by Nan DeGrove

In October I had pleasure of being in France, in a one of those tiny, storybook villages where time seems to have stopped. Late roses cascaded with abandon over ancient walls and church bells tolled the hours as they have done for time out of mind. The stones seemed to hold the memories of centuries, as if to say, “we have seen it all: kings and queens, popes, pilgrims and peasants, times of war and calamity, times of peace and plenty, invasions, victories and defeats, and we have endured.”

La Vierge á L'Oiseau, Basilica of St. Julien, Brioude, France

La Vierge á L’Oiseau, Basilica of St. Julien, Brioude, France

When I heard the dreadful news of the recent massacres in Paris, I thought of the Black Madonnas I had seen in churches, and their legendary connection to healing miracles and redemptive powers. I’ve been drawn to the mysterious, wonder-working icons ever since I learned of them years ago. In France, I had the opportunity to visit some of their sanctuaries in the Auvergne, a region of extinct volcanos and gorgeous Romanesque churches. Black Madonnas in sanctuaries and crypts are found all over Europe, mostly dating from the 11th to the 15th centuries. France, and the Auvergne has an especially high concentration of them. Their legends connect them to healing waters, wells, trees, springs and subterranean forces. The churches of the Madonnas almost always stand on sites that were once pagan temples, as Christianity displaced the Roman cults.

Church of St. Nectaire

Church of St. Nectaire

Black virgins have long been a source of controversy in church doctrine and among art historians, but it is generally thought that they are related to these pagan traditions,the earth and fertility goddesses that predate Christianity, and the feminine powers so deeply repressed, yet irrepressible, in patriarchy. Some of these icons resemble the graceful Egyptian images of the goddess Isis; others have a primal earthiness quite different from the idealized portrayals of the white madonnas.

Church of St. Nectaire

Church of St. Nectaire

December takes us (in the Northern Hemisphere) into the darkening of the year, the sacred times of Advent, the Winter Solstice, Hanukkah and Christmas. It is a time to honor the dark as a time of gestation and rekindling of the flame of hope. The black Madonna teaches that life is a pilgrimage. As a guardian of the Earth she stands for environmental and social justice. As the spirit of light in darkness, she lights the way for all who are lost and oppressed.

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