Darkness precedes light and she is mother.
— inscription on the altar of the cathedral of Salerno, Italy
Black Madonnas are found all over Europe, with the majority found in France, the most famous being at Chartres. She is the Queen of Heaven at some of the most holy shrines in Europe, including the famed Black Madonna of Czestochowa. But the worship of a virgin, black Mother of God with her God-begotten child, far predates Christianity and prevailed throughout the ancient world.
Some Black Madonna figures are pregnant rather than holding a baby, representing the fertile mother of the Earth. The symbol of the Goddess with the swollen belly dates back to Palaeolithic times. At Lozere in France in the cathedral Notre-Dame de Mende, the fecund Madonna made of walnut or apple wood (both trees associated with fertility) was brought back from the Holy Land by Crusaders in 1253. Sometimes shrines of the Black Madonna are inscribed with the words from the Bible’s Song of Songs referring to the Queen of Sheba, whose wisdom was greater than that of Solomon: “I am black but beautiful.” Sheba, like the Black Madonna, was linked with wise Sophia.
But the clearest lineage of the Black Madonna hearkens back to the great Goddess Isis and Her son Horus.
Isis with Horus, Rome, circa 20 B.C.E.
Most modern historians agree that much of the early European artwork depicting Madonna and Child is based on ancient statues and art of the Egyptian Goddess Isis, holding Her child Horus. There is even evidence that some of the oldest Black Mary and Jesus statues in Europe were originally Isis and Horus, and were simply renamed for use in the Christian religion.
The cult of Isis originated in Egypt and for centuries prior to the Current Era, she was beloved throughout the Mediterranean region. The worship of Isis and Horus was especially popular in Rome. Roman legions carried the figure of Black Isis holding the black infant Horus on their banners throughout the Empire, and established shrines to Her as far as the northern reaches of Britain.
Isis personified the best of what were considered feminine virtues which She passed on to Mary. Like the modern day Blessed Virgin, Isis is guardian of women in labor, shows Her mercy to the distressed, gives a ‘light’ to the dying, and assures fertility and healing.
Her cult died out in Rome after the institution of Christianity, and the last Egyptian temples to Isis were closed around 550 CE, many simply converting the sites to Christian churches.
In ancient Rome itself, it is estimated that about one hundred of temples of Isis were changed over to become Christian churches. But so holy and venerate were many of these shrines, that their artifacts were saved, becoming figures of a black Mary and Child. Although countless were later destroyed, particularly during the Inquisition, many of those remaining are the centerpieces of some of the holiest sites in Catholic Europe.
In Montovolo, Italy, for instance, there is a sanctuary dedicated to a Black Madonna with Child. Some believe that this site was originally an ancient oracular center, since the site bears a number of archeological clues that are similar to Delphi, the most famous oracle site of the Mediterranean area. Later, it is believed, it became a temple of Isis, and today is a holy shrine to Mary.
The other link between the Black Madonna and Isis is within the very language that was used in Her worship. For both in the Latin of the Church, as well as the tongue that was the everyday language of Rome’s ancient civilization, the formal titles to Her survive. Both use the terms Our Lady, Queen of Heaven, and The Great Mother, titles originally attributed to Isis. The word “Madonna” itself is from mater domina, a title that was usually given to Isis.
Over the next several days, as we honor this Dark time of Winter, we’ll explore the mystery of the Dark Goddess in many of Her forms, including the ancient origins of the Black Madonna. As always, I invite your thoughts and experiences if you would like to share.