. I believe this syncretism in fact exists, but I was always curious why she was so adored in Europe and where she came from. The Black Madonna does not originate in the Caribbean or America at all, but her early statues and icons were in Europe long before the Old World and the New World found each other. She is so ancient that she might already have been there when Christianity arrived. Some scholars claim that the peoples of Europe merged their own ancient goddess of the earth with the Virgin Mary, and made her into the Black Virgin. It was one of the theories exposed by scholars about the Black Madonna that ultimately attracted me to her. This theory is her connection to Mary Magdalene.
The Black Madonnas of Europe are usually called Our Lady. It is believed that at some point the Magdalene became linked to the Black Maddona by association to the Song of Songs when it says "I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem." Mary Magdalene is associated to the bride in the poem, and Jesus to the bridegroom. Also, the cathedrals dedicated to "Our Lady" were built by the Knights Templar, who were "champions of Mary Magdalene." There is also the link to Sarah the Black saint, believed by some to be the daughter brought by Mary Magdalene from Egypt.
The original icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa particularly attracts me because it might be Byzantine, or at least might have inspired Byzantine art (since Helen is said to have brought it to her son Constantine from Jerusalem) and, most of all, because of its scar. Margaret Starbird makes an interesting association in reference to the icon Our Lady of Czestochowa representing the vanished goddess/Magdalene, "she is not only dark, she is wounded." Even if she is the mother of God, even if she is adored and revered, the scar is the first thing you see when you look at this image.
Just as I try to make my Mary Magdalenes universal, I like the idea of the Black Virgin not being of any particular ethnicity, but a representation of the life-giving power of the Earth itself, the darkness of which light is born, the "Hodegetria", One Who Shows the Way, the Mother who points to her son so that we may, through her guidance, reach the ultimate goal of our human journey. And I also love her because she is dark, wounded, ancient, beautiful and miraculous, and because I am a mother with a once-little, dark, byzantine-eyed child. I too have many scars in my ancient body, which I am also not afraid to show.
This Virgin of Czestokowa is available. E-mail Me! or visit my store. Reproductions and greeting cards are also available.