Posted on October 24th, 2020
This August, while on a family break in rural France, we visited the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Liesse. This lovely little church in the north of France was built during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. There, between the beautiful, big paintings with imagery of a typical white Jesus and his disciples and blond angels in the clouds, we suddenly found ourselves standing in front of a Black Madonna statue.
As I stood there in silence with my eight-year-old daughter, I could see excitement in her face. I guessed she could relate to this image of a mother holding up a young child, as this is what she witnesses on a daily basis when her mother sees to her two-year-old sister. But more importantly than recognising her mother, her being a young, black woman of dual heritage meant she could somehow see something of herself in this statue.
There is quite a bit of research done on the existence and meaning of Black Madonnas. There is one that talks about them being darkened to illustrate a text from the Song of Songs: ‘I am black and beautiful’, while another talks about it stemming from ancient earth-goddesses, who were often pictured as black, being converted to Christianity. (See Michael Duricy, Black Madonnas: Origin, History, Controversy) Whatever the reasons, I am interested in how this portrayal of Mary or even God as a black woman can challenge our perceptions of who God is and the way we see and interact with her.
There is a lot we can learn when we step away from our usual imagery of God. As spiritual directors, we help people go through this process, but it is also something we keep going through ourselves. For me, sitting with the image of God as a black woman reminds me of my own motherhood and the love for my children. How this female God understands the life growing and developing in the darkness of the womb, the pain of childbirth, the giving of self and the unconditional loving through all of life’s circumstances. How she comes from a place of powerlessness and is able to identify with everything that life throws at us. On an even more personal note, how she understands our particular circumstances as an intercultural family, what it means to be black and our bruising experiences of racism.
For my daughter it means getting to know a God who is like her - a God that relates to her as a black, dual-heritage woman and understand her particular challenges and joys. Might her delight in finding this Black Madonna in a remote church in the French countryside encourage us as Spiritual Directors to wonder how we help our directees become aware of and wrestle with their image of God? This might simply start by considering our welcome. Could we be intentional about the imagery on display in our direction rooms and on our websites and social media outlets? For some of us, this will positively challenge our assumptions of what God is like and broaden our perspectives. For others, this goes even deeper and is all about feeling truly understood and known.
Mirjam works as Discipleship Officer in Leicester Cathedral and completed the Encounter course in July 2020.
A replica of the Black Madonna in Laon Cathedral provided to visitors for up-close viewing