What is a Black Madonna?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

A Black Madonna, or Black Virgin, is an image of the Virgin Mary with black or dark skin produced in medieval Europe. These do not apparently depict women of African descent, but rather tend to have European features. Black Madonnas are usually either statues or Byzantine-style icons of a seated or standing figure, and the Madonna and Child is a frequent subject.

A Black Madonna is an image of the Virgin Mary with black skin.
A Black Madonna is an image of the Virgin Mary with black skin.

There are about 450 to 500 medieval Black Madonnas in Europe, with at least 180 in France. Numerous copies of medieval versions also exist in Europe, and a few can be found in the Americas. Many Black Madonnas have been associated with miracles since the Middle Ages.

The origins of the Black Madonna are unknown. Around the turn of the 20th century, a theory arose that the coloring of the Black Madonnas was due to the accumulated soot from candles burned near the images. Beginning in the 1950s, scholars have challenged this view, holding that the dark skin of the Black Madonna had some particular significance for medieval viewers.

Though some Black Madonnas are the result of discoloration, most were intentionally designed with dark skin. In some paintings and statues, the clothing of the Black Madonna remains bright, suggesting that the skin is also the original color. Black Madonna statues were often carved from ebony wood. Even when discoloration created a Black Madonna, the color of the skin was important to devotees, and some paintings that had been restored to an original light skin color were later repainted to have black skin.

Modern theories concerning the meaning of the Black Madonna often link the image to pre-Christian ideas and religions. Since the Madonna and Child resembles ancient Egyptian depictions of Isis and Horus, it is possible that the dark skin of the Black Madonnas is a reference to the Egyptian origin of the image. Dark-skinned Madonnas may also be based on other pre-Christian goddess figures; some Black Madonna shrines are located at the former sites of pagan shrines to goddesses such as Diana.

It has also been theorized that Black Madonnas were intended to represent a more motherly, feminine figure through the use of earthy skin tones. According to this theory, light-skinned Madonnas are more suggestive of purity and chastity than of an eternal feminine power. Yet another theory holds that Black Madonnas were intended as a historically accurate image of Mary, a Semitic woman of the Middle East.

Some historians propose that Black Madonnas were only conceptualized as such after the Middle Ages, when very light-skinned images of the Virgin became the norm. In any case, Black Madonnas have held a fascination for believers and non-believers alike for centuries. Because of the mystery surrounding their origin and meaning, Black Madonnas have sometimes been associated with other historical "mysteries," such as the Knights Templar, the Cathars, and Gnosticism.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


Exactly what color do you think that Hebrew Israelite young woman was? Exercise having the capacity for thought and reason to a degree higher than what you appear to be stuck with. I stumbled across this site; it won't happen again.


I want to preface this by saying I am of African descent, but I am intelligent, scrutinizing and comprehensive in my studies of anything, especially African or African related facts.

So I came to this site researching what was going on with these black Madonnas. You have to put the pieces of the story together. I read one guy's post about them saying that the Madonnas got black from soot from always being over candles, but if that was the case then why aren't they black all over? If you look at one page for black Madonnas, you will see they are deliberately being made to depict a dark skinned woman and child.

Then I read another post about the depiction being true to the color of the Middle Eastern peoples. But if that is the case then why so dark skinned?

Could they be an homage to earlier deities? It is possible. But the idea that darker skin makes a woman seem more motherly is interesting in itself. Their is probably some esoteric knowledge at work here; we might never know what the true nature of these Madonnas are, but where did these concepts originate?

It may not be the right answer but I agree with anon327882.


The primadonna stage started in Africa. The oldest known and first worshiped god or deity or statue on earth was the black African woman who had protruding breasts and African features, which latter was adapted into the father, mother and child as the first ever known trinity which originated in Africa. These can be viewed today also in Egyptian statues as well, and Osiris and her son Horus, which actually tells the same Jesus story. All African statues of mother and son were always black because that was the true color of the first primadonna.

The Europeans came to Africa and adapted the concept and realized the truth behind it and kept it original, in spite of the fact that jesus and mary and all the jesus lineage were represented as white, knowing that they were not. The word "niger" is used in acts 3:1 and is describing jesus' brother simon, also known as peter the "niger." So if that be the case, jesus and mary and joseph had to be black.

Please check into that. Europeans stole the god concept, got confused and represented it in their way by renaming and rewriting, false artwork of all African spirituality. The jesus you see in catholic churches and on people's walls is cesare Borgia, the son of the pope of Italy in 1400 a.d. who was gay and had incest with his sisters. Study, people.


Some believe that the Black Madonna is actually Ethiopian Mary Magdalene.


In the book "The Secret Life of Bees", black madonnas and a type of honey called Black Madonna Honey are central to the story. In that book, a young white girl in 1964 is trying to learn more about her history, and is educated in the ways of life by a group of black women in the south. When I read that book I imagined that the black madonnas were actually made to look African. How disappointing that many were not, but just dark-skinned with European features.


While I like the idea of these historical reasons for black madonna art, I cannot help but wonder if many of them were more as a weird fascination for mostly white groups of people. For them, a black virgin madonna might have been a novelty item depicting the "other", people with dark skin.

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