Black Madonnas on my Doorstep

Earlier in September, I went on a pilgrimage to the South of France. I was trying to find out more about the enigmatic biblical female disiciple Mary Magdalene. A 12th centry legend has it that she left Jerusalem a decade after the crucifiction, set sail with her brother Lazarus, two other women named Mary and a young dark-skinned girl called Sara. There may have been one boat, there may have been three. But, according to legend, Mary landed in what is now the Carmargue and began preaching Chistianity, converting the whole of southern France. For thirty years her home was a cave up in massive mountain range, the massif La Sainte-Baume.  Today the cave has been walled off and made into a church. It is guarded by Dominican monks. It’s a steep climb to get to it, a wall of rock.

Magdalene’s remains (well, her skull) is preserved in the basilica of Saint Maximum de la Sainte-Baume beneath these grand mountains – supposedly they were found in a sarophagus in 1279. For years there has been much conjecture as to who this dark-skinned Sara was – Mary’s servant or Mary’s daughter (with Christ). Hence the da Vinci Code etc.

Whoever she was, there is a church and shrine to this black madonnna or black Sara in a small sea-side town of Saintes-Maries de la Mere in the Carmargue. (see pic). She is the patron saint of gypsies and every May thousands of gypsies converge on the town and take the statue of black Sara into the sea for her annual baptism.

So I spent a week in a mini-bus with eight mad hippies climbing up mountains and peering into caves and meditating atop ‘power places’, doing the fire-breath meditation in the remains of Mont Segur, a Cathar castle where 200 people (heretics) were burnt at the stake for their Gnostic beliefs, including their belief in Magdalene being Christ’s bride. Awesome trip. 

I get back to Harlesden, NW10, only to be told, by my ex, that my actual neighbourhood harbours not one but THREE black madonnas. Two in the RC churh Our Lady of Willesden – on my doorstep. The third is in a C of E church, St Mary’s, not far away. So ths afternoon me and my friend Rose (who is writing about Harlesden) went on pilgrimage in our neighbourhood.

In the RC Church (literally across the road) we found many Brazillians just leaving mas. The Brazillian priest was very chatty, telling us there is a Portuguese service at 2pm every Sunday. We explained we were’t Portuguese (Harlesden has a big Brazillian community), that we wanted to see the black madonna. He pointed to a small side chapel. We went in.

The black statue was rather beautiful, carved in 1892 from an oak which grew in the older church, St Mary’s, a mile away.  There are some who argue that a black madonna is the result of an overlap in pagan beliefs and Christianity, black being the colour of earth, signifying the earth mother. Highly plausible. There are black madonnas all over the world, many in Europe and in South America. But it strikes me that if the Holy Virgin Mary came from the Levant, then it’s likely she was very dark olive-skinned. A milk white-skinned madonna is most odd – yet common. There was a second carving of a black virgin close to the altar. The altar was very snazzy, very Las Vegas with lots of pink and gold and coulmns.

Next we visited St Mary’s on Church Road, an ancient church which reeks of old wood and incense, a site of pilgrimage for it also houses a fresh spring well. We were thirsty when we arrived, so drank from it. Wierdly, this ancient church is right opposite a huge roundabout and what looks like a red brick car park.

The vicar, David, was young and spruce and keen to tell us everything he could. There was a black madonna in the church from 1100-1600. The church was sacked and the madonna burnt by Cromwell’s men. No one knows much about her. Just that a black ‘sooty’ figure of the virgin was in the church, no one knows who put it there or why. Though pilgims to the well saw her as good luck.

Eventually, it was replaced my another (golden) statue. But, in 1972, a female sculptor was commissioned to make another black madonna to commemorate the one which was burnt. It’s a strange statue indeed. Bold and almost totem-like. A solemn carving – of a black-skinned female figure holding a child aloft. The child’s hands are splayed, fingers like stars. Very modern and somehow incongruous in such an ancient church. In fact, it looks very – er –  pagan.

Nice chap, David. His last parish chuch was dediacted to the Magdalene – he had much to say about

Black Sara, the Carmargue.

Black Sara, the Carmargue.

her too. But that’s another post. I’m on the trail.

~ by moniqueroffey on September 27, 2009.

5 Responses to “Black Madonnas on my Doorstep”

  1. Very cool. We have the black Madonna of Tortuga and one in Siparia.
    It makes me wonder what the percentage is against the stereotypical white Virgin Mary? It’s obviously all been influenced by art forms etc.

  2. ttp:// Church
    That’s the link for our Black Madonna.

  3. Thanks for this Sharon. I shall definietly go see her on my next visit.

  4. Actually, my agent just told me of a black madonna near her office. I can start collecting them now. Anyone else who knows of one, please let me know!

  5. Hey Monique ,
    It’s Adam your ong lost neighbour.
    Nice book, so far, I am now going to dinner with Sabine and her smoking budddy on Bergrac Rd.
    Send me your Tel # .
    Nice blog.

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