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.
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.