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Emma CieslikMay 24, 2024
The Black Madonna at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

In the rural Green Bay woods in the 1850s, the Belgian immigrant Adele Brise fell to her knees in front of a golden-haired woman standing among the trees. Clad in a milky gown with a yellow sash tied around her waist, the woman emitted a bright white light so powerful Brise could barely see her face. She wore a crown of 12 stars around her head, and her long golden hair fell in ringlets on her shoulders. When Brise asked her who she was, the woman replied that she was the Queen of Heaven. In the color and features of the woman between the trees, the Virgin Mary, Adele Brise saw herself.

Marian encounters like the one experienced by Adele Brise, and Marian veneration in general, have been around as long as Christianity itself. In the 1400s, Catholics began referring to Mary as Mediatrix, derived from the Latin verb mediāre (to intercede), referring to her role as intercessor between the faithful and God. Mary’s resounding “yes” to God at the annunciation, her identity as an unmarried pregnant woman prior to her marriage to Joseph, and the untimely and horrific death of her son, endears her to Catholics and anyone seeking a spiritual mother figure. In a particular way, Mary is a mother for millions who are abandoned or separated from their families. And just as each person visualizes themselves through the face of their own mother, Catholics and other Christians often visualize Mary in their own image.

There has also been a wider renaissance of Marian veneration outside the borders of the Catholic church over the past several years. I have been speaking for five years now with artists and documenting the folk Mary statues they paint, carve or mold in their own image. These artists are creating localized portraits of Mary that people can carry in their hands. Furthermore, interestin Marian material cultures has lately entered the mainstream through jewelry, clothing and art.

As part of my research on this Marian renaissance, I visited the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception this May in honor of the month of Mary.

Located in northeast Washington, D.C., adjacent to the campus of the Catholic University of America, the shrine contains the world’s largest collection of contemporary ecclesial art, including more images of Mary than of Christ himself. Often surrounded by a mandorla, an almond-shaped symbol reflecting Mary’s role as God’s pathway into the world, these Marys reflect the faces of the same communities who built and dedicated these chapels.

I invite you to join me for a walk through this Basilica and a reflection on the ways in which we have made Mary in our own image.

The Black Madonna of Czestochowa
We first begin our journey through the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the entry level at the Chapel of Our Lady of Czestochowa. A replica of the miracle-working icon hangs on a gold mosaic wall, supported by two golden angels.

Our Lady of Czestochowa is also known as the Black Madonna. Black Madonnas are Byzantine icons created mostly from the 12th-14th centuries in territories under the control of the Christian Byzantine Empire. This included land in Italy, Greece, North Africa, Turkey and the Middle East, areas where communities had light or dark brown skin.

Black Madonnas also appeared in Oettingen in Bavaria, Montserrat in Spain, Liesse in France, Einsiedeln in Switzerland. Even the Virgin of Guadalupe in the Americas is considered a Black Madonna. In Spain and France, Mary’s black skin is associated with a Bible verse from the Song of Songs (1:5): “I am black and comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem.” These icons arose because of a cult surrounding the Black Madonna, a strong Marian devotion that centered on a Madonna whose image mirrored the physical appearance of many of the people living in the Byzantine Empire.

A mosaic of Our Lady of China is seen in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. Our Lady of China, also known as Our Lady of Donglu, was made more popular during the Boxer Rebellion of 1899 to 1901 (OSV News photo/courtesy Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception).
A mosaic of Our Lady of China is seen in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. Our Lady of China, also known as Our Lady of Donglu, was made more popular during the Boxer Rebellion of 1899 to 1901 (OSV News photo/courtesy Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception).

Ean Begg, in The Cult of the Black Madonna, writes that despite the spread of Black Madonnas across the world, scholars have paid her little attention. This lack of research and documentation, Begg argues, is related to the Black Madonnas controversial history in the eyes of the church—specifically the pre-Christian origins of the image of the Black Virgin.

The depiction of these Madonnas as black in color is ignored or simply attributed to smoke damage, burial or water damage. The statues were created to show a light-skinned person, the argument goes, but the wear and tear of time darkened them.

“The convention, then, of the Catholic Church is that most such statues were not originally intended to be black,” Begg writes, “and only became so by accident later. The fact remains that they are black and to discuss the phenomenon in visual terms only is to disguise their deeper significance.”

One of the first works to explore the Black Madonna was Marie Durand-Lefebvre’s Étude sur l’origine des Vierges Noires (1937), in which she argues for deeper connections between the Black Madonna and pre-Christian pagan goddesses that had black skin. In 1953, the sociologists Leonard Moss and Stephen Cappannari summarized this research, arguing that the Madonnas’ color was closely tied to the brown and black skin colors of the communities by which and in which they were created.

The modern art historianDaniela Vasco argues that the insistence by earlier scholars that the Black Madonna’s skin was originally light reinforces a conflation of whiteness with divinity and holiness. Emma Maggie Solberg highlights how textual analysis of records discussing the Black Madonna and created before and after 1500 associate her Blackness with a mystical and miraculous power.

Anna Fedele even highlights how modern neo-pagans visit Catholic shrines holding images of the Black Madonna. As she wrote, these Black Madonnas represent the “dark side of the Feminine” and contrast sharply with the “White and Immaculate” Mary they may have encountered growing up in Catholicism.

The Black Madonna, Fedele concludes, helps pilgrims process the disempowerment of women and L.G.B.T.Q. people in Catholicism. (This contradicts Begg’s argument that the cult of the Black Madonna lessened after the Second Vatican Council; in fact, her devotion would appear to be alive and well today.)

Our Lady of Lourdes
Our next stop as we journey through the shrine is a replica of the grotto of Lourdes, where in 1858 Mary revealed herself to a shepherd girl named Bernadette Soubirous. At the grotto, rows of wooden pews face a gated chapel holding a white marble statue of Mary, who appeared to Bernadette dressed in all white.

The Mary who appeared to Bernadette wore a white dress and a blue sash around her waist, with a yellow rose on each foot. She held a rosary with white beads and a yellow chain. Soubirous continued to return to the grotto, even after her parents ordered her not to go. In total, Mary appeared to Soubirous 18 times until in her final appearance she revealed that she was “the Immaculate Conception.”

To date, this image of the Virgin Mary, a white woman with soft brown hair wearing a long white gown and blue sash has remained one of the most popular depictions of Mary in the Western world. The depiction of her skin color and hair largely remained the same in Europe, except that her clothing changed—from blue and red to blue and white.

The red and blue clothing she previously wore was significant. Jesus was often swaddled in red blankets or wearing red clothing to denote his masculinity. Mary wore a specific shade known as Marian blue. This blue came to symbolize her purity and her status as empress, as blue pigment was reserved—originally derived from lapis lazuli and later from the mineral azurite—for Byzantine royalty. She is sometimes depicted wearing a red shirt or other red garment during Jesus’ crucifixion, which represented her passion and devotion to her son, and also pointed back to her marriage.

In 2014-15 these older depictions of Mary with the blue cloak and red shirt were on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, also in Washington, D.C., at the exhibitionPicturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea. These colors have changed over time, and since her appearance in Lourdes, Western images of Mary often show her wearing a white gown, white veil and blue sash, colors that symbolize virginity and purity.

The Virgin of Guadalupe
Our final stop is the Chapel of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The Virgin of Guadalupe is both a distinctly Latina figure and a symbol of power and agency for Native peoples. She is presented in a mosaic chapel dedicated to the people of the Americas located on the upper level of the basilica. Her chapel was the busiest inside the building and had the most flowers placed at the icon’s feet.

The Virgin’s story is deeply interwoven with colonialism and the spread of Catholicism in the Americas. After the establishment of the Spanish viceroyalty of New Spain in 1521, the Marian cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, or La Guadalupana, rose to prominence. According to the story, Mary appeared four times to Juan Diego, a peasant of the Chichimeca people, on the Hill of Tepeyac (later part of Mexico City).

Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of Americas chapel on main level of the basilica. A handwritten prayer of Our Lady of Guadalupe is written in Spanish and English followed by the story surrounding the appearance of our Lady of Guadalupe. The chapel is a gift of the Archdiocese of Boston and Richard Cardinal Cushing (photo by author).
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of Americas chapel on main level of the basilica. A handwritten prayer of Our Lady of Guadalupe is written in Spanish and English followed by the story surrounding the appearance of our Lady of Guadalupe. The chapel is a gift of the Archdiocese of Boston and Richard Cardinal Cushing (photo by author).

Like the Black Madonna, her ashen skin ties her to Indigenous Central American communities, especially Aztec communities shortly after the arrival of Spanish colonizers. But there remains debate about her exact ethnicity. Many symbols—like her clothing and posture—carry specific meaning. The Virgin of Guadalupe’s hands are not clasped or folded in a Western form of prayer but in an Indigenous manner of offering, extending her arms outward. Similarly, the color of her cloak is turquoise, a blue-green hue traditionally reserved to represent the Aztec god Omecihuatl. It is similar to the way Mary was depicted wearing a shade of blue reserved for Byzantine royalty.

The most striking things about Guadalupe is the language with which she spoke to Juan Diego and the manner in which she shared her image with church authorities. Described in Huei Tlamahuiçoltica, Mary spoke in Nahuatl, Juan Diego’s native tongue. She speaks in the language of the colonized, the Indigenous of Mexico, instead of the Spanish language of the colonizer. The Virgin’s image first appeared on Juan Diego’s tilmàtli, a cloak worn by Aztec men, and has continued to grace churches, clothing and murals ever since as the patroness of Mexico.

To this day, the Virgin of Guadalupe is seen as a liberator from colonial and tyrannical rule in both Mexico and the United States. She has also been variously adopted by different political parties.

Mary’s unique story
While these three Marian images at the shrine may seem markedly different, in both skin color and cultural meaning, they actually tell a unique story of how Mary has grown closer to the people who venerate her by appearing in their image and clothing. If you visit a church in the United States or Western Europe, you are likely to find statues and images of Mary that closely resemble that of Lourdes. But in Mexico, in Eastern Europe, or parts of the United States with large Hispanic communities, Mary will likely appear very different, and the people in these places are deeply attached to these depictions of Mary.

At the same time, in many countries around the world with predominantly Black and brown populations, people also venerate images of Mary showing her as white. They are likely a product of missionaries who brought depictions of Mary that mirrored their own identities. This problematizes the assumption that people only want to see Mary in a way that reflects their own image.

Today, a number of artists are creating Marys that resemble their creators. Some of them differ from the Western image of a white Mary with blonde hair and blue eyes. These artists reimagine an explicitly Indigenous, Latina, Black, or Pacific Islander Mary. The queer artist Aaron Sankalpa Oberlin created Proud Mary—a Mary clothed in rainbow colors—in the wake of the Club Q shooting in his hometown, Colorado Springs. These folk Mary statues, while not officially approved by the church, have the potential to serve as new avenues to bring people closer to Mary, the Mother of God.

After Adele Brise encountered Mary in the Wisconsin woods, a chapel was built at the place where the vision occurred which only recently became known as the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion. On the solemnity of Our Lady of Champion, the Bishop of Green Bay, David L. Ricken, remarked: “For many, the title of Our Lady of Good Help has been attributed to an abundance of graces received. While these titles are helpful for us, the faithful, in remembering an association with a message or place, they ultimately all refer back to the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose only desire is to bring souls to her son, Jesus.”

Read next: You don’t need to travel to Europe to go on pilgrimage. Our Lady came to Wisconsin, too

Why supernatural blessings are a mixed blessing for the Vatican

Correction, May 27, 2024: This article originally stated incorrectly that the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is on the campus of the Catholic University of America. It is adjacent to the campus.

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